The Tulsa Race Massacre: Why Trump's Initial Decision to Hold Campaign Rally There on Juneteenth Was a Problem

Not only was it the date President Trump chose, but the location of the rally in Tulsa that drew criticism.

After many were outraged that President Donald Trump planned to hold his first campaign rally since the outbreak of the coronavirus on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the president announced he would change the date. Juneteenth is a holiday celebrated by America’s black community to commemorate the end of slavery.

Its date comes from the abolishment of slavery in Texas, the last rebel state, on June 19, 1865. But not only was it the date Trump chose, but the location of the rally in Tulsa that drew criticism.

Tulsa is the site of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which destroyed hundreds of black businesses and is presumed to have left between 100 and 300 black people dead. Initially, Trump defended the move, saying in an interview with Fox News the date overlapping with Juneteenth was not intentional, but to “think about it as a celebration … Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.”

Trump’s move left people highly upset, as at the same time, many in the country and the world protested the in-custody death of George Floyd and pushed the Black Lives Matter movement back to the forefront in America.

“This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party,” California Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted.

Tulsa’s massacre is the worst incidence of racial violence in the country’s history.

“To choose the date, to come to Tulsa, is totally disrespectful and a slap in the face to even happen,” Sherry Gamble Smith, president of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce, said to Inside Edition Digital.

Trump announced his change of heart on June 12, though.

"Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out ... of respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents," Trump posted on Twitter. "I have therefore decided to move our rally to Saturday, June 20th, in order to honor their requests."

What ignited the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?

On May 31, 1921, white groups attacked an area of Tulsa, known as Greenwood, which was lauded for its prosperous black businesses and often called the Black Wall Street. Those white mobs burned the area to the ground and murdered numerous people in a span of 18 hours. The massacre began after a black teen, Dick Rowland, got onto an elevator with a white elevator operator, Sarah Page, at the Drexel building in the city. Rowland was accused of rape.

Historian Scott Ellsworth, who has been studying the massacre for over four decades, said no one knows what actually happened.

“He might have tripped and fallen onto her when he entered the elevator. We don't know. But the next day, the Tulsa Tribune, which was the city's afternoon daily newspaper, instead portrayed this unknown incident as an attempt, an interracial rape attempt by this young man,” Ellsworth told Inside Edition Digital. "It also ran an editorial entitled, 'To Lynch a Negro Tonight,' on the editorial page. Essentially calling for a white lynch mob to take Rowland out of the jail at the top floor of the county courthouse and lynch him.”

Within a few hours a lynch mob began growing at the courthouse and demanded the sheriff hand over the teen, which police would not.

A Massacre Begins

Around 75 armed black men, including World War I veterans, showed up to the courthouse in hopes of helping guard Rowland, but the group was met with a mob of more than 1,000 white men who also had weapons, according to Shots were fired and the black men retreated to Greenwood. A night of terror then ensued.

“The riot really took place in two different phases. As soon as the shooting began at the courthouse, the white lynch mob, they didn't care any longer about Dick Rowland. They were now out to get any African American they could,” Ellsworth said. “That's exactly what they set out to do. Innocent black men and women who were working downtown were murdered by mob members. The Tulsa Police Force, meanwhile, showed up, broke into pawn shops and started out handing rifles and pistols and shotguns to members of the mob who were not armed, and telling them to 'Get an N-word. Get a gun and get an N-word.'" 

Ellsworth added that the black community, specifically the men who were at the courthouse, fought back the white people attempting to invade Greenwood, although some white men did fire guns into homes. There were also a few fires. During the night, though, more white people started to organize and at least 2,000 invaded Greenwood in the early morning hours.

“Any African Americans who fought back were murdered, others fled the city as quickly as possible. Systematically, building by building, house by house, the white mob would loot and then set things on fire. By the end of the day, Greenwood was gone,” Ellsworth said.

As this took place, the black population was being arrested and held under armed guard in internment camps throughout the city. 

A Massacre Suppressed

The charges against Dick Rowland were dropped hours after the massacre. He left the city and never returned, according to reports. The official tally of death was marked 36, but historians now believe that number was in the hundreds.

“So the riot was national news, in fact, it was international news. It was on the front page of The New York Times, the front page of the Times of London. What happened is that the white city fathers and businessmen and government leaders realized that they had a public relations problem,” Ellsworth said. “That Tulsa was being portrayed as this lawless city, where train travel was interrupted and whatnot. So a conscious decision was made that 'We're going to sweep this under the rug,' and that's exactly what they did.”

Tulsa’s newspapers didn’t mention the riots for decades and it was not taught about in Tulsa’s schools. There was also no memorial for the people who died. It wasn’t until historians in the 1970s started to research that they dug up history on what really happened.

In 1996, on the 75th anniversary of the massacre, a memorial was finally placed in front of Greenwood Cultural Center for the people who died. In 1997, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed, and in 2001, a report by the commission determined that 100 to 300 people were actually killed.

In 2018, the commission was renamed 1921 Race Massacre Commission.

This summer, Ellsworth and Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist whose parents grew up in Tulsa, will be searching for unmarked graves of the victims of the massacre.

“This is an event of national importance,” Ellsworth said. “I think the more we face it, the more we talk about it, the more we look at its significance, and the more we wrestle with difficult issues, not just about what do you do with the remains of riot survivors, but are reparations due to descendants of riot survivors? What do we do with that?

"I think this is a hugely important part of our history and one that needs to be taught in the history books as well."