Roaring: Black Wall Street

On The Tulsa Race Riots From 1920s America

Luis A. Mendez
Dec 6, 2018 · 6 min read

In the northern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma, sits a small predominantly black community known as Greenwood. Some may not know this, but unlike other new expanding territories and newfound states stretching across the western plains, Oklahoma was at the time more solidly aligned with the Deep South’s mentality; it had adopted some Jim Crow laws and segregation was a way of life. In the aforementioned Tulsa, that meant that the community of Greenwood was the part of the city where blacks almost exclusively stayed at, and the rest of the city to the South was for the whites only. This set up a situation where blacks were closed off to goods and services offered in the more wealthy southern part of the city.

Instead of just accepting fate as a run-down poor ghetto for an ignored community, Greenwood created its own supply for its own demand. Black businessmen helped to give the town wealth and self-reliance as they themselves took up the mantle of the community’s economic engine. In time, Greenwood would become its own small city of sorts, bustling with pride and success — and all run by a minority group that had been cast aside by the rest of Tulsa.

This extraordinary success led to Booker T. Washington referring to Greenwood as “The Negro Wall Street.” Eventually through time, it would come to be known as “The Black Wall Street.” This incredible little corner of black wealth, however, would almost be destroyed by the very racist and bigoted attitudes that led to Greenwood being cut off from the rest of Tulsa in the first place. There were a horrible and tragic series of race riots that someone tried to wipe from history, and which has been largely forgotten by many.

On Memorial Day 1921, a 19-year-old black man by the name of Dick Rowland entered an elevator accompanied only by the elevator attendant, a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page. A white store clerk heard Page scream in despair as the elevator doors opened, and a confused and panicked Rowland ran off in fear. The clerk approached Page who was clearly distraught and immediately assumed a sexual assault had occurred.

To this day, we have no real evidence as to what exactly happened in that elevator. And it is extremely likely both individuals are no longer with us to tell the truth. It has been speculated that because both likely knew each other by sight as they had frequently seen each other during work hours that a misunderstanding occurred. It has also been theorized that Rowland tripped onto her accidentally and she reacted in shock, and he — obviously knowing what some might think — ran off in a panic. There’s even some who argue they may have been secret lovers and in the middle of a quarrel.

Whatever happened, the allegation of sexual assault led to a low key investigation. Police arrested Rowland and questioned Page, who refused to testify or press charges against him, and police eventually seemed to have decided no assault took place. In time, Rowland would be released from custody. He’d leave Greenwood for Kansas City and history has never revealed what came of him after that.

But what seems to have been a non-incident was something entirely else to others. And a paranoid, bigoted, and racist mob would stoke enough violence over this whole affair to burn an entire community to the ground.

While Rowland was in custody, news of the alleged sexual assault spread. The Tulsa Tribune ran a piece titled, “Nab Negro For Attacking Girl In An Elevator.” White readers were enraged about this incident and a mob got riled up for revenge on Rowland just as the newspaper advised.

Because Rowland’s family lived in Greenwood, the mob naturally went there. Police holding Rowland had to deal with a group of black men armed with weapons willing to protect the young man from the angry white mob, who also took up weapons. Eventually the angry protests started to spread and supposedly when an angry white man told one armed black man to give up his gun, he was shot in response. This led to an exchange in gunfire, and soon enough a full fledged race riot was happening.

For the next 24 or so hours, black men and white men shot at each other. Black men were lynched by incoming KKK agitators. Firebombs began to be rained down, and nearby planes were even dispatched to attack the community with allegations that the police themselves may have been the culprits — something mostly denied by the Tulsa Police Department to this day. Arson broke out, fires being set all across and buildings burning down all over Greenwood. It was like a war zone. Before you knew it, the black version of Wall Street had been reduced to ashes with the once-thriving residents forced to live for a good while in made up tents.

By the time the terror and chaos finally dissipated, around 800 people were injured, hundreds were considered missing and officially nearly 40 were dead. A commission investigating the matter in 2001 alleged the death toll was likely in the hundreds, in reality. In a shocking act, the Tulsa police alleged it was all the black community’s fault and no one really faced justice for the carnage that came that day.

Mysteriously, the city of Tulsa seemed to want to forget such a horrific event ever even happened. There’s even some possible evidence that an even more inflammatory newspaper article could have actually inflamed the white mob’s anger, but that piece mysteriously has vanished from the records, being cut out of the only archived edition known from that date.

A controversial fire ordinance backed by certain white business owners looking to take over the once thriving minority community was put in place soon after. This put the people in Greenwood in a position to not even get a chance to rebuild and potentially displace them from their hometown. But a black lawyer named B.C. Franklin, who had just moved to Greenwood, set up his office via a tent placed in the middle of the rubble and fought to erase the ordinance. This allowed Greenwood to rebuild itself to mostly become what it had once been.

But the scars remained for the community, and Tulsa didn’t want to see them. For decades the riots were barely known to have ever happened, with some very rare instances of historical reporting on the event. Survivors were left to almost be forced into silence of what they had gone through. It was not until the 1970s that photos of the massacre would even begin to see distribution; as recently as 2015 we didn’t even know about the bombing attack from the air.

In 1996, a commission was set up to finally look into the riots. In 2001, that same commission found that survivors had been treated horribly and deserved better from the city and the state. It also resulted in a memorial park. In the years since, debates have raged about how much reparation to give Greenwood for the decades of ignoring their burden of knowledge of what had happened to its community that fateful day almost a century ago.

To this day we are still trying to learn about the riots that almost destroyed an area known for minority economic success. As time passes we learn a little more and more about those horrible events that took place then. The city of Tulsa may have wanted to erase such memories, but the people of Greenwood never did. Hopefully we’ll one day get the full scope of what happened for an event that was almost completely wiped off from history’s record books.

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