The Tulsa race riot was a large-scale, racially motivated pogrom on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in which a group of whites attacked the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Greenwood District, the wealthiest black community in the United States, was burned to the ground. Over the course of 16 hours, more than 800 people were admitted to local white hospitals with injuries, the two black hospitals were burned down, and police arrested and detained more than 6,000 black Greenwood residents at three local facilities. An estimated 10,000 blacks were left homeless, and 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire, resulting in over $26 million in damages. The official count of the dead by the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics was 36, but other estimates of black fatalities vary from 55 to about 300.
The events of the massacre were long omitted from local and state 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. With the number of survivors declining, in 1996, the state legislature commissioned a report to establish the historical record of the events, and acknowledge the victims and damages to the black community. Released in 2001, the report included the commission’s recommendations for some compensatory actions, most of which were not implemented by the state and city governments. The state passed legislation to establish some scholarships for descendants of survivors, economic development of Greenwood, and a memorial park to the victims in Tulsa. The latter was dedicated in 2010.
Post-World War I northeastern Oklahoma had a racially and politically tense atmosphere. The territory, which was declared a state on November 16, 1907, had received many settlers from the South who had been slaveholders before the American Civil War. In the early 20th century, lynchings were common in Oklahoma, as part of a continuing effort by whites to assert and maintain white supremacy. Between the declaration of statehood and the Tulsa race riot 13 years later, 31 persons were lynched in Oklahoma; 26 were black and nearly all were men and boys. During the twenty years following the riot, the number of lynchings statewide fell to two.
The newly created state legislature passed racial segregation laws, commonly known as Jim Crow laws, as one of its first orders of business. Its 1907 constitution and laws had voter registration rules that disfranchised most blacks; this also barred them from serving on juries or in local office, a situation that lasted until the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, part of civil rights legislation passed by the U.S. Congress. Major cities passed their own restrictions.
On August 16, 1916, Tulsa passed an ordinance that mandated residential segregation by forbidding blacks or whites from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were of the other race. Although the United States Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional the next year, it remained on the books.
As cities absorbed returning veterans into the labor market following World War I, social tension and anti-black sentiment increased. At the same time, black veterans pushed to have their civil rights enforced, believing they had earned full citizenship by military service. In what became known as the “Red Summer” of 1919, industrial cities across the Midwest and North experienced severe race riots, often led by ethnic whites among recent immigrant groups, who competed mostly with blacks for jobs. In Chicago and some other cities, blacks defended themselves for the first time with force but were outnumbered.
Northeastern Oklahoma was in an economic slump that increased unemployment. Since 1915, the Ku Klux Klan had been growing in urban chapters across the country, particularly since veterans had been returning from the war. Its first significant appearance in Oklahoma occurred on August 12, 1921, less than three months after the Tulsa riot.By the end of 1921, Tulsa had 3,200 residents in the Klan by one estimate. The city’s population was 72,000 in 1920.
The traditionally black district of Greenwood in Tulsa had a commercial district so prosperous that it was known as “the Negro Wall Street” (now commonly referred to as “the Black Wall Street”), a label given by none other than noted African-American educator and author Booker T. Washington. Blacks had created their own businesses and services in this enclave, including several groceries, two independent newspapers, two movie theaters, nightclubs, and numerous churches. Black professionals—doctors, dentists, lawyers, and clergy—served the community. Because of residential segregation in the city, most classes of blacks lived together in Greenwood. They 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.
Monday, May 30, 1921 – Memorial Day
Encounter in the elevator
Sometime around or after 4 pm, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner employed at a Main Street shine parlor, entered the only elevator of the nearby Drexel Building, at 319 South Main Street, to use the top-floor restroom, which was restricted to blacks. He encountered Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator who was on duty. The two likely knew each other at least by sight, as this building was the only one nearby with a washroom that Rowland had express permission to use, and the elevator operated by Page was the only one in the building. A clerk at Renberg’s, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel, 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.
The 2000 official commission report notes that it was unusual for both Rowland and Page to be working downtown on Memorial Day, when most stores and businesses were closed. It suggests that Rowland had a simple accident, such as tripping and steadying himself against the girl, or perhaps they were lovers and had a quarrel.
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 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 30, 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…
What happened next is anyone’s guess. After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. It also has been suggested that Rowland and Page had a lovers’ quarrel. However, it simply is unclear what happened. Yet, in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape.
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 likely questioned Page, no written account of her statement has surfaced. It is generally accepted that they determined what happened between the two teenagers was something less than an assault. The authorities conducted a rather low-key investigation rather than launching a man-hunt for her alleged assailant. Afterward, Page told the police that she would not press charges.
Regardless of whether assault had occurred, Rowland had reason to be fearful, as at the time, such an accusation alone put him at risk for attack. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Rowland fled to his mother’s house in the Greenwood neighborhood.
