For the 80th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke to journalist Randy Krehbiel about the Tulsa Race Massacre for the 100th anniversary of this long ignored moment in history.
Since 1979, staff writer Randy Krehbiel has been with the Tulsa World, where he primarily covers government and politics. He is the author of Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre.
Randy Krehbiel: So at the time, the arrest story was considered inflammatory enough to have triggered everything that came later.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal Journalism History.
“The Tulsa Massacre is the deadliest outbreak of white –
terrorist violence against a Black community in American history. In 1921, Tulsa’s Greenwood District, or Black Wall Street, was the wealthiest Black community in the United States. Yet during the evening of May 31 and the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Tulsa exploded. Enraged by rumors that a Black man had attempted to rape a white woman, a white mob invaded the Greenwood District, indiscriminately killing any Black person it encountered.”
What I just read is the introduction of the book “Tulsa 1921; Reporting a Massacre.” To mark the 100th anniversary of this historic tragedy, and to look at the role of journalism in it, our guest today is the book’s author, journalist Randy Krehbiel, who has been a Tulsa World reporter since 1979.
Randy, welcome to the show. In 1999 the Tulsa World assigned you to take over coverage of the Tulsa Race –
Riot Commission and to research the riot yourself. What motivated you to turn your research into a book?
Randy Krehbiel: Well, I’d say about five or six years ago, I began thinking about the fact that I was getting older. I probably wasn’t going to be around forever, and I had all of this stuff that I had accumulated, probably – probably a couple thousand pages of information and that it would probably be a good idea to try and put into some kind of coherent narrative for whoever, you know, came along next to cover this story because the story wasn’t going to go away.
And so originally, it was going to be kind of an internal document, but sort of one thing lead to another and then it – and then it became a book.
Teri Finneman: Great. So let’s start at the beginning and go over what happened on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in Tulsa.
First, give us some context of what race relations were like in Tulsa before the massacre.
Randy Krehbiel: You know, it was kind of an interesting place. The Black community, to a large extent, lived separately from the white community. And by that, I mean it had its own business district, kind of its own economy. The police officers who patrolled what was – what we now think of as Greenwood were Black officers and so it was kind of — it was kind of separate.
But I think there was probably a – also a growing dissatisfaction on the part of the African American population because they still had this second or third class –
status and on the part of some of the white population because you had a Black population that was basically beginning to think for itself and not be content in a secondary role, or a subservient role.
So there was – there must have been some tension under the surface for what to – for what happened to have happened.
Teri Finneman: Yeah, so you mentioned the Greenwood District. Ah, tell us a little bit more about that in particular, and why the area was known as Black Wall Street.
Randy Krehbiel: Around 1905, some Black residents began moving into the northeast corner out of what was the city’s original town site.
And this was an area kind of centered around Archer and Greenwood Streets, or Archer Street and Greenwood Avenue, and just north of the Frisco railroad tracks.
And you know, a lot of – a lot of Black folks had come to the – Tulsa for the same reasons that a lot of white folks came there, which was opportunity. And although a lot of them had jobs in the white community, they lived and, and traded in the Black community. There were a lot of businesses started there, and the people in the community kind of decided they were going to keep their money in that community to the greatest degree possible.
So that built up a pretty good middle –
class and some people, you know, were doing pretty well. It came to be known – the story is that Booker T. Washington visited in 1911 and referred to it as the Black Wall Street of the Southwest, or the Black Wall Street of America.
No one has ever really confirmed that that happened, but at any point, pretty early on it kind of acquired that name. And you know, it wasn’t a Wall Street in the sense that you had financial institutions, or, you know, stock brokerages, things that we today we associate with Wall Street.
And I say sometimes that it was really more like a Main Street because you had all of these businesses. They were all pretty much mom and pop operations, hotels, cafes,
small stores, you had movie theaters. You had a small professional class. And there seems to have been a lot of what I’d call skilled tradesmen, you know, plumbers and carpenters and people like that who actually, you know, could go out and work in the white world and make a pretty good living and bringing it back.
