Spotlight On: The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.
As the librarian in charge of ordering for our adult graphic novels section, I try to really cover as much ground as possible. Along the way I discover quality books which often inspire, amaze, and educate, and a recent selection did all of that and more. Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays, ed. by Brendan Burford, was such a book. Although I found it to be a bit uneven, as there are so many diverse stories with unique approaches and styles, they all were wonderful in their own right, but the one that resonated with me and stuck with me was a short piece by Nate Powell entitled, “Like Hell I Will.” It is drawn in black and white, which is ironic, for it tells the powerful story of the race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the early part of the summer of 1921.
After digging around and researching this event a bit more, I realized that this incident was not only a blight on our national image, but something intentionally omitted from any history book I have encountered throughout my many years of schooling. Interestingly enough, a New York Times article about this very incident appeared in June 19, 2011, entitled: “As survivors dwindle, Tulsa confronts past.” How serendipitous that this article should show up in my research, and yet I STILL knew nothing about it. You may not know anything about this event either, so first, a little background:
Thanks to the discovery of rich oil fields, Tulsa, Oklahoma had grown from a boomtown of 10,000 in 1910 to a population of over 100,000 by 1920. These citizens had a high quality of life and enjoyed many of the most cutting edge conveniences of the day; Victrolas, indoor plumbing, and even modern labor-saving devices like vacuums and electric washing machines. Many of these new citizens were African-Americans, who were looking to make their fortunes, and many certainly did just that. At this early part of the twentieth century, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK was the wealthiest African-American communities of its time, it was even dubbed the “Black Wall Street.” But this wealth also brought a rise in racial tensions between blacks and whites, and the friction mounted until a crack in the veneer occurred, one that would cause catastrophic destruction, wanton murder, and even lead to the appearance of the Klu Klux Klan not more than 3 months later.
It was on May 31, 1921, Memorial Day, that the spark was set off that led to the firestorm that would burn and rage in across Tulsa. Nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland was a black shoeshiner, and had entered the rear entrance of the Drexel Building to head up to the “colored” washroom located on the top floor. The details are somewhat fuzzy here, but the generally accepted story is that while riding in the elevator, Dick lost his balance and grabbed seventeen-year-old elevator operator Sarah Page to steady himself. She screamed, Dick ran out, and a clerk working in a nearby store discovered a distraught Page and concluded that she had been assaulted. The authorities were contacted; Dick was black, Sarah was white.
Unfortunately, no documentation of the events were ever recovered, but a rape charge was levied against Rowland, and he fled to his mother’s Greenwood neighborhood home, he was scared. Rightly so, as Tulsa, like many other communities at the time, were no strangers to lynching.
The next morning Dick Rowland was located and taken into custody, then brought to the Tulsa County Courthouse for further questioning, but by then the media was already whipping the public into a lynching frenzy with sensationalist bylines like “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator” and an editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
Unfortunately for Rowland, Tulsans seemed to have a history of vigilante action. For example, in 1920 there had been a lynching of a white man, Roy Belton, and so the sheriff tried to ensure that this would not happen to Rowland. He increased the guard and barricaded the building, and as a mob formed outside, went out to try and convince them to go home, but the crowd would not budge. In fact, not only would they not disperse, but a few white men even entered the courthouse and demanded Rowland, but were successfully turned away.
Soon, hundreds of white Tulsans crowded the front of the building, demanding that Rowland be handed over, even as the sheriff refused, and by 9p.m. 25 African-American men, many of whom were WWI vets, armed themselves and headed down to the Courthouse, offering to help protect Rowland, but the sheriff refused them as well, and they went back home, unable to help. But tensions continued to mount, and the crowd started to get antsy, even attempting, but failing, to break into the National Guard armory at one point. Soon another, larger group of armed African-American men returned to help protect Rowland, were once again denied, and as they turned to go, a white man tried to take the gun from a black veteran’s hands. A shot rang out, and the riot had begun.
