by Kate Frey
Although the first black President of the United States, Barack Obama, declared during his 2008 campaign his belief that the battles against racial oppression have been won and belong to the past, that the US is now a “post racial” society”, events over the past few decades – including very recently – lead to a different conclusion. The mass incarceration of African-Americans, which Michelle Alexander called “The New Jim Crow”,- a system which gives the US the highest incarceration rate in the world – police killings of literally hundreds of African-Americans over the past few years amid escalating police brutality, followed by the protests against these killings themselves being met with police repression and brutality all show how deeply engrained racism remains in US society.
To understand the dynamics of today’s society it is important to understand the history of black oppression, not just under slavery but in the post-Reconstruction era when blacks had full citizenship rights in theory but whose communities were subjected to racist terrorism and destruction. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 epitomizes this.
The actual all-out riot portion occurred during a 14 hour period from May 31 to June 1, 1921. It was the worst of a series of white riots against African-American communities of that volatile period.
It began with an incident between Dick Rowland, a 19 year old African-American who shined shoes in front of the Drexel Building on Tulsa’s South Main Street, and Sarah Page, a 17 year old white woman who worked as the building’s elevator operator. On May 30, Memorial Day, while Rowland was leaving the elevator, Page let out a scream. A clerk from Renberg’s, a clothing store on the first floor of the Drexel Building, heard the scream and rushed to the elevator. He claimed to have seen Page in a distraught state and a black man running. Assuming Page had been assaulted, the clerk contacted the authorities.
After an inflammatory newspaper article boosted the rumors already circulating, hundreds surrounded the Tulsa County Courthouse, where Rowland was being held on the top floor. Sheriff Willard McCullough, wishing to avoid a lynching, increased security at the courthouse, but the crowd only grew increasingly agitated. When rumors reached Greenwood, a nearby town inhabited nearly exclusively by African-Americans, that a white mob had stormed the jail, 30 armed men headed for the courthouse. The white mob, nearly 400 strong at this point, continued the escalation by attempting to seize weapons from the city’s National Guard armory.
Before the night was over, the two sides were openly shooting at one another. The white mob chased the black defenders back toward Greenwood, stealing all the guns they could find along the way. The National Guard was deployed, but coordination between the Guard, the municipal police, and the sheriff’s department was at best incoherent; at worst, it was nonexistent.
All the while, other groups of whites continued to try and breach the security of the courthouse to lynch Rowland. With black fighters successfully forced back into Greenwood, the town itself was under attack. Gunfights erupted across Tulsa and Greenwood with no end in sight as night turned to day. Residents of Greenwood were killed indiscriminately. The violence was so extreme that the town was eventually more or less emptied. It wasn’t until martial law was declared around noon that Wednesday that the melee ceased.
The number of killed and injured remains unknown to this day. Estimates range from dozens to several hundred. James Hirsch in Riot and Remembrance:The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy recounts Maurice Williams, a Red Cross social worker, reporting that at least 300 blacks were killed and that, in a rush to bury bodies, few records of burials were kept.Approximately 800 people had been admitted to local hospitals during the rioting. They are believed to have been mostly white, although Hirsch mentions that blacks were brought to white hospitals and a National Guard medical unit provided care for blacks as well.
The business district of Tulsa was completely destroyed. This included 191 businesses, several churches, a hospital, and a junior high school. The Red Cross estimated that 1,256 houses were burned and 215 were looted. Estimates put the real estate and personal property damage at property damage at $30 million in 2015 dollars. Most insurance claims were denied. Ten thousand were left homeless.
According to some accounts, Dick Rowland was kept in the county prison until the day after the riot, when the police secretly transported him out of town. The case against him was dropped in September following a letter from Sarah Page saying she did not wish to press charges. Little is known about his life afterwards. The whereabouts of Sarah Page after the riot is also unknown.
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In order to properly understand these events, one must carefully examine the conditions of Oklahoma at the time – the details of which many today may find surprising.
