The Massacre No One Mentions

posted in: History Makers | 0

May 31-June 1, 1921 is a dark blot on American history. Many such incidents begin with isolated events that snowball, fed by media, rumor, hate and innuendo.

Dick Rowland

Dick Rowland was an African American teenager. He’d had no particular advantages – orphaned, attending Tulsa, Oklahoma segregated schools, a high school dropout. At nineteen years old, he had a job shining shoes in a business mainly patronized by whites. Due to Tulsa’s Jim Crow laws of the time, he was not allowed to use the restroom in the building where he worked. His boss arranged for his black workers to use the restroom in the nearby Drexel building, which had a “colored” restroom.

As with most such incidents, accounts differ, but the most likely is that Dick went next door to use the restroom, which was on the top floor. He took the elevator. At the time, most elevators had attendants, and the attendant that day was a seventeen year old white girl, Sarah Page. Maybe the elevator car didn’t quite match the floor level, maybe some other reason – but Dick stumbled entering the elevator. To break his fall, he grabbed whatever was closest – in this case, Sarah’s arm.

Newspaper account of the incident

Sarah was startled at a strange man grabbing her. She screamed and ran out of the elevator. A white store clerk saw her, and called police, reporting that a black man had assaulted her, possibly intending rape. Dick was arrested the next day, and the story caused a sensation. By the time it was printed in the newspaper, the account had Dick attacking Sarah, tearing her clothes.

The media account found a believing white audience, and a lynch mob gathered outside the courthouse where Dick was held. The mob demanded that Sheriff Willard McCullough release Dick to the mob. To his credit, McCullough refused. The threat of lynching sent shock waves through the black community. Prepared to defend one of their own, a group of armed black protesters gathered near the white lynch mob, with predictable results – tempers flared, fighting broke out, shots were fired. Ten white people were killed, and two black people.

Greenwood/Tulsa Race Riot 1921

When these deaths were reported, mobs sprang up everywhere in downtown, especially in the Greenwood or “colored” area. Housing was segregated, like everything else. Ten thousand African Americans lived in the area, and it suddenly became a target of racial rage. Referred to as “Black Wall Street”, the area was prosperous, full of businesses and life. The police had little control but made things worse by deputizing white citizens and arming them. Hysteria reigned, fueled by the rumors of a large black insurrection in the town. Violence peaked the next day on June 1, with thousands of white citizens pouring into Greenwood, tearing apart businesses, setting fires, and beating blacks. Firefighters trying to extinguish blazes were threatened with guns. An unarmed black man in a theater was shot and killed.

Over twelve hundred homes belonging to blacks were burned, and another two hundred looted. Churches, hospitals, hotels, and stores, mostly black-owned, were destroyed. Within the space of two days, hundreds of lives were ruined, homes and businesses lost, and lives lost. The official death toll was thirty-six, though estimates run as high as three hundred. The National Guard arrived, and effectively ended the riot, put out the fires, and arrested over six thousand black citizens, quarantining them at the fairgrounds. Eight thousand people became homeless in eighteen hours.

Though the NY Times and the Daily Oklahoman carried stories on the riots, the Tulsa newspaper removed the front page story from its bound volumes. No memorials were held. There was a deliberate effort to cover up that the incident ever happened.

“The Tulsa Tribune removed the front-page story of May 31 that sparked the chaos from its bound volumes, and scholars later discovered that police and state militia archives about the riot were missing as well. As a result, until recently the Tulsa Race Massacre was rarely mentioned in history books, taught in schools or even talked about.”

And what happened to Dick? After investigation, all charges were dropped. Dick understandably left town and vanished.

If you check your high school history texts, you will likely not find anything about one of the largest racially motivated riots in the history of the United States. Fifty years after the incident, scholars began digging, in some cases literally in unmarked graves, to learn more about what happened. At the seventy-fifth anniversary, finally, a memorial service was held at the site of the Mt. Zion Baptist church which burned to the ground in the riots.

An attempt in the Oklahoma legislature in 2012 to require schools to teach about the incident failed. In 2018, it was officially designated the Tulsa 1921 Race Massacre.

A recent 2012 survey shows that race relations are still an issue in Tulsa.

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