Buried: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

It’s Memorial Day.

And in Tulsa today, they are remembering one of the worst incidents of the 20th century – the Tulsa Race Riots.

In fact, it got started just about the same time as I’m writing, late in the evening of May 31, 1921. But let’s back up for a second, because I’m pretty sure most people have never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot. And that’s because for years, it was kept under wraps as much as possible.

This is a story I never heard until I started to teach US History. As I was preparing to teach the 1920s, I kept running across the race riots of other places – like Rosewood – and of course the KKK. But then I stumbled across a website that discussed the Tulsa Race Riot.

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Greenwood, before the Riot. From hoodline.com

After World War II, Tulsa was actually two cities:  Tulsa proper, which was predominantly white; and Greenwood, known as the ‘Black Wall Street of America.’ A beautiful African-American community, it boasted a thriving business district with theaters, shops, restaurants, milliners, clothing stores, banks – everything a city needs. Tulsa had a population of more than 100,00 at that time; an exact census for Greenwood is difficult to find, but certainly at least 20,000.

But all that changed. Because of one man and one woman and one scream.

According to the story, Dick Rowland worked in Tulsa as a shoe-shiner. Sarah Paige operated the elevator at the Drexel building in Tulsa. Stories vary, but the fact is, at some point that day, they were alone in that elevator together. Since she was white and he was black, this was already an issue.

Then she screamed.

If Sarah Paige ever said why she screamed, it’s not recorded. By all accounts, she refused to explain. It didn’t matter. Whites immediately jumped to one conclusion:  a black man tried to rape a white woman. Rowland was arrested, and on the night of May 31, a white mob gathered at the jail. Leaders from Greenwood went to the jail to help protect Rowland, but the sheriff told them to go home; when they tried to leave, the mob attacked them. They fled to Greenwood, with the mob in hot pursuit.

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I think the caption speaks for itself. This image is found all over the ‘net; probably in the University of Tulsa Collections.

Over the next fourteen hours, thousands of whites, probably led by the local KKK, systematically destroyed Greenwood. Blacks were rounded up and kept in ‘concentration camps’ while houses were searched, robbed, and burned. Those who tried to escape were shot. They even set up a machine gun on a grain elevator at one end of Main Street. At dawn on June 1, airplanes dropped homemade bombs on Greenwood. There was even an effort to go through the wealthier areas of Tulsa and force white home owners to send out their black servants – which, thankfully, most refused to do.

It wasn’t until noon that the state troopers arrived – but by that time, it no longer mattered. The riot had fizzled.

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And Greenwood was gone.

Thirty-five square blocks had burned to the ground. More than a thousand homes, 21 churches, and 600+ businesses were gone. The Tulsa Fire Department had tried to get through all night long, but were held at gunpoint  by the attackers. Likewise, anyone trying to get through to give first aid to the blacks was held at gunpoint. tulsa_riots_theater.1406030191283

Now, there were whites who tried to help. A family outside Tulsa hid more than thirty people in their barn for a week. One woman at the local YWCA saved their porter’s life by hiding him in the walk-in freezer and then standing up to the whites chasing him with shotguns. Red Cross workers moved in as soon as they could to help the wounded and bury the dead.

Because there were dead.

But the sad thing is, we have absolutely no idea how many died that night.

Most who fled Greenwood never returned, so just doing a census doesn’t help. For decades, it was known that somewhere between 39 and 55 graves were dug in cemeteries for riot victims – the lucky ones who got headstones, anyway. It was also known that there was at least one mass grave, but as one Red Cross worker admitted, they were told to bury the bodies as quickly as possible, and didn’t keep track. Then in the early 1990s, another mass grave was discovered in a vacant lot that is presumed to be from the riot as well. So estimates range between 55 and 300, with many believing that number to be much, much higher.

The Tulsa Race Riot was, we know now, the worst of the 1920s. An entire town, destroyed in less than 24 hours. All because one woman screamed. All because some people thought they were better than others.

Tulsa buried this story. Who can blame them, really? It was never discussed. Never published. The KKK still had enough sway in the area to keep it hushed up, and the city officials swept it under the rug. Later, reporters who tried to tell the story said they were threatened. It wasn’t until 1997 that Oklahoma finally published a report on the riots, and today, a small museum in Tulsa commemorates the event.

And, because I know you’re dying to know:  the charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. He left Tulsa, never to return. And as far as I know, Sarah Paige never told what happened on that elevator.

One thing I always ask my students is do you think this could happen today? Before Michael Brown, they always said NO. They always said that America had grown beyond this, that such wanton destruction would never be allowed to happen.

Now? Now they look at me with eyes that say otherwise. Now, before they speak, they remember Michael Brown, and Freddy Gray, and all the riots that have ensued over the last two years. They think about all the Trump rallies where minorities are beaten for daring to protest his policies. And they hesitate.

Because they know the truth.

 

More on the Tulsa Race Riots:

http://tulsahistory.org/learn/online-exhibits/the-tulsa-race-riot/ – the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum’s site for the riots

http://www.tulsaworld.com/app/race-riot/timeline.html – The Tulsa World’s page dedicated to the riots

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/19/survivors-of-infamous1921tulsaraceriotstillhopeforjustice.html – from Al-Jazeera America, a story about the riots and the survivors still seeking justice

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Buried: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

  1. How quickly we forget the race riots of the civil rights era (which lasted for much longer than people are willing to admit, seeing as African Americans started campaigning for equal rights almost as soon as we had our freedom.) and the late ’80s/early ’90s. It always seems to me that we, as a nation and at all levels, like to bury things just like what happened with the 1921 riot in Tulsa.

    That said, this was a really powerful post. It reminded me that I need to work on my posts concerning LGBT, women’s, and Black lives during the American Revolutionary War.

    • Thanks – yes, the race riots of the 1950s and 60s, and 70s, were awful as well. There’s something about Tulsa, though, that really strikes home to me. Proximity, maybe. Or maybe just the sheer ludicrous nature of it. That realization that one single moment, one single mistake, can trigger something so catastrophic.

      • I think it’s the magnification of the disaster when something like that would’ve general lead to the man being lynched and that being basically the end of it. Lynchings weren’t uncommon then and often a black man could be lynched for just looking at a white woman wrong, but they didn’t kill on the scale of the Tulsa riots in a single day unless looking at national or state stats.

  2. Lest we forget. This wasn’t mentioned in any of my history courses. I was shocked when I first found out. And my family STILL doesn’t get it. They truly do not understand the horrors of our history.

    • Neither do my students. They’re always so stunned to hear this story, and about Emmett Till, and other truly horrific things in our past – I know that history courses simply can’t cover everything, but some of the things that are left out really shouldn’t be.

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