Tulsa 1921: A Journalist’s Story Behind The Story
The massacre that fell upon Tulsa, Oklahoma a century ago is called one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. In it, some historians count as many as 300 lives lost, thousands left homeless and estimates of $32 million in property damage, decimating the Greenwood District, what had been one of the nation’s most prosperous Black communities.
Veteran journalist Randy Krehbiel, who writes for the Tulsa World spent more than two decades researching the details of the racial terrorism. His 2019 book Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre is a well cited play-by-play of the events leading up to the massacre, the massacre, and the aftermath.
BET.com recently spoke to him about what he learned. Below are excerpts from the interview:
BET.com: Randy, you are from Oklahoma. Before you were a journalist, had you ever heard about the Tulsa race massacre?
Randy Krehbiel: You know, that’s an interesting thing. I get asked that a lot and the answer is I think so, but I’m not positive. The reason I say that is when I was in school, I was kind of a history nerd and I actually read my Oklahoma history textbook and several others beside that. It just seemed to me that at some point I came across a brief mention of it now, and I’ll say that. But I’ll also say it did not make a big impression on me. In other words, it wasn’t something that I was really conscious of until after I moved to Tulsa.
BET.com: You have spent more than 40 years as a writer for the Tulsa World. What led you to start researching the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921?
Krehbiel: In 1999, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was in operation that I was assigned to cover As part of that, my assignment was to start putting together an archive for the Tulsa World, because other than microfilm, we didn’t have a whole lot of our clip files and they only went back to about World War II. Nobody had really looked at the newspapers. I worked for the newspaper. So I thought, I guess maybe one thing I better do is go back and read the newspapers, and that’s what I started doing.
I started reading the newspapers on microfilm, copying everything I could find that was related to the massacre and sometimes some things that weren’t directly related. But I thought that they revealed something about the times and that period in history. And so I did a lot of that. From there, I got names and I started going through other documents. I started talking to people and that was kind of the basis for my research.
I kept doing that for a while, and really I’m still doing it now. I realized I was getting older and I thought, you know, I need to probably put all of this stuff into some kind of a narrative form with citations so that when I’m not around anymore, the next person at the Tulsa World is assigned to cover this won’t have to start over from scratch. So basically what I was trying to do is leave behind a trail or a road map.
BET.com: During that time, Tulsa officials called the massacre a “Negro Uprising.” Why did they use that term?
Krehbiel: The broader reason I think is you had a system that was built on unequal treatment of people. I mean, you had a system that allowed one group of people to treat other groups of people pretty much however they wanted, and that created friction. Now in terms of this specific event and the reason it was called an “uprising” is because after Dick Roland, the young Black man who was accused of improper contact with a young white woman on an elevator in downtown Tulsa, was put in a county jail there was some discussion that maybe he was going to be lynched or something was going to happen to him.
So these [Black] men armed themselves and went into the White downtown area of Tulsa to make sure nothing happened to him. That’s what “Negro uprising’ meant to officials. Black men [with their guns] going to the courthouse because they think something is going to happen to Dick Roland.
BET.com: After Greenwood was burned down, what happened next according to your research?
Krehbiel: They started rebuilding immediately.
There is a story in the Tulsa World that says about five days after Greenwood is burned to the ground, stores are opening. I don’t know how they were doing it, but it said everything from fresh meat to ice cream cones were being sold in Greenwood. Within a year, there were quite a few buildings either completed or underway and there were a lot of businesses operating.
Business in Tulsa was largely segregated in those days so if a Black person was going to buy something, they were probably going to buy it from a Black merchant, especially after what had happened. That was part of the secret to how Greenwood became or why Greenwood became successful. You had a lot of people there who had regular jobs and would spend their wages and within the community.
I think one of the really remarkable things is how many people stayed after what happened. They built back fairly quickly, but it was really difficult. They didn’t have much access to credit. A lot of times whether they could rebuild or not had to do with whether they had kept their money in a bank or had kept it in a safe for a cigar box at home, because people didn’t always keep their money in banks in those days.
BET.com: Tell me more about the people who never left Tulsa after the massacre.
Krehbiel: There were a lot of people who never really left. They may have fled but they came back immediately. Then there were some people who left and never came back, they’re harder to pinpoint, and then there were some people who left and were gone while and came back.
If they were property owners, that bit of property was all they had and it might be a ruin, but it was still all they had and if they left, they weren’t even going to have that. There were still jobs to be had and there were still opportunities. So they stayed.
I think one thing that has to be kept in mind in all of this is just how difficult and constrained life was for Black Americans to get ahead. You still had a lot of people who were living in what was called virtual peonage. They were living on little farms or on plantations. Theoretically, they were free citizens, but they owed the landowner for everything from a sack of flour to a bag of seeds and they could never work that debt off. So to have some glimmer of opportunity to own a piece of land was really important.
BET.com: Black Tulsans say they want to restore Greenwood. What does that look like?
Krehbiel: Old Greenwood is pretty much gone except for about a block at Greenwood and Archer. And that was saved from urban renewal in the 1970s and 80s. Greenwood is now part of Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. So unless the college campus reverts somehow that’s not going to be rebuilt.
Some people I’ve talked to have talked about Black Wall Street and Greenwood being separate entities. Greenwood is a spirit, an idea, but the business district is about a mile from Old Greenwood..So what does it look like? I’m not really sure.
They’re building the Greenwood Rising Museum, most or all of the spaces in the historic Greenwood buildings are full, and part of what was what was Greenwood in 1921 is now a ballpark. I think a lot of where Greenwood is, is where a lot of the country is, which is that it is still very difficult for Black Americans to get the kind of financial resources they need to build big.
There are some Black Tulsans upset about Greenwood Rising because a lot of the donors are not Black and I understand that. A lot of people want to control the story and it’s all perfectly understandable. But it gets to be a kind of a circular deal where it takes money to get things done and sometimes you have to go outside the circle to get the money to get things done.
I just don’t know what the answer is, but I understand the people who are upset and I understand why they’re upset. I understand why the people who are saying, look, it’s either we got to do it this way or it’s not going to get done.
Jennifer Matthews is a Tulsa-based freelance writer.
Photo: Greenwood Cultural Center/Getty Images