Why you should care
Because this act of racial violence still gets omitted from history books.
Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.
It’s a harrowing eyewitness account of the bloodiest episode of racial violence in American history, but not one that you will find in many U.S. history textbooks. It’s contained on 10 pages of folded yellow legal paper at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I could see planes circling in midair. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building,” wrote Oklahoma lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin, father of the late historian John Hope Franklin, of the flaming balls of turpentine being dropped by authorities on the residents of the Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood. “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air,” Franklin continued. “‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half-dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
They were. On May 31, 1921, in broad daylight, in the middle of America, vigilantes, in tandem with the Tulsa police force, gunned down their fellow citizens in the streets and firebombed them from the skies with impunity, killing up to 300 people and leaving more than 8,000 homeless in a brief but devastating assault on the city’s African-American population. After that, the Tulsa Race Riot, as the pogrom is almost euphemistically referred to, was all but forgotten, whitewashed from history for more than 80 years.
A Black man trips in an elevator on Monday, and an entire city district burns on Tuesday.
The entire brutal episode was sparked, like so many lynchings and other acts of racial violence, by a spurious claim of assault against a white woman at the hands of a Black man — in this case, when a 19-year-old Black shoeshine man named Dick Rowland entered an elevator in a downtown building on his way to the restroom. Accounts vary, but it is likely that Rowland tripped, stumbling into 17-year-old white elevator operator Sarah Page, who let out a scream of surprise. Rumors spread that Page had been raped, and though she pressed no charges, Rowland was arrested and jailed.
The next day, The Tulsa Tribune ran the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator” and called for Rowland to be lynched. An enraged white mob showed up at the jailhouse, and a group of Black residents, including World War I veterans, rose up to prevent a lynching. During the ensuing standoff, a shot was fired, and eventually the outnumbered Blacks fled into Greenwood with the white mob in pursuit. During the next 24 hours, an army of white vigilantes — deputized, armed and aided by Tulsa law enforcement — went on a rampage through Greenwood, a prosperous community often called the “Black Wall Street,” shooting, looting or burning almost everything in its path. Phone and transportation systems were shut down and Oklahoma’s governor had to call in the National Guard, but not before nearly 1,500 homes and businesses, and more than 35 square blocks of Greenwood, had been annihilated.
That’s right, a Black man trips in an elevator on Monday, and an entire city district burns on Tuesday. Greenwood’s Black residents would be largely blamed for the “riot,” and thousands would be arrested, while others were placed in makeshift camps for months. No whites were ever convicted for their role in the massacre, and no compensation for lost property or lost lives was ever paid. The ugly event was buried for decades, many in Tulsa being unaware of its existence until a Tulsa Race Riot Commission issued a report on it in 2001.
Even before the elevator incident, racial tensions had been building in the city for years. For African-Americans fleeing the Deep South in the early 20th century, Oklahoma, flush with oil money, had become a beacon of opportunity, and a number of its Black citizens prospered as business owners, bankers, doctors and more, even as they were forced to lead segregated lives in Greenwood. Still, whites outnumbered Blacks 10 to 1 in the city, and successful Blacks became a growing target, particularly of poor whites.
Awareness of the massacre is growing in Tulsa, where the episode is now taught in public schools. A Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission has been established, says Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, in order to educate the entire city before the 100th anniversary. “The past causes the present and affects the future,” argues Place. “Suffering is not anonymous. It is personal. These were real people with real lives, and they were Tulsans… [and] until we all know the story, we are all stuck in the past.”