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November 5, 2020

Tulsa Massacre 1921: Buck Colbert Franklin in the Greenwood District

On the night of May 31, 1921, the black community of Tulsa Oklahoma’s Greenwood district would fall victim to one of the deadliest and most destructive episodes of racial violence in American history.1 As described in his manuscript, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Buck Colbert Franklin described the devastation of homes and businesses being bombed while black owners helplessly watched and were gunned down in the middle of the street that awful night. The prominent lawyer found himself frightened at the sound of multiple gunshots ringing in the air near his law office on Greenwood Avenue. Franklin witnessed the chaos of a feverish crowd, and suddenly he knew that he was witnessing a race riot, or “massacre,” as it was beginning to transpire.2 Buck Colbert Franklin was born on May 6, 1879, as one of ten children. Buck was named after his grandfather, who had been a slave and who had bought his family’s freedom. However, historians speculate that the freedom of the Franklins’ was actually credited to Buck’s father when he ran away from his plantation during the Civil War and then changed his name. Many years later, Franklin had come to Ardmore, Oklahoma, where he was practicing law. He often experienced racial prejudice there, because Ardmore was a predominantly white town. Franklin then decided to move to the predominantly black community of Rentiesville, Oklahoma. There, in 1915, Buck C. Franklin married Molly Parker and they began their family, having four children. One of them, son John Hope Franklin, would later become a notable historian and civil rights advocate. In 1921, Franklin moved away from his family, leaving them in Rentiesville, for the thriving black district of Greenwood in Tulsa Oklahoma. There he established a law office, and later his family joined him, once he was settled in. However, he would not know of the extremely high racial tensions that shaped the horrid events soon to take place just outside his law office.3
Smoke over Tulsa, Oklahoma during 1921 race riots | Courtesy of Library of Congress
Racial tensions in Tulsa had been growing partly because of the prosperous community of Greenwood. Though historians debate how quickly Greenwood became the center of an affluent African-American community, by the early twentieth century, the economic success of Greenwood was well established, and it became known as “Black Wall Street.”4 The affluent black community consisted of thirty-five blocks, which was home to about six thousand residents, dozens of small businesses, newspapers, lawyers and doctors offices, and a school, all of which would be burned and destroyed due to the strong racist attitudes of the time. The popular aspirations of an African-American community would become the setting for a massive hate crime sparked by an incident that forever ruined the prosperity of the thriving area.5 On the afternoon of May 31, a newspaper article was released in the Tulsa Tribune titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” which reported on a trial that involved a black man who allegedly attacked and attempted to rape a young white elevator operator earlier that morning.6 The trial debated of what actually happened in the elevator when Sara Page ran out screaming, alarming a nearby worker while nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland ran from the scene. Yet, the only reports of the incident came from police reports given by Sara Page and by the other witness, so it remained unclear what Rowland’s side of the story was, though speculations assumed that Rowland may have slipped and accidentally grabbed Page to steady himself.7 Nonetheless, the accusations were enough for police to arrest Rowland, and the white community spread talk of lynching him. Alarmed black citizens went to the courthouse, determined to protect Rowland from the angry white mob. The tension between the two parties in front of the courthouse steadily built during the afternoon hours and into the night.8 That’s when the riot erupted. “The panic, fear, and anger loosed by those first shots at the courthouse chased all reason from the streets of Tulsa.”9 The spark of a war between the black and white communities of Tulsa that dark night was lit, and there was no stopping it until the break of dawn.
National Guard Machine Gun Crew During Tulsa Race Riot | Courtesy of National Museum of African American History and Culture
Referring to the entire chaos of that grim night in Tulsa as a “riot” would be an understatement. What started out as a riot escalated to an all-out war zone as city leaders believed that, “what black Tulsans thought of as protecting a fellow African American through a display of unity, whites interpreted as an act of uprising.”10 Charles Daley, a major in the Oklahoma National Guard and assistant chief of the Tulsa Police Department, ordered the deployment of the national guard after he reported that, “thousands of persons… including several hundred women, and men armed with every available weapon in the city taken from every hardware and sporting goods store, swarmed… avenues watching the gathering volunteer army.”11 When martial law was declared, the police and national guard were sent to the major entrances of the district to prevent the anticipated attack on the white parts of the city.12 However, the police deputized and armed about 250 men that turned their attention to disarming and taking into custody the African Americans in Greenwood, killing anyone who did not surrender.13 That night, Buck C. Franklin did not know that the chaotic atmosphere outside his residence and office in Greenwood would turn into a “race war.” In his manuscript, Franklin described that from the setting of the dark skies, he could hear gunshots ringing in the distance. First assuming that they were just warning shots, he laid down, unbothered by the distant echoes. Then, he heard shots, one after another increasing as the hours of the night deepened, and he suddenly felt disturbed and anxious. It began to dawn on him that this was the response to the news article about the purported assault and rumors of a lynching. Distressed, Franklin called the sheriff’s office multiple times to find out any information, but each time, he could not get a connection. So he decided to leave his residence and hurry to his office to try and call from there. On Greenwood Avenue, Franklin, “found the streets congested with humanity and vehicles of all kinds,” before reaching his office to call the sheriff.14 Once again, his call did not connect to the sheriff’s office and he could not find out any information. He struggled for an hour to find out any news of what was going on from the people who were crowding the streets, but with a “mob mentality,” no one paid any attention to his worries.15
