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The Tulsa Riot of 1921

Part 2 - The 1921 Riot to today

by Alice Lovelace
Atlanta. Georgia

Alice Lovelace.
Alice Lovelace.

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

The 1921 Riot

The catalyst for the riot has been traced to a story run in the Daily Tribune which accused nineteen year old Dick Rowland of attempted rape of Sarah Page, in the elevator at the downtown Drexel Building. The article was peppered with inflammatory, but untrue statements that charged Rowland had "scratched her hands and face and [was] tearing her clothes" (Larsen, 1997, p. 50). The paper also ran an editorial of the opinion that Rowland ought to be hanged.

The Daily Tribune, a White newspaper that tries to gain its popularity by referring to the Negro settlement as "Little Africa," came out on the evening of Tuesday, May 31, with an article claiming that a Negro had had some trouble with a White elevator girl at the Drexel Bldg. It also said that a mob of whites were forming in order to lynch the Negro. (Ellsworth, 1982, pg. 48 also see Larsen, 1997, p. 5O).

African American men, many veterans of the First World War, responded to the threat by going to the police station with the intention of aiding the small police force to fend off lynchers. The Black veterans knew that the jail was not immune from lynchings given the many incidents in the years leading up to 1921. They were holding young Rowland in the same jail cell that held Roy Belton only one year earlier. Belton was spirited from the jail atop the Courthouse and lynched by a White mob. The fact that Belton was White only deepened the Black communities fear for young Rowland for if they could get so overheated to lynch their own, what would they care about young Rowland (Ellsworth, 1982, pp. 40-45 also Larsen, 1997, p. 49).

At the station, the Police refused their assistance. Shouts were traded between the groups of Blacks and Whites who had assembled at the police station. Next, someone fired a shot and the riot was on. The local police force was insufficient to exert control as truckloads of White men began to arrive in Tulsa until the mob grew to "more than 10,000 armed and crazed whites" (ibid., p. 46).

The head of Tulsa's National Guard is reported to have phoned the Oklahoma National Guard to report that things were bad, before any violence broke out. Meanwhile, the Police Chief assured the Governor that his people "could manage the situation" ( Ellsworth, 1982, p. 53). Following a series of confused communications between the Police, Mayor and Governor, it was finally decided to send in the Oklahoma National Guard. (ibid., p. 53). While the City awaited their arrival, thousands of armed Whites ransacked downtown stores for guns and weapons and set about torching and looting the African American community.

Around 11:00 P.M., on the night of May 31st, a few Tulsa Guardsmen began to make their way to the Courthouse.

[They] received a report that a group of whites had broken into McGee's Hardware Store, stealing guns and ammunition. The owner of the store, however, later stated that he thought that Captain George H. Blaine of the Tulsa police force was the one who broke into his store and dealt out the guns....McGee's was not the only one broken into by whites in their search for weapons, as fifteen other hardware stores and pawnshops reported break-ins (ibid. p. 54)

The Guard arrived "by train at about 9:15 A.M." (ibid., P. 61) on the morning of June 1st. They did not stop White looters, instead they set up camp, prepared their breakfast. Next, "they also began to imprison any black Tulsans who had not yet been interned" (ibid., p. 61).

The Results of the Riot

The riot resulted in a reported four thousand African American men being detained for three days in internment camps. (ibid., p. 71). Thirty-five (35) blocks of Greenwood were totally destroyed, starting with the business district and winding down though the poorer neighborhoods. The number of dead has always been difficult to place because of the dumping of bodies in the Arkansas River and the prohibition on funerals following the riot. (ibid., pp. 67-69). Estimates of the dead ranged "from 27 to over 250" (ibid., p. 66).

According to Ellsworth (1982) eyewitness reports support a higher count of those dead. A magazine article written by Walter White (cited in Ellsworth, 1982) reports that during an interview with officials at the Salvation Army he was told they had fed thirty seven grave diggers on two days and twenty on two others.

During the first two days these men dug 120 graves in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No coffins were used....Added to the number accounted for were numbers of others--men, women and children-- who were incinerated in the burning houses in the Negro settlement. (p. 69). (note 5)

Another eyewitness reported that someone positioned a machine gun atop of a building and set about firing into the African American community causing people to flee into the hills. Private planes were reported flying over the community "dropping fire from the sky" (ibid., p. 63). The only newspaper to validate this eye witness story was The Chicago Defender which "reported that black neighborhoods in Tulsa were bombed from the air by a private plane equipped with dynamite" (ibid., p. 63)

No European American was ever arrested for the devastation to life and property during the riot in Tulsa. The only individual ever indicted was J. B. Stadford, an influential African American businessman who went to the police station that day as a peacemaker. He was forced to flee and never returned to Tulsa (Larsen, 1997, p. 47).

Much of the blame for the riot was directed at the African American men who tried to protect young Dick Rowland from being lynched. The attempted intervention of those armed black Tulsans who went down to the courthouse was another ingredient in the riot, but to claim that they 'caused' the race riot, as many have, is absurd. It is part of the nature of racism that hatred directed against an individual can very easily be translated into hatred against that person's entire race. The Tribune's coverage of the Rowland-Page incident had helped to facilitate this shift with its headline: 'Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.' But it was at the courthouse where the 'immediate' hatred of the whites shifted from being aimed solely at Dick Rowland to all blacks in general, and the actions of those blacks who attempted to intervene were instrumental in initiating this transformation. This shift was further aggravated by the courthouse battle which slowly wound its way to black Tulsa. When it reached the black neighborhoods, the conflict was no longer a white lynch mob against Rowland--and a black attempt to prevent it--but simply a case of white against black. (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 102).

