May 31st – June 1st: Anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots

The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 had their anniversary this past weekend.

How many of us remember this event?

Take a second and think about the specifics you might remember about this amazing and particularly vicious event.  It has largely been white-washed, pun intended, from our collective memory.

I don’t recall being taught about the Tulsa Riots in high school or college or law school, but the event was truly horrific and of a scale that demands, at a minimum, a permanent place in history.  The major media was nearly silent on the anniversary of this incident, as it is understandably more important to talk about Justin Bieber.

The Digital Library at Oklahoma State University houses the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encylopedia.  It has an excellent, and chilling, account of what happened as well as many contemporaneously taken photos.  I have summarized below from this Encyclopedia and appreciate their keeping the details of this event alive.  I also came across a very good article in a blog worth reading, Lawyersgunsandmoney.

In 1921, Tulsa Oklahoma was a town of about 100,000 people and had a vibrant african american community.  Most of the city’s ten thousand African-American residents lived in the “Greenwood District” (depicted below), [known as the Black Wall Street] a vibrant neighborhood that was home to two newspapers, several churches, a library branch, and scores of black-owned businesses.

The Greenwood District, and its financial success, was the product itself of segregation.  Above it is pictured in the ruins of the race war.

Segregation, ironically, gave rise to a nationally renowned black entrepreneurial center. As families arrived and homes sprang up in the Greenwood District, the need for retail and service businesses, schools, and entertainment became pronounced. A class of African-American entrepreneurs rose to the occasion, creating a vibrant, vital, self-contained economy that would become “Black Wall Street”, the talk of the nation.

Black Wall Street, more commonly known simply as Greenwood Avenue, had it all: nightclubs, hotels, cafes, newspapers, clothiers, movie theaters, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, grocery stores, beauty salons, shoeshine shops, and more. So developed and refined was Greenwood Avenue, the heart of the Greenwood District, that many compared it favorably to legendary thoroughfares such as Beale Street in Memphis and State Street in Chicago. (taken from Greenwood District)

The success of the black businesses in the Greenwood District undoubtedly played a part in its being burned and destroyed.

We have the report of an official with the NAACP, Walter White, from 1921, post riot, to give us a review of the economic strength of this particular black community in Tulsa just before the race riots.  Walter White  traveled to Tulsa, in disguise, to survey the damage caused by the 1921 race riot. His report is well worth reading and can be found here.

White’s report states

[T]he Negro in Oklahoma has shared in the sudden prosperity that has come to many of his white brothers, and there are some colored men there who are wealthy. This fact has caused a bitter resentment on the part of the lower order of whites, who feel that these colored men, members of an “inferior race,” are exceedingly presumptuous in achieving greater economic prosperity than they who are members of a divinely ordered superior race. There are at least three colored persons in Oklahoma who are worth a million dollars each; J. W. Thompson of Clearview is worth $500,000; there are a number of men and women worth $100,000; and many whose possessions are valued at $25,000 and $50,000 each. This was particularly true of Tulsa, where there were two colored men worth $150,000 each; two worth $100,000; three $50,000; and four who were assessed at $25,000.

There was resentment of black success in Oklahoma, and racial tension filled the city.

And then…the spark…

Walter White’s NAACP report states

…a white girl by the name of Sarah Page, operating an elevator in the Drexel Building, stated that Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old colored boy, had attempted criminally to assault her. Her second story was that the boy had seized her arm as he entered the elevator. She screamed. He ran. It was found afterwards that the boy had stepped by accident on her foot. It seems never to have occurred to the citizens of Tulsa that any sane person attempting criminally to assault a woman would have picked any place in the world rather than an open elevator in a public building with scores of people within calling distance.

The young man, Dick Rowland, a shoeshiner, was arrested and put in jail…the same jail that had been broken into 8 months earlier by a lynch mob, who carried out the lynching of a suspected murderer.  The black community was justifiably concerned that yet another lynching would occur.

Knowing their government would not protect the young black defendant, a group of black veterans went down to the jail and volunteered their services to protect the jail from any mob activity.  Their offers of help were rejected.

