A Forgotten Atrocity: 9 Insightful, Expert Books on the Tulsa Race Massacre

The Black Wall Street massacre has left an indelible mark on American history. Yet this historic event was forgotten for nearly 70 years.

Historical Fiction Memoirs & Biographies Non-Fiction Recommendations
A black and white photo of a burning Tulsa during the massacre of 1921. Three book covers are placed on top the image.

Trigger Warning: The mention of sexual assault may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 is considered to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. Occurring over a period of 18 hours, nearly 35 city blocks of the Greenwood District in Tulsa were burnt to the ground, including 1,256 buildings and at least 36 people killed, with the breakdown being 26 Black and 10 white. However, modern historians argue that the death toll may have been as high as 300, with the discrepancy possibly being caused by an alleged cover-up by Tulsa newspapers, local police, and state militias.

Even with the event in the public domain and numerous organizations dedicated to preserving the memory of those killed during the riot, current history classes likely overlook works that contain important eyewitness accounts of the event or otherwise put readers in the shoes of someone who was there and what it was like to watch your community go up in flames. So, here are nine books that take readers back in time, bringing the vibrant and bustling district of Greenwood to life through historical analysis, personal narratives, and fictionalized interpretations.

Brief History of the Event

The Tulsa Race Riot officially began on May 30th, 1921, when Dick Rowland, an African American shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, entered the elevator in the Drexel Building on Third and Main. In an official report from the Oklahoma Commission in 2001, Scott Ellsworth explains that Rowland was likely using the elevator to use the colored restrooms on the top floor. What exactly happened in the elevator is debated, but it’s widely believed that Rowland either tripped getting into the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm, causing her to scream, or may have stepped on her foot.  

The following day, however, the Tulsa Tribune reported that Rowland had been arrested for attempting to rape Page, with a following report alleging that he was to be lynched that night.

A black and white photo showing a burning Tulsa during the massacre of 1921. Smoke billows in the distance with brick structures standing in the foreground.
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As Rowland waited at the Courthouse, a white mob gathered outside, demanding that Rowland be handed over, but the sheriff refused. The mob later attempted to break into the National Guard armory but were turned away.

Later, several former WWI African American veterans arrived and offered their services to protect Rowland, but the sheriff sent them home. But after a rumor spread that whites were storming the courthouse, they returned to offer their services but were again turned away. As they left, they were confronted by a group of white men, one of which attempted to disarm one of the veterans, and a shot was fired.

Black and white photo showing rubble after the Tulsa Massacre. A dresser with debris is in the center, with a rocking chair and blanket are to the left. To the right, standing houses and more rubble.
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Soon thereafter, whites, angry over the failed lynching, vented their rage at African Americans, with skirmishes occurring along the Frisco railroad tracks and armed whites making drive-bys in Black neighborhoods. By midnight, fires had been set along the commercial district, and a group of local whites planned an invasion of Greenwood. When daybreak came, thousands of armed whites stormed Greenwood, looting homes and businesses and setting them on fire. Black Tulsans fought to protect their homes, but they were outgunned and outnumbered. By the morning of June 1st, most of Greenwood was gone.

Rediscovery

Due to the sheer number of atrocities committed, the riot was largely omitted from state history. No public ceremonies were ever held, and there appeared to be deliberate attempts to erase it from public memory.

The Tulsa Tribune, who kickstarted the violence, removed their front-page story from May 31st reporting Rowland’s arrest. Scholars also discovered that the event was missing from police and state militia archives. In a 2021 article, Michelle Place explained that white residents didn’t want to riot to reflect on the city (as it was a booming oil capital), and Black residents didn’t want to pass the pain on to their children and feared another massacre if they talked about it.

Black and white photo showing the remnants of the Greenwood district after the 1921 Race Riot. A tree trunk is in the foreground to the left with another tree in the center of the image. Remnants of buildings comprise the background.
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But the silence is believed to have unraveled after the 1995 bombing in downtown Oklahoma when a reporter stated that the event was the worst thing to happen on American soil, to which State Rep. Don Ross mentioned the massacre, piquing media interest. Two years later, Ross created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which released its official report in 2001. Since its rediscovery, the State Department of Education has required the riot to be covered in Oklahoma history classes since 2000, U.S. history classes since 2004, and included in every Oklahoma history book since 2009.

As many people are likely to have graduated after it was added to the curriculum, here are three historical non-fiction that provide insightful analysis and helpful information about the massacre.

Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Brandy Colbert

A circle of Black people is in the center of the image surrounded by flowers with an image of Tulsa burning in the center. A red sun rises behind their heads.
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Brandy Colbert’s searing work of non-fiction answers the many questions still remaining after one of the most devastating acts of racial violence in U.S. history. How did it come to pass? What happened? And why are the events still unknown today? In examining the tensions of the time-white resentment of Black advancement, the resurgence of white supremacist groups, and the tone of the media, a portrait is drawn of an event singular in its devastation but not in its kind.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History by Karlos K. Hill

A black and white photo of the destruction wrought on the Greenwood district. Destroyed buildings line the side of the image as a blurry man digs through the rubble. Another man stands to the right looking at the camera.
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Historian and Black Studies professor Karlos K. Hill has compiled a range of never-before-seen photos of the Greenwood District in Tulsa before, during, and after the massacre, mostly by white photographers. Comparing these photos with those taken elsewhere in the U.S., Hill makes a powerful case for classifying the riot as a massacre.

