Tulsa race riot

Tulsa race riot

Infobox civilian attack
title = Tulsa Race Riot

caption = Buildings burning during the Tulsa race riot of 1921
location = Racially segregated "Black Wall Street" of Tulsa, Oklahoma
date = May 31-June 1, 1921
time =
timezone =
type =
fatalities = 39 officially, although unofficial sources believe that there were as many as 300 (or up to three thousand) African American residents
injuries =
perps = Marauding white citizenry abetted by local militia of the Third Infantry Regiment of Oklahoma
weapons = Guns, incinerations, mayhem

The Tulsa race riot, also known as the 1921 race riot, The night that Tulsa died, the Tulsa Race War, or the Greenwood riot, was a massacre during a large-scale civil disorder confined mainly to the racially segregated Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA on May 31, 1921. During the 16 hours of rioting, over 800 people were admitted to local hospitals with injuries, an estimated 10,000 were left homeless, 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire, and $1.8 million (nearly $21 million in 2007 dollars) in property damage."'Officially, thirty-nine people were reported killed in the riot, of whom ten were white. The actual number of black citizens killed by white local militiamen and volunteers as a result of the riot was estimated in the Red Cross report [Maurice Willows, “Disaster Relief Report, Race Riot, June 1921,” p. 6, reprinted in Robert N. Hower, "“Angels of Mercy”: The American Red Cross and the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot," Tulsa, Homestead Press, (1993). Cited, [http://www.okhistory.org/trrc/freport.htm "Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921," Oklahoma Historical Society, on line, p. 23.] ] [Scott Ellsworth, "Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921," Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press (1982), p. 70.] at around 300; making the Tulsa race riot the worst in US history. Other estimates range as high as 3,000, based on the number of grave diggers and other circumstances, although the archaeological and forensic work needed to confirm the number of dead has not been performed. [ [http://www.okhistory.org/trrc/freport.htm "Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921," Oklahoma Historical Society, on line, pp. 109-132.] ]


The Tulsa race riot occurred in the racially and politically tense atmosphere of northeastern Oklahoma, some of which was a growing hotbed of anti-black sentiment at that time. The Ku Klux Klan made its first major appearance in Oklahoma on August 12, 1921. [Charles C. Alexander, Ku Klux Klan in the Southwest (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965).]

As in several other states and territories during the early years of the twentieth century, lynchings were not uncommon in Oklahoma. Between the declaration of statehood on November 16, 1907, and the Tulsa race riot some thirteen years later, thirty-two individuals — twenty-six of whom were black — were lynched in Oklahoma. During the twenty years following the riot, the number of lynchings statewide fell to two. [Mary Elizabeth Estes, “An Historical Survey of Lynchings in Oklahoma and Texas”, M.A. thesis, University ofOklahoma, (1942).]

The Greenwood section of Tulsa was home to a commercial district so prosperous it was known as "the Negro Wall Street" (now commonly referred to as "the "Black" Wall Street"). Ironically, the economic enclaves here and elsewhere — bounded and supported by racial discrimination — supported prosperity and capital formation within the community. In the surrounding areas of northeastern Oklahoma, blacks also enjoyed relative prosperity and participated in the oil boom. [ [http://www.americanheritage.com/places/articles/web/2006-currie-ballard-film-1920s-tulsa-riot-muskogee-national-baptist-convention.shtml "A Find of a Lifetime"] . Silent film of African-American towns in Oklahoma. 1920's. Rev. S. S. Jones for the National Baptist Convention. "American Heritage magazine." Retrieved September 16, 2006.] ]

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 elevator at the rear of the nearby Drexel Building at 319 South Main Street en route to the 'colored' washroom on the top floor.

Upon entering the elevator, he encountered Sarah Page, the seventeen-year old elevator operator who was on duty at the time. It has never been determined with any certainty whether the two young people were acquainted, but it seems reasonable that they knew each other at least by sight, as this building was the only one nearby with a washroom that Rowland had express permission to use, and that the elevator operated by Page was the only one in the building.

In the most generally accepted account, Rowland tripped upon entering the elevator and, in an effort to prevent himself from falling, grabbed the arm of Page, who subsequently let out a startled gasp or scream. In a lesser accepted account, it has been suggested that the two had a quarrel, and it was believed that the young lady was assaulted.

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 observed a young black man hurriedly leaving the building. Upon rushing to the elevator, the clerk found Miss Page in what he perceived to be a distraught state. The clerk reached the conclusion that the young woman had been assaulted and subsequently summoned the authorities.

A brief investigation

Although the police almost certainly questioned Sarah Page, no written account of her statement has ever surfaced. It may never be known what she told the Renberg's clerk, the police, or anyone else. But 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. This is supported by the fact that the authorities conducted a rather low-key investigation rather than launching an all out man-hunt for her alleged assailant.

