by Jack R. Johnson Graphic Illustration by Doug Dobey
It was rarely, if ever described in American history books, much less American television, but last Sunday’s premiere of HBO’s Watchmen’s series introduced millions of Americans to one of our country’s most violent racist episodes: The 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
More than one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed in the event. Rough estimates put the death toll between 100 and 300, with at least 800 injured. By the time the violence ended, the city had been placed under martial law, thousands of Tulsans were being held under armed guard, and the state’s second-largest African American community had been burned to the ground.
What triggered the event remains obscure. It is alleged that at some time on the afternoon of May 31, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoe shiner, entered the elevator at 319 South Main Street in Tulsa, to use the top-floor restroom, which was restricted to black people. Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator was on duty. A clerk heard what sounded like a woman’s scream and saw a young black man rushing from the building. The clerk went to the elevator and found Sarah Page in what he said was “a distraught state.” Thinking she had been “assaulted”, he summoned the authorities. The term “assault” in the early part of the 20th century was a euphemism for rape. People who knew Dick Rowland, whites as well as blacks, condemned the immediate rush to judgement. The Oklahoma Historical Society suggested that “the most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream.” Another explanation: they were secret lovers, but to admit such a thing in 1920s America when the Ku Klux Klan was in ascendance, would have been a disaster.
Initially, not much was made of the report. According to James Hirsch writing in Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and its Legacy the police likely questioned Sarah Page, but no written account of her statement has been found. “It is generally accepted that the police determined what happened between the two teenagers was something less than an assault. The authorities conducted a low-key investigation rather than launching a man-hunt for her alleged assailant. Afterward, Page told the police that she would not press charges.”
That was not the end of matters, however. The next day, the Tulsa Tribune, the city’s white daily newspaper, reported, without evidence, that Dick Rowland had attempted to rape Sarah Page. The Tribune also published an editorial about the incident, titled, provocatively: “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, by 7:30 p.m. hundreds of whites had gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, demanding that the authorities hand over Dick Rowland, but the sheriff refused. At about 9 p.m., reports of the dire conditions downtown reached Greenwood, a prosperous black neighborhood of Tulsa. Greenwood was sometimes referred to as ‘Black Wall Street’ because of its reputed wealth. A group of approximately twenty-five armed African American men from Greenwood, many of whom were World War I veterans, went down to the courthouse and offered their services to help protect Rowland. The sheriff, however, turned them down, and the men returned to Greenwood. At about 10 p.m. a false rumor hit Greenwood that whites were storming the courthouse. This time, a second contingent of African American men, perhaps as many as 75, returned to the courthouse, and offered their services to the authorities. Once again, they were turned down. As they were leaving, a white man tried to disarm a black veteran, and “a shot was fired.”
That was how the riot started.
Twelve people were killed almost immediately: ten white and two black. As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, during the early hours of the conflict, local authorities did little to stem the growing crisis. Indeed, shortly after the outbreak of gunfire at the courthouse, Tulsa police officers deputized former members of the lynch mob and, according to an eyewitness, instructed them to “get a gun and get a n****r.”
Shortly before dawn on June 1, thousands of armed whites had gathered along the fringes of Greenwood. When daybreak came, they poured into the district, looting homes and businesses and setting them on fire.
Historian Tim Madigan wrote that “eyewitnesses described airplanes carrying white assailants, who fired rifles and dropped firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families.”
Law enforcement officials later said that the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect against a “Negro uprising.” Law enforcement personnel were thought to be aboard at least some flights.
Noted Oklahoma attorney Buck Colbert Franklin wrote the following eye witness account:
“Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.
“They [planes] grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way Hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top.
“The sidewalks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught fire from the top.
“I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where, oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’
Franklin reported seeing multiple machine guns firing at night, and hearing ‘thousands and thousands of guns’ being fired simultaneously from all directions. He states that he was arrested by “a thousand boys, it seemed…firing their guns with every step they took.”
By the time additional National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa at approximately 9:15 a.m. on the morning of June 1, most of Greenwood had already burned to the ground.
About 10,000 black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property ($32 million in 2019 dollars).
For many years the violence became something of a taboo subject, particularly in Tulsa. Many survivors simply left the city. Those who remained behind, either black or white, were silent for decades about the event and the riot was largely omitted from history books.
According to Tulsa Historical Society, no prosecution took place of any whites for actions committed during the riot.
Finally, in 1996, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Massacre was formed. In 2001, the Commission’s report said, “the city had conspired with the mob of white citizens against black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants.”
To this day no money has been paid out, but maybe a little publicity from the Watchmen series can give those reparations a jump start.