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The Tulsa Race Massacre: Relief and the Role of the American Red Cross

This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

One hundred years ago on May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents attacked Black residents, homes, and businesses, as well as cultural and public institutions in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK, an oil boom city and one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States. Thirty-five blocks were systematically looted and burned, destroying 190 businesses and leaving 10,000 people homeless. The property loss estimated by the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange was the equivalent of $31 million in 2017, likely an underestimation. While a lot of information has come out about those terrible days, I will focus on the relief period and the role of the American Red Cross.

Dozens of Black men, women and children standing outside a wide door.

Entrance to refugee camp on the fair grounds, Tulsa, Okla. 1921. Photo: American National Red Cross photograph collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In order to orient yourself to the area of destruction and reconstruction, you may want to examine the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from before and after 1921. Some of these maps are available digitally through the Library of Congress, but many are also available at local public libraries, where they are good sources of genealogical and business history information. This digital map available from May 1911 includes the Greenwood District, which was segregated at the railroad tracks. The Library of Congress has a digitized collection of maps from Tulsa, OK from 1915-1929. No insurance claims were honored for African Americans in the Greenwood District, and according to the Red Cross reporting, by July 1921, there were lawsuits filed by African Americans with claims over $4 million, which would be worth nearly $60 million today.

Map of buildings on S. Greenwood Ave., showing the railroad tracks dividing the space.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma, showing S. Greenwood Av. May 1911. Photo: Image 18. Sanborn Map Company, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The most significant humanitarian relief to the disaster came from the Red Cross, which was designated the “official relief agency” by Mayor T.D. Evans. Upon finding out about the situation, the Director of Relief from the St. Louis office, Maurice Willows, contacted the organization’s Washington, D.C. headquarters to request an expansion of the mission of the organization from responding to natural disasters to aiding the survivors of this man-made disaster, which left 10,000 homeless African Americans in internment camps. The Red Cross provided critical medical aid by setting up a hospital to care for individuals with a variety of needs from injuries to dysentery, and by vaccinating victims to prevent the further outbreak of infectious disease. There were many individuals and groups who volunteered, particularly women, including the Chicago company of Marvin Garvey’s Black Cross Nurses. Funds were collected across the country to aid the displaced, with the Omaha Monitor reporting on a collection it started, noting the contribution of waiters from the Blackstone Hotel.

The Red Cross provided temporary tent housing with sides and floors of lumber, and Mr. Willows, an advocate for rebuilding Greenwood, developed a more permanent housing plan and secured funding. The Red Cross promoted the need for a proper sanitary sewage system to be in place before reconstruction. Rebuilding the district was determined to be the responsibility of the city, and the Red Cross refused to be part of the process, as the relief and reconstruction efforts became politicized. The mission of the organization was to provide “temporary” relief by ensuring that: all homeless families were provided with shelter, laundry, and cooking facilities; families were reunited; destitute women and children were cared for; and the able-bodied were placed on a “self-supporting basis.” This tragedy resulted in massive job loss in the community.

The Red Cross documented the violence in reports, which are available through the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. The Association surveyed 1,765 families and found that 1,115 homes were burned and 314 homes were looted but not burned. Victims were scattered from Chicago to Houston, with approximately 300, mostly women and children, leaving to stay with relatives. In the preface of the 1921 report, Mr. Willows wrote:

“The story of the tragedy enacted on the night of May 31st, 1921, and the morning of June 1st, 1921 has been told and retold, with all sorts of variations in the press of the country. Whatever people choose to call it “race riot,” “massacre”, “negro uprising” or whatnot, the word has not yet been coined which can correctly describe the affair. This report attempts to picture the situation as representatives of the Red Cross found it, and to record the activities of the organization to bringing order out of chaos and administering relief to the innocents.”

