Despite the connotation of "race riot," Black residents of Greenwood were the victims of the 1921 events. courtesy Wikimedia

Greenwood 1921: A Riot or a Massacre?

As we approach the centennial of the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, it is necessary to examine how we discuss the event.

Recent years brought a great deal of controversy surrounding the language we use to discuss the 1921 attack on Greenwood, Tulsa. The most common label, “The Tulsa Race Riot,” is drilled into the minds of Tulsan high-schoolers every February — but I argue that the “riot” terminology is historically inaccurate and feeds into anti-Black tropes.

What happened in Greenwood was a coordinated, highly calculated and racially-motivated attack to destroy a successful community, not a sudden uprising that turned to violence. This was a white mob, including police officers and members of the National Guard, seeking to destroy Greenwood’s community through means of gun-power, firebombing and arson. It would be incorrect to say that some citizens of Greenwood did not fight back, but it is absurd to act as though the degree of violence enacted by Black Greenwood residents was anywhere near that of the white mob’s. Greenwood citizens had no intention of destroying white communities, while the white mob that devastated Greenwood fully intended to do so to Black ones. To call it a riot is to minimize the deliberateness and the unmatched firepower of the white mob’s violence, which is ahistorical.

“Riot” is a loaded word, and it has been systematically used against the Black community since the late 19th century. This language is weaponized even today — consider the wave of protests over police brutality toward Black people in the past few years. With just a Google search, you can find live footage of these non-violent acts of civil disobedience being brutally shut down by police in full riot gear and with highly militarized weapons.
The headlines don’t show this full picture, though. They refer to these protests as riots, and protesters as “rioters,” even though the conflicts are primarily provoked by police. It’s not a coincidence that these protests have often been over the murders of Black people, and that these protesters are often Black themselves. This racialization of “riot” should make us wary of using this terminology to describe the attack.

I don’t believe the majority of people who use “riot” terminology are doing so out of malice; it’s just the most common way to refer to the event. Even so, our language is important. When we recognize the racialized nature of “riot” terminology, and its historical inaccuracy, there’s no reason for us to keep using it. Out of respect for those whose lives were taken by the massacre, there is no excuse for Tulsans to be uninformed about the destruction of this community.

To delve deeper into the history of the Greenwood Massacre, there are a number of documentaries and short articles freely available online. The Tulsa City-County Library’s African-American Resource Center has also got a wide range of books on the subject. This attack was a deliberate attempt to devastate the Black community of Greenwood, and its repercussions reverberate through Tulsa today. All I ask is that you consider using the word “riot” to refer to the massacre may be minimizing, inaccurate or perpetuating racist and anti-Black tropes.

Post Author: Avery Childress