Tulsa race massacre continues to resonate after more than 100 years


A writer and historian who has been researching the 1921 Tulsa race massacre for nearly five decades said his work isn’t over — and neither is the story of the massacre.

Scott Ellsworth
Scott Ellsworth

Scott Ellsworth, a lecturer IV in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, will talk about the incident and its lasting impact during “The Tulsa Race Massacre: Causes, Cover-ups and the Ongoing Fight for Justice.”

The program will be from 4-6 p.m. Jan. 17 in Room 1014 of Tisch Hall, and will be livestreamed on Zoom as part of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

Ellsworth has written two books about the massacre, interviewed scores of survivors and family members, and led efforts to excavate sites where bodies of victims are believed to be buried.

During the massacre May 31 and June 1, 1921, mobs of white residents destroyed the Greenwood District, a thriving Black business district and residential area in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As many as 300 people were killed.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1921. (Photo courtesy of McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa)
Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 1921. (Photo courtesy of McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa)

“This was the single worst incident of racial violence in all of American history,” Ellsworth said. “In less than 12 hours, more than 1,000 homes and business were looted and burned to the ground by an angry white mob with the help of white Tulsa police officers.”

Allegations that a young, Black shoe shiner sexually assaulted a white woman in an elevator sparked the violence. Ellsworth said the man likely tripped as he entered the elevator and accidentally touched the woman’s arm.

Inflammatory newspaper articles and local police officers, some of whom provided guns to white citizens and participated in the massacre, helped fuel the violence.

The massacre garnered international attention at the time, Ellsworth said, but was largely swept under the rug in the decades that followed as local white residents sought to downplay a shameful chapter of the city’s history.

Official records about the incident disappeared, and articles about it were cut out of bound volumes of local newspapers. Ellsworth said as recently as the 1970s, researchers looking into the massacre received death threats.

Ellsworth’s first book about the massacre, “Death in a Promised Land,” was published in 1982. It is believed to be the first comprehensive history of the massacre and helped bring renewed attention to it.

His second book, “The Ground Breaking: An American City and its Search for Justice,” was published in 2021 ahead of the massacre’s 100th anniversary. It was longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal. 

During the Jan. 17 event, Ellsworth will talk about the massacre and how it was largely covered up for more than 50 years. He said he hopes to encourage discussion about the incident and other instances of racism in the country that have left deep, lasting scars.

“The story of the massacre is not over,” Ellsworth said. “It certainly casts a dark shadow on Tulsa, and it is a part of our American history that we need to confront. It’s not just about the massacre. It’s about the country itself coming to terms with our past.”


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