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Tulsa Race Riot Marks Its Centennial

The 1921 race riot in Tulsa began on Monday, May 30, Memorial Day, when a young black man stepped into an elevator, tripped, and either grabbed a young white girl’s arm to steady himself, or stepped on her foot. She screamed. No one else witnessed what transpired on that elevator.

Someone suspected a possible assault and called the police.

He was 19 years old. His name was Dick Rowland. He shined shoes on Main Street. A number of Tulsa’s lawyers knew Dick, because he shined their shoes, but none believed him capable of assault. He had stepped into the elevator, because he wanted to use the restroom on the top floor. 

She was 17 years old. Her name was Sarah Page. She had a job operating the elevator that day.

Dick and Sarah were teenagers, but he was black, she was white, and this was Oklahoma in 1921. They might have known each other before this day. Only Dick and Sarah knew what occurred on that elevator, and Sarah refused to press charges. 

The next day, Tuesday, May 31, Tulsa police detained Dick Rowland, questioned him, and placed him in a jail cell atop the Tulsa County Courthouse. He sat there, alone, feeling terrified.

That afternoon the Tulsa Tribune published a sensationalized account of the incident that incited Tulsa’s white citizens. “Lynching is feared if the victim is caught,” the newspaper reported. A mob of one, perhaps two, thousand white men gathered around the courthouse by sundown. 

Tulsa’s Chief of Detectives James Patton later said, “If the facts in the story, as told to the police, had only been printed, I do not think there would have been any riot whatsoever.”

Sheriff Willard M. McCullough positioned his deputies around the courthouse, but three white men, members of the mob, dared to enter the courthouse and demand that the Sheriff turn Rowland over to them. The courageous Sheriff stood up to the mob and refused to comply.

A number of blocks away, on Greenwood Avenue, a smaller group of black men met to decide how best to protect Dick. Carrying firearms and ammunition, they marched to the courthouse to confront the white mob. By then, many of the whites had rushed home to get their guns. A shot was fired. 

“Throughout the early morning hours, on Wednesday, June 1, groups of armed White and Black people squared off in gunfights.” Facing an increasing number of white attackers, the blacks fled their homes and raced north on Greenwood Avenue to the town’s very limits, in a mass exodus.

Many called their section of Tulsa, “Little Africa,” or “the Black Metropolis of the Southwest.”

It was then that the white mob moved in to loot and cart off whatever they could grab. Then, they began to set fires in Tulsa’s Greenwood district, torching a series of now empty homes and businesses.

After sunup, the whites ramped up their attack. They headed to the airport to fly planes over the burning town, several square blocks of now incinerated debris. From the air, riflemen shot down the desperate fleeing people, while others dropped “burning turpentine balls,” onto several buildings.

By mid-morning the National Guard had arrived to declare martial law and to restore order, but by then some 35 square blocks of Tulsa had been converted into burned-out rubble. “Black Wall Street,” “at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States,” was gone, destroyed by a mob. 

No one with reasonable certainty can determine the exact numbers injured or killed: at least 39 dead, perhaps as many as 300; and upwards of 800 injured. 

Of the homeless black people, evicted from their homes, “thousands, however, were forced to spend the winter of 1921-22 living in tents.” The whites then claimed for themselves the former black section. 

No jury or judge ever convicted one perpetrator of the devastation and atrocities that the victims had witnessed, felt, and endured. Reparations, yet today, are frequently called for. 

Within a year of the riot, a survivor named Mary E. Jones Parrish published her account, calling it, Events of the Tulsa Disaster. In it she said, “When mob violence first began, it originated in the South, and its victims were Black men and women. Today the hand of King Mob is being felt in all parts of the United States, and he is no respecter of person, race, or color—not even sparing white women.” 

And just as quickly, all of Tulsa’s residents refused to talk about what had happened in their town. Few wanted to know how and why? They preferred to ignore it. They chose silence for decades. 

In recent years, people in Oklahoma are more open about the riot. They have set up commissions, conducted investigations, and identified the murdered and dispossessed. Today it is known as “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” and it happened one hundred years ago this weekend.


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