Tulsa’s Greenwood District: Race Riot of 1921

Tulsa’s Race Riot of 1921

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In a political sense, Tulsa Negroes have made tremendous progress. Constituting one tenth of the voting strength, they easily swing elections one way or the other at will. In this respect, it has been demonstrated time after time, that no office seeker can be elected in a citywide or countywide political contest, where opposition is effective, without the Negro vote. Enjoying unrestricted and universal use of the ballot, Tulsa is the only city in the southwest that has ten precincts with entire Negro staffs—including judges, tellers and inspectors. This very attractive feature of political policy here, has had a most important effect upon the great exodus of Negroes into Tulsa and environs from all over the country.

The Growth of Tulsa

Tulsa’s population in 1900 was estimated at 1390.  During the next two decades, the city’s population skyrocketed. In 1910, the Census Bureau listed Tulsa’s population at 18,182; in 1920 at 72,075. In that latter census, Tulsa ranked as the ninety seventh largest city in the United States, comparable in size to such cities as San Diego ; Wichita; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Troy, New York. City directory estimates, it should be added, were higher than those of the federal government, and the 1921 directory recorded Tulsa’s population as 98,874.

The primary reason for Tulsa’s rapid growth was oil, and as one writer in the 1920s remarked, “the story of Tulsa is the story of oil.” Petroleum had been discovered in 1897 near Bartlesville, Indian Territory, some fifty miles north of Tulsa, and in 1901 the Southwest oil boom seriously got under way with two noted petroleum discoveries: the Spindletop strike near Beaumont, Texas; and the strike at Red Fork, Indian Territory.

Native Americans were the first settlers in Tulsa, than blacks.  Cherokees and the Creeks moved unto Osage lands back in 1830 had black slaves.  When slavery was abolished, the former slaves (black freedmen) remained in the area.  Those freedmen in the Coweta District of the Creek Nation were elected for district public offices.  So in the early 1900s, more blacks moved into the community and it became larger and more established.

In 1905 is when black Tulsans moved and lived along the Greenwood Avenue areas which were sold to blacks.  The first two blocks of Greenwood Avenue, north of Archer was known as “Deep Greenwood” aka Negro’s Wall Street.  Whites owned a large portion of the land in the district.  Economically, black Tulsa was dependent upon the wages paid to black workers by white employers.

 

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The Effect

Within the nationwide context of lynchings and civil unrest and in the face of an international push for rights for persons of African descent, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 occurred. At that time the worst race riot in American history, the Riot abruptly halted the steady growth and momentum of the Greenwood District. In a matter of hours, ignorance, fear, and hate dimmed the bright lights of hope that had shone for years. Daylight turned to dusk—dusk to darkness. Under cover of that darkness all manner of unspeakable, unimaginable atrocities came to pass.

Fires raged. Dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds of lives were lost in the calamity. The unchecked, mob driven lawlessness lasted less than twenty-four hours—less than a full day. But what a difference a day makes: more than 1,000 homes razed; scores of black owned businesses ransacked and looted; African American churches in a thirty five block area defiled, defaced, and destroyed. Property losses far exceeded the initial seven figure estimates.

In the loss of over 700 homes and 200 business houses the Negroes of Tulsa have sustained a loss of over four million dollars. Two of the finest hotels that the Negroes own in America went up in smoke. The Welcome Grocery Store carried as large a stock of groceries as did any retail white store in Tulsa. Mrs. Williams, who owned the Dreamland Theatres in Tulsa, Muskogee and Okmulgee, was perhaps one of the foremost Negro business women in the United States. She has one three story brick on Greenwood, which housed her big confectionery and the other floors were used for offices for the professional men of the race. Farther down the street was her theatre, the pride of the Negroes of the city. The street had located on it three drug stores and two newspaper plants. The Tulsa Star had a plant worth fully $15,000. Fully 150 business houses lined this street alone, that required a Negro traffic officer to stand in the streets all day long, directing the busy activities.

