Updated: Jun 27, 2020
As I promised, I started my research on the Tulsa Race Massacre. Now before we get into the details of these days- I want to point out that a majority of my research was obtained from the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, as I have found that local historical societies usually have the dirty details of truth that you just cant find on WIKIPEDIA. If you have not checked out your local historical society- pull them up one day and support them by sharing their content, or like anyone- they like money!
Now- where is Tulsa, Oklahoma? This was the first question that came to mind- where the heck is this town. I had never heard of issues of racism in Oklahoma before, let alone could tell you where in Oklahoma this town was located. I know about the famous musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein- Oklahoma! I know that my grandfather and grandmother is from somewhere in that state. I know that Garth Brooks is from Tulsa- okay I lied, I looked this fact up by Goggling Famous Oklahoman's.
This was not a easy project to start with after my 9 month break.
What to do? What to do?
Ah Ha moment!
What better place to check out then their historical society to find out how this town came to be. Of course, with all the media coverage on the riots in the 1920's- there is a online exhibit of the event on their webpage- score one for Rosie! Now, this exhibit has been posted for many years, it has not been a secret, the historical society did a amazing job on research and presentation of this event. Lets go quick because this is a LOT to cover:
Oklahoma was promoted as a safe haven for blacks after the Civil War. Greenwood district itself was developed on Indian Territory, where members of various Native American tribes were forced to relocate. Some of the black members found in the area were actually former slaves of the tribes who integrated into the tribal communities. They were able to secure their own land under the Dawes Act, which was a U.S. law that gave land to individual Native Americans. History.com publishes that between 1865 and 1920, there were over 50 black townships founded in the state. An individual by the name of O.W. Gurley, who was a wealthy black landowner, purchased the 40 acres of land in Tulsa and named it Greenwood after a town in Mississippi. He was the founder of the district, and a big believer in taking care of one another and building a society where all blacks could flourish.
According to the Washington Post in an article published in 2018- before 1921 Greenwood was built into one of the wealthiest black communities in the country. It was mentioned in countless articles and eye-witness accounts that the nickname for the area was the Black Wall Street. The district had a population of over 100,00o citizens, luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, library, buses, cab services, a school system, 6 private planes, and two newspapers. Dr. A.C. Jackson, considered to be the most respected and able black surgeon in the country at the time by the Mayo brothers (founders of the Mayo Clinic), was a resident of the district.
Now, prior to the 1921 riots, the peace was not steady in this area. The affluent Greenwood District was drawing the attention of the very poor white district located just across the railroad tracts. The KKK was making its presence known in the area, and the country was still recovering from the Red Summer of 1919, where major anti-black riots exploded across major cities to include Tulsa. The Greenwood District was aware of their shaky place, and citizens were encourage to carry side arms and go to the local courthouses and jails to make sure any blacks who were there, were not taken and killed by lynching mobs.
Overview of the riots-
31 May 1921- Dick Rowland, a black man (19), was arrested and charged with assault on a white female elevator operator, Sarah Page (17), due to an incident that happened the day prior. The Tulsa Tribune prints a story that states Rowland tried to rape Page, and then in same paper, it is claimed in a separate article -that a lunching was planned for that night. This article no longer exists- it has disappeared and there is only eye-witness accounts to its existence.
Lets stop here- I feel like I am painting this story incorrectly by short cutting the facts- the article published by the Tulsa Tribune was entitled- "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator". I am including a picture of of the article for you. According to the article Page stated he attacked, clawed, and teared at her clothing and that Rowland admitted only to touching her on her arm. I actually cant find any statement from Page on what she did or did not report.
Now, playing the middle man in this riddle, and reporting every aspect- the NAACP stated in their recant of the events that "a hysterical white girl related that a nineteen-year-old colored boy attempted to assault her in the public elevator of a public office building...in open daylight...without pausing to find whether or not the story was true, without bothering with the slight detail of investigating the character of the woman who made the outcry (as a matter of fact, she was of exceedingly doubtful reputation)."
Another account of the events published by the American Red Cross Report (dated 1921) after the riots had settled down stated: "The newspapers agree that the local and immediate cause of the trouble began when a negro boy, on entering an elevator conducted by a white girl, stepped on her foot. A frightened girl,- a more frightened negro, - a police officers, - and the jail. A newspaper headline,-some local irritations, -a band of negroes, a larger band of whites,- plenty of guns, and a riot was on, all Tuesday night and until Wednesday noon it raged."