Learn more:

  • Visit The American National Red Cross Collection of approximately fifty thousand photographs and their negatives, acquired by the Library of Congress from the American National Red Cross (A.N.R.C.- also known as the American Red Cross, or A.R.C., which later became its official name). The photos date from the beginning of the twentieth century to 1933, offering pictorial documentation of human endurance in war and in times of national disaster and a visual record of the accomplishments of the American Red Cross in giving relief to people all over the world.
  • Search the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog  and the Library of Congress Catalog using the subject headings “Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Okla., 1921,””Disaster relief–Oklahoma–Tulsa–1920-1930” and “Hate Crimes–Oklahoma–Tulsa–1920-1930.”
  • Explore the Library of Congress guide Racial Massacres and the Red Summer of 1919: A Resource Guide for more information about this period of racial unrest.
  • Read the Library of Congress blog post “How to Research the 1921 Race Massacre.”
  • Contrast facts and narratives regarding the Tulsa Race Riot as reported in African American and other newspapers of the time. Search Chronicling America, an openly available digital newspaper directory sponsored by the Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities, for stories using the keyword “Tulsa” and by narrowing the results to “1921” or later. You can add additional descriptors in the “Advanced Search” to further limit your results. The blog post “Tulsa Race Massacre: Newspaper Complicity and Coverage” provides examples of articles you can find in Chronicling America.
Posed group picture of staff in front of the entrance to American Red Cross Disaster Relief Headquarters in Tulsa.

Headquarters staff, American Red Cross Disaster Relief Headquarters, Tulsa, Oklahoma. 1921. Photo: American National Red Cross photograph collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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2 Comments

  1. Darren
    May 18, 2022 at 7:32 pm

    First things first it was not a massacre it was a riot and it started because a black man did something to a white girl they say he stepped on her foot well I call hog wash on that no one screams that loud when your foot is stepped and a massacre is the killing of defenseless people which the black people started by trying to protect the black guy in jail there were 75 armed black men standing in front of the court house which the jail was on the 8th and 9 floor of the court house a black man fired a shot around the white people that was in front of the court house to that is what started the RIOT the black people were armed and fighting back if they were massacre why was according to the newspaper there were 36 black people killed and 16 white people and no one knows how much property was damaged by the white people and how much was done by the black people you have to remember this if the 75 armed black men had not been in front of the court house there would not have been a riot and pretty sure if they hadn’t fired the first shot the riot would have never happened so how should I be responsible for the 36 black people that were killed especially when they started the whole thing and them wanting money for something they started is a slap in the face to white people and the city of Tulsa this riot is not about the truth it’s about what can I get from this it comes in a time when black people know that white people will give them anything they ask for as long as these lies are given into there will always be rascism so let’s get along and quit wanting something for nothing and quit bringing up things about rascism and quit teaching are young people to hate on both sides and if they are going to file a law suit against the city then the city should counter sue for all the money that has been lost from people and businesses that didn’t move to Tulsa because of the misinformation that has been reported about the riot and the white people that lost there lives because of the black people that killed them it was a dark day for Tulsa so let’s quit giving any publicity to the riot just like the schools names being changed the statues that are tore down because of the side that fought for the rite to run there states the way they want it to run and not the way the federal government wants so you can’t have it both ways use history when it’s to you’re advantage and get rid of history when it’s not I know this will sound like I’m a racist but I’m not at all I’m for what is rite for all people not a special interest groups so black or white stand up for what’s rite and if we all did this and quit trying to take from your city state and federal government if we did like Kennedy said ask not what your government can do for you but ask what you can do for your government rascism would go away so let’s start reporting on facts instead of rumors and if you really want to do the rite thing donate any money that you get should be donated to getting rid a racism instead of promoting racism the world would be a better place in ending this I want to say how could you even ask for money when you started the riot I don’t know how you could even live with your self wanting money for something you started so donate anything you get to stopping racism let’s see how many people donate there Illgotten gains to stop racism that Millon dollars that was donated to the black people would go along way to finding ways to stopping racism that was not a smart move donating money to blacks I hate to say this but the black people that are racist will get in line to get a share of money obtained by false reporting so let’s quit the hate on all people

  2. Library of Congress
    June 10, 2022 at 12:18 pm

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