(KYMA/KECY) - Between May 31st and June 1st, 1921, Tulsa's prosperous African American community known as Black Wall Street fell victim to one of the nation's most violent racial incidents. Sparked by an encounter in an elevator between a Black man and a White woman, more than 1,200 homes and businesses were destroyed, hundreds were killed, and their bodies were dumped in mass graves.
CBS News’ Danya Bacchus’s family was there. Historian Scott Ellsworth learned what happened to them during a 1978 interview with her great-grandfather, W.D., who was 16 at the time of the massacre. Audio tapes from that interview still exist. Armed, W.D.'s father tried to protect his son, wife Loula, and their home. Ellsworth explained, “John Williams and his son W.D., they’re in this second-floor window. And as the light of dawn starts to come up, this wall of whites start coming this way. They realize, it's time. We've got to go,”
From a high grain elevator, a machine gun fired shots. Planes flew overhead, Ellsworth says, dropping explosives. In a matter of hours, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street was demolished. More than a thousand homes and businesses were looted and burned to the ground.
Pictures, sold as postcards, show the brutal aftermath: bodies lined the streets. Historians believe hundreds were killed and the dead dumped in mass graves.
Hundreds of Black people were rounded up and taken to internment camps by deputized White men and W.D. was one of the prisoners. He told Ellsworth what he remembered, “Get on around here, and hold your hands up. They marched me around to Greenwood and Easton, and there were about 50 more blacks.”
He was separated from his parents in the chaos. "I was afraid outside because I saw them shoot a man right on the steps," said W.D. Bacchus said W.D painted "such a vivid picture." When asked how she feels, Bacchus responded. "I don't even know if I have the right words to describe the emotion because I think you just immediately think about the fear that, you know, people are feeling in that moment. And then I think as a mother, to think about trying to protect my child. Reading about it is one thing, but I think when you actually hear it, and you hear it from someone who you know is a part of your family, it just it impacts you differently."
When Black people returned to Greenwood, they found a neighborhood burned to ash. But Tulsa would soon learn the massacre didn’t kill the Greenwood spirit, and to this day the fight to rebuild continues.
On Monday night (5/31), Gayle King will host A CBS News Special: Tulsa 1921 An American Tragedy. It follows more stories like this one. The prime-time special airs at 10/9 central right here on CBS.