During the Tulsa Race Riot, which occurred over 18 hours on May 31-June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked residents, homes and businesses in the predominantly black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The event remains one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, and one of the least-known: News reports were largely squelched, despite the fact that hundreds of people were killed and thousands left homeless.
BLACK WALL STREET
In much of the country, the years following World War I saw a spike in racial tensions, including the resurgence of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, numerous lynchings and other acts of racially motivated violence, as well as efforts by African Americans to prevent such attacks on their communities.
By 1921, fueled by oil money, Tulsa was a growing, prosperous city with a population of more than 100,000 people. But crime rates were high, and vigilante justice wasn’t uncommon: In August 1920, a white mob took a white teenager accused of murdering a taxi driver from his jail cell at the courthouse and lynched him; newspaper reports claimed the police did little to prevent the lynching.
Tulsa was also a highly segregated city: Most of the city’s 10,000 black residents lived in a neighborhood called Greenwood, which included a thriving business district sometimes referred to as the Black Wall Street.
WHAT CAUSED THE TULSA RACE RIOT?
On May 30, 1921, a young black teenager named Dick Rowland entered an elevator at the Drexel Building, an office building on South Main Street. At some point after that, the young white elevator operator, Sarah Page, screamed; Rowland fled the scene. The police were called, and the next morning they arrested Rowland.
By that time, rumors of what supposedly happened on that elevator had circulated through the city’s white community. A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune that afternoon reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page.
As evening fell, an angry white mob was gathering outside the courthouse, demanding the sheriff hand over Rowland. Sheriff Willard McCullough refused, and his men barricaded the top floor to protect the black teenager.
Around 9 p.m., a group of about 25 armed black men—including many World War I veterans—went to the courthouse to offer help guarding Rowland. After the sheriff turned them away, some of the white mob tried unsuccessfully to break into the National Guard armory nearby.
With rumors still flying of a possible lynching, a group of around 75 armed blacks returned to the courthouse shortly after 10 pm, where they were met by some 1,500 whites, some of whom also carried weapons.
After shots were fired and chaos broke out, the outnumbered group of blacks retreated to Greenwood.
Over the next several hours, groups of white Tulsans—some of whom were deputized and given weapons by city officials—committed numerous acts of violence against blacks, including shooting an unarmed man in a movie theater.
The false belief that a large-scale insurrection among black Tulsans was underway, including reinforcements from nearby towns and cities with large African-American populations, fueled the growing hysteria.
As dawn broke on June 1, thousands of white citizens poured into the Greenwood District, looting and burning homes and businesses over an area of 35 city blocks. Firefighters who arrived to help put out fires later testified that rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave.
According to a later Red Cross estimate, some 1,256 houses were burned; 215 others were looted but not torched. Two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores and many other black-owned businesses were among the buildings destroyed or damaged by fire.
By the time the National Guard arrived and declared martial law shortly before noon, the riot had effectively ended. Though guardsmen helped put out fires, they also imprisoned many black Tulsans, and by June 2 some 6,000 people were under armed guard at the local fairgrounds.
AFTERMATH OF THE TULSA RACE RIOT
In the hours after the Tulsa Race Riot, all charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. The police concluded that Rowland had most likely stumbled into Page, or stepped on her foot. Kept safely under guard in the jail during the riot, he left Tulsa the next morning and reportedly never returned.
The “official” tally of deaths in the riot was 36 people killed, including 10 whites. Even by that estimate—which historians now consider much too low—the Tulsa Race Riot stood as one of the deadliest riots in U.S. history, behind only the New York Draft Riots of 1863, which killed at least 119 people.
In the years to come, as black Tulsans worked to rebuild their ruined homes and businesses, segregation in the city only increased, and Oklahoma’s newly established branch of the KKK grew in strength after the riot.
For decades, there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead or any efforts to commemorate the events of May 31-June 1, 1921. Instead, there was a deliberate effort to cover them up.
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 Riot was rarely mentioned in history books, taught in schools or even talked about.
Scholars began to delve deeper into the story of the riot in the 1970s, after its 50th anniversary had passed. In 1996, on the riot’s 75th anniversary, a service was held at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which rioters had burned to the ground, and a memorial was placed in front of Greenwood Cultural Center.
TULSA RACE RIOT COMMISSION
The following year, after an official state government commission was created to investigate the Tulsa Race Riot, scientists and historians began looking into long-ago stories about the riot, including numerous victims buried in unmarked graves.
In 2001, the report of the Race Riot Commission concluded that between 100 and 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 people made homeless over those 18 hours in 1921.
A bill in the Oklahoma State Senate requiring that all Oklahoma high schools teach the Tulsa Race Riot failed to pass in 2012, with its opponents claiming schools were already teaching their students about the riot.
According to the State Department of Education, it has required the topic in Oklahoma history classes since 2000 and U.S. history classes since 2004, and the riot has been included in Oklahoma history books since 2009.
James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
Scott Ellsworth, “Tulsa Race Riot,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.
Nour Habib, “Teachers talk about how black history is being taught in Oklahoma schools today,” Tulsa World (February 24, 2015).
Sam Howe Verhovek, “75 Years Later, Tulsa Confronts Its Race Riot,” New York Times (May 31, 1996).