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Tulsa Race Massacre remembered, 100 years later: Influx of survivors got new start in Wichita

Updated: May. 31, 2021 at 4:30 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Monday, May 31, marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most violent racial attacks in American history. On May 31, 1921, a violent mob attacked a Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. An estimated 300 people died while homes and businesses were burned to the ground. Eyewitness News spoke with a historian about the families that fled Tulsa and eventually called Wichita home.

Wichita historian Gerald Norwood looked over an old article in the Wichita Protest newspaper about the Tulsa Race Massacre, the “Tulsa Race Riot’ from 100 years ago. As he did, he spoke about one of the most violent racial attacks in U.S. history and the connection between Tulsa and Wichita.

“It started the night of the 30th of May and they started arresting people on (June 1st),” Norwood said.

It started over an incident involving an apparent misunderstanding between white woman and a Black man. The man was taken to jail. African American soldiers and citizens of the Black Greenwood community within Tulsa heard about the arrest and went to the jail to protect the man from any kind of rioting.

“A shot went off and the riot occurred,” Norwood said.

Greenwood was a promising, vibrant community in Tulsa that became known as America’s Black Wall Street. But what took years to build was gone in less than 24 hours due to racial violence. The riot killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,200 homes and erased years of Black success.

Some of those displaced from the community would look to Wichita for a new start.

“We didn’t really feel the effect of it until the 1924-1925 period,” Norwood said.

That’s when Wichita started seeing an influx of people moving in from Tulsa. Schools became overcrowded and the school board made changes to keep up with the growth. The story was featured in a 1920s Wichita Beacon newspaper article and again in the 1977 book, “Our Common School Heritage: A History of Wichita Public Schools” by Sondra Vanmeter.

“She created this (book) for the purpose of covering all the history of Wichita schools,” Norwood said. “Within that period, the enrollment it says here increased in all the Black schools in 1924, 1925. Many people came from out of state. According to L.W. Mayberry, Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots in 1921 had influenced many negroes from the city to come to Wichita and they concentrated in the 4th Ward, which is the area around 9th and Cleveland, increasing the enrollment at the school, L’ouverture.”

The growth prompted the Wichita school board to add six new rooms to L’ouverture. Then Ingalls Elementary was renamed Dunbar and became a school for Black students only. Norwood said Wichita had a lot to offer Tulsa families.

“Of course, we had the packing plants here for employment. A lot of these individuals that were citizens worked in the packing plants, worked in the railroad facility,” he said.

During a time of uncertainty, Norwood said Wichita offered hope to Tulsans looking for a new beginning.

“The opportunity was just a little better,” Norwood said.

Monday, two of the three living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre prayed for racial healing outside a church that was the only building left standing in the Greenwood neighborhood. President Joe Biden will visit Tulsa Tuesday, June 1, to pay his respects. Also on Tuesday, the city of Tulsa plans to start digging a mass gravesite for victims of the racial violence.

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