Greenwood, Tulsa OK - 1921
On May 30, 1921 a young man named Dick Rowland, who was about 19 years old, got on an elevator in the Drexel Building, on South Main St.
He entered the elevator and, in some way, came in contact with Sarah Page, who was the elevator’s operator. She was about 17 years old. Sarah let out a scream and a clerk in a nearby store heard her yell, Dick Rowland ran from the scene, and the store clerk called the police.
The next morning, Tuesday—May 31st, Rowland was captured by police. He was taken to the jail, but word got out about the incident and Rowland had to be transferred to the courthouse which was a more secure location. A crowd of mostly white citizens gathered outside of the courthouse. Officials let the crowd know that no one would be allowed inside the courthouse and that Dick Rowland would not be coming out.
Eight months earlier a young white man, who was being held at the courthouse on suspicion of murder, was taken by a similar mob, from the jail, and lynched.
So now, a group of African-American men (some of whom were veterans of World War I)…armed themselves and headed down to the courthouse to protect Rowland. As the day pressed on, the crowd grew to an estimated 2,000 white citizens.
At least twice during the day, a group of African-American men visited the courthouse. It is believed that a white man tried to disarm one of them—a shot went off...and that was it.
Skirmishes broke out right there and all throughout the night, with gangs of people shooting from cars and on the street.
Rumors began to build that blacks from the local Greenwood area were planning to come into town and attack white neighborhoods.
A group of white men, then, tried to get inside of the National Guard facility, but they were denied. Some then went to a local hardware store and took all of the guns and ammunition they could find.
Greenwood was an all-black area of Oklahoma that had been called, “Black Wall St.,” by Booker T. Washington.
During a time of segregation and rampant discrimination, Greenwood developed successful businesses, sought-after communities, a local hospital, business and medical professionals, teachers, schools, churches, etc…
By 5:00 am, on June 1, 1921, hundreds of white men gathered around the outskirts of “Little Africa”, as they called it. Sixty or seventy cars were filled with armed men. Another 500 - 1,000 were down by the “tracks and in the streets”.
While the men were entering the area, six airplanes were seen flying overhead and continuous gun fire could be heard throughout the ordeal.
By dawn, the invasion was well underway. Riflemen entered the town and shot into houses and “at all negroes in sight”.
Black riflemen were located in areas around the town and they returned fire, but they were simply outnumbered and were not able to prevent the destruction that was about to come.
Families began to leave their homes, while riflemen came into their houses and took silverware, jewelry, and any valuables they could carry.
Dr. A. C. Jackson, an African-American doctor, found himself on the streets of Greenwood that day and he encountered a group of seven armed men. Dr. Jackson then spotted one of his neighbors, who was a white man, and came toward him with his hands raised.
But, two of the men jumped in front of Dr. Jackson and shot him. As he was lying on the ground, one of the men shot him again. This was one of the many tragic deaths that occurred in Tulsa, in Greenwood, that day.
Two thousand African-American people managed to escape toward the north of town, as there were no armed men blocking off that section of the community.
Officials, then, began to round up African Americans under the official guise of protecting them. Thousands were taken into custody and according to a local newspaper…
"Every negro seen on the streets…was promptly put under guard. The city jail was quickly filled and the police began taking them to Convention Hall…."
Many of these African Americans were forced to walk down the city’s streets, through white neighborhoods, with their hands raised in the air…until they reached their area of detention—leaving behind all of their possessions.
By the end of the day, thousands of African Americans were being held in detention facilities, many had been killed, and almost 35 square blocks of the all-black area of Greenwood were completely destroyed. Many African Americans were without homes, as over 1,200 homes were destroyed.
A grand jury later said that the cause of the riot was the group of African-American men who came down to the courthouse, that day.
As for the original incident, Sarah Page later wrote a letter asking that Dick Rowland not be prosecuted—all charges were dropped and he was exonerated.
It was thought that he might have known Sarah Page and that whatever happened in the elevator was most likely an accident.
Library of Congress. “Topics in Chronicling America - The Tulsa Race Riots.” Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room, Serial and Government Publications Division. http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/tulsariots.html
The Bismarck Tribune, June 6, 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. The National Endowment for the Humanities, Library of Congress.
The Morning Tulsa Daily World. (Tulsa, Okla.), 01 June 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042345/1921-06-01/ed-3/seq-1/>
The Tulsa World. “The Questions that Remain: Timeline.” Accessed July 2015. http://www.tulsaworld.com/app/race-riot/timeline.html
Black and Education.com