Tulsa Race Riots

I did a little research into a topic that I know only a little bit about. Because, as my poem on Instagram pointed out yesterday, if something is important to people in my life it becomes important to me.

Here’s the research I conducted and what I learned, in case you want to learn a little too. 

I should mention I did my best to keep my opinion OUT of this information. I’m not swaying anything, just telling you what I learned. This post is about spreading information. You can make your own conclusions. 

Tulsa Race Riots 

After WWI racial tensions were high in the United States. Lynching was not uncommon and Tulsa was a mostly segregated city with most of the Black residents living in Greenwood. The Greenwood area had a thriving business district and became known as “Black Wall Street” because of their prosperity and success.

  • May 30, 1921: Dick Rowland (a Black man) was on an elevator with Sarah Page (a White woman who was operating the elevator). Little is known about what actually happened on that elevator beyond this. When the doors opened, Sarah Page screamed and fled the elevator. 
  • May 31, 1921: An article runs in the Tulsa Tribune claiming that Dick Rowland sexually assaulted Sarah Page and was arrested for it. Dick Rowland is arrested and held in the top floor of the courthouse. An angry White mob arrived, demanding the sheriff release Rowland. An angry Black mob arrived to assist in protecting Rowland. Black rioters had “every reason” (according to an official report) to believe Rowland would be lynched. Municipal authorities “failed to take action to calm or contain the situation” (2001 Race Riot Commission Report). Shots were fired. The Black people assembled leave, heading back to the Greenwood area. Civil officials selected many men to be deputies for this case. All of them were White and many of them had participated in the protest. 
  • June 1, 1921: The Greenwood area is looted and burned by White rioters. Martial law has to be declared. Troops (some of whom were armed and deputized the night before by civil officials) arrive to put out fires and arrest … Black people. Over 6,000 residents of Greenwood were held in internment, some for as long as eight days. While the Greenwood residents were being detained and held off site the people, some of them agents of government, stole, damaged, or destroyed the personal property and buildings left behind. The 2001 Race Riot Commission Report concluded that “no government at any level offered adequate resistance, if any at all, to what amounted to the destruction of the Greenwood neighborhood.” Later firefighters would testify that when they showed up on scene to put out the fires they were met by armed rioters who forced them to leave.

Overall: 35 city blocks were charred (estimated more than 1,200 buildings), 800 people were treated for injuries. First reports said 36 people died. Historians now believe that number is over 300. 8,000 people became homeless following the events.

  • After: Charges against Rowland are dropped. The police investigation concludes Rowland stumbled into Page and, likely, stepped on her foot. None of the White looters or rioters were arrested. In fact, no criminal acts in this case have EVER been prosecuted by any level of government. After the events, the Black citizens were not released without the support of a White citizen who had to speak up for them and agree to take responsibility for them following the events. Private White citizens of Tulsa and the American Red Cross provided most of the relief efforts, including the financial burden, of rebuilding the Greenwood economy and businesses. Municipal authorities not only didn’t financially contribute, they actually tried to hinder the process, according to one source.

The Name

Tulsa Race Riots was the name given to the event. Rumor has it this name was given because, traditionally, a clash between racial or ethnic groups was called a riot. But this could have deeper roots as well. The term RIOT may have allowed the insurance companies to deny claims made by residents or businesses of Greenwood in the wake of this event. There are people who would like to see the name changed to Tulsa Race Massacre or Tulsa Massacre. Semantics? Sure. But it may be reasonable. 

Riot: A tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent. 

Massacre: The act or insistence of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty. 

To this day there is still an ongoing “investigation” into whether or not there are mass graves of the people who were killed during this event somewhere in the Tulsa area. One anticipated dig was set to happen in April of 2020 among a site that scans revealed may contain human remains on a large scale.

Major Sources

Tulsa Historical Society https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/#flexible-content 

History.com https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/tulsa-race-massacre

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