Now, lets talk here about the headaches of being a historian, information gets hazy when newspapers decided to defunct what was originally written, and you can't find the original paper copies of its edition. So what truth do we know at this point? We know for a fact that an incident occurred between Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, in a elevator, in Tulsa, OK, and that Rowland was arrested and charged with a crime. I am inclined to believe the Red Cross report, that some shoes were scuffed and it scared both parties, as they are restating that facts as they knew them to be at the time of the incident and they did have boots on ground. Those are the facts of what started the riots. What do we also know? That both the white newspaper writers and the NAACP did a hell of a job painting a picture that lack facts and was meant to stir the emotions of the masses. But those are the only facts that I can find in my limited time frame.
The night of 31 May 1921- according to the Oklahoma Historical Society, hundreds of whites gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse where Rowland was being held and demanded that he be turned over. Sheriff McCullough said no. Good for the Sheriff! Why did he say no? Glad you asked- because a white man, by the name of Roy Belton who was accused of murdering a taxicab driver had been pulled from that jail and lynched just the year prior. According to two different sources, the police had done nothing to stop the mob, instead helped to direct traffic in order for max viewing of the lynching. Cause for concern if you want my personal opinion- not that it matters- facts only people! Also remember, we are only 2 years post the Red Summer of 1919, emotions were still running high from both sides of the railroad track.
If you keep reading the various sources of newspapers and articles on crime in the area- it paints a story of political corruption, lawlessness, destruction of private property, and the misgiving between two races who were both trying to capitalize on the oil gold mine that was found in the area. I actually stopped taking notes after page 5 because all the stories were so outlandish and made no sense, other than I know how writers got the papers to sell- they told some crazy stories.
Okay, now we have 400 white men standing in front of a jail, the rumors of a lynching being planned by the newspapers reporters, 25 black men from the Greenwood District willing to come help the Sheriff in defending the jail....what could possibly go wrong with this situation? Now, twice the men from the Greenwood District show up, once with 25 men and the second time with 75 men who were mostly World War I veterans. Both times offering their services to the Sheriff and in the first insistence- leaving peacefully as directed by local law enforcement. This is when the situation gets out of hand- as Greenwood District members were leaving for the second time (on the request of the Sheriff), it is reported that a white man grabs at the gun of a black man- shots were fired and 12 men laid dead. 10 white and 2 black. And the fighting kept going until around midnight when the small group of black men were forced back to their area of town.
What story did the newspapers print? On 1 June, 1921, the 'Drumright Evening Derrick' reported that the riots began when "the trouble is said to have started over the arrest late yesterday of a negro for an alleged attack on white girls. (Where did the other girls come from?) The first shots were fired soon after dark when police officers attempted to disarm the negro. According to officers the negro resisted and was shot dead. A white man was killed shortly afterwards at the court housed and then men organized all over the city...machine guns have been set up ready action." Oh man, here we go again with conflicting stories.
The story gets better. According the the Oklahoma Historical Society, there was an eyewitness account that the local authorities started to 'deputize' members of the mob and told them to 'grab a gun and a get a nigger', the National Guard was called up but they were positioned to protect the neighborhoods in the white districts. At daybreak, the riots had made its way into the Greenwood District, and the true destruction was beginning to be realized- it was burning to the ground. Nothing was left. 35 square blocks of neighbor and they got 95% of it.
So, what do we know as facts? We know that Rowland was held in the jail awaiting his arraignment scheduled for the 7th. We know that a group of white men, number is really hazy- either 100 or 400 came to the jail in order obtain Rowland from the Sheriff. We know that the Sheriff said no. We know that on three different occasions, members of the Greenwood District offered their assistance- once by phone, and twice in person. We know that there was a scuffle between the two groups. We know that shooting started and 12 men laid dead. We know that the group of men from Greenwood was pushed back to their own neighborhoods. We know that in the dawn there was a large gathering of white's- reportably between 100 to 3,000, depending on the newspaper. We know that the neighborhood laid in ashes by mid afternoon.
Now, I have seen on Facebook that this event is credited with it being the first time on American soil that air bombs were used. So I had to do some research. My first thought was no way. Until, I DID my research. There are claims that planes were being used by the U.S. Government, no proof of this ever happening. There is article written by Brigadier General Ed Wheeler in the June-July 1971 issue of 'Impact Magazine' that quashes this theory. However, there were two air fields in the area, although registration of airplanes was not a requirement until 1921, so there is no way to identify beyond a shadow of doubt who owned a plane in the local area. Reading the Oklahoma Commission Report (2001), I would have to agree that according to eye witness reports that the use of planes did most likely occur in the riots. It is also very likely that shooting and the dropping of incendiaries did occur. It is also very likely that some of the planes that were used was done by the local law enforcement, newspaper journalists, and even some sightseers who wanted a up-close-and-personal view of the events.