Ruins of Tulsa Race Riot| Courtesy of National Museum of African American History and Culture
Then, Franklin returned to his hotel to lay back down as he, “soliloquized, ‘Here I am, a peaceable and law-abiding citizen, I have harmed no one–just like thousands of others of my race here–and yet I cannot now walk the street, upon a peaceful mission, in safety.’”16 At around midnight, Franklin awoke to the sound of bullets whistling in the air, raiding the exposed crowds. He wrote, “I saw the top of stand-pipe hill literally lightened up by the blazes that came from the throats of machine guns, and I could hear bullets cutting the air.”17 The fire of machine guns from the national guard would not be the only firestorm that he and the other black citizens would see that dreadful night. Buck C. Franklin witnessed planes circling mid-air dipping low towards the city as buildings all around began to burn from the top. The sound of hail echoed one after another, on to the next building and then the next, nonstop. The flames left behind from the aerial attacks roared through the early morning of June 1 with dense smoke covering the sky. “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forced tongues in the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes–now a dozen or more in number still hummed and darted…”18  Through the massacre, he encountered a WWI veteran who had just returned home, a brave mother saving her child, and other citizens young and old, who did not survive the day “hell was on earth.”19 The fire department never showed up to try to stop the dozens of fires that consumed “Black Wall Street,” leaving the charred bones of buildings and businesses in deep ashes and ruins. After the massacre, it had been estimated that about 1,200 homes were destroyed and 300 people were killed. The remaining black citizens of Tulsa were rounded up and imprisoned for about eight days.20 The horror and destruction were documented through photos taken by newspapers, white citizens who celebrated the atrocity, and black citizens who mourned the loss of their home and remembered the violence.21 The manuscript that was written by Franklin detailing the events of that night also provided unique documentation of the unlawful attack committed by the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. His eyewitness account of the black community being bombed by aerial attacks challenged the position of the city of Tulsa, who initially denied all participation in the cruel destruction. Before the Oklahoma Supreme court, Franklin led the legal battle against the City of Tulsa, challenging the ordinance that the victims of the attack could not rebuild their burnt down community. To this day, the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre are still looking for justice and reparations as the Greenwood district has not been able to recover from the damage.22 Hundreds of families suffered at the hands of white citizens armed by the city, yet, this is not taught in schools across America. Although progress had been made from racial violence in the United States, the fight for social justice still remains and cannot be ignored.
  1. Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 32.
  2. Buck C. Franklin, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, August 22, (1931), 4.
  3. Ephrem Yared, “Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960),” Blackpast (website), April 22, 2016, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/franklin-buck-colbert-1879-1960/
  4. Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 6.
  5. Encyclopedia of African American History, 2010, s.v. “Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921,” by Alfred Brophy.
  6. Encyclopedia of Race and Crime Vol.2, 2009, s.v. “Tulsa Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921,” by Vincent E. Miles.
  7. Alfred L. Brophy, Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2002), 24-25.
  8. Encyclopedia of African American History, 2010, s.v. “Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921,” by Alfred Brophy.
  9. Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre (Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 45.
  10. Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre, (Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 44.
  11. Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre, (Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 44.
  12. Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre, (Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), 44.
  13. Encyclopedia of African American History, 2010, s.v. “Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921,” by Alfred Brophy.
  14. Buck C. Franklin, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, August 22, 1931, 3.
  15. Buck C. Franklin, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, August 22, 1931, 3-4.
  16. Buck C. Franklin, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, August 22, 1931, 4.
  17. Buck C. Franklin, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, August 22, 1931, 4.
  18. Buck C. Franklin, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, August 22, 1931, 6.
  19. Buck C. Franklin, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, August 22, 1931, 6.
  20. Allison Keyes, “A Long-Lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921,” Smithsonian (website), May 27, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-lost-manuscript-contains-searing-eyewitness-account-tulsa-race-massacre-1921-180959251/
  21. Alfred L. Brophy, Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2002), 63.
  22. Ephrem Yared, “Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960),” Blackpast (website), April 22, 2016, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/franklin-buck-colbert-1879-1960/

Tags from the story

Black Wall Street

Buck C. Franklin

Dick Rowland

Tulsa Riot

Recent Comments

D’vaughn Duran

This article setup of paragraphs and information was well done! Giving great information what the Massacre. I never heard of this topic and tragedy so this was my first reading about a topic like this. Homes and people suffered on “black wall street.” Many people were lost and I think that’s horrible to think about my pulling on my heartstrings. This article is very factual with no sugarcoating.

