Tulsa Race Riot Terrorizes Black Neighborhood
On May 31, 1921, a terrifying and shameful incident in American history began: a race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during which a white mob destroyed the Greenwood district, a prosperous African American neighborhood. The death toll from the riot is officially 39—26 blacks, 13 whites—but the real number of deaths will probably never be known. What is known is that during 16 hours of terror, more than 1,200 residences were burned and around 10,000 people left homeless. The white attackers on the ground used firearms while six airplanes circled overhead, dropping incendiary bombs on black homes and shooting down frightened residents when they tried to flee the flames.
The Tulsa Race Riot is a horrifying example of how racial hatred can flare into indiscriminate killing and wholesale destruction. It is also an example of a local newspaper making the news, rather than reporting it. The spark that caused this madness remains shrouded in mystery.
This much is clear: on May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe-shiner, entered an elevator in downtown Tulsa and encountered Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl who operated the elevator. The girl screamed, and a nearby store clerk called the authorities. Rowland ran to his mother’s home in the Greenwood district, where he was arrested the next day.
No one knows what happened in that elevator. The official report on the incident notes that Rowland and Page probably knew each other, at least by sight, since they both worked downtown and Rowland often used the elevator to reach the “colored” bathroom. Some have speculated that Rowland tripped as he entered the elevator and grabbed the girl’s arm, startling her and causing her to scream. Others speculate the two were actually having an affair and had a lover’s quarrel. The possibility remains that Rowland tried to assault the girl, although everyone who knew Rowland, including several white attorneys who frequented the shoe-shine shop, insisted he was not someone who would attempt rape.
Whatever happened, Rowland was arrested on suspicion of assault on May 31 and placed in the Tulsa County Courthouse jail. It was at this point that the local newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, played a prominent role in sparking the race riot. The paper’s afternoon edition hit the streets around 3:00, carrying two articles on the incident in the elevator. The news article was titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” The accompanying editorial was titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
No one knows where the newspaper got its information about the intended lynching, or even if the story was true at all. But whether the paper was reporting the news or creating it, the end result was the same: whites began gathering around the courthouse demanding that Rowland be turned over to them. Local police held them off, but the crowd kept increasing and growing uglier, especially after the sun set. At 9:00 that night a small group of armed blacks appeared, offering to help the police prevent a lynching. Their offer was refused.
One hour later, a larger group of armed blacks again appeared, offering to help defend Rowland. This time shooting broke out, and the riot began and quickly escalated, following the retreating blacks into the Greenwood neighborhood. The shooting became heated, and around 1:30 in the morning the white mob began setting fire to black homes and businesses. Local National Guard troops were called out, but their focus was protecting white neighborhoods, not defending Greenwood. Blacks were rounded up and taken into custody, but not whites. Later that morning six biplane training aircraft from a nearby airfield began circling Greenwood, dropping bombs and shooting—the only time in U.S. history an American city has been bombed from the air.
Oklahoma National Guard troops from Oklahoma City arrived in Tulsa around 9:00 that morning (June 1), martial law was declared, and order was finally restored. No whites were ever indicted for the killing and destruction, and the entire ugly incident has been largely forgotten by the mainstream public. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission was not even created until 1997 to investigate what happened 76 years earlier, and in 2001 the Oklahoma State Legislature approved a bill to provide more than 300 college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents. However, the victims of the race riot and their families were never compensated for their heavy losses that dreadful day.
The following newspaper article about the Tulsa Race Riot was printed by the Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota) on the front page of its June 1, 1921, issue:
75 Killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race War
Negro Belt Turned into No Man’s Land as Whites and Blacks Wage Battle
Martial Law Is Declared—Troops Patrol Streets of the City
Oklahoma City, June 1.—Seventy-five whites and Negroes have been killed in the race riot at Tulsa, according to a telephone message to Governor Robertson here today from the chief of police at Tulsa.
Martial law in Tulsa was ordered by Governor Robertson at 11:15 a.m. today and Adjutant [General] Barrett was placed in command of the city.
Tulsa, Okla., June 1—Nearly ten square blocks of the south side of the Negro section of Tulsa where an armed conflict has been in progress between white men and Negroes since early last night resulting in the reported death of six white men and 50 Negroes, and a rapidly increasing list of wounded, were in flames today. The [fire] was reported spreading.
Machine Guns in Streets
Detachments of Guardsmen were scattered throughout the city prepared to meet all emergencies with machine guns ready for action. Guards surrounded the armory while others assisted in rounding up the Negroes and segregating them in the jail, Convention Hall, the baseball park, and other places which had been turned into prison camps.