The Burning: the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 by Tim Madigan

An image of Black men being lead through the street with their hands in surrender is on the bottom as tears and burns in the image reveal the book title.
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First published in 2001, Madigan brings new resonance to the question of how a nation can heal when we don’t know what we’re healing from by recreating the town of Greenwood at the height of its prosperity, exploring the tenuous relationship between the white and Black residents. With chilling details, humanity, and the narrative thrust of compelling fiction, The Burning is essential reading as America finally comes to terms with its racial past.

Eyewitness Accounts

As mentioned, history and even literature classes overlook the several narratives written by survivors of the massacre, possibly attributed to how late the event was incorporated into textbooks. As such, here are three memoirs written by three survivors of the massacre.

The Nation Must Awake: My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 by Mary E. Parrish Jones.

A Black woman in 1920's dress stands to the right of the cover and looks to the side at the viewer. She is surrounded by trees, and smoke as black slime slides down the image.
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The Nation Must Awake is Mary Parrish’s first-hand account of the three-day tragedy, compiled with recollections from other survivors. With meticulous detail, Parrish transports readers to those fateful days as she documents the loss of life and sheds light on the remarkable bravery displayed by Black residents as their community succumbed to violence and flames.

Don’t Let Them Bury My Story: The Oldest Living Survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Her Own Words by Viola Ford Fletcher

A Black woman's face appears in the top right corner. The right half of the cover is burnt and folding back to reveal the book's title.
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As the oldest survivor of the tragic event that unfolded in May of 1921, Viola Ford Fletcher recounts the lasting impact of the Tulsa Massacre on her life. From the terror she experienced at seven, fleeing the burning district of Greenwood, to a 109-year-old matriarch testifying in Congress to get justice for the families affected, Fletcher takes readers on a journey through pain and perseverance, reinforcing the importance of learning from our history.

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921: An Eyewitness Account by Buck Colbert Franklin

An image of a city street full of people as smoke billows around them. A 1920's airplane flies close to the street down the center of the image.
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In 2015, a private seller discovered a ten-page manuscript in a storage area. Typed on yellowed legal paper, the document was written by Buck Colbert Franklin, an African American attorney. It documents his life in Tulsa from 1917 to 1921, with a large portion recalling the Tulsa Race Massacre, the sound of planes in the air, the fires, and being forced to leave his law office. The original document is now housed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

More of Buck’s story can be read in his official autobiography, My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin.

Fiction

For those who may struggle to read nonfiction, these final three books creatively reimagine the Tulsa Massacre. They present historical facts in an easy-to-understand style for readers of all ages while reflecting on the lasting impact of the riot on U.S. race relations today.

Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink

Isaiah Wilson is a known troublemaker, but underneath, he hides that he’s an avid reader and secret poet, always carrying a journal to record his daily thoughts. Conversely, Angel Hill is a loner and is viewed as a goody-goody.

A young Black girl with closed eyes looks faces the right as blue flames encircle her. Drawings of destroyed buildings dot the background.
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Though they attend the same school, neither has paid much attention to each other until their English teacher offers them a job at her mobile library. Angel can’t turn down the money, and Isaiah is eager to get closer to her. But everything changes when a white mob storms Greenwood, and Angel and Isaiah realize who their real enemies are.

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham

Now: When Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she never could have guessed that investigating the grisly find would lead to a summer of painful discoveries a hundred years in the making.

A Black woman lays sideways at the bottom of the image as a man lies sideways at the top. The image rips to reveal the books title in the center.
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Then: A misguided encounter sent Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a town segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make painful choices on a journey toward self-discovery as he faces his inner demons in order to do what’s right when Tulsa goes up in flames.

Told through interwoven perspectives, Latham brings the Tulsa race riot to life and raises important questions about the state of race relations then and now.

Magic City by Jewell Parker Rhodes

After Joe Samuels, a young Black man with dreams of being the next Houdini, is accused of rape, he must perform his most daring trick of all to avoid bloodthirsty mobs. Meanwhile, Mary Keane, the white woman who accused him, must find the courage to exonerate the man she condemned with her cry.

A yellow-green image of a city on fire as people watch makes up the bottom of the background. The book's title is written in a chalk-like font.
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Rhodes creates a powerful and unforgettable novel set against one of the darkest chapters of twentieth-century America, interweaving racism, mysticism, history, and murder into a harrowing tale of dreams and violence gone awry.

The passing of time makes it easy for us to think that the issues of then have seemingly happened thousands of years into the past. While the state of society has improved and continues to evolve, it’s important to recognize that they’re more recent than people would deem comfortable. As the riot’s 103rd anniversary is commemorated by locals and the government, pledging never to let a similar incident happen again, one can’t help but realize that they occur every day in every part of the world.


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