But all was not well in Tulsa. All the ingredients for a major conflagration were already in the mix. Tulsans lacked confidence in the local police and the city administration. Just a few years prior, in 1915, Mayor Frank M. Wooden, Police Commissioner Thomas J. Quinn, and Police Chief Foster Nathaniel Burns had been ousted. Which brings the history of when it started to go bad…

The Cause

The lynching of Roy Belton, a white man that shot another white man in the stomach and robbed him confessed to this crime in 1919. Belton and his two other accomplices, Harmon and Sharp were in county jail and rumors were swirling around that a mob would be visiting them.  The victim eventually died and they were charged with his murder.  Because of this, the mob overtook the jail and took Belton, who was the shooter.  The local police and the town of white people looked on as Belton was led to the side of the rode and a noose was thrown around his neck.  He hung for 11 minutes and then they dropped his body to the ground.

Hundreds rushed over the prostrate form to get bits of the clothing. The rope was cut into bits for souvenirs. His trousers and shoes were torn into bits and the mob fairly fought over gruesome souvenirs. An ambulance was finally pushed through the jam of automobiles. The body was carried to the car, late arrivals still grabbing for bits of clothing on the now almost nude form.

Roy Helton’s death was of special significance to black Tulsans, whose brethren throughout the state were more and more the victims of white mobs. Any faith in the city’s white law enforcement officials had been shattered by the events of 1920. If a white could be lynched in the “Magic City,” what was to stop a mob from lynching a black?

The alleged Monday morning assault on a seventeen year old white girl, Sarah Page, by a nineteen year old African American boy, Dick Rowland (also known as “Diamond Dick”), destroyed the surface calm between the races. Smoldering racial tensions ignited into blazing racial hostilities. The resulting melee and inferno reduced the Negro Wall Street of America to ashes.

Monday morning, May 30, 1921, began in the usual way for Dick Rowland. Rowland, a five dollar a week plus tips shoeshine boy in a Main Street parlor across from the downtown Tulsa Drexel Building, boarded the elevator in the Drexel Building. The Booker T. Washington High School dropout was simply availing himself of an arrangement made by his boss. Rowland and his fellow “bootblacks” (i.e., shoe-shiners) used the Drexel Building “facilities.” There were none in their Main Street shoeshine parlor. Having caught the elevator, Roland headed for the upper-floor restroom as he had done on so many previous occasions. According to Rowland, the elevator lurched, causing him to lose his balance and fall against Sarah Page, a young white woman who operated the elevator in the Drexel Building. She screamed. A clerk from the nearby Renberg’s store, alarmed by Sarah’s screams, ran to her aid. Fearful for his safety, Rowland fled. To some, Rowland’s flight implied guilt. But to most African Americans, well aware of the fate that had befallen other African American men accused of sexual improprieties with white women, flight seemed reasonable and rational under the circumstances.Sarah Page initially accused young Rowland of assault, but quickly retreated from that accusation.

Dick Rowland was picked up by the police on Tuesday, May 31, 1921, booked into the city jail, and questioned. Summoned to the jail, Sarah Page provided a statement corroborating, in all material respects, Dick Rowland’s account of the events of that fateful day. She admitted that her encounter with Dick Rowland had been inadvertent and innocent. She told officers that Rowland had come close to her on the elevator and that he had stepped on her foot. Of her own admission, she had panicked and overreacted. Page told officers that she slapped Rowland, at which time he grabbed her arm to prevent her from slapping him again. She screamed. He fled.

But the damage was already done and according to the white residents of Tulsa, Dick was guilty and this was enough of a reason for black Tulsa and their residents to feel their anger…

To read the rest of the story the books: Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District by Hannibal B. Johnson  or Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth

#DeirdreCooperOwens
What I do know is that #NatTurner’s story is also contained in books that interested parties can purchase and borrow from libraries. These include Patrick Breen’s The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt and Kenneth Greenberg’s Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. The literary history of Nat Turner reaches back to the 1830s. Turner’s story has never been a hidden historical event.

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Sources:

Johnson, Hannibal (2007), Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, Eakin Press, https://www.amazon.com/Black-Wall-Street-Renaissance-Greenwood/dp/1934645389

Ellsworth, Scott. (1992), Death in a Promised Land : The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Baton Rouge, LA, USA: Louisiana State University Press (LSU Press), 1992.

Ellsworth, Scott (1982), Death In A Promised Land (Louisiana State University Press), pp. 115–117. There is evidence in the Record of Commission Proceeding, City of Tulsa Vol. XV, that there were a number more black plumbers in Tulsa in 1921.

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