The Tulsa Riot of 1921
“At the beginning of May 1921, 8,000 people lived in Greenwood, the black section of Tulsa, which was situated just north of the center of the ‘magic city,’ as Tulsa called itself. Greenwood residents frequently worked in white Tulsa, across the railroad tracks, but they returned home at night. ‘Little Africa,’ as Greenwood was called, was a largely self-sufficient community, with a school, a hospital, hotels, grocery, drug, and clothing stores, two newspapers, and two movie theaters.”
— Alfred L. Brophy, Reconstructing the Dreamland
“In Oklahoma among thousands of people it is not considered a crime for a mob to kill a negro. In recent years there have been many lynchings in Oklahoma. There has yet to be chronicled the instance where any individual has paid a legal penalty for participating in murder as part of a mob.”
— “Let us Return to a Reign of Law,” Harlow’s Weekly, June, 1921
* * *
On the morning of May 30, 1921, a black, 19-year-old shoeshiner named Dick Rowland went into the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, probably to use the colored restroom on the top floor. The elevator operator on duty was a white woman, 17-year-old Sarah Page. No one really knows what happened between them, but the commonly accepted story is that Rowland tripped and stumbled into Page, who screamed. A clerk in Renburg’s clothing store heard the scream, saw Rowland running away, and called police.
Rowland was arrested early the next day. That afternoon, the Tulsa Tribune ran an inflammatory front-page story, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” that claimed Rowland had scratched Page’s hands and face and torn her clothes—details that the paper’s managing editor later acknowledged were false. As the news spread, there was talk of lynching, and a mob of angry white people began to gather outside the city courthouse where Rowland was being held.
Rumors of the impending lynching also reached the black neighborhood of Greenwood. In deciding how to respond, Tulsa’s black community was influenced by two previous incidents. Nine months earlier, an accused murderer named Roy Belton had been taken from his jail cell by armed vigilantes and hanged. Belton was a white man, but Tulsa police not only failed to protect him, there were stories of cops directing traffic at the scene of his lynching. The other incident, which took place in March, 1919, involved three African-American men also accused of murder; on that occasion, black citizens with guns had gone down to the jail to offer their own protection, and no lynching occurred.The courthouse jail was on the building’s top floor, which was accessible only by elevator and a single stairwell. As night fell, Sheriff William McCullough had the elevator disabled and ordered his deputies to shoot anyone who tried to come up the stairs. Then he went down to face the white mob, which now numbered in the hundreds. He told them there would be no lynching and tried, unsuccessfully, to get them to disperse.
While McCullough dealt with the whites, his black deputy, Barney Cleaver, went to intercept the groups of African-American men coming down from the Greenwood neighborhood. Cleaver managed to convince the first few parties to turn back, but more continued to arrive. Matters reached a head shortly after 10 p.m., when a final group of about seventy-five armed black men approached the steps of the courthouse. A white man in the crowd tried to take a pistol from one of the blacks, and “all hell broke loose.”
The blacks, who were vastly outnumbered, staged a fighting retreat to Greenwood. A battleline was drawn along the railroad tracks that separated Greenwood from downtown. Greenwood’s defenders set up sniping positions in buildings overlooking the tracks, and while whites managed to set fire to some of the buildings, the defensive line held. The two sides continued to exchange gunfire until about two in the morning, at which point it seemed as if the worst might be over.
It wasn’t. Frustrated in their desire to lynch Dick Rowland, the whites now spent the rest of the night planning an all-out assault on the Greenwood neighborhood.
At dawn on the morning of June 1, 1921, a whistle sounded near the Frisco freight depot. Thousands of armed whites broke cover and came charging across the railroad tracks, while a machine gun opened fire from atop a nearby grain elevator. This time, Greenwood’s defenders were overwhelmed. As the residents fled for their lives, small planes began buzzing the neighborhood, shooting at people on the ground and, according to some reports, dropping explosives and “flaming turpentine balls.”
For the next several hours, the invaders advanced through the neighborhood, looting, setting fires, and killing indiscriminately. The Tulsa police and local national guard units made no attempt to stop them, focusing instead on disarming and arresting those Greenwood residents who had not yet been murdered. The fire department, warned away from Greenwood at gunpoint, concentrated on keeping the flames from spreading to the adjacent white neighborhoods.
In a morning full of horrors, there were a few acts of grace and bravery. A white couple, Merrill and Ruth Phelps, turned their home into a sanctuary for blacks fleeing the violence. The Zarrow family, whose Greenwood grocery was spared because they were white, hid people in their store. Maria Morales Gutierrez took in two small black children who’d become separated from their parents; when armed whites tried to get her to surrender the children, she refused, and somehow got the gunmen to back off.
The riot finally ended around noon, when state troops sent from Oklahoma City declared martial law. For the next several days, Greenwood’s surviving residents were held in internment camps set up around the city, supposedly for their own protection. Upon their release, many found they had nothing to go back to. The fire had destroyed over twelve hundred homes, and the Greenwood business district was in ruins.
Property damage exceeded one and a half million dollars—the equivalent of $20 million today—with many insurance claims denied because the policies did not cover riots. The exact death toll is unknown, but a reasonable estimate is that somewhere between 150 and 300 people were killed, most of them black. None of the white rioters were ever prosecuted for murder or arson; a grand jury empaneled to investigate the riot blamed the black community for inciting the violence.
Dick Rowland survived. Released from custody and cleared of all charges, he left town.
While the black community struggled to rebuild, white Tulsa set about pretending the riot had never happened. For the next several decades, the anniversary of the riot would pass unremarked in the white press; when the archives of the Tulsa Tribune were transferred to microfilm, the “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” story was omitted from the record. State history books did not mention the riot, and it was not taught in schools. This culture of silence did not begin to break until the 1970s.
In 1997, the Oklahoma state legislature established a commission to study the riot, identify any survivors who were still alive, and make recommendations about possible restitution. The commission’s 2001 report is available online, here, and it’s a good starting place for readers who want to know more. Note that while the report does recommend paying reparations to survivors and their families, the legislature ultimately voted against doing so.
Although the Tulsa Riot is sometimes referred to as the worst race riot in America’s history, it was not unique. The “Red Summer” of 1919 saw dozens of race riots across the United States. In November, 1920, Klansmen drove out the entire black population of Ocoee, Florida, killing as many as 50 or 60, after an African-American named Mose Norman insisted on his right to vote. In 1923, following another accusation of assault against a white woman, the black town of Rosewood, Florida was burned to the ground by white vigilantes. In addition to those incidents large enough to merit encyclopedia entries, it is likely that many other, smaller riots went unrecorded, because when the smoke cleared, there was no one left who could—or would—tell the story.