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Tulsa massacre

A deadly day and a shameful cover-up

Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images

It’s 100 years since the greatest cover-up in US history, says Brent Staples in this podcast for The Daily. In the early 20th century, Tulsa – an Oklahoman oil city – was rife with racial tension. Black people had made good money while white areas watched with discontent. One black neighbourhood, Greenwood, became the primary source of envy. It was “a Mecca of black economic influence”, an area so successful it had its own business strip called “Negro Wall Street”.

On 1 June, 1921, a white mob descended on Greenwood, furious about reports that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. They went from house to house, looting bedrooms, shooting people and torching the buildings. By the afternoon, as many as 300 people were dead, 8,000 were homeless and Greenwood was burnt to the ground. Olivia Hooker, who was six at the time, remembers waking up to the sound of bullets pelting her house. She thought it was a hailstorm. Eight-year-old Kenny Booker escaped his burning bedroom with his sister. Outside she asked: “Kenny, is the whole world on fire?”

The repercussions were strange. “A deliberate kind of amnesia” gripped the city. White people wanted to forget everything and black people were terrified it might happen again. For 50 years the massacre remained a secret, until white historian Ed Wheeler and black activist Don Ross collaborated to tell the story and blow “the cover off the conspiracy of silence”.

Listen to the podcast here