And for the most part, they invested that money in their community. They built houses and, like I said, businesses. I mean one fairly common thing seems to be that when someone got a few thousand dollars together they built a house. And the house, instead of having two or three bedrooms, the house would have 10 bedrooms.
And, and so it became a rooming house, which was a way for
you know, for them to make – to make more money and they, you know, and they built from there, so a lot of entrepreneurial spirit.
Teri Finneman: So what prompted the Tulsa Race Massacre that took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921?
Randy Krehbiel: Well, you know, I would say the short answer is that it was probably – there’s disagreements about this, but it was probably, you know, white people who were angry that some Black folks had the temerity to get outside of their, you know, established social position. That’s kind of the short answer.
The longer answer is that it was a series of incidents that happened, actually beginning on May 30 and culminating on June 1
in which a young Black man was arrested on a kind of dubious attempted assault charge. In those days, attempted assault was understood to mean attempted rape. And this led to a white crowd surrounding the county courthouse where he was being held.
And that in turn led to you know, some Black men going to the courthouse with guns to protect this young man who was known as Dick Rowland. There was a struggle over one of those guns, and it went off, and that was – and that was the start of everything. That was on the night of May 31, 1921.
On the morning of June 1, most of the Black residents of the Greenwood area either fled or were taken –
into custody and removed from the area. And then a gang – gangs or mobs, however you want to describe them, of men went in to the Greenwood area and burnt it to the ground, 35 square blocks.
There were some Blacks who stayed behind and fought, and you know, at least some of those – some of those people were killed. So, you know, it’s a – and there were – you know, there were a lot of racial incidents across the United States really through – I’m sorry to say, throughout our history.
But in a concentrated period, you had, you know, from just before World War II and after World War II, and in a more – so in this late teens, early ‘20s period, but if you wanted to put –
in a bigger end on it, you know, a bigger timeframe, you can go from the end of Reconstruction up until probably, you know, for sure World War II, and then we have a kind of a different kind of racial strife after World War II.
But this one was, was largely, you know, as these all are, it was a result of the conditions at the time and, and the idea – I think the term probably gets – it gets worked pretty hard these days, but really the idea of white supremacy is – plays in pretty heavily.
And by white supremacy I don’t necessarily mean people in, you know, robes and hoods. I mean just the concept that, you know, we’re,
– we’re the people giving the orders and, and you people over there are the ones that take the orders and don’t try and change it.
Teri Finneman: So discussing journalism specifically now. The Tulsa Tribune broke the story with the headline “Nabbed Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” And it’s believed there was an editorial about the potential lynching of Rowland called “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Tell us about this coverage and the impact of it, as well as the mystery behind that editorial.
Randy Krehbiel: Well the – so the incident on the elevator, and I’ll explain that in a little bit because I don’t – I don’t think we have yet. On May the 30th, which was Memorial Day and most of downtown was closed, a young Black man, he was known as Dick Rowland, was in a building downtown called the Drexel Building. And he got on the elevator, which was operated by –
a white teenager named Sarah Page.
And nobody really knows exactly what happened, but she screamed, and when the elevator got to the ground floor the doors opened. Dick Rowland ran away and there was somebody there who, you know, listened to Sarah Page. They called the police, and, and it was alleged that he had attacked her on the elevator.
Later it developed that that’s probably not what happened. It was probably more a case of, you know, the elevator lurched and he fell against her, or startled her in some way. But at any rate – any rate that, that happened on May the 30th. It got no attention whatsoever in the press. On May 31, the Tribune, which was the afternoon paper, ran that – in the bottom right hand column the story that you describe “Arrest Negro.”
And it was – it was pretty highly charged language for that period, and I think if we read it today, you know, we kind of read it and we – and we cringe at it. We might not have the same reaction as people back then did. Because any time – you know, this was – this was – any time there was any kind of an allegation that a Black man had something improper towards a white girl or a white woman, you were likely to get some kind of extra-legal activity. In other words, a lynching or an attempted lynching, or something like that.
And so in this fairly brief report, it, you know, talks about how he had torn her clothes, and, and it’s not even clear that that actually happened. Keep in mind, the reporter was not there. He was getting all this second or third hand.
