The Tulsa race riot was a large-scale racially motivated conflict, May 31 – June 1st 1921, between the white and black communities of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which the wealthiest African-American community in the United States, the Greenwood District also known as ‘The Negro Wall St’ was burned to the ground. Aerial fire bombing of black residential neighborhoods was reported. During the 16 hours of the assault, over 800 people were admitted to local hospitals with injuries, more than 6,000 Greenwood residents were arrested and detained at three local facilities: Convention Hall, now known as the Brady Theater, the Fairgrounds (then located about a mile northeast of Greenwood), and McNulty Park (a baseball stadium at Tenth Street and Elgin Avenue). An estimated 10,000 were left homeless, and 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire. The official count of the dead was 39, but estimates of black fatalities have been in the hundreds.
The events of the riot were omitted from local and state history; “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place.” In 1996, the state legislature commissioned a report, completed in 2001, to establish the historical record. It has approved some compensatory actions, such as scholarships for descendants of survivors, economic development of Greenwood, and a memorial park, dedicated in 2010, to the victims in Tulsa.
The Tulsa race riot occurred in the racially and politically tense atmosphere of post-World War I (WWI) northeastern Oklahoma. The territory had received many settlers from the South who had been slaveholders before the American Civil War. In the early twentieth century, lynchings were not uncommon in Oklahoma, as part of a continuing effort by whites to maintain social dominance. Between the declaration of statehood on November 16, 1907, and the Tulsa race riot thirteen years later, thirty-one persons were lynched in Oklahoma; twenty-six were black and most were men. During the twenty years following the riot, the number of lynchings statewide fell to two.
The newly-created state legislature had passed racial segregation laws, commonly known as Jim Crow laws, as one of its first orders of business. Its 1907 constitution and laws had voter registration rules that effectively disfranchised most blacks; this also barred them from serving on juries or in local office, a situation that lasted until federal civil rights legislation was passed by the US Congress in the mid-1960s. Tulsa passed an ordinance on August 16, 1916 forbidding people of either black or white race from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were of the other race.. This made residential segregation mandatory in the city. Even though the U. S. Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in the next year, the ordinance remained on the books.
In the social disruption following WWI, as cities tried to absorb veterans into the labor market, there was social tension and anti-black sentiment. In what became known as “Red Summer” of 1919, numerous industrial cities across the Midwest and North had severe race riots, in which whites killed numerous blacks and thousands of others were left homeless when property was destroyed, as in Chicago, Omaha, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Empowered by service in WWI, in cities such as Chicago, blacks fought back.
Northeastern Oklahoma had an economic slump that put men out of work. At this time, the Ku Klux Klan was growing in urban chapters across the Midwest; it made its first major appearance in Oklahoma later that year on August 12, 1921, less than three months after the riot. The historian Charles Alexander estimated that by the end of 1921, Tulsa had 3,200 residents in the Klan.
The traditionally black district of Greenwood in Tulsa had a commercial district so prosperous it was known as “the Negro Wall Street” (now commonly referred to as “the Black Wall Street”). Blacks had created their own businesses and services within the racially segregated enclave, including several groceries, two independent newspapers, two movie theaters, nightclubs, and numerous churches. Black doctors, dentists, lawyers and clergy served the community. Because of residential segregation, most classes lived together in Greenwood. They selected their own leaders, and there was capital formation within the community. In the surrounding areas of northeastern Oklahoma, blacks also enjoyed relative prosperity and participated in the oil boom.
Monday, May 30, 1921 – Memorial Day
Encounter in the elevator
Sometime around or after 4 p.m. Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old black shoeshiner employed at a Main Street shine parlor, entered the only elevator of the nearby Drexel Building, at 319 South Main Street, to use the top floor restroom, which was restricted to blacks. He encountered Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator who was on duty. The two likely knew each other at least by sight, as this building was the only one nearby with a washroom which Rowland had express permission to use, and the elevator operated by Page was the only one in the building. A clerk at Renberg’s, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel, heard what sounded like a woman’s scream and saw a young black man rushing from the building. The clerk went to the elevator and found Page in what he said was a distraught state. Thinking she had been assaulted, he summoned the authorities.
The official commission report notes that it was unusual for both Rowland and Page to be working downtown on Memorial Day, when most stores and businesses were closed. It suggests that Rowland had a simple accident, such as tripping and steadying himself against the girl, or perhaps they were lovers and had a quarrel.
Whether – and to what extent — Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly ridden in Page’s elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers — a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility… Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 30, 1921 — although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most — but not all — stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day…
What happened next is anyone’s guess. After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. It also has been suggested that Rowland and Page had a lovers’ quarrel. However, it simply is unclear what happened. Yet, in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape.
