Tulsa, Oklahoma is coming up on the anniversary of the largest race riot in our history. At the beginning of the 20th century, Oklahoma had the distinction of most land owned by Black landowners, also of being the most racially segregated state.
The thriving Greenwood District of segregated Tulsa was known as Black Wall Street. Home to many Black veterans of WWI, the economically self-contained district had nightclubs, hotels, cafés, newspapers, clothiers, movie theaters, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, grocery stores, beauty salons, and shoeshine shops.
On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a black employee of a shoe shine shop in the white section of Tulsa, went to use the segregated bathroom located above the department store housed in the nextdoor building. Rowland was seen fleeing the elevator by a store clerk, who heard a startled shriek from the white elevator operator, Sarah Page. The white store clerk reported the incident as assault.
Rowland was not arrested at that time. However, The May 31st issue of the Tulsa Tribune ran with the story of the alleged assault, and stories and rumors spread that Rowland had tried to rape Page. Some accounts also recall seeing an editorial calling for a lynching that night.
Walter White, the intrepid NAACP investigator of that era, wrote that the injudicious use of one word, “assault,” in the May 31, 1921, Tulsa Tribune was in large part responsible for the conflagration that consumed the hopes and dreams and the very lives of black Tulsans that same evening and night and the morning of June 1, 1921.
As people read their afternoon paper, a police investigation was underway, but no arrest had been made. Dick Rowland said that he tripped in the elevator and had reached to catch himself.
“When an afternoon paper came out with a colored and untrue account, so far as we had been able to ascertain of the entire affair, we concluded that it would be best for the safety of the negro to place him behind the bars of the county jail. The story incited such a racial spirit upon the part of the whites and under the impression that there would be a lynching the armed blacks invaded the business district. If the facts in the story as told the police had only been printed I do not think there would have been any riot whatsoever,” James Patton, chief of detectives.
Fearing for Dick Rowland’s life, several dozen men from Greenwood, many of them armed WWI veterans, showed up at the courthouse to meet the white mob gathered outside. Someone came forward and tried to disarm one of the Greenwood men, and shots were fired.
What followed was a retaliatory riot that lasted for sixteen hours. White mobs burned down businesses and homes as fires spread throughout Tulsa’s Greenwood District. By morning, the mob had destroyed 35 square blocks of Black Wall Street, burning down over 1,200 homes, over 60 businesses, a school, a hospital, a public library, and a dozen churches. Nine thousand residents of Greenwood District were left homeless. Estimates of the number of people killed in the riots vary. The American Red Cross estimates 300. At the time, there were eye-witness accounts given of mass graves.
The following headline was set to go to press on June 2nd, 1921.
STORY OF ATTACK ON WOMAN DENIED
Detective Says Negro Boy Did Nothing More Than Seize Her Arm
Had there been no rumors flying, no lynch mob, the paper would have printed that “the only assault made by Rowland upon the girl occurred when he grabbed her arm, so James Patton, chief of detectives says she told him Tuesday afternoon when he questioned her regarding the affair.”
Due to the work of Tulsa Historical Society, audio accounts of both white and black citizens of Tulsa who lived through those events can be found here and here. Through these interviews, white people of Tulsa are on record describing pervasive Klan influence in the 1920s, and express the view that the “riots” were led by the Klan.
When you read about the Tulsa race massacre, it does not take very long to find commentary that these events had very little to do with what allegedly happened in an elevator. Many whites had come to see the economic success and rising power of their Black neighbors in the Greenwood District as a threat. Stay in your place.
“The Tulsa Race Massacre Commission confirmed in its report that Tulsa officials, and the hundreds of whites they deputized, participated in the violence—at times providing firearms and ammunition to people, all of them white—who looted, killed, and destroyed property. It also found that no one was ever prosecuted or punished for the violent criminal acts.”
What is so striking about the aftermath of this horror was the treatment of Tulsa’s black citizenry by officials, a documented series of obstructions against their efforts to rebuild, and months of suffering. It is a caution with regard to the emptiness of spoken promises and intentions.
“Initially, some Tulsa officials acknowledged the wrongdoing and promised restitution and repair. ‘Tulsa can only redeem herself from the country-wide shame and humiliation … by complete restitution of the destroyed black belt…Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage … down to the last penny,’ said Judge Loyal J. Martin, chairman of the Executive Welfare Committee, a body formed on June 2, 1921 through the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce in response to the violence and for the purpose of rehabilitating the city. Alva J. Niles, president of the Chamber of Commerce, made similar apologies and promised that ‘rehabilitation will take place and reparation made,’ adding that Tulsa feels ‘intensely humiliated,’ and pledged to ‘punish those guilty of bringing the disgrace and disaster to this city.’…But those promises were never realized.”
Despite its severity and destructiveness, the Tulsa race massacre was barely mentioned in history books until the late 1990s, when a state commission was finally formed to document the incident. Today, the gentrified Greenwood District is divided on whether to dig up the public green space that multiple eyewitness accounts point to as the site of a mass grave. As usually happens, the white community begins to take stock and reckon with the sins of history after most of those who were adults at the time it happened, and who needed that reckoning the most, have died.