Tuesday, May 31, 1921
On the morning after the incident, Detective Henry Carmichael and Henry C. Pack, a black patrolman, located Rowland on Greenwood Avenue and detained him. Pack was one of two black officers on the city’s approximately 45-man police force. Rowland was initially taken to the Tulsa city jail at First and Main. Late that day, Police Commissioner J. M. Adkison said he had received an anonymous telephone call threatening Rowland’s life. He ordered Rowland transferred to the more secure jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse.
Word quickly spread in Tulsa’s legal circles. As patrons of the shine shop where Rowland worked, many attorneys knew him. Witnesses recounted hearing several attorneys defending him in personal conversations with one another. One of the men said, “Why, I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That’s not in him.”
The Tulsa Tribune, one of two white-owned 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. According to some witnesses, the same edition of the Tribune included an editorial warning of a potential lynching of Rowland, and entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” The paper was known at the time to have a “sensationalist” style of news writing. All original copies of that issue of the paper have apparently been destroyed, and the relevant page is missing from the microfilm copy, so the exact content of the column (and whether it existed at all) remains in dispute.
Stand-off at the courthouse
The afternoon edition of the Tribune hit the streets shortly after 3 p.m., and soon news of the potential lynching spread. By 4 pm, the local authorities were on alert. White people began congregating at and near the Tulsa County Courthouse. By sunset at 7:34 pm, the several hundred whites assembled outside the courthouse appeared to have the makings of a lynch mob. Willard M. McCullough, the newly elected sheriff of Tulsa County, was determined to avoid events such as the 1920 lynching of Roy Belton in Tulsa, which occurred during the term of his predecessor. The sheriff took steps to ensure the safety of Rowland. McCullough organized his deputies into a defensive formation around Rowland, who was terrified. The sheriff positioned six of his men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the courthouse. He disabled the building’s elevator, and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight. The sheriff went outside and tried to talk the crowd into going home, but to no avail. According to an account by Ellsworth, the sheriff was “hooted down”.
About 8:20 pm, three white men entered the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be turned over to them. Although vastly outnumbered by the growing crowd out on the street, Sheriff McCullough turned the men away.
Offer of help
A few blocks away on Greenwood Avenue, members of the black community were gathering to discuss the situation at the courthouse. Given the recent lynching of Roy Belton, a white man accused of murder, they believed that Rowland was greatly at risk. The community was determined to prevent the lynching of the young black man, but divided about the tactics to be used. Young World War I veterans were preparing for a battle by collecting guns and ammunition. Older, more prosperous men feared a destructive confrontation that likely would cost them dearly. O. W. Gurley walked to the courthouse, where the sheriff assured him that there would be no lynching. Returning to Greenwood, Gurley tried to calm the group, but failed. About 7:30 pm, a mob of approximately 30 black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, decided to go to the courthouse and support the sheriff and his deputies to defend Rowland from the mob. Assuring them that Rowland was safe, the sheriff and his black deputy, Barney Cleaver, encouraged the men to return home.
Taking up arms
Having seen the armed blacks, some of the more than 1,000 whites at the courthouse went home for their own guns. Others headed for the National Guardarmory at Sixth Street and Norfolk Avenue, where they planned to arm up. The armory contained a supply of small arms and ammunition. Major James Bell of the 180th Infantry had already learned of the mounting situation downtown and the possibility of a break-in, and he took appropriate measures to prevent this. He called the commanders of the three National Guard units in Tulsa, who ordered all the Guard members to put on their uniforms and report quickly to the armory. When a group of whites arrived and began pulling at the grating over a window, Bell went outside to confront the crowd of 300–400 men. Bell told them that the Guard members inside were armed and prepared to shoot anyone who tried to enter. After this show of force, the crowd withdrew from the armory.
At the courthouse, the crowd had swollen to nearly 2,000, many of them now armed. Several local leaders, including Reverend Charles W. Kerr, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, tried to dissuade mob action. The chief of police, John A. Gustafson, later claimed that he tried to talk the crowd into going home.
Anxiety on Greenwood Avenue was rising. The black community was worried about the safety of Rowland. Small groups of armed black men began to venture toward the courthouse in automobiles, partly for reconnaissance, and to demonstrate they were prepared to take necessary action to protect Rowland.
Many white men interpreted these actions as a “Negro uprising” and became concerned. Eyewitnesses reported gunshots, presumably fired into the air, increasing in frequency during the evening.
In Greenwood, rumors began to fly – in particular, a report that whites were storming the courthouse. Shortly after 10 pm, a second, larger mob of approximately seventy-five armed black men decided to go to the courthouse. They offered their support to the sheriff, who declined their help. According to witnesses, a white man is alleged to have told one of the armed black men to surrender his pistol. The man refused, and a shot was fired. That first shot may have been accidental, or meant as a warning shot; it was a catalyst for an exchange of gunfire.
