The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921


The history of the United States has produced much in the way of race riots, from the New York City riots of 1862 to the Los Angeles riots of 1991, this country has experienced much civil unrest between blacks and whites. The year 1919 was particularly noted for the large number of riots in the urban areas of the North where returning white veterans of WWI competed with Southern Blacks for jobs during the post-war depression. Again, in 1923, a racial confrontation erupted in Rosewood, Fl. There eight blacks and two whites died during the destruction of the Black community of Rosewood. However, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was perhaps the costliest incident of racial violence in American history. At the same time, it is perhaps the most marginalized, being almost forgotten until this decade.

The Riot began on May, 31,1921 because of an incident the day before. A black man named Dick Rowland, stepped into an elevator in the Drexel Building operated by a woman named Sarah Page. Suddenly, a scream was heard and Rowland got nervous and ran out. Rowland was accused of a sexual attack against Page. One version of the incident holds that Rowland stepped on Page's foot, throwing her off balance. When Rowland reached out to keep her from falling, she screamed. The next day, Rowland was arrested and held in the courthouse lockup. Headlines in the local newspapers inflamed public opinion and there was talk in the white community of lynch justice. The black community, equally incensed, prepared to defend him. Outside the courthouse, 75 armed black men mustered, offering their services to protect Rowland The Sheriff refused the offer.

A white man then tried to disarm one of the black men. While they were wrestling over the gun, it discharged. That was the spark the turned the incident into a massive racial conflict. Fighting broke out and continued through the night. Homes were looted and burned.



Though they were outnumbered 10 to 1, Black's, many of whom were veterans of WWI, started to form battles lines and dig trenches. The conflict shifted to the northern part of Tulsa in the Frisco tracks area. The Tulsa police force was too small to stop the rioters, so the mayor, T. D. Evans, asked the governor to send in the National Guard. While the National Guard was on its way to Tulsa, whites set fire to houses and stores. Fire companies could not fight the fire because rioters drove them away.

 On June 1,1921, a big cloud of smoke covered The northern region of Tulsa. Later that morning, the last stand of the conflict occurred at foot of Standpipe Hill. According to the Tulsa Tribune, the National Guard mounted two machine guns and fired into the area. The black groups surrendered and were disarmed. They were taken in columns to Convention hall, the McNulty Baseball Park, the Fairgrounds and to a flying field. Some survivors later alleged that planes were involved in the destruction of Greenwood City.

Many black residents left Tulsa to the Osage Hills and its surrounding towns. According to an official estimate 10 whites and 26 blacks were killed. However, later reports, never verified, raised that number to 300 killed. After, the Riot had ended, relief started to come the survivors, especially from The Red Cross. Hospitals were set up to treat the wounded. Food and clothes were given out. People received temporally shelters to live in while their houses were rebuilt.




It took the better part of the next ten years to recover from the physical destruction and to rebuild and repatriate the residents to their homes. This event, however, is barely mentioned in history books and is particularly absent from Oklahoma history books. The documents gleaned from an initial inquiry held shortly after the riots, mysteriously disappeared. But human memory survived. George Monroe, a survivor of the Riot, now 83, said " I want people to know [about the riot], I want my children to know, that their daddy went through something." And as for Dick Rowland? Charges against him arising out of the incident in the elevator were never brought.

In 1997, The Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed to investigate the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The Chairman of the Commission is Dr. Bob L. Blackburn. The Commission composed of thirteen members, are from different parts of the State Of Oklahoma. Some of the members are Dr. Blackburn, Deputy Executive Director (Chairman), Gracie M. Morrison (Oklahoma Human Rights Commission), T.D. "Pete" Churchwell (Public Service Company of Oklahoma), and Blake Wade (Oklahoma Historical Society). In addition, the Commission will meet on Monday, November 22, 1999, at 1:00 p.m. in the Frances Campbell City Commission Chambers, Tulsa, Oklahoma. The members will discuss the reports on the archaeological investigations and the historical findings. They, finally, will discuss the proposal for reparations.