During the First World War, wages and working conditions dramatically improved for many American workers. The federal government enforced a “labor truce” after labor battles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which were often extremely violent. While there was a relative boom with wages increasing during the war, labor unrest rose in the aftermath as employers attempted to return wages conditions to pre-war levels. Troops returning from Europe were rapidly demobilized with no plan for reintegration into the civilian economy. In northern cities white working class people feared economic competition and insecurity in the wake of the “Great Migration” when over half a million black people migrated to northern cities. Increasing tension resulted from African-Americans workers often being used as strikebreakers. Ironically, these post-war tensions dovetailed with the anti-Communist “Red Scare” in the wake of the Russian Revolution, with fears spread by Justice Department spokesmen that returning black soldiers would disseminate “Bolshevik” ideas to radicalized communities.
In 1919, during what became known as the “Red Summer,” social tensions exploded. White mobs attacked black communities in more than three dozen US cities. In one Chicago riot, at least 38 people died and 500 were injured. High death tolls also occurred in rioting in Washington, DC and Elaine, Arkansas. In some instances, notably Chicago, black people heroically defended themselves, their homes, and property.
Tulsa was originally settled by the Creek and Lochapoka tribes in 1836 in what was then Indian Territory. In the later 19th century, Indian land was expropriated in several waves and white settlement increased. In several land runs, much of the land was auctioned to white settlers. Tulsa itself was incorporated in January 18, 1898, nearly a decade before Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
Most Oklahoma settlers came from Southern states and carried with them a legacy of racism. Jim Crow segregations was enforced as the law of the land. The 1907 Oklahoma State Constitution effectively disenfranchised most blacks, prohibiting them from sitting on juries, or holding local elective office. In 1916 Tulsa passed an ordinance prohibiting blacks and whites from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were of the other race, mandating racial segregation. Although the US Supreme Court declared this unconstitutional in 1917, the ordinance remained on the books. In fact, just three weeks before the riot, a middle aged black couple was arrested and fined the then sizable sum of $10 for refusing to sit in the back of a streetcar.
The Ku Klux Klan began a revival in 1915 and became a major presence in Oklahoma in 1921.It has been estimated that Tulsa had 3,200 residents in the Klan in 1921 out of a population of about 72,000. As elsewhere in the Southern US lynching was common. Between Oklahoma’s declaration of statehood in 1907 and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 31 people were lynched, 26 of whom were black. One significant Oklahoma lynching was that of a mother and son, Laura and L.D. Nelson, who were lynched in 1911 in the town of Okemah. Charley Guthrie, the father of folksinger Woody Guthrie, was a participant.
Despite this hostile environment due partly to the efforts of Edwin McCabe, Oklahoma came to have many thriving black towns, populated by settlers from Kansas and other states. McCabe was an African-American lawyer and politician who encouraged black migration to Oklahoma and attempted to gain support for a project to make Oklahoma an all black state. From 1900 to 1906 the black population of the territory doubled.
Founded by O.W. Gurley, an African-American landowner from Arkansas, Greenwood was one such black enclave, its population 11,000 sufficient for it to be known as “Little Africa”. It was a 36 block area on the north side of Tulsa, separated from white Tulsa by the Frisco rail line. The district had 21 churches, 212 restaurants, 2 movie theaters, several nightclubs, and 400 businesses. The Tulsa Star, which promoted black unity and achievement, was published in Greenwood. The Stratford Hotel in Greenwood was the largest black owned hotel in the US. The prosperous commercial area along Greenwood Avenue became known as the “Negro Wall Street” (today known instead as “Black Wall Street”). While the majority of Greenwood residents worked as servants or domestic help for white Tulsa families, the district was home to lawyers, doctors and other professionals, which included several multi-millionaires. According to Randy Krehbiel’s “The Questions That Remain”, Greenwood schools, although poorly funded, were of high quality.
Gurley, the founder, resigned from a presidential appointment under Grover Cleveland (likely something within the Postal Service) and specifying that it was only to be resold to black people. J.B. Stradford, an African-American businessman who later built the aforementioned namesake hotel, also contributed greatly to the development of Greenwood, believing that African-Americans should collectively pool their resources and cooperate economically. In 1899, he moved to Tulsa, buying large tracts of real estate in what became Greenwood, reselling exclusively to African-Americans.