A brief investigation
Although the police likely questioned Page, no written account of her statement has surfaced. Whatever conversation transpired between Page and the police, it is generally accepted that they determined what happened between the two teenagers was something less than an assault. The authorities conducted a rather low-key investigation rather than launching a man-hunt for her alleged assailant.
Regardless of whether assault had occurred, Rowland had reason to be fearful as such an accusation could put him at risk from racists among white men. Upon realizing the gravity of the situation, Rowland fled to his mother’s house in the Greenwood neighborhood.
Tuesday, May 31, 1921
The morning after the incident, Detective Henry Carmichael and Henry C. Pack, a black patrolman, located Rowland on Greenwood Avenue and detained him. Pack was one of a handful of blacks among the city’s approximately 78-man police force. Rowland was initially taken to the Tulsa city jail at First and Main. Late that day, Police Commissioner J. M. Adkisson said he had received an anonymous telephone call threatening Rowland’s life. He then ordered Rowland transferred to the more secure jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse.
Word quickly spread in Tulsa’s legal circles. As patrons of the shine shop where Rowland worked, many attorneys knew him. Several were heard defending him in personal conversations with one another. One of the men said, “Why I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That’s not in him.”
The Tulsa Tribune, one of two white-owned papers published in Tulsa, broke the story in that afternoon’s edition with the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator”, describing the alleged incident. In the same edition, the paper had an editorial warning of a potential lynching of Rowland. The editorial, titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight”, was said to have reported whites assembling that evening to lynch the teenage Rowland. The paper was known at the time to have a “sensationalist” style of news writing. It is unclear if the paper had a source for the possible lynching.
Several years later, researchers discovered that the editorial in question was missing, apparently having been removed from the Tribune’s archives, as well as the ‘Oklahoma Edition’ of the Tribune in the state archives. No known copies of the editorial exist today.
Stand-off at the courthouse
The afternoon edition of the Tribune hit the streets shortly after 3 p.m., and soon news of the potential lynching spread. By 4 o’clock, the local authorities were on alert. White people began congregating at and near the Tulsa County Courthouse. Many were simply spectators curious about the rumors while others were incensed by the alleged incident at the Drexel building and were seeking answers. Still others were looking to participate in or at least show their support of the lynching of the black youth being accused of an attack against a young white woman.
By sunset at 7:34 p.m., the several hundred whites assembled outside the courthouse appeared to have the makings of a lynch mob. Willard M. McCullough, the newly elected sheriff of Tulsa County, was determined to avoid events such as the 1920 lynching of Roy Belton in Tulsa, which occurred during the term of his predecessor. The sheriff took steps to ensure the safety of Rowland. McCullough organized his deputies into a defensive formation around Rowland, who was terrified. The sheriff positioned six of his men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the courthouse. He disabled the building’s elevator, and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight. The sheriff went outside and tried to talk the crowd into going home, but to no avail.
About 8:20 p.m., three white men entered the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be turned over to them. Although vastly outnumbered by the growing crowd out on the street, Sheriff McCullough was determined to prevent another lynching and turned the men away.
An offer of help
A few blocks away on Greenwood Avenue, members of the black community were gathering to discuss the situation at the courthouse. Given the recent lynching of Roy Belton, a white man, they believed that Rowland was greatly at risk of meeting a similar fate. The community was determined to prevent the lynching of another young black man, but divided about the tactics to be used. Young, militant WWI veterans were preparing for a battle by collecting guns and ammunition. Older, more prosperous men feared a destructive confrontation that likely would cost them dearly. O. W. Gurley walked to the courthouse, wherethe sheriff talked with him and assured that there would be no lynching. Returning to Greenwood, Gurley tried to calm the militants, but failed. About 9 p.m., a group of approximately 25 black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, decided to go to the courthouse and support the sheriff and his deputies to defend Rowland from the mob. Assuring them that Rowland was safe, the sheriff encouraged them to return home.
Taking up arms
Having seen the armed blacks, some of the more than 1,000 whites at the courthouse went home for their own guns. Others headed for the National Guard armory at Sixth Street and Norfolk Avenue, where they planned to get guns and ammunition. The armory contained a supply of small arms arms and ammunition. Major James Bell of the 180th Infantry, had already learned of the mounting situation downtown and to the possibility of a break-in, took appropriate measures to prevent this. He called the commanders of the three National Guard units in Tulsa, who ordered all the Guard members to put on their uniforms and report quickly to the armory. When a group of whites arrived and began pulling at the grating over a window, Bell went outside to confront crowd of 300-400 men. Bell told them that the Guard mmbers inside were armed and prepared to shoot anyone who tried to enter. After this show of force, the crowd withdrew from the armory.