And, and so then on May – ah, the story actually didn’t come out until after he was arrested, which was a day after the event actually happened. He was taken to the city jail, and the police commissioner said that he received a telephone call saying we’re going to get this guy and we’re going to do something with him, so they moved him to the county jail, which was a more secure facility. It was on the top floor of the county courthouse, very difficult to get into from the outside.
So the effect of the – of the Tribune story was to sort of galvanize whatever sort of tension was out there between the races. And it’s not really clear –
how many people were, were interested in really lynching Dick Rowland. There were a lot of people who showed up at the courthouse, but it wasn’t like they were exactly banging on the doors trying to get in. They were just kind of milling around waiting for somebody to, to do something it seems like.
So that was the effect of that story. Now the editorial, in my opinion, probably never existed in the – in the way that it’s described. And, and there are a number of reasons for that, one of which is no one can find a copy of it.
But the short answer as to why I think it, it probably doesn’t exist, or the evidence I find most compelling is that the sources that were most critical of the Tribune and its role in what happened,
which is the Tulsa World, the NAACP and the Crisis magazine, and the Black Dispatch, which was out of Oklahoma City, is that all of them mentioned the arrest story as being the ignitor of, of the riot, and none of them said anything about an editorial. And in fact, the Black Dispatch published the arrest story in its entirety under the headline of the story that set Tulsa ablaze.
So at the time, I mean, the arrest story was considered inflammatory enough to have triggered everything that came later.
Teri Finneman: So more broadly, how would you describe the coverage of the Tulsa Tribune and its competitor the Tulsa World during this time, and how much did it matter?
Randy Krehbiel: I think both of them were probably pretty reflective of the times. In other words, I don’t –
I don’t know that they so much drove public opinion as they reflected it and perhaps amplified it. Well, I’m sure they amplified it. The World had been started as a Republican paper. And in fact, the name for the Tulsa World probably came from the Lawrence Journal-World. When the Tulsa World was started in 1906, they brought an editor down from Lawrence named Brady to run it, and his family had owned the newspaper in Lawrence. And you know, in those days most African Americans, if they voted, they voted Republican, so it was a little more sympathetic to, to the Black Tulsans.
The Tribune –
was the afternoon paper. Afternoon papers tended to be the working class paper, and it was the Democratic paper. It liked to think of itself as a crusading paper, and it had been on a crusade against Greenwood. It’s not really clear if this was strictly because they considered Greenwood to be a bad place, or if they were working in concert with some other interests who were wanting to move the Black residential area further – further north so that the – where Greenwood was could be used for industrial purposes.
But at any rate prior to the – prior to the massacre, they had published a series of stories and kind of instigated a state investigation about vice conditions in Tulsa in general, but sort of concentrating on
Greenwood, so I think, you know, all of that stuff plays in. And, you know, for me – everybody reads these things differently, but for me the thing that was really eye opening to read both papers was how engrained and everything racism was.
So even the story that wasn’t necessarily intended to be derogatory towards African Americans, or American Indians, or women, or any other minority actually in many cases was through the use of language and just sort of the way – and the tone and the way – the way people were portrayed.
So to kind of summarize, I mean there was not anything that said, “Hey, let’s go – let’s go kill a bunch of Black people, or let’s go burn down Greenwood.” There was nothing like that,
but it – but the language sort of fostered the attitudes that led to that.
Teri Finneman: So what was the immediate aftermath in Tulsa after this massacre?
Randy Krehbiel: Well, of course for the – for the people who lived and worked in Greenwood, it was just utter devastation. You know, you had thousands of people who were homeless, and in many cases had lost everything they had. I think – among the white population, there was also a certain amount of shock that this had really happened.
I mean you know, I mean not to get — to go overboard on this, but if you think about the reaction many people had after the storming of the Capitol on, on you know, earlier this year, it’s not the same thing but, you know, people were just kind of shocked. Regardless of how –
they felt about the issues involved, they were shocked. There was a lot of embarrassment.