In the midst of all of this dynamism, it’s worth noting Tulsa was in the center of the Oklahoma oil region. Oil strikes in the area in the early 1900s remade the city. An oil strike at Glen Pool in 1905, the largest oil discovery at the time, caused global oil prices to plummet and made Oklahoma the world center of oil exploration. By 1909 there were 126 oil companies based in Tulsa, causing the population to rise from 7,298 in 1907 to 72,000 in 1920.The city became a major financial center; a boomtown atmosphere prevailed.
Racial tensions in Tulsa were intertwined with a morass of corruption in the city. According to “The Eruption of Tulsa” by Walter White of the NAACP, early 20th century Tulsa was controlled by a corrupt vice ring which allowed bordellos, illegal gambling, whiskey (during the early days of Prohibition) and the almost open robbery of stores and banks, with only a thin chance of conviction or arrest of the criminals. According to “The Eruption of Tulsa” an article by William White, an NAACP official reporting on the Tulsa riot, published in the Nation in the summer of 1921,6 out of 100 citizens of Tulsa were under indictment for a crime at the time of the 1921 riot, with little likelihood of ever being brought to trial. White and other writers mention that, because of the “get rich quick” mentality prevalent among more law abiding citizens, there was widespread apathy towards politics and political corruption.
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The details of what transpired between Rowland and Page are not conclusively known. Some suggest Rowland tripped and grabbed Page’s arm in an attempt to steady himself or that Rowland stepped on Page’s toe.
Several writers have considered the fact that both Rowland and Page were working on Memorial Day to be unusual. Some believe it likely they had known each other. The only bathroom available to Rowland while shining shoes outside the Drexel Building was at the top, necessitating him to frequently use the elevator which Page operated. It has been claimed by a relative of Rowland that Rowland and Page had some sort of romantic or sexual history, which would have been very dangerous for them during that era, although no evidence of this has appeared.
Even their full identities are unknown to this day. Rowland, believed to have been the son of a couple who owned a boarding house on East Archer Street, seems to have been fairly well known, although there is disagreement about his actual age and the identity of his birth parents. Accounts describe him as well-liked by members of the Tulsa legal community, who were often his customers. Page was reportedly an orphan working her way through business college, but this is disputed. There is evidence to suggest that she was actually 15, originally from Kansas City, and waiting for a divorce to be finalized.
The police probably questioned Page, but no surviving transcript of their interview or report has survived. According to Hirsch, Page told the police that she would not press charges. (In light of the charges ultimately being later dropped for this very reason, this seems quite possible.)
It was the following morning that Rowland was arrested by Detective Henry Carmichael and Henry Pack, himself one of two black policeman on Tulsa’s 45 man force. He was initially and placed in the Tulsa City Jail.
At this point, local newspapers picked up the story. The Tulsa Tribune, one of two white-owned papers and known for its sensationalism, broke the story that afternoon of Rowland’s arrest with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator”. The article claimed Rowland scratched Page, tore her clothes, and that he was now wanted for assault. According to “The Questions Which Remain”, there are accounts that the evining edition of the Tribune ran an editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight”, warning of a potential lynching of Rowland. All hard copies of that edition have been destroyed and the existence of this editorial is disputed.
In any case, that edition of the Tribune came out at 3 pm. At 4, an anonymous caller told Police Commissioner J.M. Adkinson that Rowland would be lynched. This prompted authorities to move him to the more secure facility on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse, which was, not insignificantly, closer to Greenwood.
Hundreds gathered outisde the courthouse. By sundown at 7:30 pm the crowd , according to some accounts now numbering about two thousand, appeared to have the makings of a lynch mob. Adkinson and Police Chief John Gustafson wanted the newly elected sheriff of Tulsa County, Sheriff Willard McCullough, to take Rowland outside of town, a tactic which had been successfully used elsewhere to disperse lynch mobs.
After a lynching the prior year that some credit with destroying the career of his predecessor, McCullough took steps to increase security. He organized his deputies were into a defensive formation with gunmen on the rooftop. The elevator was disabled, with men barricaded at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot intruders on sight. According to Tulsaworld.com, there were no police inside the courthouse itself, suggesting bad relations between the sheriff’s forces and municipal police may have contributed to the failure to control the escalating situation.
