Join our family of curious Kansas Citians

Discover unheard stories about Kansas City, every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Sign Me Up

Excuse the interruption.

Like what you see? For more stories like this, sign up for our newsletter. It drops in your inbox every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Sign Me Up
Hit enter to search or ESC to close

Kansas City’s Surprising Connection to the Tulsa Race Massacre

Last Survivor Escaped to Kansas City, Later Became a Jazz Star

Share this story
Above image credit: The ruins of "Black Wall Street" after the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)
Hal "Cornbread" Singer as a child in Tulsa.
Hal Singer as a child in Tulsa. (Courtesy | Hal Singer)

In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma, witnessed one of the worst instances of racial violence in American history. A mob of white residents attacked the thriving Greenwood neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street,” killing and injuring as many as 1,000 Black residents. 

Amid the chaos, one woman and her 18-month-old son managed to board a train and flee the violence.

Their destination? Kansas City. 

Almost 100 years later, Harold Joseph Singer, better known as Hal “Cornbread” Singer, is the last survivor of the massacre. 

Singer’s mother worked for a wealthy white family in Tulsa. When the violence broke out, the family got her and young Hal out of the city. Soon after, they returned to Tulsa, where Singer grew up and found a passion for music.

Hal "Cornbread" Singer playing in Baltimore in 1947.
Hal Singer playing in Baltimore in 1947. (Courtesy | Hal Singer)

Music eventually carried Singer back to Kansas City in the heyday of the big band era, when the sound of jazz filled the air of the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood. Singer was a talented saxophonist and quickly made a name for himself, playing in the Duke Ellington Orchestra at just 29 years old. 

Singer’s hit song “Cornbread” was #1 on the R&B charts for four weeks in 1948, competing with household names such as Pee Wee Crayton and Wynonie Harris. For decades he traveled the world playing music in packed theaters, including Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater. 

After an extensive stage career collecting numerous accolades, Singer settled into a quiet life in Paris with his wife Arlette. In an article from the Tulsa World, Arlette stated that it is now very difficult for her husband to speak. Flatland was unable to reach her for this story. 

While Singer may have been too young to remember the Tulsa Race Massacre firsthand, he is a living reminder of our close proximity to historical events that continue to shape us today. 

Catherine Hoffman reports for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report For America.

Like what you are reading?

Discover more unheard stories about Kansas City, every Thursday.

Thank you for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Enter Email
Your support lets our boots-on-the-ground journalists produce stories like this one. If you believe in local journalism, please donate today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *