May 31, 1921 - The Tulsa Race Riot
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 31, 1921. 99 years today. The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma erupts in gunfire as a white lynch mob is turned away from the city’s courthouse. The furious mob soon turns its sights on the black community of Greenwood. In the worst single example of racial violence in American history, Black Wall Street is destroyed by looting and arson. Despite almost 300 dead, an unspoken code of silence will suppress the story in the American mind until the 1990s.
I’ve had this on the schedule for months, I just didn’t realize it would be so relevant.
The period around 1877 to 1925 was, if such a thing is possible, the absolute low point of American race relations. I say it might even have been worse than the period of slavery, and I’m serious, because at least when black Americans were slaves they had people who pretended to care about them. The slavemasters were obviously oppressive, but they had a vested interest in keeping their people fed and happy, even if they treated them like human cattle. The enslaved black people also had Abolitionists in the north looking out for their well-being, if in a distant and impersonal way much of the time.
The Civil War, of course, broke the bonds of slavery, and during the period of Reconstruction there seemed to be actual hope for full Black acceptance into American society. That hope ended when Reconstruction faded out in 1877 and Jim Crow came into power. Though things began to steadily decline from that point on, it got worse with the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 that legalized segregation, and in the 1910s with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan was dramatically popular in the white South, and soon organized race violence on the part of the KKK came to be commonplace once again. Lynchings were absolutely commonplace, race riots were horrifyingly frequent, and in 1923 an entire black town in Rosewood, Florida was wiped out by the KKK. The period 1900-1925 saw at least twelve major “race riots” that are better termed massacres, and countless lynchings. The “Red Summer” of 1919 was a nationwide wave of white supremacist violence, with the highest violence around Elaine, Arkansas where around 200 black people are alleged to have been killed.
The period was fraught with chaos worldwide – I have said multiple times that the few years directly after World War I should just be their own chapter in history, and this includes the spree of racial violence that swept the United States right after the war. The economic slump, demobilization of veterans, sudden rise in socialist and communist movements and anarchist activities, and popularity of racist literature and films such as “Birth of a Nation” (where the KKK are the heroes) all combined to whip the nation into a tidal wave of atrocity.
Tulsa, Oklahoma was the site of one of the most economically prosperous black communities in America. It was a booming oil city, and had attracted many migrants from the Deep South. One of the latest waves of newcomers were black World War I veterans, men like the “Harlem Hellfighters.” To some of the more established residents, the veterans were dangerously undeferential towards whites and white power. They believed that their service had proven them equal to white men, and had seen far better race relations in France. How could they go back to being treated like second-class citizens?
Oklahoma had been admitted as a state in 1907, and one of the first things it did was pass Jim Crow laws to restrict the liberties and activities of African Americans. Railway cars, restrooms, restaurants, and even hospitals were completely segregated, and black people could not vote, serve on juries, or be elected to office. In 1916, Tulsa passed a law forbidding blacks and whites from living on the same city block; this effectively concentrated the African American community to a single district – Greenwood.
Greenwood quickly became a magnet for local African American entrepreneurs and recent World War I veterans. Soon the district had grocery stores, two newspapers, movie theaters, nightclubs, and churches, and boasted a middle-class elite of educated men and women. The community was very close-knit, and pooled their capital into collectives to support local economic growth. Greenwood became known as “Black Wall Street” for its prosperity, but in the poor economic times of the early 1920s it became a target of jealousy and anger from the local white community for just this reason.
Racial hatred festered in Tulsa, especially thanks to the rise of Greenwood as a major economic force in the city. The KKK was heavily on the rise; by 1921, 3200 residents of Tulsa were part of the KKK, including the city’s founder, W. Tate Brady. Lynchings became frighteningly common: in the thirteen years between Oklahoma’s statehood and the Tulsa Race Riot, at least 26 black men were lynched in Oklahoma. These murders could happen for any reason, or no reason at all – they were part of a deliberate terror tactic to maintain white supremacy in Oklahoma.
On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old black shoeshiner named Dick Rowland boarded an elevator in the downtown Drexel building on his way to use the only “colored” restroom in the building. What happened next will never be known for certain, but it is likely that he tripped, fell, and accidentally grabbed the arm of the 17-year old white elevator operator, Sarah Page. Sarah screamed from the surprise, and in panic Dick fled the building. Someone who saw a young black man running after a white woman screamed called the police, and a low-key investigation got underway.
Dick Rowland was picked up the next day, May 31, and taken to the city’s courthouse. The white press had gotten hold of the story, with headlines such as “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” claiming Dick had attacked Sarah, torn her clothes, and attempted to rape her. Sarah never claimed an assault or pressed charges, and the police suspected nothing of the sort, but the paper’s afternoon edition carried a second heading: “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
By 4pm, the local authorities had gotten wind of a potential lynching, and by 7pm a white mob had begun to gather in front of the courthouse. Sheriff Willard McCullough was determined to prevent any such act, and began to barricade the courthouse even as the crowd swelled to 1000. Around 8pm, three men from the mob approached McCullough to demand that Rowland be turned over to them, but the Sheriff refused.
Greenwood was in an uproar; the black community was torn about what to do. The community considered Rowland one of their own and were determined to prevent his lynching. The older professionals were skeptical about a confrontation, but the younger Doughboys – World War I vets – quickly began gathering arms and ammunition. At 9:30, a few cadres of armed black men had begun to arrive at the courthouse to back up the police in case the white lynch mob stormed the building.
