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 wanted him to receive a fair trial, something rare for Black men in 1920s America.
According to witnesses, a White man tried to disarm one of the Black men, who happened to be a veteran. The Black man refused to relinquish his weapon. A shot rang out. Chaos ensued. For two days, rioters destroyed Black Wall Street and the surrounding Greenwood community. They bombed businesses and lit fires to homes. People lost their lives.
As the Centennial approaches, here are five things you should know about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.
1. Tulsa Race Riot or Tulsa Race Massacre?
Officials originally called this incident a race riot. Tulsa’s Historical Society and Museum now refer to the 1921 attack on Greenwood as the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The term “race riot” implies that both Black and White people played an equal role. Yet, White rioters burned Black-owned homes and businesses to the ground. They dropped bombs out of airplanes. The once beautiful town of Greenwood became a war zone. White people chased Black people and terrorized them. This wasn’t a fight between willing warriors; it was a one-sided attack. Oxford’s dictionary defines a massacre as “the killing of a large number of people especially in a cruel way.”
Mabel E. Little, in her unpublished biography, wrote that “airplanes dropped incendiary bombs to enhance the burning of Mount Zion Baptist Church and business buildings.” A reporter for the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch wrote that “Airplanes were seemingly everywhere.” (1921TulsaRaceRiotCommission, 2001, p.64)
2. Police deputized 500 White men and boys
The police failed to act as neutral arbiters of justice. They fanned the flames, providing white rioters with guns and ammo. There were no dog whistles that day, just plain old racist pillaging.
As many as five hundred white men and boys were sworn-in by police officials as “special deputies.” — The 1921TulsaRaceRiotCommission
These White men and boys, many of who did not know what sparked the incident, used their new authority to torment Greenwood residents. Some used a machine gun to kill dozens of Black people indiscriminately. The juxtaposition of joy and pain could not be more transparent.
To say the police failed Greenwood would be an understatement. They cosigned the massacre of Black people by arming White rioters. Tulsan officers sided with chaos, cruelty, and lawlessness instead of peace.
According to Laurel G. Buck, a white bricklayer who was sworn in as one of these “Special Deputies,” a police officer bluntly told him to “Get a gun and get a nigger.” — The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission
3. White rioters destroyed 35 city blocks
What happened in Tulsa was not a mistake or a momentary error of judgment, as evidenced by the magnitude of the damage. White rioters destroyed 35-square blocks of the Greenwood community. O.W. Gurley’s dream and the dreams of so many Black families died that day. According to the Red Cross’s report, Black Wall Street was systematically destroyed by rioters over the course of 18 hours.
Black children hid under their beds, with a lucky few surviving the ordeal. Despite their parents' best efforts, Black children died that day. White rioters shot Black folks as they ran away, trying to escape burning homes and businesses. The Race Riot Commission published a report in 2001. The report found that between 100 and 300 people died in the massacre, with 8000 people becoming homeless. The exact amount of deaths is unknown because officials rushed to bury those who were killed during the riot. The damage to property and the harm to residents seem almost immeasurable.
4. Black survivors placed in concentration centers
White people rounded up Black survivors, preventing many of them from fleeing. Private citizens led them at gunpoint into concentration centers. According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, the Oklahoma National Guard held 6,000 Black survivors at the fairgrounds and Convention Hall.
“Units of the Oklahoma National Guard participated in the mass arrests of all or nearly all of Greenwood’s residents.”-The 1921Tulsa Race Riot Commission
They did not know, at that point, whether they would live or die, whether or not the worst was behind them. With the newspapers ruined and no homes to return to, Black Greenwood residents became refugees. Officials at these concentration centers issued them refugee cards. They could not leave the premises without a White person vouching for them.
The American Red Cross came to the aid of Greenwood’s Black survivors before any officials made a request. However, it wasn’t easy to assist them while the violence unfolded. According to the Red Cross Report:
While “Little Africa” was still burning, while ambulances whisked to the hospital, while “dead” wagons were carrying off the victims, while refugees were being driven under guard to places of refuge; and the fiendish looting, robbing, and pillaging were still in progress, different scenes were being enacted “uptown.”
In the immediate aftermath, volunteers fed refugees at Red Cross Kitchens. They conducted surveys to assess the needs of Black survivors. The Red Cross provided first aid treatment, transported survivors to nearby private hospitals, and set up temporary shelters. The organization helped to solidify the formation of the Colored Hospital Association, which provided permanent healthcare infrastructure for Black residents.
5. They got away with all their crimes
“Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level, municipal, country, state, or federal.”- The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission
None of the victims or their families received atonement for the crimes committed. Murders, theft, destruction of property, and other unspeakable crimes got swept under the rug. In the end, Black people received most of the blame. The Exchange Bureau Bulletin called “niggers with money” one of the causes.
One of the reasons why this story is hard to tell or hear is because there is no happy ending here. The state of Oklahoma did not help restore the Greenwood community. This responsibility fell on the victims. White residents faced no legal consequences, and many showed no remorse.
“For a while,” noted former Tulsa oilman Osborne Campbell, “picture postcards of the victims in awful poses were sold on the streets, while more than one white ex-rioter boasted about how many notches he had on his gun.” — The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission
Ironically, Sarah Page dropped charges against Dick Rowland, who survived the ordeal. A false accusation unearthed White Tulsans’ hatred towards a prosperous Black community ending tragically.
The fight for justice in this matter continues to live on. Lessie Benningfield Randle, now 105, was only a child when the massacre happened. Today, she is the leading plaintiff in the Tulsa Massacre Lawsuit. Along with other survivors’ descendants, Randle is petitioning the court for restorative justice.
Oklahoma passed a law in 2020 requiring high school teachers to teach students about Tulsa’s darkest day. In the past, it was optional, and some pushed back on teaching about the state’s violent, racist past. Nevertheless, making subjects like science and history optional would only further dangerous misunderstandings.
America has a responsibility to protect its citizens and make amends for past wrongs. In this case, White rioters got away with destroying an entire community, a shining beacon of hope for Black people. This has nothing to do with politics, as some critics would have you think. The Tulsa Race Massacre demonstrates how fragile human rights have always been for Black people in America. Let our understanding of the past pave the way for a more equitable future.
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