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Within hours, bodies were on the street and, survivors said, floating in the nearby Arkansas River. A 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 noted the wildly different estimates of people killed: as low as 18, a longstanding number of 37 who could be identified, and as high as 300.
“I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half-dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
—Buck Colbert Franklin, lawyer and father of late historian John Hope Franklin
White deputies corralled Black residents into the streets and marched them to three detention camps, including one at the local fairgrounds. They were treated as prisoners of war, amid allegations that Black militant groups or armed organizing provoked the carnage. Within weeks, a grand jury proceeding declared, “There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching, and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of the armed Negros, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.”
Survivor testimonies documented for the Tulsa Race Riot Commission describe the dull and monotonous diet in the camps: bread and milk for children, apples, hot dogs, or biscuits. Mothers and fathers could not provide food for their families. Children waited in line for rations. The very community that prided itself on self-sufficiency was now eating handouts, a punishment for the sins of those who stole from them and ravaged one of the nation’s most vibrant Black communities.
A 1921 post-massacre report from the Tulsa World mentioned that those with nowhere to go “were required to pay for their meals, either out of their own pockets or by working at various tasks, including cleaning up the debris in Greenwood. For this, they were paid standard laborers’ wages. It was by no means an easy existence, but some whites soon complained that blacks were being ‘spoiled’ at the fairgrounds and by the attention given them by the Red Cross and other charitable organizations.” Once in the camp, Black Tulsans couldn’t leave without a white employer vouching for them—often so they could come and work as domestics. When they did leave the camps, they were required to wear green identification tags. Less than a week after the massacre, 7,500 such tags had been issued.