At the courthouse, the crowd had swelled to nearly 2000, many of them now armed. Several local leaders, including judges and clergy, tried to dissuade mob action. The chief of police, John A. Gustafson, later claimed that he tried to talk the crowd into going home.
Anxiety on Greenwood Avenue was rising. The black community was worried about the safety of Rowland. Small groups of armed black men began to venture toward the courthouse in automobiles, partly for reconnaissance, and to demonstrate they were prepared to take necessary action to protect Rowland.
Many white men interpreted these actions as a ‘Negro uprising’ and became concerned. Eyewitnesses reported gunshots, presumably fired into the air, increasing in frequency as the violent hours drew near.
A second offer
In Greenwood, rumors began to fly—in particular, a false report that whites were storming the courthouse. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., a second, larger group of approximately seventy-five armed black men decided to go to the courthouse. They offered their support to the sheriff, who declined their help.
According to witnesses, a white man is alleged to have told one of the armed black men to surrender his pistol. The man refused, and fired a shot. That first shot may have been accidental, or meant as a warning shot; it was a catalyst for an exchange of gunfire.
The gunshots triggered an almost immediate response by the white men, many of whom returned fire on the blacks, who continued firing back at the whites. The first “battle” was said to last a few seconds or so, but took a toll, as several white and black lay dead or dying in the street. The black contingent retreated toward Greenwood. A rolling gunfight occurred.
The armed white mob pursued the black group toward Greenwood, with many stopping to loot local stores for additional weapons and ammunition. Along the way innocent bystanders, many of whom were getting out of a movie theater, were caught off guard by the mob and began fleeing. Panic set in as the mob began firing on any blacks in the crowd. The mob shot and killed at least one white man in the confusion.
At around 11 p.m., members of the local National Guard unit began to assemble at the armory to organize a plan to subdue the rioters. Several groups were deployed downtown to set up guard at the courthouse, police station, and other public facilities. Members of the local chapter of the American Legion joined in on patrols of the streets. The forces appeared to have been deployed to protect the white districts adjacent to Greenwood. This manner of deployment led to the National Guard being set in apparent opposition to the black community. The National Guard began rounding up blacks who had not returned to Greenwood and taking them to the armory for detention.
As news traveled among Greenwood residents in the early morning hours, many began to take up arms in defense of their community, while others began a mass exodus from the city. Throughout the night both sides continued fighting, sometimes only sporadically.
Many prominent Tulsa whites also participated in the riot, including Tulsa founder and KKK member W. Tate Brady who participated in the riot as a night watchman. He reported seeing “five dead negroes,” including one man who was dragged behind a car by a noose around his neck.
Wednesday, June 1, 1921
By 10 P. M., about 1,500 white men, some of whom were armed, gathered at the intersection of Sixth and Boulder, adjacent to the courthouse. Ten minutes later, about seventy-five armed blacks pushed through the crowd, where they confronted Sheriff McCullough and Deputy Sheriff Cleaver. The sheriff assured them that Rowland was safe inside, warned them that his men inside would shoot anyone who tried to enter the building, and to go home before someone got hurt. However, one of the white men tried to disarm one of the black men. During their scuffle, the gun discharged. A gunfight ensured as the black men fled north toward the Greenwood area.
At around midnight, white rioters again assembled outside the courthouse, this time in smaller but more determined numbers. Cries rang out in support of a lynching. They attempted to storm the building, but were turned away and dispersed by the sheriff and his deputies.
Throughout the early morning hours, groups of armed whites and blacks squared off in gunfights. At this point the fighting was concentrated along sections of the Frisco tracks, a dividing line between the black and white commercial districts. At some point, passengers on an incoming train were forced to take cover as they had arrived in the midst of crossfire, with the train taking hits on both sides.
Small groups of whites made brief forays by car into Greenwood, indiscriminately firing into businesses and residences.
At around 1 a.m., the white mob began setting fires, mainly to businesses on commercial Archer Street at the edge of the Greenwood district. As crews from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived to put out fires, the white mob turned them away at gunpoint. By 4 a.m., an estimated two-dozen black-owned businesses had been set ablaze.
Upon the 5 a.m. sunrise, reportedly a train whistle was heard. Many believed this to be a signal for the rioters to launch an all-out assault on Greenwood. Crowds of rioters poured from places of shelter, on foot and by car, into the streets of the black community.
