How 24 Hours of Racist Violence Caused Decades of HarmRoundup
tags: economic history, African American history, wealth gap, Tulsa race massacre
JEREMY COOK is a labor economist at Wheaton College, in Illinois.
JASON LONG is an economic historian at Wheaton College, in Illinois.
The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 was over in less than 24 hours, but the damage that the city’s Black citizens suffered went on for decades. Indeed, the full magnitude of the community’s economic loss is still coming into focus even on the centennial of the event—in part because new digital tools allow scholars to mine census records for data about its aftermath.
On May 31, 1921, a mob of more than 1,000 white men descended on the jail where a Black teenager was being held on suspicion of assaulting a young white woman. In response, more than 50 Black men came to the aid of the police defending the jail. When these outnumbered Black men retreated to Greenwood, a predominantly Black neighborhood, the white mob attacked its residents and burned their homes, businesses, churches, school, and hospital. Despite efforts by local authorities to cover up these events—whose death toll is now estimated at nearly 300—journalists, historians, and locals have managed to document what happened to prominent Black Tulsans and the institutions that they owned. The entrepreneurs John and Loula Williams lost the Dreamland Theatre. The Gurley Hotel, owned by Ottowa and Emma Gurley, was destroyed as well.
But until recently, the systemic impact of the massacre over time—particularly its economic impact—was difficult to track. How can researchers measure the effects of racist violence on the culture and institutions of a place years after the violence itself? To what extent did the massacre set Tulsa’s Black residents, who by many measures appeared to be thriving in 1920, on a fundamentally different economic and social path?
The two of us have found some answers through a detailed analysis of census records from before and after the massacre. In those records we find the outlines of individual stories, such as those of Gibson Van Dyke and Roy Drew, that point to the economic decline experienced by Black residents who remained in Tulsa after the massacre. Van Dyke, a Black 36-year-old, managed a rooming house in Tulsa in 1920. He and his wife, Bertha, lived on Archer Street—the commercial center of Greenwood, which was heavily damaged by the massacre. Gibson and Bertha were one of the many Black families who remained in Tulsa. A decade later, Gibson was no longer a manager. He was employed as a low-wage, unskilled laborer in the construction industry. The Van Dykes’ trajectory contrasts with that of Roy Drew, a Black Tulsan who in 1920 was a wage worker in a drugstore. In 1930, he appeared in census records for Kansas City, Kansas, where he owned and operated his own pharmacy.
Census data also tell a broader story. The 1920 complete-count census provides a comprehensive picture of Tulsa just one year before the massacre: an agricultural hub and oil boomtown that local boosters called “Magic City.” Tulsa was distinctive because both white and Black residents shared in its prosperity. Greenwood became known as Black Wall Street, not for its financial institutions but for its wealth. A distinct community of prosperous Black Americans was a rarity in 1920. (We should note that analyzing historical data presents certain challenges. For example, early 20th-century censuses asked individuals for their occupation but not their earnings. A standard approach among economic historians—which we have used in our study of Tulsa—is to impute earnings for each individual based on established sources of data on the average earnings for specific occupations.) School-attendance rates were higher in Tulsa than in Black communities in similar cities in the region. Greenwood had the makings of a robust middle class—until what some historians regard as the worst single outburst of racist violence in American history.
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