And then there were a few people who actually were trying to capitalize on the situation by getting control of the – of the Burned District, as it was sometimes called, or, or at least part of the area that was destroyed in the massacre, to do what I had mentioned earlier, which was to move the Black population further away from downtown and to turn that area into an industrial area.
There were four railroads that went through Greenwood. And in fact the – what’s called Deep Greenwood, or, you know, the original around Greenwood and Archer, wasn’t really a great place to live. I mean you had four railroads going through there. It was kind of in a low spot so drainage was poor. When it rained heavily –
it could be cut off from the rest of the town. It didn’t have water or sewer systems, very few of the streets were paved.
So you know, so there was an argument to be made that it was better suited for a an industrial area. Unfortunately, the way – the way they went about doing it was, was not good.
Teri Finneman: In your book, you note the phrase “conspiracy of silence” describes the years that followed as if the event had never even happened. Children weren’t taught about it in school, and from 1921 into the 1990s the Tulsa Race Massacre was rarely mentioned in the local papers. So why and how did this finally rise to consciousness in Oklahoma in more recent years?
Randy Krehbiel: I think time has something to do with it.
People finally got where they could talk about it, but you know, more specifically it, it really probably started about in 1971, which was the 50th anniversary. And there was a story written about it by a man named Ed Wheeler, and he actually interviewed, you know, people who were around at that time and had kind of a hard time getting the story published. It did eventually come out.
And then you know, not too long after that, there was a student at that time named Scott Ellsworth began getting collecting interviews with survivors. And that became a doctoral thesis and then later on it became –
a book called “Death In a Promised Land.” And so all of those things kind of were a little step ups, and then in the – in the 1990s the state agreed to create this commission to look at what happened in Tulsa and determine what, if anything, should be done.
And it was largely through that commission that it – that it really began to gain a lot of notice, especially outside of Tulsa. You know, I did not grow up in Tulsa, but I live here over 40 years now. And, and it’s a strange thing, you’d have some people who knew quite a lot about it, and you’d have some people who knew nothing about it.
And I think over – I think that’s not unusual. I mean I think people tend to know less about the history of places they live, unless they live in a particularly historic place. You know, like Gettysburg –
or, you know, someplace like that. They don’t think much about their own history. They think about, you know, the US history.
And I also think for many, many, many years, history that’s taught in the public schools was not intended to, to inspire critical thinking so much as it was just to try and create some kind of a common narrative that everybody sort of could agree on. And it was really intended more to create a sense of place and a sense of belonging, some kind of a – of a pride in place.
So I think that’s changed a little bit in recent years, but the commission, which the original commission from the late ‘90s and early 2000s
really brought to light a lot of – a lot of material. And then another thing that’s happened is the digital age — And so it turns out that a lot of documents that people thought didn’t exist were buried in archives somewhere, and now a lot of those are, are accessible online. And you know, anybody can if they – if they have a mind, can go and, and dig these things up.
When I started in, you know, late ’99, early 2000s, I was told there were no newspapers from that era. That the newspapers either didn’t report about it, or the newspapers records had all been destroyed. And I found out pretty quickly that neither of those was true, that it had been heavily reported on and the newspapers were on the microfilm.
And I’ve had people tell me that some of the microfilm had been tampered with, but I never –
encountered that when I was, was looking for it. So there’s just been a lot of things that have changed over there, and also I think there’s a little bit more willingness to be upfront and honest about things. Like I said, it’s – some of this is time. I mean if you think about how long it’s taken some Americans to deal with the Civil War, whereas – some of us are still dealing with that.
And, and so, you know, I think there’s, there’s enough distance now between the event that, that some of the trauma, and fear, and emotions, and that sort of thing have faded just enough for people to have discussions about it.
Teri Finneman: In October 2020 there was national media coverage that a potential mass burial site was found.
What is the latest in unraveling what happened 100 years ago?
Randy Krehbiel: Yeah. Um, well, where we stand right now is that they’re hoping next summer to exhume those remains and try and do some DNA tests on them and, and determine – and other kinds of examinations to see if they can prove that they’re from the massacre, and maybe get an idea of who some of the remains are of.