“The Questions Which Remain” describes Sheriff McCullough at one point going outside the building, attempting to talk the mob into going home. According to a witness, he was shouted down.. About 8:20 pm, three white men entered the courthouse demanding Rowland. They were turned away. The article says that Police Chief Gustafson was less concerned about dispersing the crowd and more worried about armed blacks. Gustafson at some point appealed to the Oklahoma National Guard commander for help “to clear the streets of negroes,” but was told that only the governor had the authority to call the local guard into service.
At this point, news reached Greenwood. Militant WWI veterans favored military action, while older members of the community feared the consequences. Two contingents of blacks met with McCullough and his black deputy, Barney Cleaver, obtaining reassurances of Rowland’s safety. O.W. Gurley, Greenwood’s founder, walked to the courthouse and met with the sheriff and obtained further assurances personally, before returning to Greenwood and attempting to calm residents.
A second lynching threat was called in to a northside movie theater. Though out the early evening, Greenwood community leaders offered McCullough assistance, only to be rebuffed each time. Major James Bell of the 180th Division of the Oklahoma National Guard also called McCullough and was given reassurances the situation was under control.
When rumors reached Greenwood that evening that the white mob had stormed the jail, a group of about 30 armed men from Greenwood assembled in front of the Tulsa Star offices before marching to the courthouse. They offered to help but were again told to go home by Sheriff McCullough and Deputy Cleaver.
Seeing armed black men, members of the white mob at the courthouse went home to get their own guns. A group headed for the National Guard armory at Sixth Street and Norfolk Avenue to seize the stockpile of arms held there. Major Bell had previously been informed of the growing civil unrest and undertook measures to prevent a breach of the armory.
A total of around 35 guardsmen were stationed between three units in the city.
All of them, at this time, were ordered to put on their uniforms and assemble at the armory. A crowd of between 300-400 whites came to the armory, soon attempting to break in through a window. Major Bell dispersed them with a stern warning that his men inside the armory were under orders to shoot anyone who tried to enter.
By late evening, the situation at the courthouse was becoming increasingly tense. Several Tulsa community and religious leaders, including Rev. Charles Kerr of the First Presbyterian Church, tried to talk the crowd out of mob action and convince people to go home. Kerr also later allowed refugees from the rioting to shelter in his church and was later acclaimed as the only Protestant minister to have put forth significant effort to stop the race riot. He was, overall, one of the few white community leaders to do so. The crowd however, did not disburse.
Around 10 PM, another group of about 75 armed Greenwood residents arrived at the courthouse. The sheriff again persuaded them to leave. According to “The Questions Which Remain”, as they were complying, a white former county investigator named E.S. MacQueen attempted to disarm a black man, sometimes identified as Johnny Cole). As MacQueen and Cole wrestled over the latter’s gun, it went off. As Sheriff McCullough later said, “all hell broke loose,” with shots being fired by both sides. McCullough, who had been attempting to address the crowd, ran for cover to a nearby hotel. (He soon returned to his post.)
The details of ensuing events are hazy.. A group of whites, including members of the city police, broke into Bardon’s Sporting Goods store across the street from the courthouse and began looting it, taking guns and ammunition.
The white mob began chasing blacks toward Greenwood, looting more stores for weapons on the way. Panic ensued as the mob began firing on any blacks in the crowd. Blacks fired back. This initial fighting may have lasted less than a minute but at least twelve people were killed immediately – ten white and two black. Scattered gun fighting continued in the northern area of the business district until midnight, when it appeared that all blacks had been pushed into Greenwood.
As the shooting rampage began, Chief Gustafson mobilized the entire police department, about 65 men, and Commissioner Adkinson commissioned as many as 400 special deputies. At this time, the Oklahoma National Guard commander, Adjutant General Charles Barrett ordered the National Guard units in Tulsa to make themselves available to local authorities. The small number of National Guard already in Tulsa attempted to get between the combatants along the Frisco Railroad tracks and Detroit Avenue.
