by Rev. Jeff Jaynes
Background In late May and early June of 1921, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma erupted in a massive riot that claimed thousands of properties, likely hundreds of lives (official claims of 36 deaths have been widely disputed and some say thousands perished), and entrenched a racial divide in the city that persists today. The history of these events was not taught in most public schools in the state until very recently and thus many lifelong Tulsans never learned the details of this tragic event. Here are 8 things you need to know about the worst race riot in American history:
Tensions based on race had been building for years prior to the events that began on Memorial Day in 1921. White supremacist movements had seen record growth before the riots, feeding off of growing unemployment for young white men and reaching new heights of popularity. Race riots had also been common in the years leading up to the event. In addition, many young African-American men returned home from World War I with a desire to see the country they proudly fought to defend actually work to defend them. Finally, not long before the 1921 events, an angry mob had gone to the courthouse and successfully grabbed (and lynched) a (white) man accused of murder.
- The two people at the center of the riot likely knew each other before that day.
Nobody really knows what happened in the elevator of the Drexel Building that afternoon, but it is likely that 19 year old Dick Rowland, an African American shoeshiner who worked nearby, and 17 year old Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, knew each other before that day. The only bathroom Rowland would have been allowed to use due to segregation laws was the one at the top of the Drexel Building. Thus, he would likely have been in Page’s elevator often and some have even suggested they had a romantic history, though that has never been proven.
- It was stoked by rumor and media malpractice.
Some have said that Rowland stepped on Page’s toe. Others that he tripped into her. Still others think they quarrelled. Regardless, at some point Page screamed and Rowland ran out of the building. Rumors of what had happened started almost immediately. Assumptions quickly turned to the sexual and, indeed, when Rowland was eventually caught and brought in, newspaper accounts suggested an “assault,” likely code language for rape. This only served to stoke the fires that were (as mentioned above) already building, and a mob began to form at the Courthouse where Rowland was being held. It didn’t help that the Tulsa Tribune printed an editorial to “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” though no copies of that edition of the Tribune remain to this day (the Tulsa World does have an archive of the editorial’s text). The vigilante mob grew, as did the number of African-Americans–including those veterans with combat experience–who had also gathered at the Courthouse to protect Rowland.
Many have said that the fighting began when a member of the white mob told one of the African-American men with a gun to hand it over. When the man refused, gunfire rang out–though it remains unclear if the shot was fired intentionally or not. Both sides quickly took up battle positions. As more and more whites gathered (including many at local churches) to head to the front lines, the African-Americans backed away across the railroad tracks into the Greenwood District (where most of the African-American population lived). At least one train that came through Tulsa on the first night of the riot reported taking fire from both sides of the tracks as it came through. White rioters set up a machine gun emplacement on the top of a hill where it fired down into a nearby church–that had been newly built–destroying the church and killing many. There are also descriptions of cars filled with white rioters driving through Greenwood with guns blazing from each window and an airplane dropping dynamite on African-Americans as they ran for cover. It was only when the National Guard was called in (which was itself not without controversy) that the riot subsided.
- It did not just destroy a neighborhood, it killed an economy.
When the dust finally settled, over a thousand buildings–mostly in the Greenwood District–were destroyed. Estimates put the damage around $1.5 million. Homes, businesses, and churches that were thriving the week before were rubble after the riot. But the property damage only tells part of the story. Before the riot, the Greenwood District was a thriving area of stores, professional offices, restaurants, and more. The area had come to be called “Black Wall Street” and drew African-Americans from a great distance to participate in the area’s growth. It was a flourishing community. The riot, however, was like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs: after it hit, nothing was the same. To this day, North Tulsa lacks a consistent supermarket and even banks that are required to have a presence in lower income areas have little presence in that community.
Many white Tulsans used the destruction of the Greenwood community in the riot as a way to grab the valuable land once held by African Americans and repurpose it–and, thus, depopulate it of African-Americans. One of the leaders of this land grab was Tate Brady, an early booster of the city of Tulsa who was long regarded as a great community leader (as more have learned about his efforts to depopulate Greenwood, however, his name has been tarnished and was removed from streets running through the area he once tried to dismantle). African American leaders successfully challenged the land grab to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and it was stopped. The leader of this successful challenge was lawyer B.C. Franklin, father to one of Tulsa’s treasured “sons,” Dr. John Hope Franklin. Unfortunately, despite the defeat of the land grab, the thriving business district never recovered after the riot and civic leaders years after the riot used that lack of recovery to further divide the city when I-244 was built–much of it paving over “Black Wall Street.”
- Many were guilty but few were charged (including in initial incident).
Interestingly enough, there were very few criminal charges in the wake of the riot. Dick Rowland, the man at the center of the early stages of the riot, was never charged for the incident on the elevator. None of the rioters were charged for their actions either, though the police chief at the time was removed from office for neglect of duty. He never served any jail time, however, nor did any other public official. Out of $1.5 million in lost property claims, only one claim–that of a white business owner who had guns taken from his shop–for $3,994.57 was approved for repayment.
- It still matters, nearly 100 years later.
For most white Tulsans, the race riot of 1921 seems like a footnote in our city’s history. It is explained away as a result of antiquated ways of thinking and, if anyone is at fault, those people have long passed on. For African-American citizens of Tulsa, however, it is not a footnote but a deep stain that persists, as do some of those antiquated ways of thinking. When a man began randomly killing African-Americans in north Tulsa on Good Friday of 2012, memories of the riot quickly resurfaced–even in a national interview on NPR–which suggests that the wound is still rather fresh for many. When controversy erupted over the naming of “Brady Street,” and majority white south Tulsa pushed strongly to keep the tainted name, those feelings rose up again. A recent survey found that many African-Americans in Tulsa still believe the riot to be relevant to daily life today. A look at the social, economic, and racial landscape of Tulsa–and recent national issues of race and justice–would seem to corroborate that feeling. While we are nearly 100 years beyond those tragic days in 1921, the legacy of those events still haunts and reconciliation is still much needed.
Rev. Jeff Jaynes is the Executive Director of Restore Hope Ministries, a United Methodist outreach to families in need. He is also active in helping the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, a group working toward unity for all Tulsans through a variety of avenues.
The images in this post are from the Beryl Ford Collection of the Tulsa County Historical Society.