As the night wore on, rioting overcame the city of Tulsa, blanketing it like an insidious fog that obscured reason and blinded citizens to self-control. The white Tulsans, angry about being denied perceived justice through lynching, railed against the African-American population. Although greatly outnumbered (nearly ten to one!), many of the black WWI vets began to take defensive positions, forming battle lines and digging trenches, vainly trying to prepare for the true warfare that was descending upon the city. But the cards were not stacked in their favor.
The authorities, both lawmen and religious leaders, tried unsuccessfully to dispel the massive crowd, even the mayor seemed powerless. The National Guard was called in, but it was already too late. While the Guard was en route, white rioters were deputized and began to head towards Greenwood, looting along the way, smashing in storefronts and ransacking black businesses, arming themselves and setting fires to stores and homes. The fire fighters had great difficulty in stamping out the fires as the rioters worked to prevent them from doing their jobs, and the city was ablaze with rage and flames, dark clouds of smoke filling the Tulsan air.
When the Guard finally did arrive, they spent much of their time protecting a white neighborhood from a black counterattack which never materialized. But the white mob pressed their own attack, and the killing began. A black surgeon named A.C. Jackson was shot to death while escaping from his burning Greenwood home, even after surrendering to the rioters, and an unarmed black man was brutally murdered inside a movie theater. Whites driving cars began doing drive-bys through black neighborhoods, and even airplanes had been conscripted as tools of violence, dropping their payloads of incendiary bombs and shooting rifles at the black Tulsans who were on the ground.
Not all white Tulsans were rioting or shooting black folks indiscriminately, however. Some whites did not agree with the rioters, and did not participate in the violence. In fact, and this is especially poignant in Powell’s graphic depiction in Syncopated, some white citizens even stood up for their black coworkers and neighbors, and in some cases, employees, as angry rioters demanded they be turned over to them. Some complied, but others did not, and faced vandalism and even were attacked themselves.
Finally, around noon on June 1st, the National Guard put a stop to the riot, declaring martial law across the smoldering city. It took only 16 hours for the city to descend into lawlessness and then rise back up, but an immense amount of damage was done, both physically and mentally. More than 6,000 black citizens had been rounded up and forced into prison camps. The final death toll was surprising: a total of 39 people perished. 26 of the casualties were black Tulsans, and over 800 people had been admitted to the hospital for injuries. It is believed that the majority of those admitted were white, as the two black hospitals had been burned to the ground, along with over 35 city blocks. The resultant legal wrangling was a joke; Dick Rowland was never charged and later exonerated, the (all white) grand jury blamed the black Tulsans for the riot, and in the face of all that had occurred, not a single white person was imprisoned. Not for murder, for arson, for rioting, for vandalism, for the obscene and disgusting way they acted, not for anything.
The majority of black Tulsans were now homeless, many lost their businesses, some their lives, but not their spirit. Even in the face of white aggression, they returned and rebuilt Greenwood, although thousands spent a cold winter living in a tent.
According the “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” article from Montgomery College, “It took the better part of the next ten years to recover from the physical destruction and to rebuild and repatriate the residents to their homes. This event, however, is barely mentioned in history books and is particularly absent from Oklahoma history books.”
In 1997 a state commission was formed and it investigated the riot, which at the time was still something of a taboo topic in Tulsa, as well as everywhere else in Oklahoma. Findings from the report indicated that reparations should be paid to the remaining survivors, but the Oklahoma Legislature refused the suggestion. Even a lawsuit on behalf of victims was thrown out of federal courts as the statute of limitations had legally expired.
Another great tragedy, marginalized to a footnote in history, and no note in history books. A race riot in the state that gave us a folksy musical, Sooners, oil, displaced native peoples, and is shaped like a fist with a protruding finger. Well, I think we all know what finger that is.
These videos were culled from the vast collection of Tulsa Riot information that is available on Youtube:
TULSA RACE RIOT pt. 1
TULSA RACE RIOT pt. 2
THE TULSA OKLAHOMA MASSACRE OF AFRIKAN PEOPLE (warning: violent images!)
And here is the book which started it all for me, and my journey down this particular rabbit hole:
Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays, ed. Brendan Burford
Villard Books (New York, 2009), ISBN 9780345505293