The 1921 Tulsa Race Riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is believed to be one of the most violent racial events in American history. Over the course of several days, Greenwood, a prosperous Black community in Tulsa known as “Black Wall Street,” was burned to the ground by white vigilantes. Black and White people were killed during the riots.
The Greenwood community rose to prominence because of Black entrepreneurship. O.W. Gurley bought 40 acres of land in 1908. He separated them into plots, vowing to sell them to “negroes only.” By 1921, the community had blossomed with well-educated and successful Black families. Greenwood had a school, library, stores, hotels, a bowling alley, two newspapers, and even a newly minted Baptist church. There were Black doctors, dentists, lawyers. Elegant homes dotted the landscape. Many residents felt proud to call “Black Wall Street” or “Little Africa” their home.
But a set of events one Spring day would prove fatal or this prosperous Black community. Everything on Black Wall Street would soon be destroyed.
On Monday, May 30, 1921, a White woman named Sarah Page accused Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shine man, of raping her in an elevator in the Drexel building. Both of them had business to attend to that day. Page worked as an elevator operator, and Rowland came to deliver some shined shoes. Stories about what transpired differ. Some suggested the two had a lover’s spat, and others say Rowland fell into her. Sarah screamed, and when White men arrived, she accused Rowland of rape.
Police officers quickly arrested Rowland. The Tulsa Tribune ran the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” Their framing all but convicted Rowland in the public arena. Many Greenwood residents feared White Tulsans would lynch him. After all, one year prior, a Tulsa mob lynched a Black man, Claude Chandler.
An angry White mob gathered around the courthouse, threatening violence. Some 25 Black men thwarted their plans when they joined the crowd, armed and ready to protect Rowland. They…