Whether or not an actual assault had occurred, Dick Rowland had reason to be fearful. Such an accusation, rightful or not, in those days was enough to incite certain segments of the white public to forgo due process and take such matters into their own hands. Upon realizing the gravity of the situation, Rowland fled to his mother's house in the Greenwood neighborhood.

Tuesday, May 31, 1921

uspect arrested

The morning after the incident, Dick Rowland was located on Greenwood Avenue and detained by Detective Henry Carmichael and Henry C. Pack, a black patrolman, one of only a handful on the city's approximately seventy-eight man police force. After booking, Rowland was taken to the jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse for questioning.

Word quickly spread in Tulsa's legal circles. Many attorneys were familiar with Rowland, being patrons of the shine shop where he was employed, and several of them were heard defending him in personal conversations with one another.Fact|date=September 2007

Breaking news

By late morning, news of the event had apparently reached the "Tulsa Tribune". The newspaper broke the story in that afternoon's edition with the headline: 'Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator', describing the alleged incident with the details that could be assembled on such short notice. It was, however, another article in the same paper that is credited with providing the misinformation which sparked the chain of events that ensued later that evening.

The second article, apparently an editorial, titled 'To Lynch Negro Tonight', spoke of whites assembling to lynch the teenage Rowland. It is, of course, impossible to know where the "Tribune" obtained information regarding the impending assembly of a lynch mob, but it is common knowledge that this paper was known at the time to have a rather 'sensationalist' style of news writing. It cannot be determined who the source of this information was, or even if there was any such source at all. Several years later, researchers discovered that the editorial in question was mysteriously missing, having been apparently deliberately removed from the "Tribune"'s archives, as well as the 'Oklahoma Edition' of the "Tribune" in the state archives. No known copies of this editorial exist today, although several independent citizens, who were confirmably there at the time, corroborate the publication of such an article.

tand-off at the courthouse

The afternoon edition of the "Tribune" hit the streets shortly after 3 p.m., and soon news of the impending and, by most accounts, fictitious lynching soon 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. 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 such a brazen act against a young white woman.

It can never be known with any certainty if a lynching had actually been called for before the newspaper report was published that afternoon. But what is known is that by sunset at 7:34 p.m., the several hundred whites assembled outside the courthouse appeared to have the makings of a lynch mob. At the very least, they had the appearance of such a mob.

Willard M. McCullough, the newly appointed sheriff of Tulsa County, was determined that there would be no repeat during his time in office of events like the 1920 lynching of Roy Belton. [ [http://www.thenation.com/doc/20010820/1921tulsa/2 Walter F. White, "The Eruption of Tulsa", "The Nation," June 29, 1921.] ] The sheriff quickly took steps to ensure the safety of Dick Rowland. McCullough organized his deputies into a defensive formation around Rowland, who was by now terrified. He also positioned six of his men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the courthouse. He also 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 also went outside and tried to talk the crowd into going home, but to no avail.

At approximately 8:20 p.m., three white men entered the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be turned over. Deputies were able to turn the men away. Although vastly outnumbered by the growing crowd out on the street, McCullough was determined to prevent another lynching.

An offer of help

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, on Greenwood Avenue, confused members of the black community were gathering to discuss the situation that had been building at the courthouse. With the recent lynching of Roy Belton, a Jewish youth, they assumed that the group assembled at the courthouse was willing to do the same to Dick Rowland.

Many argued for a more cautious approach, but were apparently overruled when, at about 9 p.m., a group of approximately 25 black men left the gathering. Armed with rifles and shotguns, they decided to march to the courthouse and support the sheriff and his deputies in defending Rowland from the angry community. The sheriff, assuring them that Rowland was safe, implored them to return to Greenwood.

Taking up arms

The arrival and subsequent departure of the armed black men did not sit well with the whites gathered outside the courthouse, now numbering 1000 or more, many of whom immediately traveled home to retrieve guns of their own. Others headed for the National Guard armory where they planned to gain access to guns and ammunition. The National Guard, having been alerted to the mounting situation downtown and to the planned break-in, took appropriate measures to prevent this. By a show of force, a crowd of three to four hundred was successfully turned away from the armory.

Back at the courthouse, the crowd had swelled to nearly 2000, many of them now armed. Several local leaders, including judges and clergy, tried in vain to dissuade them. The chief of police, John A. Gustafson, later claimed that he attempted to talk the crowd into dispersing.

Meanwhile, as the situation at the courthouse continued to escalate, anxiety on Greenwood Avenue was reaching frenzied levels. The confidence of the black community members in the security of Dick Rowland was diminishing quickly. Small groups of armed black men began to venture toward the courthouse in automobiles, partly for reconnaissance, but with their weapons visible, they were also demonstrating that they were prepared to take necessary action to protect Dick Rowland.

