5 reasons the Tulsa Race Riot should always be remembered
Editor’s note: This is the third part of a multi-part series highlighting Oklahoma’s black history that will be published throughout February in honor of Black History Month. Read the first and second parts: 5 things about Oklahoma's civil rights movement you should know and 6 notable black Oklahomans you should know about
One of the darkest moments of Oklahoma’s history took place over a 24-hour period in 1921, and is now commonly referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot.
Don’t be alarmed if you’ve never heard of it, or if you’ve just heard of it in passing and don’t know what it’s about, because you aren’t alone.
This post will share the history of the Tulsa Race Riot and share five reasons why it should always be remembered.
The Tulsa Race Riot began with an incident between a 19-year-old black shoeshiner and a 17-year-old white female elevator operator.
The exact story of what happened will never be known, but most historians and researchers agree that, on May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland tripped as he entered the elevator in the Drexel Building, and that he attempted to balance himself by grabbing Sarah Page’s arm. She screamed, Rowland fled the scene and a nearby store clerk who heard the scream found a distraught-looking Page. The clerk, assuming Page had been assaulted by Rowland, alerted authorities.
What followed was a wildfire of dangerous gossip and misinformation. As the story circulated throughout Tulsa, the details of what happened became skewed and even completely ignored, replaced by complete fabrications including accusations of rape.
Rowland was arrested the next morning. A mob of angry white people arrived at the courthouse and demanded he be released to them, and a group of armed black men arrived to protect Rowland.
A white man approached one of the armed black men and demanded he hand over his revolver. He refused, so the white man attempted to disarm him, and the firearm discharged.
The next 24 hours were filled with the destruction of the all-black Greenwood District, the displacement and internment of many of those who lived there, and the beginning attempts to ignore what occurred.
The term “Tulsa Race Riot” is, in many ways, a misnomer, as the destruction of an entire neighborhood is much more than just a riot — it was a systematic eradication of the wealthiest black community in the United States at the time.
When the smoke cleared, Black Wall Street was in ruin:
- 35 blocks of businesses, homes, hospitals and more were no longer standing
- More than 10,000 black Oklahomans found themselves homeless
- Official numbers cite 39 people died, but some estimates suggest as many as 300 blacks died; and 800 were treated for injuries
- More than 6,000 black Oklahomans were detained and held at three Tulsa facilities for as long as a week
Pictured is Tulsa Race Riot survivor Wess H. Young, 90, as he talks to (from left) Drake Perry, 10, Dru Perry, 6, and Amber Holt, 8, during a reception by the Northeast Church of Christ at Langston University’s Oklahoma City campus honoring the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot. The photo was taken in 2007.
But would you believe that, according to the Department of Education, the Tulsa Race Riot didn’t begin appearing in Oklahoma history text books until two years later, in 2009?
According to the state Department of Education, and via the Tulsa World, “the state has required the topic in Oklahoma history classes since 2000 and in U.S. history classes since 2004.” The problem there, however, is that it many schools didn’t pay attention to the “required” part.
I can tell you that the Tulsa Race Riot was not taught to me during my time at Norman North High School from 1999 to 2003. I didn’t learn about it until I was a college freshman.
Who knows? Maybe it had its own chapter in our history books, but we certainly never covered it. And it’s clear my class wasn’t an isolated case.
And I believe that to be a damn shame.
Ignoring the dark parts of Oklahoma’s history does no one any good. I can understand the desire to not want to talk about events such as this (humility, anger, resentment, fear), but ignoring it leaves a huge hole in our state’s identity, and it robs the black community of the opportunity to share their story with others.
It’s not just the children/students who are missing out on this story — there are a large number of adult Oklahomans who have never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot. And that’s why organizations like the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and the Greenwood Cultural Center exist, so they (and we) can pass on the story of Black Wall Street and its people.
But it also deserves more attention inside the classrooms across the state, despite what some Oklahoma politicians think about it, like when seven Senators voted against a measure in 2012 that would require every Oklahoma high school to teach about the 1921 event.
In 2001, the Oklahoma legislature accepted moral responsibility for the Tulsa Race Riot but refused to pay reparations. In response, about 200 people filed a lawsuit, demanding the state, city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Police Department to pay.
A federal judge was forced to dismiss it in 2004 because of the state’s statute of limitations — Oklahoma law required the lawsuit to be filed within two years of the event. A number of black Oklahomans went bankrupt because of the 1921 event, and unpaid financial claims sit just north of $2.7 million in 1921 dollars, which is about $36 million in 2014 dollars. Many of those who lost their homes spent the better part of the next year living inside tents they pitched in what was left of their neighborhood.
Honoring the victims of the Tulsa Race Riot requires us to be educated and to never forget.
That’s where the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park and the Greenwood Cultural Center do their best work.
In the middle of the Greenwood District sits the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which was built just a few years ago in order “to transform the bitterness and mistrust caused by years of racial division, even violence, into a hopeful future of reconciliation and cooperation for Tulsa and the nation.”
The Greenwood Cultural Center’s goal is “to preserve African-American heritage and promote positive images of the African-American community.”
Both of these places offer educational opportunities for those wishing to learn more about the Tulsa Race Riot, and both places do a wonderful job in honoring the victims of that terrible 24-hour period.
The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum has also recently released an app that serves as a virtual exhibit on the Tulsa Race Riot. It costs $9.99.
The Tulsa Race Riot is considered by many to be the deadliest and costliest event spurred by racial violence in the history of the United States.
The brutality black Tulsans faced that day didn’t just come from the hands and weapons of those who participated in the ground attack — it also came from the media.
The Tulsa Tribune newspaper, which operated from 1919 to 1992, was responsible for inciting many of the angered white people by printing a sensational story about the elevator incident between Rowland and Page in that day’s afternoon edition.
The headline read “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and was printed in a prominent position on the paper’s front page. You can read the story on the Tulsa World’s website.
There are also claims that a second column was printed inside of the paper that day titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” It’s impossible to know if the column actually existed because all original printings have been destroyed, and the page was removed from the microfilm archives.
Along with the destruction done by mobs on the ground, Greenwood was also attacked by air.
According to Tim Madigan’s “The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” six airplanes leftover from World War I left an airfield near Tulsa and made their way toward Greenwood. They were dispatched to “protect against a Negro uprising.”
According Madigan’s book, eyewitnesses reported those planes dropped incendiary bombs on Black Wall Street and also shot at blacks on the street.
Even some white families were attacked by the angry mobs because they employed blacks in their homes. Like many other blacks that day, most of those employees were turned over to authorities and detained in the multiple detention centers around the city.
And this was all enabled by the Tulsa police chief at the time, who allowed the seizure of local gun stores in order to arm the large number of angry white men he deputized.
Hope for the future lies in the hands of the educated and aware.
There seems to be an unspoken tension between the ever-shrinking number of black survivors and Tulsa’s white community, with some suggesting "you can't forgive until someone asks for forgiveness.”
The problem is many Tulsans living in the city today weren’t alive during the events of 1921, and a majority of them might be like many other Oklahomans (black and white) who have no clue the Tulsa Race Riot ever happened.
Events like the Tulsa Race Riot present us with an obligation to participate in dialogue so we can understand, and to use it as an opportunity to engage with our children and teach them that racism has no place in their America.
Hope for the future lies in us learning from the experience and vowing to never let this kind of history repeat itself. It lies in accepting, loving and looking out for each other. It lies in us being the best possible examples of the human race, and that requires us to be color blind.
Julius Pegues, John Hope Franklin Center chairman, put it best when he said: “We intend to take the high road and move this city forward for both black and white.”