Around 11 pm, additional units of the Oklahoma National Guard assembled at the armory and set in motion a plan to subdue the rioters. Their commander, however, was not able to get the signatures necessary from local authorities to take action for over two hours. The main difficulty had been in reaching the barricaded McCullough. A Tulsa World reporter was finally able to approach McCullough and apprise him of the situation.
Groups of Guardsmen moved into position to guard the courthouse and police station, and to restore order along the Frisco tracks. They were joined by American Legion volunteers from Tulsa and surrounding towns. Many accounts describe the National Guard as primarily protecting white property. There were persistent rumors throughout the night and early morning that hundreds of blacks were coming to invade Tulsa and join in a “negro uprising”. Groups were sent to guard the city power plant and water works. Police, Legionnaires, and special deputies roamed the city in squads and rounded up blacks outside Greenwood in search of the supposed invaders.
Blacks found outside Greenwood were sent to the Convention Center (now Brady Theater) on Brady Street, along with McNulty Park, a minor league baseball stadium, and later at the city’s fairgrounds.
Around midnight, a smaller but even more determined group of white rioters gathered near the courthouse, again demanding Rowland be handed over for a lynching. They attempted to storm the building but were forced back by the sheriff and his deputies.
Though out the early hours of Wednesday morning, the gunfights between groups of whites and blacks went on, primarily concentrated along the Frisco tracks, dividing the white and black areas. In one incident, passengers on an incoming train were caught in the crossfire and were forced to take cover on the floor of the train as the train took hits from both sides.
Whites began making forays by car into the Greenwood district, firing into businesses and residences. Around 1 am, the white mob began setting fires in businesses on Archer Street, in the commercial area on the edge of Greenwood. Crews from the Tulsa Fire Department were turned back at gunpoint. By 4 am, it was estimated that two dozen black owned businesses had been set on fire. Gun battles continued though out the early morning, although at a lower level. Greenwood residents fired back to defend their property.
“The Questions That Remain” says that later statements by witnesses claimed that men in uniform – either National Guardsmen or ex-servicemen – carried oil into Greenwood in order to better set fire to the homes after looting them. Tulsa police may have been involved in the mayhem as looters and arsonists themselves. V.B. Bostic, a black deputy sheriff, said he was led out of his home by a white traffic officer he recognized, who proceeded to set fire to his house.
While Greenwood residents continued to take up arms in community defense, many others began fleeing the area.
At the 5 am sunrise, according to some reports, either a train whistle or a siren was heard. Many rioters took this as a signal to launch an all-out assault on Greenwood. After a white man was killed by a sniper in Greenwood after he stepped out from behind the Frisco train depot a charge was led by five white men in a car, all of whom were killed by gunfire. Crowds of rioters poured into Greenwood. Terrified remaining residents fled for their lives as the large mob swept through Greenwood. Rioters shot indiscriminately, killing many and looting even more buildings and houses. Several Greenfield residents later testified that residents were ordered to the street, where they faced being shot or sent to a detention center.
Dr. A.C. Jackson, the renowned African-American surgeon, was killed after defending his home and family from the mob. He had been persuaded to surrender to a white Guardsman he knew personally, accepting assurances no harm would come to him. On the way to the convention hall, Jackson was shot and killed by a rioter.
At dawn, a force of about 1500 National Guard and others entered Greenwood from the south and the west with orders to take into custody unarmed blacks and subdue any who resisted. Survivors later called it an invading army. Most terrified Greenwood residents, either fled or surrendered peacefully, though some continued armed resistance. The Guard reported short skirmishes moving down Standpipe Hill, near the present day Tulsa campus of the University of Oklahoma. Rumors spread that the newly built Mount Zion Baptist Church was being used as a fortress and that twenty caskets of rifles had been delivered to the church, but no evidence of this has been found. The National Guard reported a long battle at the church in which 50 blacks “fought like tigers.” When the gunmen refused to emerge the church was burned to the ground. White rioters set up a machine gun emplacement on the top of a hill where it fired down into the church, killing many.
By early Wednesday morning, most of Tulsa’s black citizens had fled in a mass exodus. An undetermined number of blacks were held at various detention centers though out the city.