Many white community members 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

On 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. Again, they offered their support to the sheriff to help protect Dick Rowland, and again their offer was declined.

This time, however, as the group of black men left the courthouse, one of them, a uniformed World War I veteran carrying his standard issue service revolver, was accosted by a member of the white mob. A short scuffle ensued and ended with the gun being discharged.Fact|date=December 2007

The riot

The gunshot triggered an almost immediate response by the white men, many of whom returned fire on the black contingent, who exchanged fire. The black men hurriedly retreated toward Greenwood, but not before several men, both black and white, lay dead or dying in the street.

The now considerably 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 letting out of a movie theater, were caught off guard by the riotous mob and began fleeing also. Panic set in as mobsters began firing on unassuming blacks in the crowd. At least one white man was apparently mistakenly shot and killed 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. It soon became apparent, however, that the deployment of forces was being organized to protect the white districts adjacent to Greenwood. This manner of deployment led to them being set in apparent opposition to the black community. They began rounding up blacks who had not managed to make it back across the tracks to friendly territory and taking them to the armory for detainment.

As news traveled among Greenwood residents in these 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, and began anticipating what would happen at sunrise.

Wednesday, June 1, 1921

Renewed efforts

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 key 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 the Greenwood district, indiscriminately firing into businesses and residences.

Fires begin

At around 1 a.m., a small faction of 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, they were turned away at gunpoint. By 4 a.m., an estimated two-dozen black-owned businesses had been set ablaze.

In the pre-dawn hours the white crowd, now estimated to number over five thousand, had mostly assembled into three groups on the outskirts of Greenwood. One small band of rioters broke free from the group, heading in a car toward the heart of the Greenwood district. Their bodies would later be found, along with their bullet-ridden car near Archer and Franklin Streets.


Upon the 5 a.m. sunrise, a reported 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 citizens, many blacks began a hasty retreat, north on Greenwood Avenue, toward the edge of town. Chaos ensued as terrified residents fled for their lives. Rioters were shooting indiscriminately, killing many of them 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 Curtis Field (now defunct) outside of Tulsa.Madigan, Tim. "The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921," New York: St Martin's Press (2001) at pp. 4, 131-132, 144, 159, 164, 249. ISBN 0-312-27283-9 White law enforcement officials later claimed the sole purpose of the planes was to provide reconnaissance and protect whites against what they described as a "Negro uprising." However, 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 Tulsans on the ground.

Even one white newspaper in Tulsa reported that airplanes circled over Greenwood during the riot. That account, however, had the planes working in conjunction with the police department to survey the riot. Fact|date=July 2008

Several groups of blacks attempted to organize a defense, but were ultimately overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of whites and weapons. Many blacks, conceding defeat, surrendered. Still others returned fire, ultimately losing their lives.

As the fires spread northward through Greenwood, countless black families continued to flee. Many died when trapped by the flames.

The other whites

Not all white Tulsans shared the views of the rioters. It is claimed that a few whites and Hispanics in neighborhoods adjacent to Greenwood took up arms in support of their black neighbors, but they too were grossly outnumbered.

As unrest spread to other parts of the city, many middle class white families that employed blacks in their homes as cooks and servants were accosted by angry white rioters demanding that they turn over their employees to be taken to detention centers around the city. Many white families complied, but those who refused were subjected to attacks and vandalism.

tate troops arrive

Oklahoma National Guard troops finally arrived from Oklahoma City by train shortly after 9 a.m. By this time, most of the surviving black citizens had either fled the city or were in custody at the various detention centers. Although they had arrived too late to stop what had happened during the previous 10 hours, by noon, and after declaring martial law, the troops had managed to put an end to most of the remaining violence.



Although official counts put the number of dead at 39; 26 black, 13 white, it is generally accepted that this number is substantially higher, especially among black victims. Estimates range from seventy-five to over three hundred. Based on the evidence available, the actual number of black citizens believed to be killed during the riot may be around 300. Many of the dead, who may never be accurately identified, are believed to have been buried in unmarked and sometimes mass graves. The forensic and archaeological work needed to verify the numbers has not been authorized.

Of the some 800 people admitted to local hospitals for injuries, a vast majority are believed to have been white, as both black hospitals had been burned in the rioting. Additionally, even if any of the white hospitals operating at the time would have admitted blacks under these special circumstances, injured blacks had little means to get to these hospitals. Several among the black dead were known to have died while in the internment centers. While most of these deaths are thought to be accurately recorded, there are no records to be found as to how many detainees were treated for injuries and survived. These numbers could very reasonably be over a thousand, perhaps several thousand.



