In our quest for racial peace, society sometimes conveniently forgets the stunning events of the past which have contributed to the ongoing American narrative. Remembering such phyletic stories is not only key to our survival as a species, but it also illustrates the need for tolerance and healing on the heels of an incredibly dark time in American history. In the case of the Tulsa Race Riots, that time was less than 100 years ago when hundreds of whites led a racially motivated attack on the black community of Greenwood, killing many in the process.
This was not just any southern lynching; this attack was carried out on the ground and by air, destroying the district’s wealthiest black community. Riding on the racial unrest of a country scarred by slavery, what started as a rumor soon exploded into a war as the diverse factions of a 20th-century town embraced fear through rampant violence, an act that would set back American race relations and throw kerosene on a dwindling social flame.
June 1st, 1921 will forever be remembered as a day of considerable loss and devastation. In the rural town of Tulsa, Oklahoma where life was typically quiet and simple, a racial current of unrest began, sparking one of the biggest race riots in America. Tulsa had experienced a major oil boom in the early 1900s, attracting thousands of settlers, many of whom were African Americans looking to escape the harsh racial tensions of the south. But even in Tulsa, which prided itself on being wholesome and all-American, Jim Crow laws were at large, causing the majority of the town to remain segregated with most black people settling in the northern end.
From that segregated area grew a black entrepreneurial mecca known affectionately as “Black Wall Street” to signify its independence, freedom, and upward mobility. The northern area was officially established in 1906 and by the year of the Race Riot in 1921, there were over 11,000 residents and hundreds of prosperous businesses, all owned and operated by African Americans looking to improve their condition through hard work, pragmatism, and education.
The location was so vibrant, in fact, it was often patronized by both whites and blacks in the area, a testament to its laudable form and function. The dream was actually happening; black people were rising within a classically white-dominant society and the painful shadow of slavery was receding into the past. While no one would say tensions were gone, progress was most certainly being made. Greenwood was flourishing and becoming a national symbol of black wealth, pride, and unity.
At its height, the business center was filled with grocery stores, churches, funeral homes, banks, hotels, pharmacies, nightclubs, restaurants, and the like. It was bustling and prosperous–a self-sufficient community and home to many black millionaires and visionary businessmen. But with this growth came envy on the side of the white Tulsans who had not done so well for themselves. Still affected by the belief that they were entitled to more, many white citizens began to foster resentment against what they called “Little Africa” and did not hide their displeasure at feeling inferior to their black neighbors.
Tensions became palpable among many white citizens, boiling over before the Riot in May of 1921. On a warm spring day, a 19-year-old young black man named Dick Rowland who worked as a local shoe shiner on Main Street decided to take the elevator to use the colored restroom in a nearby building. The woman operating the lift was a 17-year-old girl by the name of Sarah Page. Although it is unclear exactly what happened during the short ride up to the second floor, the result was an accusation of assault.
Rowland was arrested the following day, and the local papers immediately grabbed on to the sensational story, running the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In Elevator,” while rumors began to fly about a lynch mob searching for the young man. Many people vouched for Rowland’s character, saying it was impossible for him to do such a thing, corroborating his story that he had tripped into the elevator on the way up and accidentally bumped into the operator.
The town became further divided by the alleged crime, with one side believing Rowland had actually raped Page even though she never accused him of it or pressed any kind of charges. Of course, others believed he had simply tripped and probably grabbed her as a way to steady himself. But finding the truth seemed secondary to the thrill of impending conflict.
Just like a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, interested white folks began to gather outside the county jail where Rowland was being held, discussing the rumor of a possible lynching. Consequently, a group of concerned blacks then arrived to protect Rowland and prevent any possible violence. At it turned out, there was no real lynch mob, but a confrontation between the two sides erupted and shots were fired, killing some whites and blacks. As news of the clash spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded.
What ensued can only be described an act of extreme terrorism leading to one of the most devastating riots in American history. Before dawn, a massive mob of angry white men (accompanied by some local officials along for the ride) stormed into the town armed with guns and bats, ready to bring hellfire down on those who stood in their way. In fact, they brought hellfire down on just about anyone who was black, ransacking hundreds of homes and businesses and setting fire to anything they saw. In response, some black men who had known fighting in World War I rallied together and armed themselves, ready to take on the frightening pack of marauders and protect their families and community.
The white protesters roamed the streets on foot and in cars, indiscriminately shooting any black man, woman, or child they saw. As the fighting escalated on both sides and the black community began to back themselves into their section of town, World War I airplanes were dispatched to fire at residents and drop bombs on black settlements. With this kind of firepower on the side of the white citizens, the riot grew increasingly worse for black Tulsans. Families who were able began to flee the rampant gunfire while close to 300 black people were killed, leaving many others injured, homeless, and in the harsh hands of the law.
Although the violence was intense and clearly directed at destroying the black community, it only lasted 24 hours. At the height of the conflict, the governor had declared martial law, and the National Guard arrived in Tulsa to put out fires, remove blacks from the hands of vigilantes, and imprison those black people who were not already jailed. No white people were arrested during the riot. Over 6,000 blacks were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days. But the hand of authority arrived too late for many black men seen beaten and lying in the street; hanging from nearby trees, and burned alive in gutters.
In the end, 35 blocks of Greenwood were burned to the ground, wiping out the majority of black businesses and residences. Despite promises to help, the city of Tulsa did nothing to support the people who lost their homes and jobs, even though there were over 1.5 million dollars in reported damages and subsequent claims. Most of the support came from within the black community itself, along with a few sympathetic whites, and the rebuilding process was slow and painful for all involved. In fact, it’s only in recent years that white Oklahoma has begun to accept any responsibility for what occurred on that fateful day in 1921.
Rarely mentioned in history books or classrooms, the Tulsa Race Riot has remained a generally unexplored historical event, despite its deep racial implications. In a bout of collective amnesia that lasted over 50 years, the city of Tulsa mostly chose to forget it. But ever since the story was resurrected by historians and journalists over a decade ago, it is renewing hopes for justice and an increased awareness of national identity.
The riot was finally addressed in schools around 2012, a full 91 years since it happened–a true testament to how painful moments in history can often scar society to the point of denial. The event is also a reminder that the truth of the past will always emerge, no matter how desperately it is repressed. Civic leaders have built monuments to acknowledge the riot, including a new Reconciliation Park, but all legislative and legal attempts to recover damages for the hundreds of people who lost their homes, their livelihood, and their lives, have failed. What is lost may be lost, but many would agree, it must also be remembered.
And the rest is history.