Martial law was enacted for a very brief moment, and the Red Cross came rushing to the scene with aid to anyone, regardless of race, who was in need. Go Red Cross! I can say that- I work for them now. All their reports were saved and can be found on the Tusla Historical Website. We will talk about the history of the Red Cross in another blog.
The Aftermath- 3,000- 10,000 black men, women, and children were sent to local camps under the watch of armed guards. A still unidentified number of citizens were killed and/or harmed. The Red Cross published that within the first 24 hours 148 black men and 48 white men were in surgical care, and 531 were given first aid within the first 3 days after the riots. At one point, the records show 763 wounded, but this is not a clear picture as many people escaped to neighboring towns and sought treatment elsewhere.
What happen to the community? There they were kept until under armed guard until the local government said they could be released. Released to what? Glad you asked- tent city. Yes, yes. After the devastation of the riots, the community had no where to go, no jobs, no money, no clothes, and they all lived in tents in the local community and was supplied necessities by the community members and the Red Cross. The property damage was over 1.5 millions dollars, with insurance claims not being recognized at the time because policies did not cover riots. No one was ever found at fault for the riots, it was actually blamed on the black community for inciting the violence.
Don't shot the messenger. I can give you facts only. The claim that this was the worst riot in U.S. history is not entirely true, I can think of a few more- like the Conscription Riots in New York City during the Civil War, the Red Summer riots of 1919, the LA riots in the 1990's, and a few more. It is also difficult because there is no evidence of how many lives were actually lost- it might be 38, it might be over 100. No one knows. There was a report completed in 2000 that I have mentioned before that attempted to put a number to deaths- but there is not enough information.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit that was filed by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll law firm, against the City of Tulsa, the police department, and the state of Oklahoma that demanded reparations for all survivors of the riots. The reason why it was dismissed? The two-years statute of limitations on claims expired in 1923.
Now the question that everyone has been asking- why did they not know about this piece of history? Well, I can't tell you why Oklahoma never taught this particular moment in state history to their students. I am not sure why citizens of Tulsa or Oklahoma were not aware of the 2001 report that was published on the state website about the findings into the event- it is entitled Tulsa Race Riot- A report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 dated February 28, 2001 (https://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdfbcsi_scan_2687365ababd2c82=0&bcsi_scan_filename=freport.pdf). I don't know why when the law suit was brought against the city, police department, and state of Oklahoma in 2005- that nobody paid attention. It was on the national news.
To the question, why is there nothing written on this subject- there is. It is not as famous as, lets say WWI or WWII, but there is published works on this event. The USA Today just recently interviewed writers and professors that have been including the Tulsa Riots in their curriculum for years. I will include a list of works for you if you want to do further research. However, this type of event has generally been taught at the higher levels of education. I would gander to guess because of the events themselves and the discussion that follows with the concept of American Studies and racial division. Maybe not the right discussion to be given to our 7 year olds. However, the curriculum is now being included in the Oklahoma school districts.
What happened to Sarah Page and Dick Rowland? Good Question- no one really knows. According to the Tulsa World's article- "Tulsa Race Massacre: What happened to Sarah Page and Dick Rowland following the massacre?" dated 31 May 2020- all charges were dropped against Rowland upon the written request of Page herself. Prosecutors left the town shortly after. There is also rumors that there was a romantic relationship between Rowland and Page, but I am unable to verify that statement.
I have included a link to the 2000 Computation as to the Deaths from the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot that was complied by Richard Warner. This is an interesting read, as it was taken from the memories of person's that were present, or from oral history of family members. The details are muddled after so many years, and it does get confusing when looking at what was reported to what and who was actually present in 1921. However, that is the life of history- things are never as they are repeated to be. Word to the wise- always be cautious when stating 'facts' as this may in fact be one persons reality instead of the truth.
I have enjoyed researching this subject, as there are many side stories that were uncovered that I would like to know more about. In case you would rather watch something, there were many mentions of a 2008 documentary film called, Before They Die! The Road to Reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Survivors. I have not seen it yet, but I will watch it today.
Published works on the riots- this no means a complete listing of all published works- there are too many. I would recommend that you visit Amazon.com as you can find all of these for sale and many more.
Hannibal Johnson, author of Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. Published in 1998.
Tim Madigan, author of The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1981. Published in 2001
Charles River Editors, author of The Tulsa Massacre of 1921, published in 2020
James S. Hirsch, author of Riot and Remembrance, published in 2003.