The gunshots triggered an almost immediate response by the white men, many of whom fired on the blacks, who continued firing back at the whites. 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 black group toward Greenwood, with many stopping to loot local stores for additional weapons and ammunition. Along the way innocent bystanders, many of whom were leaving a movie theater after a show, were caught off guard by the mob and began fleeing. Panic set in as the white mob began firing on any blacks in the crowd. The mob also shot and killed at least one white man in the confusion.
At around 11 pm, members of the Oklahoma National Guard unit began to assemble at the armory to organize a plan to subdue the rioters. Several groups were deployed downtown to set up guard at the courthouse, police station, and other public facilities. Members of the local chapter of the American Legion joined in on patrols of the streets. The forces appeared to have been deployed to protect the white districts adjacent to Greenwood. This manner of deployment led to the National Guard being set in apparent opposition to the black community. The National Guard began rounding up blacks who had not returned to Greenwood and taking them to the Convention Hall on Brady Street for detention.
Many prominent Tulsa whites also participated in the riot, including Tulsa founder and KKK member W. Tate Brady who participated in the riot as a night watchman. He reported seeing “five dead negroes,” including one man who was dragged behind a car by a noose around his neck.
At around midnight, white rioters again assembled outside the courthouse. It was a smaller group but more organized and determined. They shouted in support of a lynching. When they attempted to storm the building, the sheriff and his deputies turned them away and dispersed them.
Wednesday, June 1, 1921
Throughout the early morning hours, groups of armed whites and blacks squared off in gunfights. At this point the fighting was concentrated along sections of the Frisco tracks, a dividing line between the black and white commercial districts. A rumor circulated that more blacks were coming by train from Muskogee to help with an invasion of Tulsa. At one point, passengers on an incoming train were forced to take cover on the floor of the train cars, as they had arrived in the midst of crossfire, with the train taking hits on both sides.
Small groups of whites made brief forays by car into Greenwood, indiscriminately firing into businesses and residences. They often received return fire. Meanwhile, white rioters threw lighted oil rags into several buildings along Archer Street, igniting them.
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. By 4 am, an estimated two-dozen black-owned businesses had been set ablaze.
As news traveled among Greenwood residents in the early morning hours, many began to take up arms in defense of their community, while others began a mass exodus from the city. Throughout the night both sides continued fighting, sometimes only sporadically.
Upon the 5 a.m. sunrise, reportedly a train whistle was heard (Hirsch said it was a siren). Many believed this to be a signal for the rioters to launch an all-out assault on Greenwood. A white man stepped out from behind the Frisco depot and received a fatal bullet from a sniper in Greenwood. Crowds of rioters poured from places of shelter, on foot and by car, into the streets of the black community. Five white men in a car led the charge, but were killed by a fusillade of gunfire before they had gone a block.
Overwhelmed by the sheer number of whites, more blacks retreated north on Greenwood Avenue to the edge of town. Chaos ensued as terrified residents fled for their lives. The rioters shot indiscriminately and killed many residents along the way. Splitting into small groups, they began breaking into houses and buildings, looting. Several blacks later testified that whites broke into occupied homes and ordered the residents out to the street, where they could be driven or forced to walk to detention centers.
A rumor spread among the whites that the new Mount Zion Baptist Church was being used as a fortress and armory. Supposedly twenty caskets full of rifles had been delivered to the church, though no evidence was ever found.
Attack by air
Numerous eyewitnesses described airplanes carrying white assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. The planes, six biplane two-seater trainers left over from World War I, were dispatched from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field outside Tulsa. Law enforcement officials later stated that the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect against a “Negro uprising”. Eyewitness accounts and testimony from the survivors maintained that on the morning of June 1, the planes dropped incendiary bombs and fired rifles at black residents on the ground.
Several groups of blacks attempted to organize a defense, but they were overwhelmed by the number of armed whites. Many blacks surrendered.Others returned fire and were killed. As the fires spread northward through Greenwood, black families continued to flee. Many are believed to have died when trapped by the flames.
As unrest spread to other parts of the city, many middle class white families who employed blacks in their homes as live-in cooks and servants were accosted by white rioters. They demanded that families turn over their employees to be taken to detention centers around the city. Many white families complied, and those who refused were subjected to attacks and vandalism in turn.
