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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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