Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Tulsa, located on the Arkansas River where it bends to flow south, is Oklahoma's second largest municipality and the principal urban center for the state's northeastern region. In 2000 the population of Tulsa proper was almost 400,000 and of the greater metropolitan area 803,000.

The Lochapokas, a band of Creek Indians who endured their own "trail of tears" to Indian Territory in 1836, first settled the area and named their settlement Tallasi. Unable to pronounce Creek properly, whites called the settlement Tulsi or Tulsa. The community remained isolated and experienced little growth until after the Civil War, when Reconstruction agreements and land allotments forced upon the Creeks by the federal government opened the area to white settlement. In 1882 the Frisco Railroad made Tulsa a terminus, and the town became the hub for the region's cattle industry.

It was a series of oil discoveries in northeastern Oklahoma between 1901 and 1907 (the largest being the Cushing field) that really transformed Tulsa by bringing a flood of laborers, speculators, and financiers. The city's population surged from 7,298 in 1907 to 72,000 in 1920. As the epicenter for the midcontinent field, Tulsa was labeled the "Oil Capital of the World." Companies like John D. Rockefeller's Prairie and Gas Company, the Texas Company (now Texaco), and Gulf Oil operated out of Tulsa. Pipelines reached out, carrying crude to Port Arthur, Texas, Whiting, Indiana, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. By 1927 Tulsa was headquarters of 1,500 oil-based companies. Those who profited most from oil built extravagant homes. One such subdivision, Maple Ridge, became a national historic site.

Besides the prosperity and progress of the 1920s, Tulsans created and experienced one of the nation's worst acts of terror against African Americans. On June 1, 1921, deputized and armed white mobs invaded and shot, robbed, and burned their way through Greenwood, the city's northern African American section. Planes dropped turpentine bombs, and machine gunners shot fleeing residents. Thirty-five city blocks were razed. At least thirty-nine and probably many more black Tulsans were murdered. Not a single individual was brought to justice. A state investigation in 2000 recommended reparations to survivors and their descendants. Racism persisted as Tulsa became a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity during the 1920s.

The collapse of the petroleum industry in 1930 accentuated the Great Depression's effect on the city. But, as with many western cities, World War II defense industries rescued Tulsa, stimulated and diversified its economy, and transformed its demography. Tulsa became a leading manufacturer of military aircraft and home to companies like Douglas Aircraft. Tulsa was also a training center for British, Canadian, and American pilots at the Spartan Aircraft Company and School. Cold war defense spending and a prospering aeronautical industry confirmed the city's renewed prosperity, making Tulsa the regional center of aviation production (with companies like North American and McDonnell-Douglass) and commercial services (American Airlines). Prosperity also led to Tulsa being labeled "America's Most Beautiful City" in 1957.

During the 1960s and 1970s Tulsa, like other American cities, became the victim of suburban sprawl, with new suburbs clustered around new commercial centers. The suburbanization resulted largely from white flight to the south and east. The result created many Tulsas: North Tulsa was predominantly African American, West Tulsa stayed working class, East Tulsa grew with the expanding middle class, and South Tulsa remained predominantly upper class. The federal government also made Tulsa one of ten urban centers selected for the program to relocate Native Americans during the 1950s and 1960s; Tulsa now has the highest per capita Native American population of any metropolis. Tulsa continues to attract immigrants from a variety of ethnicities. Recent grassroots and municipal-level efforts have begun to unite the various Tulsas.

Today, numerous industries and information- based services unrelated to oil, agriculture, or aviation are located in Tulsa. In addition to its economic, political, and educational prominence, Tulsa is also a major cultural center. It is home to two world-class art museums, the Philbrook Museum of Art and the Thomas Gilcrease Museum, which boasts one of the world's largest and most prestigious collections of western and Native American art and artifacts. Tulsa is the smallest American metropolis to support professional fulltime ballet and opera companies as well as a symphony orchestra. Professional hockey, baseball, and soccer teams make Tulsa their home. In the 1970s the 'Tulsa sound" of J. J. Cale and Leon Russell greatly influenced rock music, and the musical scene remains important today. Music and cultural festivals include Oktoberfest, Reggaefest, the Juneteenth Blues and Jazz Festival, the Greenwood Jazz Festival, and the Tulsa University Powwow. Because of the high quality and diversity of life there, Tulsa has been labeled an all-American city.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Tulsa Race Riot / ART: Gilcrease, Thomas / INDUSTRY: Petroleum, United States.

S. Matthew DeSpain University of Oklahoma

Debo, Angie. Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943.

Ellswourth, Scott. Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Goble, Danney. Tulsa!: Biography of the American City. Tulsa OK: Council Oak Books, 1997.

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