Arrival of state troops
Adjutant General Charles Barrett of the Oklahoma National Guard arrived with 109 troops from Oklahoma City by special train about 9:15 am. He could not legally act until he had contacted all the appropriate local authorities, including the mayor T. D. Evans, the sheriff and the police chief. Meanwhile, his troops paused to eat breakfast. Barrett summoned reinforcements from several other Oklahoma cities. By this time, most of the surviving black citizens had either fled the city or were in custody at the various detention centers. The troops declared martial law at 11:49 am, and by noon had managed to suppress most of the remaining violence. A 1921 letter from an Officer of the Service Company, Third Infantry, Oklahoma National Guard arriving May 31, 1921, reported taking about 30-40 African Americans into custody; putting a machine gun on a truck and putting it on patrol; being fired on from Negro snipers from the “Church” and returning fire; being fired on by white men; turning the prisoners over to deputies to take them to police headquarters; being fired upon again by negroes and having two NCOs slightly wounded; searching for negroes and firearms; detailing a NCO to take 170 Negroes to the civil authorities; and then delivering an additional 150 Negroes to the Convention Hall.
The reported number of dead varies widely. On June 1, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune reported that 9 whites and 68 blacks had died in the riot, but shortly afterward changed this to a total of 176 dead. On the next day, the same paper reported the count as 9 whites and 21 blacks. The New York Times said that 77 people had been killed, including 68 blacks, but then lowered the total to 33. The Richmond Times Dispatch reported that 85 people (including 25 whites) were killed; it also reported that the Police Chief had reported to the Governor Robertson that the total was 75; and that a Police Major put the figure as 175.The Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics count put the number of dead at 36 (26 black and 10 white), with other estimates in Red Cross documents running as high as 300. Walter Francis White of the N.A.A.C.P. reported that although officials and undertakers reported the numbers of fatalities as ten white and 21 colored, he estimated that the numbers to be 50 whites and between 150 and 200 Negroes; he also reported that ten white men were killed on Tuesday; six white men drove into the black section and never came out and that thirteen whites were killed on Wednesday; he reported that the head of the Salvation Army in Tulsa stated that thirty-seven negroes were employed as gravediggers to bury 120 negroes in individual graves without coffins on Friday and Saturday. The “Los Angeles Express” had a headline that said “175 Killed, Many Wounded.” Maurice Willows, an American Red Cross social worker, reported that up to 300 blacks were killed. He also reported that there was a rush to bury the bodies and that no records were made of many burials.
Of the some 800 people admitted to local hospitals for injuries, the majority are believed to have been white, as both black hospitals had been burned in the rioting. Additionally, even if the white hospitals had admitted blacks because of the riot, against their usual segregation policy, injured blacks had little means to get to these hospitals, which were located across the city from Greenwood. More than 6,000 black Greenwood residents were arrested and detained at three local facilities: Convention Hall, now known as the Brady Theater, the Fairgrounds (then located about a mile northeast of Greenwood), and McNulty Park (a baseball stadium at Tenth Street and Elgin Avenue).
Several blacks were known to have died while in the internment centers. While most of the deaths are said to have been accurately recorded, no records have been found as to how many detainees were treated for injuries and survived. These numbers could reasonably have been more than a thousand, perhaps several thousand.
The commercial section of Greenwood was destroyed. This 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. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated property losses amounted to $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property ($30 million in 2016). Local citizens had filed more than $1.8 million in riot-related claims against the city by June 6, 1922.
A grand jury in Tulsa ruled that Police Chief John Gustafson was responsible for the riot because he neglected his duty, and removed him from office. In a subsequent trial, he was found guilty of failing to take proper precautions for protecting life and property, and for conspiring to free automobile thieves and collect rewards. But the former chief never served time in prison; instead, he returned to his private detective practice. No legal records indicate that any other white official was ever charged of wrongdoing or even negligence.
Dick Rowland remained safe in the county jail until the next morning, when the police transported him out of town in secrecy. All charges were dropped. He never returned to Tulsa.
No charges were filed against individual white rioters. Other lawsuits against insurance companies for losses were unsuccessful as well.
Attempt to prevent reconstruction of Greenwood
The division between white and black residents of Tulsa was so deep that the end of the riot did not begin to bring reconciliation. The widespread destruction of Greenwood was not sufficient for those whites who wanted to separate even further from blacks. A week after the riot, W. Tate Brady was appointed to the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange (“The Exchange”). The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce had created the group to estimate the value of property damaged or destroyed in Greenwood. The Exchange also contrived a scheme to relocate black Tulsans farther north and east of the original Greenwood.
In cooperation with the City Commission, the Exchange prepared new building codes for the original Greenwood that would make rebuilding prohibitively expensive for the original owners. The land could then be redeveloped as a commercial and industrial district – no longer residential. The plan was never implemented because the Oklahoma Supreme Court overruled the proposed ordinances as unconstitutional. B. C. Franklin, the lead attorney of the black community who challenged the ordinance, was the father of John Hope Franklin, who became a notable historian.