The 1921 Race Riot was one of the most significant events in Tulsa’s history. Following World War I, Tulsa was recognized nationally for its affluent African American community known as the Greenwood District. This thriving business district and surrounding residential area was referred to as “Black Wall Street.” In June 1921, a series of events nearly destroyed the entire Greenwood area.
May 31 – June 1, 1921
On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a woman named Sarah Page. The details of what followed vary from person to person. Accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.
Race Riot Commission
In 2001, an official Race Riot Commission was organized to review the details of the event. No one will ever know the absolute truth of what happened during the hours of the Race Riot.
However, by examining historical resources, members of the Race Riot Commission determined a number of details to be undeniable. “These are not myths, not rumors, not speculations, not questioned. They are the historical record.”
Historical Facts as Determined by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission:
- Black Tulsans had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland would be lynched after his arrest. His charges were later dismissed and highly suspect from the start.
- They had cause to believe that his personal safety, like the defense of themselves and their community, depended on them alone.
- As hostile groups gathered and their confrontation worsened, municipal and county authorities failed to take actions to calm or contain the situation.
- At the eruption of violence, civil officials selected many men, all of them white and some of them participants in that violence, and made those men their agents as deputies.
- In that capacity, deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts that were themselves illegal.
- Public officials provided fire arms and ammunition to individuals, again all of them white. Units of the Oklahoma National Guard participated in the mass arrests of all or nearly all of Greenwood’s residents. They removed them to other parts of the city, and detained them in holding centers.
- Entering the Greenwood district, people stole, damaged, or destroyed personal property left behind in homes and businesses.
- People, some of them agents of government, also deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed homes credibly estimated to have numbered 1,256, along with virtually every other structure — including churches, schools, businesses, even a hospital and library — in the Greenwood district.
- Despite duties to preserve order and to protect property, no government at any level offered adequate resistance, if any at all, to what amounted to the destruction of the Greenwood neighborhood
- Although the exact total can never be determined, credible evidence makes it probable that many people, likely numbering between 100-300, were killed during the riot.
- Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level: municipal, county, state, or federal.
- Even after the restoration of order it was official policy to release a black detainee only upon the application of a white person, and then only if that white person agreed to accept responsibility for that detainee’s subsequent behavior.
- As private citizens, many whites in Tulsa and neighboring communities did extend invaluable assistance to the riot’s victims, and the relief efforts of the American Red Cross in particular provided a model of human behavior at its best.
- Although city and county government bore much of the cost for Red Cross relief, neither contributed substantially to Greenwood’s rebuilding, in fact, municipal authorities acted initially to impede rebuilding.
- Despite being numerically at a disadvantage, black Tulsans fought valiantly to protect their homes, their businesses, and their community. But in the end, the city’s African-American population was simply outnumbered by the white invaders
- In the end, the restoration of Greenwood after its systematic destruction was left to the victims of that destruction.
- While Tulsa officials turned away some offers of outside aid, a number of individual white Tulsans provided assistance to the city’s now virtually homeless black population. But it was the American Red Cross, which remained in Tulsa for months following the riot, that provided the most sustained relief effort. Maurice Willows, the compassionate director of the Red Cross relief, kept a history of the event
What’s in a Name? Riot vs. Massacre
In recent years there has been ongoing discussion about what to call the event that happened in 1921. Historically, it has been called the Tulsa Race Riot. Some say it was given that name at the time for insurance purposes. Designating it a riot prevented insurance companies from having to pay benefits to the people of Greenwood whose homes and businesses were destroyed. It also was common at the time for any large-scale clash between different racial or ethnic groups to be categorized a race riot.
What do YOU think?
Definition of RIOT: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with common intent.
Definition of MASSACRE: the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty.
The entirety of the museum’s photograph collection pertaining to the Tulsa Race Riot has been digitized and can be found HERE.
Audio recordings from survivors and contemporaries (Available for listening through Soundcloud)
1921 Red Cross Disaster Relief Report (PDF)
Tulsa Race Riot Court Cases (PDFs for 18 cases)
Virtual Exhibit through iPad
Every single item in the Tulsa Historical Society’s collection related to the Tulsa Race Riot has been digitized and organized within this Virtual Exhibit. Materials include photographs, documents, and oral history interviews.
