Tulsa Race Massacre

May 31, 1921

A misunderstanding sparks Tulsa's darkest days, The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

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Tulsa Race Massacre



Black Wall Street


Tulsa in 1921 was a booming oil town with a population more than 100,000. Because of segregation, most of the city's 10,000 African American residents lived in the Greenwood District, a thriving neighborhood of entrepreneurs and families enjoying the American dream.

The area included its own school system, newspapers, a bank, library, and hospitals. It was home to a several churches and 191 businesses, which included shops, a luxury hotel, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, barbershops, salons and nightclubs. The district was also home to 15 doctors, three lawyers and two dentists.

The economic strength and influence of the Greenwood District became known as "Black Wall Street," an area considered one of the most affluent African American communities in the United States.


The Accusations


On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland was shining shoes in front of a downtown Tulsa office building. Due to segregation laws, his only available option for a restroom was on the top floor of the Drexel building. At the time, elevators required attendants, and on this particular day, a 17-year-old woman named Sarah Page was operating the elevator.

When the elevator returned to the first floor, a Renberg's store clerk heard Page scream and saw Rowland run from the building. The clerk reported the incident to police, and the next day Rowland was arrested.

Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting Page, police later determined Rowland accidentally stumbled into the elevator, and to keep himself from falling he had only grabbed the attendant's arm.

News of the accusation spread across the city, setting in motion the destruction of the Greenwood District.


Tensions Increase


The evening of May 31, 1921, hundreds of white men gathered at the County Courthouse where Rowland was being held. A group of these men entered the courthouse to demand Rowland be handed over, the Sheriff refused.

Later, around 9 p.m., an armed group of 25 African American men, most of who were World War I veterans, arrived at the courthouse to help protect Rowland. The Sheriff declined the help and the men returned to the Greenwood District.

The white mob had grown to approximately 2,000 people when a false rumor began to spread around the Greenwood District that the white mens were storming the courthouse. Just after 10 p.m., a group of 75 African American men returned to the courthouse offering help to authorities, but they were again told to leave.

As they walked away, a white man attempted to disarm an African American man, who resisted. During the struggle, a weapon discharged, and both sides began to exchange fire.


Black Wall Street Burned to Ashes


Over the next six hours, a white mob, some of whom were armed and deputized by the Tulsa Police Chief, began setting fire to homes and businesses in the Greenwood District. While the city burned, white rioters stopped the fire department from entering the neighborhood.

Acts of violence, drive-by shootings, and looting of homes and businesses carried on throughout the night. The lynch mob reportedly killed anyone who resisted, sending others to internment camps. It was reported at least one machine gun was used during the violence, and some survivors claim airplanes were used to firebomb the area.

Black Tulsans fought hard through the night to protect their homes and businesses, but in the end, they were both outnumbered and outgunned.

greenwood

Panoramic image shows destruction of the Greenwood District
Source: Tulsa City-County Library

When the National Guard arrived with a declaration of martial law on June 1, the riot had effectively ended. The guardsmen helped extinguish the fires, but they also rounded up nearly 4,000 Black men women and children, taking them - at gunpoint - to makeshift internment camps at the Tulsa Convention Center and the McNulty Baseball Park.

On June 2, nearly 6,000 people were moved to the fairgrounds. Authorities forced these prisoners to clean up the destruction caused by the white mob in their community. The mayor threatened survivors with arrest if they refused to work.


The Aftermath


The Greenwood Cultural Center estimates that hundreds were killed, 35 city blocks were reduced to ashes, 1,256 homes were destroyed, with another 400 looted leaving thousands more without shelter and livelihoods.

Historians believe the death toll of the Massacre could be as high as 300. However, the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead: 26 Black and 10 white.

"There's really no way of knowing exactly how many people died. We know that there were several thousand unaccounted for," Mechelle Brown, program coordinator for the Greenwood Cultural Center, said during a 2016 interview.

Within days of losing nearly everything, and with no help from the city, Black Tulsans were already beginning to rebuild with help and donations from the Greenwood Community, Black churches, the NAACP, and other Black townships in Oklahoma.

Charges against Dick Rowland were dropped following the Massacre. However, an all-white grand jury blamed Black Tulsans for the destruction of the Greenwood District. No whites were ever prosecuted or punished for their rioting.

Rowland reportedly left Tulsa and never returned.


Historic News Coverage

Disclaimer: This page contains historical documents, which include imagery and language that may be considered offensive.


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