Believed to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, the bloody 1921 Tulsa race riot has continued to haunt Oklahomans to the present day. During the course of eighteen terrible hours on May 31 and June 1, 1921, more than one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed, while credible estimates of riot deaths range from fifty to three hundred. By the time the violence ended, the city had been placed under martial law, thousands of Tulsans were being held under armed guard, and the state’s second-largest African American community had been burned to the ground.
One of a number of similar episodes nationwide, the riot occurred during an era of acute racial tensions, characterized both by the birth and rapid growth of the so-called second Ku Klux Klan and by the determined efforts of African Americans to resist attacks upon their communities, particularly in the matter of lynching. Such trends were mirrored both statewide and in Tulsa.
By early 1921 Tulsa was a modern city with a population of more than one hundred thousand. Most of the city’s ten thousand African American residents lived in the Greenwood District, a vibrant neighborhood that was home to two newspapers, several churches, a library branch, and scores of black-owned businesses.
Talk soon turned to action. By 7:30 p.m. hundreds of whites had gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, demanding that the authorities hand over Dick Rowland, but the sheriff refused. At about 9 p.m., after reports of the dire conditions downtown reached Greenwood, a group of approximately twenty-five armed African American men, many of them World War I veterans, went down to the courthouse and offered their services to the authorities to help protect Rowland. The sheriff, however, turned them down, and the men returned to Greenwood. Stunned, and then enraged, members of the white mob then tried to break into the National Guard armory but were turned away by a handful of local guardsmen. At about 10 p.m. a false rumor hit Greenwood that whites were storming the courthouse. This time, a second contingent of African American men, perhaps seventy-five in number, went back to the courthouse and offered their services to the authorities. Once again, they were turned down. As they were leaving, a white man tried to disarm a black veteran, and a shot was fired. The riot was on.
Over the next six hours Tulsa was plunged into chaos as angry whites, frustrated over the failed lynching, began to vent their rage at African Americans in general. Furious fighting erupted along the Frisco railroad tracks, where black defenders were able to hold off members of the white mob. An unarmed African American man was murdered inside a downtown movie theater, while carloads of armed whites began making “drive-by” shootings in black residential neighborhoods. By midnight fires had been set along the edge of the African American commercial district. In some of the city’s all-night cafes, whites began to organize for a dawn invasion of Greenwood.
During the early hours of the riot local authorities did little to stem the growing crisis. Indeed, shortly after the outbreak of gunfire at the courthouse, Tulsa police officers deputized former members of the lynch mob and, according to an eyewitness, instructed them to “get a gun and get a nigger.” Local units of the National Guard were mobilized, but they spent most of the night protecting a white neighborhood from a feared, but nonexistent, black counterattack.
Shortly before dawn on June 1, thousands of armed whites had gathered along the fringes of Greenwood. When daybreak came, they poured into the African American district, looting homes and businesses and setting them on fire. Numerous atrocities occurred, including the murder of A. C. Jackson, a renowned black surgeon, who was shot after he surrendered to a group of whites. At least one machine gun was utilized by the invading whites, and some participants have claimed that airplanes were also used in the attack.
Black Tulsans fought hard to protect their homes and businesses, with particularly sharp fighting occurring off of Standpipe Hill. In the end, they were simply outgunned and outnumbered. By the time that additional National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa at approximately 9:15 a.m. on the morning of June 1, most of Greenwood had already been put to the torch.
A brief period of martial law was followed by recriminations and legal maneuvering. Even though Dick Rowland was exonerated, an all-white grand jury blamed black Tulsans for the riot. Despite overwhelming evidence, no whites were ever sent to prison for the murders and arson that occurred during the riot.
The vast majority of Tulsa’s African American population had been made homeless by the riot. Yet, despite efforts by the white establishment to force the relocation of the black community, within days of the riot, black Tulsans had already begun the long and arduous process of rebuilding Greenwood. Thousands, however, were forced to spend the winter of 1921-22 living in tents.
Read more at Oklahoma State Univ website: http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/t/tu013.html
On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main. The white elevator operator, Sarah Page, claimed that Rowland grabbed her arm, causing her to flee in panic. Accounts of the incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered blacks began retreating to the Greenwood Avenue business district.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days. [Editor’s Note: Should not these Blacks receive reparations for this internment camp treatment like the Japanese American internment camp victims got?]
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and estimated reports of deaths began at 36*.
* Recently, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission released a report indicating that historians now believe close to 300 people died in the riot.
Tulsa, Okla. — When arrived here in 1890, Tulsa was just a spit of a town – an untidy tangle of dirt streets and a handful of tents occupied by white men seeking their fortune in uncharted Indian lands.
A shoe salesman by trade, the brash and ambitious Missourian saw an opportunity and seized it. He opened a general store, followed by a hotel – the first with baths.
By the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Brady was a celebrated city father. He signed Tulsa’s incorporation papers, started a newspaper and chartered a train filled with boosters, including humorist Will Rogers, to promote the new boomtown to people in the East.
But a lesser-known side of Brady has become the focus of debate in his adopted hometown nearly 90 years after his death. The son of a Confederate veteran, Brady was a member of the local Ku Klux Klan.
1921 race riot
And new questions have emerged about his involvement in the most notorious event in Tulsa history, a 1921 race riot that left 300 black residents dead.
The issue is especially sensitive because Brady’s name is all over town – on a street, a mansion, a theater and a historic neighborhood. It’s also the name of the city’s most ambitious development effort in a generation – a glitzy downtown entertainment district.
Brady’s membership in the Klan was never a secret. It had been noted in Tulsa’s historical records but was largely forgotten until a new Tulsa literary magazine, This Land, published a long article in late 2011 by Lee Roy Chapman, who detailed Klan activities and Brady’s involvement with the group.
Brady created an environment of racism that led to the riot, the article said. Dozens of businesses were looted and burned to the ground, and the chaos decimated the Greenwood District, where grocers, newspapers, prominent doctors and attorneys had thrived in an area historians often call the Black Wall Street.
Even before the article was published, Tulsa had struggled to come to terms with its racial past. Black leaders had complained that the riot has been downplayed in local history. The City Council, community leaders and residents are weighing what to do about a once-proud name that is suddenly tainted.