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Tulsa Race Massacre: Was 1921 the first aerial assault on U.S. soil?

Tulsa Race Massacre: Was 1921 the first aerial assault on U.S. soil?

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The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre 

courtesy/Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Lbrary, The University of Tulsa

A history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Tulsa Race Massacre / The Tulsa World Library: See all of the coverage of the race massacre in this special report. 

"The first time Americans were terrorized by an aerial assault was not Pearl Harbor," a CBS News story says leading up to coverage this weekend of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

"Scott Pelley reports on a race massacre in which an estimated 300 people, mostly African American men, women and children, were killed, and aircraft were used to drop incendiary devices on a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Greenwood Massacre of 1921 has been largely ignored by history, but Pelley finds a Tulsa community seeking to shed more light on what's been called the worst race massacre in history," a preview reads for a "60 Minutes" story airing 6 p.m. Sunday on CBS.

Context for viewers: Six airplanes circled the Greenwood area during the morning hours of June 1.

What they were doing, and why there were so many, has long been a matter of passionate debate. Many people believe they were used to shoot at people on the ground and bomb Greenwood.

Officials said the small craft, generally thought to be two-seat, single-engine Curtis “Jenny” biplanes, were merely keeping track of activities on the ground and relaying the information through written messages dropped in weighted metal cylinders attached to streamers.

To what extent this explanation was initially challenged is unclear, but in October 1921 the Chicago Defender published a story in which it said Greenwood had been bombed under orders of “prominent city officials.”

The story cited a Van B. Hurley, who the newspaper said had given a signed statement to Elisha Scott, a Kansas attorney.

Scott filed dozens of lawsuits on behalf of victims but doesn’t seem to have ever entered the Hurley affidavit into the record. There is no record of a Van B. Hurley living in Tulsa around the time of the massacre or that anyone by that name ever belonged to the Tulsa police force.

But that doesn’t mean the story did not have substance. Many people believed city officials were behind the burning of Greenwood, and the explanation that the squadron of planes was only used for surveillance struck some as suspiciously thin.

Certainly the planes had a great psychological impact on many. For example, Mary Jones Parrish wrote about them in her account, as did prominent attorney B.C. Franklin in his.

The Defender story said the planes dropped “nitroglycerin on buildings, setting them afire.”

But nitroglycerin is an explosive, not an incendiary. It is also highly unstable and dangerous.

That has caused some to speculate that something like Molotov cocktails might have been used, or “turpentine balls” — rags soaked in flammable liquid and wrapped around the head of a stick.

There are several practical reasons why trying to light and throw incendiary devices from an open cockpit airplane of that era would seem a difficult, dangerous and even foolish idea.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t done.

Tulsa Race Massacre / The Tulsa World Library: See all of the coverage of the race massacre in this special report. 

Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in Tulsa in 1921

Randy Krehbiel


Twitter: @rkrehbiel


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