And then it hasn’t been determined what will happen with those remains, whether they will be returned to Oaklawn, or if they’ll be buried somewhere else as part of some kind of memorial. So in terms – in terms of the search for remains,
that’s, that’s where, where we are.
Ah, some people are frustrated because it’s a slow process, but they’re trying to be as deliberate and careful as possible to get everything right. You know, in terms of other things, there’s still a lot of discussion about what should happen to what’s left of Greenwood. I mean there’s only about a block and a half of the original Greenwood, and this is – it’s not even the original Greenwood. It’s, for the most part, buildings that were built right after the massacre in the early ‘20s.
There’s about a block or block and a half of those left, and they’ve been struggling for, you know, 50 years almost now, 40 years I guess at least to, to try and make those viable in some way.
And there’s a lot of discussion and debate and hard feelings about who should control that, how that gets done. So, so in that sense, you know, the legacy kind of lives on. There’s a real desire to maintain the spirit of Greenwood in terms of businesses and entrepreneurship but it – but it’s a struggle.
Teri Finneman: The Kansas City Star recently did a separate historical analysis of its own newspaper and printed a large project acknowledging its own racist past. What are the Tulsa World’s plans to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, and does it include any kind of acknowledgement of complicity in those decades of silencing this event and/or in its coverage of the event?
Randy Krehbiel: Well, that is still being talked about. I don’t know that there’s any, there are any plans –
to do something like what the Kansas City Star did. We have, I’d say, over the last 20 or 25 years tried to acknowledge we were wrong on things as it comes up. And by that, I mean, just for instance, with the – with the race massacre and the things that I’ve written, I’ve tried to be pretty upfront and say, you know, on the one hand the World did editorialize in favor of the property rights of the – of the Black people who were affected by the riot. On the other hand, the Tulsa World was very adamantly segregationist for a long time, and did not – in the early 1920s was dead set against the idea –
of what was called social equality. In other words, the mixing of races or the idea that Black people were in any way the equal of white people. Again, the sort of the basic concept of white supremacy.
So, you know, other than that, I think – I think we’ve been more focused on how do we tell the story of Greenwood rather than our own story. And one of the things that we would like to do is to focus on what’s going on there now, and what’s, what’s happened since the massacre because that’s a pretty interesting story unto itself.
We published a
special section in 2020 on the 99th anniversary of the massacre that restated in some – in some cases introduced new information about the massacre itself. So then what we want to try and do is, is talk about the bigger community. I mean the Greenwood rose after the massacre and, and was actually bigger and more prosperous than ever. It reached its peak probably around in the early 1950s, and then it began a decline again.
It had gone pretty far downhill by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Urban renewal came in, demolished almost everything. I know a highway went through and, and sort of
cut it — the traditional Greenwood — in two. There were some plans that never came about. And so long story short, since, you know, probably the late ‘60s, most of the old Greenwood has been almost like a wasteland. And, and the African Americans in the Tulsa area have tried for decades to find some way to bring it back, and, and that’s still going on.
Teri Finneman: And then our last question of the show is, why does journalism history matter?
Randy Krehbiel: Well, I mean, it’s like all of history. You have to understand – to understand where you are, you have to understand how you got there, and, and you also have to understand the role that journalism plays in society.
Are you – I mean, one of the big lessons from this — one of the first ones I learned, and of course already knew it, but this really brought it home, is that words really have power and they really mean something. And once, once they’re uttered, once they’re in print they, they don’t go away.
And, and so we have one of the sort of defining elements of this race massacre was a story about an arrest that today might not even get in the – in the newspaper, or on television or on radio. And because the temperament use of words contributed greatly to, you know, to the deaths of we don’t really know how many people, in destroying the lives of –
thousands of people.
And sometimes history, we understand it better through history than we do by looking – you know, by standing back a little bit, we can see those things more clearly. Until you understand how, how journalism has worked in the past, it’s hard to understand how it works today.
Teri Finneman: All right, well thank you so much for joining us today.
Randy Krehbiel: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at jhistoryjournal. Until next time I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”