Tulsa’s Ugly Secret

At around 7:00 on September 16th, a 40-year-old black man named Terence Crutcher was in the middle of the road with a broken-down car when he was approached by the police. After they called for backup, he was shot through the chest as he leaned against his car with his hands on his head. He was taken to the hospital where he died later that day. He was unarmed.

Unarmed black man shot dead by white police officers. It’s so common now that we don’t think twice when we hear it; the story is one that is familiar to us. However, there are other stories surrounding racial history that we don’t hear so often. In fact, one of the biggest ignored events in American history happened just five miles from Friday’s shooting.

On May 30th, 1921, a black man named Dick Rowland entered the Drexel Building at 319 South Main Street. He intended to take the elevator up to the top floor, where there was a bathroom he had been given permission to use. This was a time when, as a black man, he still needed permission to use certain bathrooms. To get to the top floor, he entered the elevator, which was being operated by a woman named Sarah Page. Though no one knows exactly what happened next, a bystander heard what he thought was a scream of fear, and then saw Rowland running out of the building.

Whether it was an assault or not, Page decided not to press charges on Rowland. However, he was still arrested the next day from his mother’s house. He was moved from prison to prison as threats to his life became more widespread. The local newspaper put out an editorial calling for a lynching of Rowland, which spread around the town quickly. The scene escalated as hundreds of white people gathered outside the courthouse to demand that Rowland be handed over. In response, hundreds of black people arrived on the scene, armed. The white folks armed themselves as well.

Around 10pm, a white man tried to force a black man to hand over his pistol. He refused, and a shot went off. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose as the two sides started to fire on one another, resulting in several dead on both side. The black mob began to retreat, and the white mob chased after them, still firing, and killing at least one innocent bystander in the commotion. Eventually, the national guard showed up and dispersed the crowds. There was another attempt at lynching later that night, but it was also shut down.

Before going on, I should probably mention that Tulsa at this time contained the most prosperous black community in the country. It was an area named Greenwood, and at the time, it was known as Black Wall Street.

It was into the Greenwood community that a small group of white people drove into in the early morning hours of June 1st, 1921, and started firing shots into houses and businesses. Others threw lit oil rags towards houses, setting them on fire. At 5:00 AM, all hell broke loose as a car of white men led a charge into Greenwood and was immediately mowed down by residents of the community. The ensuing white crowd swarmed into the neighborhood, looting and killing. Some attacked from the ground, and others attacked from the sky, dropping firebombs from airplanes. Hundreds of black residents fled in terror, and others were taken hostage by the mob.

At around 9:00, the national guard was alerted to the situation, and by 11:00 martial law was in effect. The riots were broken up, and dozens were put into custody, but it was too late. By the end of the day, the community of Greenwood had been completely burnt to the ground, leaving hundreds dead. Most residents never returned.

The history of racial violence in America is not old. This event happened only 95 years ago. For all we know, Dick Rowland (who was not killed in the riots) could have children and grandchildren walking the streets of Tulsa today. The events in Tulsa on the 16th also show that the history of racial violence in America is still being written. Every time a black man with his hands above his head is shot dead in the street, we are writing the history of racial violence in America. It’s up to us how many more pages we’re willing to write.

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