Tulsa’s Greenwood District: Exploring the Impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre

What does it look like when an entire community is attacked?

On the night of May 31, 1921, the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a thriving neighborhood of African American residences and businesses, was attacked and burned by an armed mob of white men. By the next morning, Greenwood lay in ruins and untold hundreds of African American Tulsans were dead. The people of Greenwood began rebuilding immediately, but the loss of life and property was felt for decades after. (For more information, see How to Research the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.) By examining primary sources, students can gain a powerful sense of the impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Map documenting Greenwood Avenue in 1915

Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1915

Image of Greenwood Avenue June 1, 1921 after the Tulsa Race Massacre

Greenwood Avenue after the Tulsa Race Massacre, June 1, 1921

In the years before the massacre, the Greenwood district was mapped, along with the rest of the city, by the Sanborn Map Company. Ask students to examine this section of the map, which shows Greenwood Avenue as it runs north from Archer Street. You might distribute the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool and select prompting questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Maps to guide their analysis. Ask students:

  • What might the details on this map tell you about the different types of buildings that were on this section of Greenwood Avenue?
  • Identify and list the different businesses and other establishments on the street. How many can you find?
  • What do you think it was like to live on or visit this street, based on your map observations? What types of activities could you do here?
  • What more would you like to know about life on Greenwood Avenue?

The burning of the Greenwood district and its aftermath were documented in photographs, many of which are available in the online collections of the Library of Congress. Ask students to select a photo that depicts the ruins or the rebuilding process and analyze it, possibly using prompts from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Photograph and Prints. You might begin with this photo, which shows the view north on Greenwood Avenue from Archer Street. Ask students:

  • What can you see that you recognize from the Sanborn Map Company map of Greenwood Avenue, if anything?
  • What do you think happened before this photo was taken, or after?
  • What do you think might have been the motivations of the person or people who created the photograph?

There are a number of other primary sources in the online collections of the Library of Congress that document the Tulsa Race Massacre, including pages from historic newspapers from Tulsa and elsewhere. Many perspectives are missing from these and other primary sources, and many of the events of the massacre are documented sparsely or not at all.

For further investigation, your students might research multiple perspectives on the Tulsa Race Massacre, including those of African American Tulsans, and discuss the reasons why primary sources documenting some perspectives might be missing or difficult to find. They might also explore life in the Greenwood district today, and discover the ways in which the history of this horrific attack is being investigated even now.