The Day Black Wall Street Burned
On May 30, 1921 a young African American man, Dick Rowland, entered an elevator in downtown Tulsa. He was likely planning to use the only restroom to which he had access. The (white) elevator operator, Sarah Page, let out a scream. We will never know what led Page to scream out, but the interaction between the two sparked one of the largest domestic race riots in American History.
In 1921, Tulsa was home to the Greenwood District, a thriving business and residential community where African Americans lived and worked. Greenwood was the cultural and economic center of black life. It boasted a theater with a dance hall, a car dealer and confectioners. Doctors, lawyers, barbers built their businesses and their lives in this 35 block area just east of downtown Tulsa.
By the end of the day on June 1, those 35 city blocks would be burned to the ground, and it started, people like to say, with Dick Rowland and Sarah Page.
Rowland was in police custody on May 31, and Page had given a statement. Police engaged in a perfunctory investigation, sure that whatever happened between the teenagers was hardly grounds for an assault or rape charge. And that’s when the newspaper became involved.
When the afternoon edition of the Tulsa Tribune hit streets around 4 pm, it contained an incendiary headline that served as yet another spark:
The same edition contained an editorial calling for a lynching.
Physical copies of this excerpt are lost to time or shame. Some believe that archives have been scrubbed intentionally of this headline. The fact remains that after this headline appeared, white men began to gather at the courthouse, where Rowland was in custody on the top floor.
The crowd of white people grew through the evening, several times, African American men walked or drove to the courthouse seeking to help protect Rowland, who had not been charged with any crime, and never would be charged.
Things reached a head at around 10:15 that evening when an interaction occurred between a white deputy and an armed African American. The deputy, McQueen, asks the man:
“Nigger, What are you doing with that pistol?”
“I am going to use it, if I need to.” Cody replied.
“No, you’ll give it to me.” The deputy reached for the weapon.
“Like Hell I will.” was Cody’s response.
A struggle ensued, the gun went off, and the rioting began.
It’s important to note here that white Tulsa was surging on what had been long established as the African American community, Greenwood. This section had been known as Black Wall Street, or derogatorily as Little Africa. It was also prime real estate which abutted railroad tracks and town.
Until 1 am, white citizens fired shots into the main thoroughfare of Greenwood, looting a sporting goods store and lighting homes and businesses on fire. The Greenwood community struggled to reinforce what we can term battle lines, attempting to protect their land and lives.
Overnight, while skirmishes broke out on the perimeters of Greenwood, pockets of white men assembled and planned a massacre. In other words, what had begun as a haphazard, brightly lit but potentially short-fused flare was summarily turned into a significant blaze.
These men (and women and children) flanked prominent sections of Greenwood, armed with handguns, rifles and machine guns and having positioned snipers to provide cover. They gathered along the south of Greenwood, the west and the north. Snipers took position at Standpipe and Sunset Hills.
Rumors spread that that National Guard was being sent in, while still other rumors swirled that a train full of blacks was headed to Tulsa to fight.
At 5 am, a long, loud whistle blew, and the riot became a genocide. Companies of white men stormed the buildings, looting homes and lighting them on fire. The images are ghastly and the eyewitness accounts terrifying. Children ripped from their parents’ arms, elderly forced to march out of their property. One account tells of a prominent Tulsa doctor who “surrendered,” only to be executed on his front lawn.
By mid-morning, Greenwood had been reduced to smoking rubble. The Mount Zion Baptist Church, which had been dedicated just weeks before now lay in ruins, machine gun fire pocking the remaining edifice.
In the aftermath, African Americans were marched to ballparks and convention centers, for “protection,” but they are referred to as prisoners. African American domestics who lived in the homes of their employers were removed from these homes and taken into custody. Smacking of what was to come in Germany, black prisoners could leave the makeshift encampments if they had been claimed by white people, and if they wore a label declaring them to have been released.
No one knows what happened to Sarah Page or Dick Rowland.
The truth is, Sarah Page and Dick Rowland were minor actors on a stage too big for them. Even the two who scuffled at the courthouse remain footnotes in this history. The truth is that riots and racially motivated crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but that minor detail after minor detail quilts a larger blanket of blame to be shared.
African American men who fought in World War I returned to the states expecting the same hero’s welcome their white counterparts received. They looked forward to being celebrated, and to the right to vote. But this was denied them. In fact, one of the first laws enacted by the new state of Oklahoma was a Jim Crow law that effectively continued the marginalization of the African American.
Further, political systems encouraged disenfranchisement. In 1917, a group of white men was tarred and feathered after being convicted of not owning war bonds. This happened with the consent and assistance of the court.
Finally, newspapers did little to help calm the waters. The headlines here are just a sampling of a skewed narrative.
Still, these fault lines try to locate blame on the African American community. Greenwood felt disenfranchised because it was disenfranchised. But Greenwood citizens did not start the riot, and Greenwood citizens did not riot, or loot, or set fire to white property. Greenwood did not plan and prepare a massacre on white Tulsa.
It’s been 95 years since Tulsa burned. Now, highways slice a literal gash where Greenwood used to flourish. Though there has been some revitalization in recent years, pedestrians on Greenwood and Archer, perhaps walking to a game at the new ballpark or wandering through the Reconciliation Garden can see plaques set in the concrete indicating which businesses had been there and whether they rebuilt. Most did not rebuild. In fact, only one insurance claim, for ammunition, was paid.
Dick Rowland escaped Tulsa as soon as he was released by police. He fled to Kansas City. We know nothing more about his movements, and we know nothing about what became of Sarah Page.
But you can still see the skeleton of Greenwood.