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18/02/2023

2:58 pm

Iris Reyna

Congrats Alicia on winning the Fall 2020 History Media Award in your category. Good job on the article. The article was very informative and educational and was put together nicely. Even though I have heard of the Tulsa Massacre, I never knew the event that caused the domino effect of such a horrible event. The article brought light to the horrible event that caused the loss of a communities livelihood, even though this happened over a century ago our country still does not learn from its mistakes and we should start from the root of the problem, the school system and what it teaches.

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19/02/2023

2:58 pm

Katarina Sanchez

This article is written so well in detail that it allows you to be able to visualize this devastating story in real-time. I have never heard of the Tulsa Massacre till now. It is upsetting to know that someone was wrongly accused of sexual assault and didn’t even bother getting their side of the story, only for people to demand that he gets lynched. Sadly, I don’t doubt that there were plenty of more situations similar to this, just because people of color word weren’t given the same respect as someone who is white. I hope history like this is shared more often so we don’t ever have to repeat this type of hate.

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19/02/2023

2:58 pm

Laurel Cox

The attention to detail in the story is amazing, it feels like you can see the events as they take place. And as well written as the article is, it is a truly devastating story. It shows the true nature of the prejudice that whites held in 1920’s; prejudice so strong that they couldn’t stand to see the success of people of color thriving in any way. It’s sad to see all of this hate, violence, and destruction stem from a court case with so story for the defending side, and what makes it even worse is that schools don’t teach about the violence and destruction that racial prejudice had on American history, it needs to be taught so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it.

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19/02/2023

2:58 pm

Bryon Haynes

Alicia did an amazing job displaying the tragedies within such a devastating story in an authentic and entertaining way. The Tulsa Massacre is something rarely taught in my upbringing, so it’s nice to learn about Buck Colbert Franklin. His name is never spoken in the places it would matter the most, but his role in this section of history needs to be honored. Despite the gruesome and horrific nature of this story, it is fascinating to read about and it’s empowering to know how much power our voices have when we’re at our lowest.

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19/02/2023

2:58 pm

Nnamdi Onwuzurike

It’s upsetting to see what was supposed to be a fair trial turn into murder and destruction. The poor man was yet to be judged yet but yet the white people saw him as a convicted criminal already. They saw the entire black community that came out to support him as criminals too and just caused chaos. These are the things that should be taught in schools so that children can see the outcome of hatred and practice love instead. Congratulations on winning the award.

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19/02/2023

2:58 pm

Clarissa Liscano

Although aspects of this article was challenging to read, like how the school was burned throughout completely. It was still heartbreaking to read, the fact that the fire department didn’t even bother to show up caught my attention the most. They massacred 300 people, burned homes, and locked up those who survived for 8 days over an accusation while letting the buildings burn. great article post.

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19/02/2023

2:58 pm

Vanessa Rodriguez

Starting off this article, I had never of this massacre, but ending off this article, my heart was broken with everything that happened in the school. I also enjoyed the included passages from his manuscripts that you put in the article. Although this was something so horrible, it should be talked about more often so it truly never happens again and so we should be scared to even imagine it. Loved your article, great job.

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19/02/2023

2:58 pm

Maggie Trujillo

First off – Congratulations on winning Best Article in the Category of History! Great accomplishment! I don’t remember the Tulsa massacre and this was a great article to learn about it. It is upsetting to read how race relations were so volatile during this time and how regular people (who hadn’t done anything) were not even safe from the violence. Even though it is part of our history, it is sad to read about the destruction that happened and the innocent lives lost during the massacre.

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26/02/2023

2:58 pm

Lyle Ballesteros

This is a great article about something that needs to be spread and taught in every school in America. I do not recall being taught this in middle or high school and only learned about the details of these atrocities that happened in Tulsa. It’s a shame it doesn’t get taught or brought up in enough schools as it could shed light on soemthign extremley important in the history of race in America that could hopefully educate and change people’s mind on race and prejudice and how blakc people were treated in this country, even decades after slavery was ended and they were given the right to vote.

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26/02/2023

2:58 pm

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