Ever hear of the “Greenwood Massacre” in Tulsa, Oklahoma?
Probably not. Anyone who is old enough can recall the race riots of the 1960s during the turbulent days of the Civil Rights Movement – but Tulsa? No one remembers Tulsa, yet it is probably the worst incident of racial violence in American history. It took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma,
The attack, carried out on the ground and in the air from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district – at that time the wealthiest black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street”.
More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and more than 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, many for several days. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead, but the American Red Cross declined to provide an estimate. A 2001 state commission examination of events estimated that up to 300 were killed in the rioting.
“Many survivors left Tulsa. Black and white residents who stayed in the city were silent for decades about the terror, violence, and losses of this event. The riot was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories: “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place.”
In 1921 Oklahoma had a racially, socially and politically tense atmosphere. The First World War had ended in 1918 with the return of many ex-servicemen. The American Civil War was still in living memory, even though it had ended in 1865. Civil rights for disenfranchised peoples were lacking and the Ku Klux Klan was resurgent. Tulsa, as a booming oil city, supported a large number of affluent, educated and professional African Americans. This combination of factors played a part in the rising tensions which were to culminate in the coming events.
The territory of Northern Oklahoma had been established for resettlement of Native Americans from the Southeast. Other areas had received many settlers from the South whose families had been slaveholders before the Civil War. Oklahoma was admitted as a state on November 16, 1907. The newly created state legislature passed racial segregation laws as its first order of business. The 1907 Oklahoma Constitution did not call for strict segregation; delegates feared that, should they include such restrictions, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt would veto the document. Still, the very first law passed by the new legislature segregated all rail travel, and voter registration rules effectively disenfranchised most blacks. That meant they were also barred from serving on juries or in local office. These laws were enforced until after passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the early 20th century, lynchings were common in Oklahoma as part of a continuing effort to assert and maintain white supremacy. Between the declaration of statehood and the riot thirteen years later, at least 31 persons were lynched in Oklahoma; 26 were black.
Greenwood was a district in Tulsa organized in 1906 following Booker T. Washington’s 1905 tour of Arkansas, Indian Territory and Oklahoma. Greenwood became so prosperous that it came to be known as “the Negro Wall Street.” Blacks had created their own businesses and services in this enclave, including several grocers, two newspapers, two movie theaters, nightclubs, and numerous churches. Black professionals, including doctors, dentists, lawyers, and clergy, served their peers. Most blacks, numbering about 10,000 lived together in the district, selected their own leaders and raised capital there to support economic growth. In the surrounding areas of northeastern Oklahoma, blacks also enjoyed relative prosperity and participated in the oil boom.
It would all come to an end over an encounter in an elevator.
This community of ex-slaves and children of slaves had done everything right. They lived the immigrant saga though they were not here by choice. They worked hard. Studied. Became doctors, lawyers, businessmen serving their own community. They saved and kept their money in the community. Bought real estate; invested in the booming oil fields. They were living the dream. But there was seething resentment among whites that there were black doctors, lawyers and businessmen.
About 4 PM, on Memorial Day 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner employed at a Main Street shine parlor, entered the only elevator of a nearby building to use the top-floor restroom, which was restricted to black people. He encountered Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator on duty. The two knew each other at least by sight, as this building was the only one nearby with a restroom which black people had express permission to use, and the elevator operated by Page was the only one in the building. A clerk at at a nearby clothing store on the first floor heard what sounded like a woman’s scream and saw a young black man rushing from the building. The clerk went to the elevator and found Page in what he said was a distraught state. Thinking she had been “assaulted”, he summoned the authorities.
Whether – and to what extent – Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have at least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly ridden in Page’s elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers – a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility. Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 31, 1921 – although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most – but not all – stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day.
The word “rape” was rarely used in newspapers or academia in the early 20th century. Instead, “assault” was used to describe such an attack. Although the police questioned Page, no written account of her statement has been found. It is generally accepted that the police determined what happened between the two teenagers was something less than an assault. The authorities conducted a low-key investigation rather than launching a man-hunt for her alleged assailant. Page told the police that she would not press any charges.