The white mob interpreted this as a “Negro uprising” and soon events spiraled out of control. Small groups of white men tried to raid the local National Guard armories to obtain automatic weapons, only to be turned away by armed soldiers. The white mob swelled, as many went home to grab their guns. No one knows exactly who fired first, but once the first man pulled the trigger, the Tulsa Race Riot had begun.
The initial exchange of fire in front of the courthouse only lasted a few seconds, but at its end ten white and two black men were dead. The black mob retreated towards Greenwood, pursued by the whites, who began to pillage local stores as they followed. Soon shooting was breaking out all across the city as the two warring factions swelled into what can only be described as a battle. All around the city, the white mob fired at any black person they saw, with many innocents of both races caught in the crossfire.
By 11pm, the National Guard was deploying to protect public property – notably white property. This left Greenwood at the mercy of the white mob. KKK leader Tate Brady soon took charge, leading the tarring and feathering of several black men. The black-robed “Knights of Liberty” – a KKK affiliate – roamed the streets of Tulsa, savaging black men and women and burning shops. At midnight, a smaller white mob once again tried to storm the courthouse, but Sheriff McCullough drove them off.
The night did not stop the fighting, and soon it was almost brighter than the day. Around 1am, the white mob began to light the businesses and homes of Black Wall Street ablaze. Whites and blacks squared off in gunfights along the fringes of Greenwood, and the passengers in an incoming train had to lie on their bellies to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Groups of whites rolled through Greenwood in cars, firing randomly into houses and churches and tossing incendiaries into the local buildings. The Tulsa Fire Department tried to put out the fires, but it is reported that they were turned away at gunpoint by the white mob.
At 5am, the white mob launched a coordinated all-out assault on Greenwood, pouring into the streets on foot and in cars. The residents of Black Wall Street fought back with their rifles, but were overwhelmed by the numbers and soon they made a mass exodus from Tulsa. The rioters shot and killed indiscriminately, breaking into homes and shops, looting, and setting the structures ablaze. Some white rioters had obtained biplanes, and flew over Black Wall Street from the air, shooting rifles and dropping firebombs into the town.
The National Guard’s response was to…deploy troops to protect the white neighborhoods and round up any black people they found and place them in detention. The National Guard made no effort to protect Black Wall Street, and some accounts even have them participating in the attack, shooting machine guns into the burning buildings of Greenwood. Only the arrival of more troops from Oklahoma City enabled local National Guard officers to put an end to the attack. This was a one-sided enforcement; the soldiers were specifically told to “hunt down and round up Negroes” but were never told to stop the white rioters.
By then, Black Wall Street was gone. Most of its residents had fled or been detained at local facilities by the Guard. When martial law was finally rescinded on June 4, the most prosperous black community in America had been eviscerated. Over 191 businesses were destroyed, including the only black hospital in Tulsa. Injured or wounded African Americans were turned away at the white hospitals in other parts of town until eventually they were housed in the basement of the Morningside Hospital. Modern estimates are around $32 million in 2019 dollars worth of damage, and 10,000 people made homeless.
The number of dead will never be known. 1921 records state 26 black and 10 white deaths, but the actual totals were undoubtedly far higher. The 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission’s report estimated around 50 white and maybe 300 black dead, and over 800 injuries. This, too, is almost certainly too low - especially thanks to the recent discovery of mass graves in what used to be Greenwood.
A 1921 Grand Jury investigation produced no convictions for anyone, the all-white jury putting the entire blame for the riot on black mobs. Either way, the black community didn’t stick around much longer. Despite some attempts to rebuild Greenwood, the white city planners saw the fire as an opportunity to redevelop the district into a white business area. Soon a new train station grew up over the ruins of Black Wall Street. Attempts to raise money or file suits against the city fell on deaf ears, and most of the original residents of Greenwood left soon afterwards. Among them, ironically, was Dick Rowland – the one man the white mob really wanted dead managed to escape to Kansas City, and after that he vanishes from the pages of history.
The Tulsa Race Riot has been nearly absent from American history books, despite being the most terrible event of a decade-long streak of virulent white supremacist violence. It was even a taboo subject in Tulsa itself, with no books or historical writings gaining widespread circulation. The riot was absent from local or state histories. Anyone involved, black or white, kept an unspoken code of silence. This silence lasted for decades. Newspapers let the anniversary pass without a peep, the Riot was absent from city histories, and academic reports at the University of Tulsa were repressed by the faculty.
In 1971, the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce tried to do a historical project on the riot, but as soon as they read the reports and saw the photos gathered by locals they refused to publish them. All the newspapers in the city kept their code of silence: there was never any riot in Tulsa. Other projects in the 1970s to publicize the riot encountered both subtle and unsubtle pressure to keep silent.
For a long time, it seemed that the Tulsa Race Riot might be lost to history entirely, but in 1996 the State of Oklahoma organized a commission to investigate the riot and prepare a detailed account. Their report, released in 2001, was the first public admission of the riot in 80 years. There has since been a movement for reparations, public compensation, and college scholarships to descendants of Greenwood residents, though in many cases these movements have fallen far short of recommendations.
The Tulsa Race Riot should probably be called the Tulsa Race Massacre. It was borne of racial fury at the economic prosperity of Black Wall Street and rage at the “uppity” African-Americans who dared to defend one of their own. It was driven by a white supremacist vision, and done solely to keep the black population in line. It was so terrifying for the black population of Tulsa that they refused to speak about it for decades, and the whites kept discussion to a minimum – but the memory was still there. “This is what happens when you step out of line.”
Ninety-nine years later, the cities are burning again.