Changing Frames: A Riot or a Massacre?

The language of how we talk about what happened in Greenwood has changed over the last 100 years.

From "The Tulsa Race Riot" to the "Greenwood 'Black Wall Street' Massacre of 1921" to finally what we now call the "Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921," the names have changed, as well as our  understanding of this event, over the last 100 years.

We have often heard, “a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.” But, would a massacre by another name be taken as seriously? This is the problem of names and frames in the case of the Tulsa Race Massacre, previously and purposefully known as the Tulsa Race Riot.

Black men and women with armed white men

Internment at Convention Hall

Internment at Convention Hall

What does it mean for this to be a massacre rather than a race riot?

While a ‘riot’ is generally defined as “a crowd of people disturbing the peace” or “a public disturbance,” as in one group of people collectively acting together, the events of 1921 in Tulsa do not fit this or any definition of a riot. On the other hand, a massacre is much closer to what happened that day: a massacre is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people,” which helps to account for the large loss of life in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Merriam-Webster goes on to add that a massacre is also “an act of complete destruction,” in line with the burning of Greenwood that was part of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Other definitions note that massacre is from the French word for “carnage.” All of these definitions of massacre denote death and destruction, while many definitions of riot do not even fully account for the property damage done in Greenwood during the massacre. Some scholars and historians note that the event was initially called a riot in order for insurance companies to avoid liability on the swaths of Black homes and businesses that were burned during the massacre. Another misnomer is from Mrs. Mary E. Parrish’s 1922 book Events of the Tulsa Disaster, but like riot, disaster is another frame that moves blame and onus off of the white people of Tulsa, much like race riot does. 

These images both speak to the one-sidedness of the event, rather than the more two-sided “race riot” which would involve Black people rioting as well, or the “Negro uprising” that white Tulsa papers reported. Instead we see Black Tulsans being rounded up and interned at the Convention Hall, “for their safety,” language familiar to anyone knowledgeable about the Japanese internment camps during WWII.

Images of internment

In the first image of Black men and women with armed white men, we see unarmed Black people and armed white people, the first sign of a power imbalance that does not fit with the ‘riot’ framing. They seem to be gathered up and out of their homes and lined up to walk. In the next two images of internment at the Convention Hall, we see people who have similarly been gathered up, now taken to a central location. While this could be so that people would stop rioting or protesting, instead with the first image it seems to be a different case. The first internment photo, we see a dangerous white mob sending Black people into the Convention Hall, and in the second internment photo we see police officers and white people guarding the doors.

Another issue with this purposeful kind of misnaming is that it allowed the city of Tulsa to deny help or compensation to victims of the “riot,” leading to the minimization of the event, as well as the national forgetting of the Greenwood massacre in the years after. According to scholars Messer and Bell, framing the massacre as a riot also lay the blame on Greenwood and Black Tulsans, rather than white Tulsans, and the systematic racism that led to Dick Rowland’s arrest, with contemporary newspapers even calling the massacre a “Negro uprising.” However, in the images from the race massacre, it becomes clear that this was not the case, with white militias rounding up Black people and taking them to internment camps. With these images of internment, along with the many images of burned and ruined homes and businesses (almost all of Greenwood), it becomes clear that this was not merely a disaster, nor a riot, but indeed a racially-motivated massacre.

Even up until recently the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was still called  the Tulsa Race Riot Commission; a petition was created in 2019 to petition the commission to change its name,; the very govermental agency concerned with reparations and making right what happened in 1921. Even up until this year (2021), the Library of Congress still used "Tulsa race riot" as the subject heading for books about the race massacre, until a petition from the University of Oklahoma was successful in changing the subject heading to "Tulsa Race Massacre," nearly 100 years after the events.

To learn more you can find resources on our page Tulsa Race Massacre Resources.