A group of whites then tried to break into the armory (jail)  where Dick Rowland was being held.  A handful of local guardsmen were able to turn the mob away.

Then, about 75 black World War I veterans came down to the jail to protect the young defendant.  The group was confronted by an angry mob of whites that had formed outside the jail.  One of the veterans was attacked by a white man trying to disarm him.  A shot was fired by someone, and the riot blossomed.

The Oklahoma Historical Society has written “Tulsa police officers deputized former members of the lynch mob and, according to an eyewitness, instructed them to ‘get a gun and get a nigger.’ Local units of the National Guard were mobilized, but they spent most of the night protecting a white neighborhood from a feared, but nonexistent, black counterattack.”

Blacks were the targets of random violence across the city.  A lone black man was even killed inside a movie theatre.  Drive-by shootings were erupting across Tulsa.

At dawn, the day after the storming of the jail, the white assault on Black Wall Street began.

Thousands of whites poured into the Greenwood District setting fire to businesses.  A prominent black surgeon was seized, surrendered, and was shot in the street like a dog.

Many black homes were burnt to the ground resulting in black residents’ spending the winter in tents as they rebuilt “their city”.

During eighteen hours on May 31 and June 1, 1921, more than one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed.   Credible estimates place the number of riot deaths up to 300, although it is difficult to count the black dead.

By the time the violence ended, the city had been placed under martial law, thousands of Tulsans were being held under armed guard, and the state’s second-largest African-American community had been burned to the ground.

We need to remember the Tulsa Riots and keep this destruction and these racist murders firmly in our collective memory.

6 thoughts on “May 31st – June 1st: Anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots

  1. Henry Jekyll

    Informative article as always. Time and time again we see that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
    Here’s something you might enjoy reading-
    I’ve not always been a fan of Scalia’s textualist approach to Constitutional interpretation but his argument is compelling. With all the 5-4 decisions that have been handed down recently, it seems like SCOTUS is divided along partisan lines. I guess even Scalia must realize that personal liberty and privacy are not a partisan issues.

    1. Glenn Dukes at Post author

      Thanks for the kind words. As you know, we need a little encouragement now and then to keep at it all.

      I loved Scalia’s coming to our defense! All are welcome…even Darth Scalia…if they can start tearing down this straight-up police state that is forming/has formed right in front of our eyes.

      I think we may have reached a tipping point of sorts. This wave of liberty-crunching scandals has the world’s attention, and we may even see the sleeping giant, our congress, come to the people’s aid.

      Is this insanely optimistic?

      1. Henry Jekyll

        Insane optimism is often what underlies positive social justice change. As far as Congress, I think the hegemony exercised by Dems and Repubs isn’t sufficiently threatened by a legitimate 3rd party option to cause deviation from “business as usual.” The options presented as choice have time and time again shown to be nothing but preservation of the status quo.

  2. Tanya Kiesha Thompson

    I think it’s beautiful that you dedicate so much of yourself to black issues even though you aren’t black (from what I can tell by your picture, anyway, although I try not to assume). As a black woman, I love coming across people like you- people who care deeply for others.

  3. Glenn Dukes at Post author

    To Henry Jekyll,

    I could not leave a reply under your comment for some reason, and so, I hope you find it here.

    I would love to see a more parliamentary system of government. You are dead-on about the “options” we have been presented. Remember the last foreign policy debate between Obama and that ridiculous stuffed shirt…I think Romney was his name?

    There were NO DIFFERENCES DEBATED, lol. If you were an anti-war voter for example, you had no real choice.

    Third parties, at this point in our country, only detract from the strength of democrats or republicans that are most philosophically similiar to the third party. Buchanon lost the election for the Republicans. Nader definitely cost Gore enough votes to let Bush in the white house for 8 years.

    On the other hand…if we don’t start pushing a 3rd or 4th party…when will it ever happen? It won’t happen unless we start moving that way. Tough situation…I will probably support a credible leftist candidate should one appear.

    I am secretly hoping that Noam Chomsky destroys the death star, resurrects Howard Zinn, and ushers in a new millenia of Power to the People!


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