What followed in the aftermath of the riot in Tulsa was in economic and political ways more damaging than the actions of the rioters. The City, according to the evidence, appears to have entered into a conspiracy to institutionalize economic and political instability in Tulsa's African American community. The unofficial word went out to individuals working for the City that while the Red Cross could accept cash donations for the refugees of the riot, no contributions were to be accepted by the City on behalf of the African American community (ibid., p. 83).

Efforts by individuals and organizations outside of Tulsa to assist the African American community were met by City officials with a "we are taking care of our own" attitude. The all White Chamber of Commerce and the Executive Welfare Committee spoke of the obligation to help restore the Greenwood community to financial and economic independence it enjoyed before the riot. After making sympathetic statements to the press, both organizations decided that no "'help, financial or otherwise, be accepted to reconstruct the Negro district"' (ibid., p. 84). In reality, "the mythical 'reconstruction' of black Tulsa by politically and socially influential white Tulsans, be they member of the hooded order or not, revealed a total disregard for the rights of black citizens." (ibid., pg. 98). Restrictive laws and punitive building codes were passed in an effort to thwart redevelopment in Greenwood. "In the June 7 report of the Executive Welfare informed the public that, under its direction, 'the Real Estate Exchange was organized to list and appraise the value of properties in the burned area and to work out a plan of possible purchase and the conversion of the burned area into an industrial and wholesale district"' (ibid., p. 84). Others thought the site would make a good place for a "Union Station" (ibid., p. 85). Even in ruin, Greenwood's location at the axis of three railroads made it prime development property. "The minutes of the Tulsa City Commission meetings from June 14, 1921, to June 6, 1922, reveal that in excess of $1.8 million in claims against the city were filed with--and subsequently disallowed by--the city commissioners" (ibid., p. 70).

In the days following the riot, White charity extended to bringing coffee and sandwiches to the prisoners and the donation of luggage for the homeless (ibid., 79). "At first, black Tulsans were allowed to leave the camp only if a white person would come and vouch for them, a system designed to allow only those blacks who were employed by whites to be released immediately" (ibid., p. 72). Adding insult to injury, the refugees of the riot were issued green cards.

The words 'Police Protection' [was] printed on one side, and various other data recorded on the other....Black Tulsans had to carry these cards, which had been paid for by the City Commission and the Chamber of Commerce, until July 7 [1921]. (ibid., p. 72). Relief efforts were minimal after the first few days following the riot.

Only "the Red Cross and the 'Colored Citizens relief Committee and East End Welfare Board"' looked after the victims legal needs and comfort "to the best of their ability" (ibid., p. 79). In addition, the City insisted that those most affected by the riot be used as forced labor to assist in the clean-up and maintenance of the camps. (ibid., p. 74).

The extensive damage, the loss of physical and intellectual resources, and the additional cost of reconstruction resulting from restrictive fire ordinances, weakened Greenwood's economic stability. Despite these roadblocks, Black Tulsa did rebuild with assistance from other African Americans and some Whites. "Black Wall Street" opened for business once again. A few eye witnesses lived long enough to see their efforts destroyed once again by the building of an interstate highway through the middle of the neighborhood. The urban renewal programs of the 1960's and 1970's would destroy the remaining business in Greenwood. (ibid., pp. 108-109).

For most of the past 75 years, the riot remained Tulsa's brooding secret. But on June 1 of last year [1996], the 75th anniversary of the event, Tulsa held its first commemorative service and erected a memorial. And in October [Bill] LaFortune [Tulsa district attorney] performed his own role in the ritual healing. During an emotional ceremony, he cleared a long deceased black man named J. B. Stradford of the charge of inciting the riot. (Larsen, 1997, p. 46).

Just as Whites refused to accept responsibility for the death and destruction caused by the riot, they also could not admit the degree to which Black Tulsans stood up to the violence. Evidence supports many more Whites died during the 1921 riot than were reported. Some were killed by their own, others by African American men defending their family and community. (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 69 and Gates. 1997, p. 42).

Tulsa Today

Tulsa is the county seat of Tulsa County. The City had a population of 404,431 in 1997. Tulsa continues to have a strong economy, despite the oil crash of the 1980's, with health care being a leading factor. The situation of Greenwood today is reflected in figures provide by a web site on the Internet titled Tulsa City Data.

Data extrapolated from the U. S. Census indicate that the population south of 61st Street has increased by 65,000 since 1970, while that north of the Martin Luther King Expressway had decreased by 40,000. Some population has been displaced in the inner city to accommodate completion of the expressway system, a new jail, and construction/expansion of schools (1999, par. 6).


Tulsa had a violent race history preceding the events of 1921. But, it is this one incident over seventy-eight years ago that people living in Tulsa point to as the root cause of the destruction of one of America's most economically independent communities. The riot and subsequent actions of the rioters who held economic and political power over Tulsa robbed Greenwood of a sense of safety and continued, long after it was over, to disrupt the cohesion and stability of the community. Even more disturbing, was the invented history that sprung from the White communities re-telling of the riot. Ellsworth (1982) points out that in "the local white oral tradition" there was an effort "to 'remember' their history, in Ralph Ellison's words, as that which they 'would have liked to have been"' (p. 105).

The next chapter will discuss the design of my research project. From the beginning, I made it clear that one of my primary interests in Tulsa was to explore the stories and attitudes of Black and White Tulsans, as they related to the riot of 1921. Tulsa offered me an opportunity to test concepts I was developing in my Conflict Resolution studies about the telling and receiving of stories.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 3, 2000.