State Troops Arrive
State troops under command of Adjutant General C. F. Barrett arrived at 9 a.m. to take charge of the situation, augmenting local units of Guardsmen who were called out last night. At this time there were reports of sporadic shooting and the situation seemed to be easing.
The trouble is reported to have started as the result of the arrest of Dick Rowland, a Negro, alleged to have assaulted an orphaned white girl. The Negro was reported to have been spirited out of the city this morning.
Fire Sweeps Negro Quarter
First attempts to fire the Negro quarter occurred at 1:30 a.m. Firemen who attempted to lay hose on two burning houses used as a garrison by about 50 Negroes, were turned back by the whites.
About 6:40 a.m. fires in Negro shacks along Archer street were started; as the flames spread Negroes with upraised hands and crying “don’t shoot” fled from the blazing houses. They were rounded up and placed in prison camps.
Col. Markham in Command
Adjutant General Barrett took up his headquarters at the City Hall and announced that Col. B. H. Markham of Oklahoma City would be in command of field operations of the Guardsmen.
Throughout the morning, long lines of Negroes streamed westward along the streets leading to Convention Hall. Many wore their night clothing. Their sunken eyes told of a sleepless night and their ashen faces bespoke gripping fear.
Pathetic Scenes Enacted
Men, women and children carried bundles of clothing on their heads and backs. One old woman clung to a Bible; a girl with disheveled hair carried a wooly white dog under her arm and behind trotted a little girl with a big wax doll.
But all those who came to Convention Hall were not non-combatants. Repeatedly grim-faced men, heavily armed, whirled up to the hall directly from the scene of fighting. With them, closely guarded, were Negro prisoners captured with guns during the fray.
People Ordered to Disarm
All persons not deputized as special officers were ordered to disarm in a proclamation issued shortly before noon by Mayor T. D. Evans. Persons carrying guns will be arrested under the mayor’s orders.
Fires continued to rage all the morning in the Negro section, but at 11:30 a.m. it was believed the white residential districts which were imperiled would escape.
[Gun] Fire across Railroad Tracks
Steady gun fire broke out shortly after daylight near the Negro quarter.
The firing came from a spot where throughout the early morning hours 500 white men and a thousand Negroes faced each other across railroad tracks. First reports to the police said the bodies of from six to ten Negroes could be seen lying in a space described as “no man’s land.”
Officials had hoped that with the coming of dawn, the trouble which began over the arrest of a Negro late yesterday for an alleged attack upon a white girl would die out.
Whites Surround Black Belt
As the dawn broke 60 or 70 motor cars filled with armed white men formed a circle completely around the Negro section. Half a dozen airplanes circled overhead. There was much shouting and shooting. A row of houses along the railroad track was fired. A party of white riflemen was reported to be shooting at all Negroes they saw and firing into houses. The Negroes were said to be returning the fire desperately.
Situation Growing Worse
With the situation growing admittedly worse today, efforts were made to have the three local companies of the National Guard cope with the trouble pending arrival of Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett, who was reported en route here aboard a special train bringing additional troops from Oklahoma City.
Under orders issued last night by [Adjutant] General Barrett, Guard companies in several adjacent towns were prepared for possible duty.
Dick Rowland, Negro, charged with assault, was removed from the county jail during the night to a place of safety, it was learned today.
White Woman Killed
On fresh outbreaks at 7:30 a.m. in the Standpipe Hill district in the extreme northern section of the Negro quarter, Mrs. S. A. Gilmore, a white woman, was shot in the left arm and died. Mrs. Gilmore was standing on the front porch of her home when she was picked off by a Negro, one of a score or more barricaded in a church.
Hundreds of armed white men are being rushed to the district in automobiles. An open battle is believed imminent.
Policeman Fires First Shot
After Rowland, the Negro, had been lodged in jail last night, a crowd of about 200 Negroes assembled outside the building. Armed white men soon began gathering. The first shot, so far as known, was fired soon after dark when a policeman killed a Negro who he said resisted efforts to disarm him. The body was left in the street more than three hours. A white man was killed shortly afterward near the courthouse. The crowds meantime were augmented and the authorities then communicated with Governor Robertson and asked for troops.
2,000 Blacks under Guard
At 9 a.m. 2,000 Negroes had gathered at Convention Hall under guard. It was filled, as was the police station. The remainder of those gathered up are being taken to the baseball park, all under armed guards.
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