Around 9:15, 109 additional troops from the Oklahoma National Guard commanded by Adjutant General Charles Barnett arrived in Tulsa by special train. Bartlett summoned further reinforcements from other Oklahoma cities, and martial law in was declared at 11:49 am. By noon most of the violence had finally been suppressed.
Of course, Greenwood was virtually empty by this time. A few blacks hid in downtown churches or with white employees but the majority had either fled or were being held in detention. Throughout Wednesday afternoon and Thursday National Guard patrols went into the countryside to pick up fleeing blacks, some of whom had made it to neighboring cities. Accounts suggest some made it as far as Kansas City. A fair number never returned. At or en route to the detention centers, blacks were subject to harassment, humiliation, and robbery. Many lived at the fairgrounds camp, for the next several weeks, which at its height functioned as a refugee camp, housing up to 5,000.
A grand jury convened the second week of June blamed armed blacks at the courthouse as the main cause of the riot. Agitation for social equality, which was then taken to mean racial intermarriage, and lax law enforcement were blamed as indirect causes. Eighty eight indictments were served, mostly to blacks, bur few seemed to have been served.
In another trial in July Police Chief Gustafson was found guilty of neglect of duty, corruption, and conspiring to free He was removed from office. Gustafson continued his private detective practice.
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In the aftermath of what can only be described as an atrocity, a group appointed by the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce led by W. Tate Brady, a Tulsa businessman, devised a scheme to make Greenwood prohibitively expensive by means of new building codes, forcing blacks to move further north from Tulsa and enabling white businessmen to buy up land rezoned as commercial or industrial. The scheme was later overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, who ruled it unconstitutional, but efforts at disenfranchisement and segregartion continued.
In April of 1922 the 1,700 members of the Ku Klux Klan held a march through downtown Tulsa. In city and county elections later that of that year, Klan candidates took every office up for election. The following August, the governor of Oklahoma again declared martial law in Tulsa County because of Klan activity.
The Tulsa riot gave impetus to the African Black Brotherhood, who believed that blacks could never achieve full equality under capitalism. The ABB formed in 1919 and grew in fame and membership in the wake of the riot . group was a revolutionary socialist organization originating in Harlem, ultimately shifting from a black nationalist position to one of more interracial working class solidarity in opposition to the Back To Africa movement of Marcus Garvey. The ABB was absorbed into the US Communist Party, where members coming from the ABB advocated a stronger struggle against racism than generally favored by white party members. The ABB contributed to the radicalization of the Harlem Renaissance and a turn to socialism among black intellectuals. It was an inspiration for later black radical groups such as the Black Panther Party.
Despite opposition and punitive zoning laws designed to prevent reconstruction, the residents of Greenwood rebuilt, much of the district being made whole again after five years. It remained a vital black community, although it never fully recovered from the devastation. By 1942, the community had more than 240 black-owned businesses, but faced a gradual decline as the early residents died or moved away. Desegregation in the 1960s led to a major economic decline. Black family-owned businesses were undermined. In the 1970s much of Greenwood was demolished to make way for a freeway. The University of Oklahoma Tulsa campus and Langston University were also built atop the area. Today, Greenwood is a depressed community, under-served by supermarkets and other facilities.
For decades the Tulsa riot was little known and rarely mentioned, even by African-Americans living in Tulsa. Writing for the New York Times in 2011, A.G..Sulzberger says current revival of interest in the Tulsa Race Riot is largely due to the efforts of Don Ross, a magazine publisher and former state representative. In 2001 Ross and Oklahoma State Representative Maxine Horner introduced legislation to create the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission. Survivors of the riot have received some official recognition but efforts to establish reparations have failed.
Sulzberger says that since retirement, Ross has distanced himself from efforts for compensation, saying there was not enough interest from blacks or whites.
Since retiring, Mr. Ross has extracted himself from those efforts, believing that neither blacks nor whites were committed to the task. He no longer even speaks to the survivors. “I cut that connection,” he said. “It was too heartbreaking .”
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Kate Frey has a background as an international educator and has taught and worked in China, Russia, Bosnia, Germany, as well as the US. She currently lives near Portland, Maine. She is a member of Socialist Alternative. She can be contacted at Ktfrey5@gmail.com.