In 1997, following increased attention to the riot brought on by the seventy-fifth anniversary of the event, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was created to study and develop an "historical account" of the riot. The study "enjoyed strong support from members of both parties and all political persuasions." [ [http://www.lsb.state.ok.us/house/news347.htm Changes Planned for Resolution Authorizing Study of 1921 Riot] , Oklahoma House of Representatives Press Release, March 13, 1996] The Commission delivered its report on February 21, 2001. [ [http://www.okhistory.org/trrc/freport.htm Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921] ] The report included recommendations for substantial restitution; in order of priority:

#Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot
#Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa race riot
#A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa race riot
#Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood District
#A memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims of the Tulsa race riot"' [ [http://www.ok-history.mus.ok.us/trrc/freport.pdf The Final Report of the Commission, p. 21] ]
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 300+ college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents, mandated the creation of a memorial to those who died in the riot, and called for new efforts to promote economic development in Greenwood. [ [ Peter Schmidt, "Oklahoma Scholarships Seek to Make Amends for 1921 Riot," "The Chronicle of Higher Education," July 13, 2001, A22.] ]

There have been 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." [ [http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0318,brune,43725,1.html Adrian Brune, "A Long Wait for Justice"] , "Village Voice", April 30 - May 6, 2003] 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 [ [http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7152688/site/newsweek/ Daren Briscoe, "A Day of Reckoning", "Newsweek" (March 10, 2005). On line.] ] However, the federal district and appellate courts dismissed the suit citing the statute of limitations on the 80-year-old case, [ [http://www.kscourts.org/ca10/cases/2004/09/04-5042.htm 04-5042 - Alexander v. State of Oklahoma - 09/08/2004 ] ] and the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. In April 2007, Ogletree appealed to the U.S. Congress to pass a bill extending the statute of limitations for the case. [ [http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?articleID=070425_1_A1_World21100 Jim Myers, "Race riot bill gets House hearing"] , "Tulsa World", 4/25/2007]


Further reading

*"1921 Tulsa Race Riot: The American Red Cross-Angels" of Mercy by Rob Hower, Maurice Willows
*"Anatomy of Four Race Riots: Racial Conflict in Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa, and Chicago, 1919-1921" by Lee E. Williams
*"The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921" by Tim Madigan
*"Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921" by Scott Ellsworth
*cite news |last=White |first=Walter F. |title=The Eruption of Tulsa |work=Tulsa, 1921
publisher=The Nation |date=2001-08-23 |accessdate=2006-07-15

*"Fire in Beulah" (fiction) by Rilla Askew
*"If We Must Die: A Novel of Tulsa's 1921 Greenwood Riot" (fiction) by Pat M. Carr
*"Race riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa disaster" by Mary E. Jones Parrish
*"Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Race Reparations, and Reconciliation" by Alfred L. Brophy, Randall Kennedy
*"Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy" by James S. Hirsch
*"Tulsa Race War of 1921" by Donald Halliburton
*" [http://www.cnn.com/US/9908/03/tulsa.riots.probe/ Tulsa panel seeks truth from 1921 race riot] " CNN, August 3, 1999


* [http://www.americanheritage.com/places/articles/web/2006-currie-ballard-film-1920s-tulsa-riot-muskogee-national-baptist-convention.shtml "A Find of a Lifetime"] . Silent film of African-American towns in Oklahoma. 1920's. Rev. S. S. Jones for the National Baptist Convention. American Heritage magazine. Retrieved September 16, 2006.

External links

* [http://www.subliminal.org/tulsa/ The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921]
* [http://www.lib.utulsa.edu/Speccoll/collections/RaceRiot/index.htm Finding aid for the University of Tulsa McFarlin Library's Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 archive housed in their special collections department] with links to inventory, related materials, and photographs.
* [http://www.osu-tulsa.okstate.edu/library/Sp_Coll.htm Index page for the Special Collections & Archives, Oklahoma State University - Tulsa] with links to the "Ruth Sigler Avery Tulsa Race Riot Archive".
* [http://www.tulsareparations.org/TRR.htm Online version of "Tulsa Race Riot - A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921"] at [http://www.tulsareparations.org Tulsa Reparations Coalition website]
* [http://www.tulsahistory.org/learn/riot.htm Tulsa Historical Society] which houses a large collection of Tulsa Race Riot materials.
* [http://www.ok-history.mus.ok.us/trrc/freport.htm Oklahoma Historical Society] Over 170 pages about the riots, with photographs.
* [http://www.tulsalibrary.org/aarc/riot/riot.htm Tulsa City County Library system's African-American Resource Center's page on the Riot.]

ee also

* Rosewood, Florida
* 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
* Nat Turner
* Reparations for slavery
* Mass racial violence in the United States

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