Regardless of whether assault had occurred, Rowland had reason to be fearful. At the time, such an accusation alone put him at risk for attack by angry mobs of white people. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Rowland fled to his mother’s house in the Greenwood neighborhood.
Knowing he was in danger, two police detectives, one white and one black, (there were two black police officers on the Tulsa force) took the young man into protective custody and, after receiving telephone death threats at the staion, moved him to a more secure facility in the jail on the top floor of he Court House.
The Tulsa Tribune, one of two white-owned “sensationalist” papers published in Tulsa, broke the story in that afternoon’s edition with the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator”, describing the alleged incident. The same edition of the Tribune included an editorial announcing and warning of a potential lynching of Rowland, entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight“.
Soon hundreds of whites gathered outside while 6 armed deputies guarded the entrance to the building. Three whites entered demanding that Dick Rowland be turned over to them. Though vastly outnumbered, the Sheriff turned the men away. About 9:30 PM, a group of approximately 50–60 black men, ex-soldiers in the war, armed with rifles and shotguns, arrived at the jail to support the sheriff and his deputies in defending Rowland from the mob.
These men had served America in the Great War and were not going to tolerate lynching quietly.
Having seen the armed blacks, some of the more than 1,000 whites who had been at the courthouse went home for their own guns, interpreting these events as a “Negro uprising.” Eyewitnesses reported gunshots, presumably fired into the air, increasing in frequency during the evening.
Meanwhile, some 75 more armed black men showed up to offer further protection to Dick Rowland. Whites demanded one black man lay down his pistol and when he refused he was shot dead. The gun fire then began in earnest.
The first “battle” was said to last a few seconds or so, but took a toll, as ten whites and two blacks lay dead or dying in the street. The black contingent retreated toward Greenwood. A rolling gunfight ensued. The armed white mob pursued the armed black mob toward Greenwood, with many stopping to loot local stores. Along the way, bystanders, many of whom were leaving a movie theater after a show, were caught off guard by the mobs and fled. Panic set in as the white mob began firing on any black people in the crowd.
Throughout the early morning hours of June 1st, groups of armed whites and blacks squared off in gunfights. At around 1 AM, the white mob began setting fires, mainly in businesses on commercial Archer Street at the southern edge of the Greenwood District. As crews from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived to put out fires, they were turned away at gunpoint.They were fired upon by the white mob, “It would mean a fireman’s life to turn a stream of water on one of those negro buildings.”
Crowds of rioters poured on foot and by car, into the streets of the black neighborhood. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of white attackers, the blacks retreated north on Greenwood Avenue to the edge of town. Chaos ensued as terrified residents fled. The rioters shot indiscriminately and killed many residents along the way. Splitting into small groups, they began breaking into houses and buildings, looting.
Soon airplanes appeared overhead carrying white assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. The privately owned aircraft were dispatched from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field outside Tulsa. On the morning of June 1, at least “a dozen or more” planes circled the neighborhood and dropped “burning turpentine balls” on an office building, a hotel, a filling station, and multiple other buildings. Men also fired rifles at young and old black residents, gunning them down in the street.
Some 5,000 blacks were taken into custody by the Oklahoma National Guard
Relative calm wasn’t restored until the arrival of the Oklahoma National Guard that afternoon.
The commercial section of Greenwood was utterly destroyed. Losses included 191 businesses, a junior high school, several churches, and the only hospital in the district. The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses were burned and another 215 were looted but not burned.
Some 10,000 people, mostly black, were made homeless by the destruction.
The Red Cross estimated some 300 killed and several thousand wounded by gun fire or burned.
Dick Rowland was totally exonerated and immediately left Tulsa for Kansas City. He was never heard from again. No one even knows when he died.
Just another piece of hidden American history.