Museum visitors can browse through this virtual exhibit at an iPad kiosk (included in museum admission).
Greenwood and Tulsa Race Riot Traveling Exhibit
Available for community display, request the exhibit and learn more HERE.
Resources for further research:
Greenwood Cultural Center: http://www.greenwoodculturalcenter.com/
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by I. Marc Carlson: http://tulsaraceriot.wordpress.com/
A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: http://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf
Tulsa Race Riot Archive at OSU-Tulsa: http://libguides.osu-tulsa.okstate.edu/content.php?pid=472496&sid=3867515
Death in a Promised Land:The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
by Dr. Scott Ellsworth
Foreword by John Hope Franklin
©1982 by Louisiana State University Press
Reconstructing the Dreamland
by Alfred L. Brophy
Oxford University Press 2002
Riot and Remembrance
by James S. Hirsch
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2002
Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District
by Hannibal B. Johnson
Eakin Press 1998
Up From the Ashes: A Story About Building Community
by Hannibal B. Johnson
Eakin Press 2000
Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District
by Hannibal B. Johnson
Arcadia Publishing 2014
Greenwood, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa, was the type of community that African Americans are still, today, attempting to reclaim and rebuild. Black Wall Street was modern, majestic, sophisticated and unapologetically Black. Tragically, it was also the site of one of the bloodiest and most horrendous race riots (and acts of terrorism) that the United States has ever experienced.
Today marks ninety-two years since as many as 300 African Americans lost their lives and more than 9,000 were left homeless when the small town was attacked, looted and literally burned to the ground beginning in 1921. It’s impossible, however, to realize what was lost in Greenwood, which was affectionately known as “Black Wall Street.”
The Greenwood community seems almost imagined when we examine it through a historical lens. The oil booms of the early 1900’s had many moving to Tulsa for a shot at quick economic gains and high life, and African Americans hoped to prosper from the new industry as well. Tulsa, like many cities and towns throughout the US, was hostilely segregated, with African Americans settling into the northern region of the city. As we often saw before integration, Blacks in the area created entrepreneurial opportunities for themselves, which housed an impressive business center that included banks, hotels, cafes, clothiers, movie theaters, and contemporary homes. Greenwood residents enjoyed many luxuries that their White neighbors did not, including indoor plumbing and a remarkable school system that superiorly educated Black children.
It was pure envy, and a vow to put progressive, high achieving African Americans in their place that would cause the demise of the Black Mecca many called “Little Africa”, and its destruction began the way much terrorism, violence and dispossession against African Americans did during that era. A young White woman accused a young Black man of attempted sexual assault, which gave local mobs and White men acting as police just cause to invade the unsuspecting community. On the malevolent and horrifying attack, Linda Christenson writes the following:
“The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31—June 1, 1921 in Greenwood… In fact, the term itself implies that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others.
During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.”
Recently, the mother of a Palestian activist friend of mine asked me why African Americans don’t fight harder for reparations. It was a difficult question to answer, but my most immediate response centered on the historical erasure of communities like Greenwood and the state-sponsored violence against African Americans that created its expiry. Even after slavery was abolished, any advancements towards the American dream, that Blacks paid most dearly to establish, was met with revulsion and terror, often from those whose legal obligation was to serve and protect. For that a debt is surely owed. Further, when we consider the deaths of those Black Tulsans and the inevitable property loss that followed, we again see one example of many that proves how wealth inequities and disparities became a part of the substance of this nation- inequities and disparities that must be considered before we go blaming Black youth for the catastrophes this nation has endorsed.
And as we consider what has become the new face of terror, we should never forget that Greenwood was bombed from the sky by White local and national law enforcement organizations.
To learn more about the attack on “Black Wall Street,” check out Scott Ellsworth’s account here. Never forget.
Josie Pickens is a cultural critic and educator. Follow her musings on twitter: @jonubian