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.