Overwhelmed by the sheer number of white men, more blacks retreated north on Greenwood Avenue to the edge of town. Chaos ensued as terrified residents fled for their lives. The rioters shot indiscriminately, and killed many residents along the way.
Attack by air
Numerous accounts described airplanes carrying white assailants firing rifles and dropping firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. The planes, six biplane two-seater trainers left over from World War I, were dispatched from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field (now defunct) outside of Tulsa. White law enforcement officials later claimed the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect whites against what they described as a “Negro uprising.” But, eyewitness accounts and testimony from the survivors confirmed that on the morning of June 1, the planes dropped incendiary bombs and fired rifles at black residents on the ground.
Several groups of blacks attempted to organize a defense, but they were overwhelmed by the number of armed whites. Many blacks surrendered. Others returned fire, and ultimately lost their lives. As the fires spread northward through Greenwood, countless black families continued to flee. Many were estimated to have died when trapped by the flames.
The other whites
Some whites and Hispanics in neighborhoods adjacent to Greenwood took up arms in support of their black neighbors, but they were outnumbered. As unrest spread to other parts of the city, many middle class white families who employed blacks in their homes as live-in cooks and servants were accosted by white rioters. They demanded that families turn over their employees to be taken to detention centers around the city. Many white families complied, and those who refused were subjected to attacks and vandalism in turn.
State troops arrive
Oklahoma National Guard Adjutant General Charles Barrett with 109 troops arrived from Oklahoma City by special train about 9:15 a.m. He could not legally act until he had contacted all the appropriate local authorities including the mayor, the sheriff and the police chief. Meanwhile his troops paused to eat breakfast. Barrett also summoned reinforcements from several other Oklahoma cities. By this time, most of the surviving black citizens had either fled the city or were in custody at the various detention centers. The troops declared martial law at 11:49 A.M., and by noon had managed to suppress most of the remaining violence.
Official counts put the number of dead at 39: 26 black, 13 white. Maurice Willows, an American Red Cross social worker, reported that up to 300 blacks were killed. Of the some 800 people admitted to local hospitals for injuries, the majority are believed to have been white, as both black hospitals had been burned in the rioting. Additionally, even if the white hospitals would have admitted blacks because of the riot, injured blacks had little means to get to these hospitals, located across the city.
Several blacks were known to have died while in the internment centers. While most of the deaths are thought to have been accurately recorded, no records have been found as to how many detainees were treated for injuries and survived. These numbers could reasonably have been more than a thousand, perhaps several thousand.
A grand jury in Tulsa ruled that Police Chief John Gustafson was responsible for the riot because he neglected his duty and removed him from office. In a subsequent trial, he was found guilty of failing to taker proper precautions for protecting life and property and for conspiring to free automobile thieves and collect rewards. However, the former chief never served time in prison. Instead, he returned to his private detective practice.
Dick Rowland remained safe in the county jail until the next morning, when he was taken out of town in secrecy. All charges were dropped. He never returned to Tulsa.
In 1996, following increased attention to the riot because of the 75th anniversary of the event, the state legislature authorized the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, to study and prepare a “historical account” of the riot. The study “enjoyed strong support from members of both political parties and all political persuasions.” The Commission delivered its report on February 21, 2001.
The report recommended actions for substantial restitution; in order of priority:
1. Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot;
2. Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa race riot;
3. A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa race riot;
4. Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood district; and
5. A memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims of the Tulsa race riot.
The Tulsa Reparations Coalition, sponsored by the Center for Racial Justice, Inc., was formed on April 7, 2001 to obtain restitution for the damages suffered by Tulsa’s Black community, as recommended by the Oklahoma Commission.
In June 2001, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act.” While falling short of the Commission’s recommendations, it provided for the following:
- More than 300 college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents;
- Creation of a memorial to those who died in the riot, which was dedicated on October 27, 2010; and
- Economic development in Greenwood.
The government has made limited attempts to find suspected mass graves used to bury the unknown numbers of black dead. The Commission reported that they were not authorized to do the necessary archaeological work to verify the claims.
Five elderly survivors of the riot, led by a legal team including Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree, filed suit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma (Alexander, et al., v. Oklahoma, et al.) in February 2003, based on the findings of the 2001 report. Ogletree said the state and city should compensate the victims and their families “to honor their admitted obligations as detailed in the commission’s report.” The plaintiffs did not seek reparations as such; rather, they asked for the establishment of educational and health-care resources for current residents of Greenwood. The federal district and appellate courts dismissed the suit, citing the statute of limitations on the 80-year-old case, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. In April 2007, Ogletree appealed to the US Congress to pass a bill extending the statute of limitations for the case.