The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
The Memorial Day weekend of 1921 was one of horrible mob violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma. White rioters went on a rampage in an African American community based on a rumour that a young black man had assaulted a white teenage girl. Eight hundred people were treated in hospital, 300 people died, and 35 city blocks were burned-out ruins.
The Greenwood area just to the north of downtown Tulsa was considered a success story for its African American residents. It was a freedman’s colony built by emancipated slaves that by 1921 had about 10,000 black residents.
It was economically viable with many black-owned businesses running out of buildings they also owned. The people were affluent and the area was given the nickname of Black Wall Street.
That all changed at the end of May 1921.
Incident in an Elevator
Dick Rowland, 19, was an African American shoeshiner. On the morning of May 30, 1921 he went into the Drexel Building to ride the elevator to the top-floor restroom. The only other person in the elevator was 17-year-old Sarah Page, the white operator. Something happened and the accounts vary about what that something was.
A clerk in a clothing store said he heard a woman scream and saw a black man fleeing the scene. That much seems to be beyond dispute. A common explanation that emerged later is that Rowland accidentally stepped on Page’s foot when he entered the elevator. But, rumours blended into prejudice to create a far more alarming narrative.
Stories started to spread about a rape and with each telling the story became more lurid. The afternoon edition of The Tulsa Tribune carried a front-page article saying that Rowland had been arrested on a charge of sexual assault under the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.”
The Oklahoma Historical Society says that “according to eyewitnesses, the Tribune also published a now-lost editorial about the incident, titled ‘To Lynch Negro Tonight.’ ”
That got the white citizens stoked up and spoiling for a fight.
Sheriff Willard McCullough locked young Rowland up in the county courthouse and detailed a dozen deputies to guard and protect him. This was not always the case as many black men merely suspected of some wrongdoing were willingly handed over to lynch mobs to exact their vicious version of justice.
A crowd of angry whites gathered outside the courthouse demanding the sheriff hand over Rowland. As the evening wore on, a group of about 25 armed black men arrived offering to help guard Rowland. Sheriff McCullough said “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ve got it covered.”
A breakaway group from the white crowd tried to get into the National Guard Armoury, without success.
The temperature rose to boiling point when 75 more armed black men arrived on the scene. But as History.com notes “they were met by some 1,500 whites, some of whom also carried weapons.”
The Riot Starts
As the two sides clashed shots were fired. The heavily outnumbered blacks retreated into the Greenwood neighbourhood, chased by whites some of whom had been deputized and armed by authorities. The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum reports that “In that capacity, deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts that were themselves illegal.”
Overnight, rumours spread that some sort of African American insurrection was taking place and that blacks were flooding in from nearby communities. The level of hysteria was pumped up and white vigilante groups started shooting black people.
By dawn on June 1, thousands of armed whites had mustered and launched an attack on Greenwood. The authorities did little to protect Greenwood’s people. A National Guard group was deployed to protect white neighbourhoods from a non-existent black counter-attack.
Black businesses and homes were looted and then set ablaze. When firefighters arrived to douse the flames some were told at gunpoint to leave.
The Oklahoma Historical Society notes that “Numerous atrocities occurred, including the murder of A. C. Jackson, a renowned black surgeon, who was shot after he surrendered to a group of whites.” Another unarmed black man was shot and killed in a movie theatre.
On June 2, 1921, The New York Times reported “Fires had been started by the white invaders soon after 1 o’clock and other fires were set from time to time. By 8 o’clock practically the entire thirty blocks of homes in the negro quarters were in flames and few buildings escaped destruction. Negroes caught in their burning homes were in many instances shot down as they attempted to escape.”
By the time National Guard troops arrived to restore order at 9.15 a.m. on June 1 the riot had pretty much run its course.
By a Red Cross estimate, 1,256 houses had been destroyed by fire. Many black-owned businesses along with a hospital, library, churches, and a school were also incinerated.
Most of Greenwood’s inhabitants were rendered homeless and 6,000 people were placed under armed guard in holding centres.
Officially, 36 people were killed, including 10 whites. However, historians say the death toll was more likely between 100 and 300.
And, says the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum “Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level: municipal, county, state, or federal.”
Embarrassed by its shameful incitement to lynching Dick Rowland, The Tulsa Tribune destroyed all records of its May 31st edition, including microfilm. The newspaper later campaigned against Oklahoma Governor Jack C. Walton over his investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. The Tulsa Tribune went out of business in 1992.
A subsequent all-white jury blamed the riot entirely on the African American citizens.
In addition, white Tulsans tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the re-building of Greenwood. However, in the 1970s, much of the area was bulldozed to make room for a new highway.
The charges against Dick Rowland were dropped when it was determined he had stumbled into Sarah Page and there had been no assault. The young man left Tulsa and was never seen again in the city.
- The power elites of Oklahoma and Tulsa threw a blanket of silence over the events of May 31 - June 1. They tried to pretend it didn’t happen. Police records disappeared from archives and no mention was made of the riot in history textbooks. It wasn’t until 1997 that a commission of inquiry was struck. In 2001, it issued its report, which confirmed the scale of violence visited on the African Americans of Greenwood and that the authorities had worked hard to suppress news of it.
- In his 2013 book, The Burning, historian Tim Madigan writes “Tulsa civic leaders clung to conservative estimates [of those killed, but] the number of the dead no doubt climbed well into the hundreds, making the burning in Tulsa the deadliest domestic American outbreak since the Civil War.”
- Following the race riot, membership in the KKK in Oklahoma rose significantly.
- The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 recommended that reparations be paid to the black community of Tulsa. No reparations have been paid.
- In the fall of 2019, researchers have discovered what they believe to be unmarked, mass graves of victims of the riots.
- “Tulsa Race Riot.” History.com, August 21, 2018.
- “Tulsa Race Riot.” Scott Ellsworth, Oklahoma Historical Society, undated.
- “1921 Tulsa Race Riot.” Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, undated.
- “Meet the Last Surviving Witness to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” Nellie Gillies, NPR, May 31, 2018.
- “Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.”February 28, 2001.
- “The History of the Tulsa Race Massacre That Destroyed America’s Wealthiest Black Neighborhood.” Meagan Day, Timeline.com, September 21, 2016.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor