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The Tulsa Riot of 1921

Part 1 - Africans in Western Territory

by Alice Lovelace
Atlanta. Georgia

Alice Lovelace.
Alice Lovelace.

Numbered Notes link to a Notes page which comes up in a different browser window


My interest in the study of Conflict Resolution connects with my career as a narrative artist committed to art for social justice and community building. My research explores the telling and receiving of stories rooted in racial conflict. This section of my thesis provides information regarding my choice of the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a research project.

Some historians would say, 1919 was a pivotal year in the post war era of European American economic growth and land expansion. The state of the national health was best revealed in the facts of over 80 Black men and women lynched by White rioters and the deportation of over a hundred union and labor organizers. What makes Tulsa unique during this era is that not only did the death rate run high; there was also the willful destruction of an entire Black community with the intent of destroying their independent economic and political base of support.

The focus will be on this postwar period to give the reader a sense of events that led up to "The Red Summer" mentality. I will begin in an earlier period of time in order to place the culture of the American West in context. This approach allows me to cite historical events that give background on the territory that bred the culture that gave rise to the Tulsa riot of 1921.


The Western Territory was home to numerous indigenous and mixed Native Nations. It is possible that some of them descended from the great continental migration of humans between 40,000 and 10,000 BC. Their ancestors would have been the ones to settle what is now Mexico, or the Great Basin, or the Pacific Northwest. (Miller and Faux, 1997, p. 2)

A survey of the population conducted around the 1500's included the Nations of the Nez Perce, Shoshoni, Ute, Navajo and Kiowa. They shared the North America continents with a diverse number of nations and called their home "Turtle Island". What the Western Plains Nations had in common was a culture and economy rooted in the lifestyle of the hunter/gatherer. They also shared having conflict with European expansionists.

Western Expansion

"The first Europeans to set foot on what is now Oklahoma soil were the explorers who came from Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries" (Gates, 1997, p. 32). From the mid 1600's to the late 1700's, western Nations fought in vain to hold on to their land. In the 1800's, European Americans turned their attention to conquering the lands west of the Mississippi. In 1815, President James Madison (1809-1817) introduced the idea that the Eastern Nations should be relocated to the western frontier. (Miller and Faux, 1997, p. 7).

As early as 1816, Eastern Nations were being forced by the gun or misled by treaties to cede their land. Nations like the Seminole, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee were unable to defend themselves against the desire for land and economic expansion. "Indian Territory" was conceived as a buffer zone to contain the defeated Nations and push back competition for land from France, Spain and England. What it meant for the People of "Turtle Island" was the further, in many cases final, loss of Native cultures and economies. European Americans looked at the western frontier and saw "'free land' ... the meeting place between savagery and civilization"' (Grolier, 1996, p. 1). So successful was this myth of "free land" that "by 1820, all the lands east of the Mississippi had been carved into separate states or territories" (ibid.).

One of Andrew Jackson's first actions as President (1829-1837) was to push for passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. "Jackson argued that 'no state could achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress, as long as Indians remained within its boundaries"' (Mulligan, 1970, par. four). With the law behind them, soldiers and bounty men set about ridding the country of the Indian problem. For the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw, "Indian Territory" was to be their permanent homeland. "It was solemnly sworn in a 'permanent treaty' to be the Indian's Promised Land 'for as long as grass grows and water flows' -- which turned out to mean until the white man wanted more land" (ibid., par. four).

After 1848 and the discovery of gold in California, the frontier was extended to the Pacific Coast. In 1854, to accommodate the influx of White settlers, the government simply took some land back from resettled Natives. It was "free" frontier land that lured White farmers from the Mississippi Valley and cattlemen from Texas to the new territories.

Before long cattlemen drove their massive herds of cattle across Oklahoma Territory to the packing houses in Kansas. People farmed, practiced a variety of religions, over hunted the buffalo and beaver and clear cut the land. Others spread whiskey, disease and guns among the Native Nations, and dispensed their "frontier justice" (Grolier, 1996, p. 2). Within Indian Territory Indian Law only applied to Native people. Before long a situation was created in which Whites considered themselves free of all legal and moral restraints in conduct, politics, or business. In most of their affairs, there was a disregard for the rights of non-whites. (Gates, 1997, p. 35).

The raw frontier experience also fostered boisterous politics, rude manners, disregard for conventions, contempt for intellectual and cultural pursuits, mobility of population, unmitigated waste, and the exploitation of natural resources. The predominant spirit was to take while the taking was good, and frontier history includes many accounts of men who carved out empires and acquired great wealth within a few years. (Grolier, 1996, p. 4).

With passage of the Indian Appropriations Act in 1871, it was made clear that no longer would the government negotiate with Native Nations before taking over their lands. With the legal and military victories against Native Nations came more European American expansion onto their lands. The process of settling the American West carried with it "attitudes and principles associated with ... rugged individualism, conquest and progress, law and order, free enterprise, and the right to bear arms" (Grolier, 1996, p. 1).

Africans in Western Territory

In stories about the exploration of the lands west of the Mississippi River the names of African explorers are obscure. Yet their names can be found in the stories of early European exploration.

Diego el Negro was a crewman on Columbus' final journey, 1502-1504. Nuflo de Olano was one of thirty blacks with Vasco Nunez de Balboa when he reached the Pacific Ocean and Ferdinando de Soto is known to have brought blacks to the Mississippi River. In 1520 Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez had about 300 blacks in his company when he explored the area now known as Mexico, one of whom planted the first wheat in the new world... . Estevanico (Little Stephen), a black with the Spanish expedition..., is believed to have been the first black to set foot in Oklahoma. (Gates, 1997, p. 32).

From the earliest days Africans were part of the settling of the American West. The wave of African American settlers predates the arrival of Whites. Their immigration dates to the 1830's and in many cases, coincided with the removal of Indians from their ancestral lands in the South. For generations African Americans had intermarried into Native Nations on both coasts. This was common among the Eastern Nations, especially the Cherokee and Creek, who both owned slaves. (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 12). Many raised themselves to the level of top positions in tribes as negotiator, or as spokesperson.

In America the Negroes have intermarried rather freely with the Indians wherever the races have come into contact. The two races have had some common basis for sympathetic association, the barriers to social equality between them have not been formidable, and there have been no legislative acts forbidding the intermixture. (Reuter, 1970, p. 125).

During the Civil War and following Reconstruction, after Federal troops pulled out of the South; it was White vengeance that accounted for the migration west of many Black Americans (Gates, 1997, p. 31). They also came to Oklahoma from Kansas seeking economic opportunity and acceptance as equals. On the frontier, you might be a stranger, but because of the harsh life threatening conditions you were not judged so swiftly only by the color of your skin. Instead each person was assumed to be a person of their word.

"A stranger was considered honest until proved otherwise, and it was taken for granted that any traveler stopping at a farmhouse was welcome to have supper and to spend the night" (Grolier, 1996, p. 4). Oklahoma became know among African Americans as 'the promised land' (Gates, 1997, p. 31). At one time, this "black promise land" was home to fifty-eight independent towns, more than any region of the nation. (ibid., p. 38).

Tulsa History

The Creek Nation, had been forced from their remaining lands in Alabama as early as 1816. The Lochapokas (Turtle Clan) of the Creek Nation found a new home in Indian Territory at a site near a large Oak tree overlooking the Arkansas River. They named the location "Tallasi" or "Old Town" (Wise, 1997-98, par. one) in honor of their former home on the Talapoosa River. By 1836 the ceremonial fire was rekindled, the corn planted, and the cattle and horses tended. It is said that around that Oak tree the first council meeting was held and Chief Opothle [Archie] Yahola presided. (ibid.).

By the time the Civil War came to Indian Territory, Native Nations were fighting each other, divided in their support of the Confederacy and the Union. Following a series of battles with Confederate troops and supporters, The Creek were forced to abandon "Tallasi" and seek refuge in Kansas. "A United States census taken in 1867 showed that the Tulsa area had a population of 264 Creek Indians" (Wise, Fall 1997-98, par.). "Tallasi" was incorporated as the City of Tulsa on January 17, 1897. The first permanent White settlements appeared in "the early 1880's" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 8).

By the time Oklahoma became a state, Native people "found themselves forced to abandon their age-old practice of common ownership and to begin to live according to the white man's rules of private enterprise" (Mulligan, 1970, par. five). It was the dual blessing/curse of the railroad and the discovery of oil that eventually made Tulsa a boom town. "By 1907, the year of statehood, Oklahoma led the nation in oil production... . The 1909 Tulsa city directory listed no fewer than 126 oil companies" (Ellsworth, 1982, pp. 9-11). Tulsa's new nickname was "Magic City" (ibid., p. 11).

Culture in Context

During my visits to Tulsa, I encouraged people to tell me stories about what they knew about local history. I constantly sought insight from my hostess, Georgia Williams, (note 1) about buildings, street names or items in the newspapers. When I asked people to tell me about Oklahoma, there were two stories that consistently came out. These two stories set the economy and culture of the American West in context. The first story was about the origins of Oklahoma's nickname, the Sooner State. The rush for land in Oklahoma Territory was set for noon, April 20, 1899. On the night before the land rush a groups of White men sneaked out of camp in order to secure for themselves the best land. After hiding out all morning, they simply emerged at noon to register their claims legally. Not all of the claims were upheld. (1889 Land Run, 1997) The nickname stuck because they had come Sooner (note 2) than everyone else. They cheated and won. To this day, the Sooner name is celebrated. (Winter, 1997, p. 15).

The second story was about how Oklahoma City became the State Capital. Following the land rush of 1889 the little town of Guthrie, which "had consisted of a few soldiers, deputy marshals, and railroad personnel; by nightfall had swelled to 10,000-15,000 people living in tents or crude shacks" (1889 Land Run, 1997, par. five). The status of government seat fell on Guthrie.

On August 20, 1889, a group calling itself the Convention of Western Oklahoma met in Guthrie and wrote a memorial to Congress asking for authorization for self-government. Presented to Congress in December of that year, this memorial [sic] (note 3) claimed that there were now 50,000 people [White land owning males] in Oklahoma. On May 2, 1890, President Harrison signed the Organic Act, establishing a government for Oklahoma territory. (ibid., par. six)

In the story told to me, it wasn't long before a group of White men sneaked into Guthrie under cover of night and stole the artifacts of statehood-- the seal of office, state constitution, and records. The next day, it was announced that the state seat was now Oklahoma City. The deed was accepted without action against the perpetrators. Both stories suggest Tulsa inherited a culture of vigilantism.

Topology of the Conflict

Native people are not the only group that have suffered because of Oklahoma's frontier mentality and culture of vigilante justice. At the end of World War One, African American men arrived home from points along the European front. The headlines at home declared them heroes, while in small towns throughout Europe they were hailed as victors. These soldiers came home with an awareness that all Whites did not feel towards them or treat them the way Whites did in the United States.

In 1917, Black soldiers arrived home expecting respect and better treatment after fighting a war to free the European world. (Reuter, 1970, p. 378). Instead, their expectations were met with a series of vicious riots that resulted in the destruction of Black owned property and the lynching of African-American men. In the years before and following the First World War, newspaper and book publishers printed graphic tales about Black mean as rapist and thieves. The release in 1915 of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation established an American narrative on race that cast African Americans as undesirable and depraved parasites. The more lurid the stories grew, the more often they resulted in violence. "Black homes in white neighborhoods were burned, and lynchings went from 38 in 1917 to 83 in 1919" (Granger, 1995, par. 1). Across the nation, over twenty five (25) riots were reported in 1919 alone. (Miller and Faux,, 1997, p. 107 and Bennett, 1982, p. 521). Three hundred and six (306) lynchings were recorded between 1915 and 1919. (Reuter, 1970, p. 344).

Veterans and their families were not the only ones being targeted by White violence. Nationally, African American workers were losing ground. Under President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), "many black postal workers lost their jobs....and the number of black police declined" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 18) Complaints of a tight economy and the added rhetoric of White supremacist literature like The Passing of the Great Race, (note 4) fueled emotions that resulted in riots in "Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, and Pennsylvania" (ibid., p. 17)

There were other riots around that time [1921] that had official counts almost as high, or even higher [than Tulsa]--the East St. Louis riot of 1917 (at least 125 dead), the Chicago riot of 1919 (at lest 38 dead); the Elaine, Arkansas, riot of 1919 (at least 30 dead). But what had been lost in Tulsa was far more than lives. It was a community and a dream. (Larsen, 1997, p. 52).

"Black leaders warned of a race war; white politicians cried, 'Bolshevism!"' (Granger, 1995, p. 1). Labor organizers were attacked with inflammatory and false charge. The real agitators, Whites charged, were the Bolsheviks, or Reds, especially those leading labor strikes. Following the founding of the Communist Party, individuals accused of being "Reds" were rounded up and tried for sedition in secret court hearings and then deported. Because the issues of race and economics are entwined, wherever you find one, you will find the other. The riots against African American economic progress and the deportation of those agitating for improvements in wages and working conditions, both became symbolized by the color red.

Hence the wave of national violence came to be known as "The Red Summer" or "The Red Year" (ibid.).

During this time in Tulsa, oil was being discovered and creating new millionaires overnight. African American success in Tulsa did not come directly from oil or the railroad. Their opportunity came from taking advantage of the need to feed, clothe and house non-White workers, visitors and tourists. African American entrepreneurship gave birth to an impressive array of business and success stories. In Tulsa, this was evident in an African American community known as "Greenwood". Two such examples are J. B. Stradford, a lawyer and "one of Tulsa's most prosperous black entrepreneurs in the l910s. He owned a 65-room hotel, a savings and loan and other real estate in Greenwood" (Larsen, 1997, pp. 46-47). "Simon Berry introduced public transportation to North Tulsa" (Alice Andrews in Gates, 1997, pg. 41) by way of a jitney service that saved Black Tulsans the difficulties of having to choose walking in the mud or walking along the railroad tracks.

The Greenwood community had shops and services that soon supported elegant lifestyles and homes. From dress and hat shops, banks and hotels, restaurants, movie houses, ice cream parlors, to drug stores Greenwood was a busy shopping district. (Gates, 1997) Greenwood also boasted two newspapers, thirteen churches, two schools, a hospital, two theaters "and a black public library" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 14).

The blacks in Tulsa, totally segregated on the north side of the railroad tracks, were building up a prosperous community that boasted the second highest black literacy rate among Oklahoma counties. ... The Greenwood section of Tulsa bristled with such energy, prosperity and promise that Booker T. Washington himself -- so the legend goes -- dubbed Greenwood Avenue 'the Black Wall Street"' (Larsen, 1997, p. 48).

Scott Ellsworth (1982) is considered an expert on the 1921 riot. His research points to the Tulsa press as an instigator in the riot. Most notably the Daily Tribune, believed to be run by members of the Klan. The editor choose to described Greenwood as "nigger town" or when he wanted to be especially insulting as "Little Africa" (Ellsworth, 1982, pg. 4 and Larsen, 1997, p. 49).

Throughout Tulsa, like the rest of the nation, there were attacks on workers and a growing wave of White supremacy that led to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. "The Klan was very strong ... particularly in Tulsa, which boasted by the time of the riot a 'thriving chapter"' (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 20). Regardless of these attitudes, by 1921, North Tulsa was a boom town of social and political accomplishments by the African American community. The events of 1921 left in their wake a community shattered by fire, murder and looting. These acts were perpetrated by Whites in and around Tulsa against the community of Greenwood.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 3, 2000.