May 31, 2017

May 31: The 24 Hours That Destroyed Tulsa

On this day, May 31 (and continuing to June 1) in 1921, One of the largest American race riots took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma that destroyed an entire neighborhood, leaving 300 black residents dead and thousands of white residents arrested. The attack, carried out on the ground and by air, destroyed more than 35 blocks of the district, then the wealthiest black community in the nation. More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and more than 6,000 residents were arrested and detained, some for as many as eight days.

O n May 30th, Memorial Day, a 19 year old black shoeshiner that worked on Main street named 'Diamond' Dick Rowland entered an elevator of the Drexel Building (319 South Main Street), apparently to use the only 'colored' restroom in the building which was on the top floor. According to witnesses some sort of confrontation ensued  between Rowland and the 17-year-old white elevator operator Sarah Page. Page screamed and Rowland ran off; witnesses called the police believing she had been sexually assaulted (although a recent investigation suggests the two merely had a 'Lover's Quarrel').

Rowland was arrested but a routine investigation by the Tulsa police department concluded an actual 'assault' did not take place. Page did not want to press charges, and many of the city's attorneys (who frequented Rowland's shine shop) spoke highly of him and doubted the rumors circulating of an assault. None the less newspapers in Tulsa ran stories such as 'Nab Negro For Attacking Girl' and 'To Lynch Negro Tonight.'

Crowds of up to 1,000 white residents gathered at the courthouse demanding that Rowland be handed over to them. The previous year an 18 year old white man was removed from the courthouse and lynched for shooting a cab driver. The sheriff was fired for handing over a suspect to the lynch mob, and the new sheriff, Willard M. McCullough, was not about to let the same thing happen again, and had moved Rowland to a safer location on the top floor. McCullough also positioned six of his riflemen on the roof of the courthouse, disabled the building's elevator, and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight.

News of the lynch mob reached the black neighborhood of Greenwood and armed black men rushed to the courthouse to aide in Rowland's safety. The group of white residents doubled to 2,000 armed residents (there were even reports of white residents attempting to rob the armory of its weaponry) and soon an all-out war erupted between the two groups. Snipers on both sides took out mobsters on the streets, and more than 20 airplanes where spotted dropping bombs onto the black neighborhood of Greenwood. The resulting fire raged destroying the entire neighborhood but not a single alarm was sounded at any fire station. Reports of 2 dozen caskets filled with weapons and ammunition were delivered to white churches, white mobs attacked white households that employed black servants, and  reinforcements for both sides came in by train.

On Wednesday July 1st, the Oklahoma National Guard arrived with 109 troops to stop the riots. Reports suggest that martial law was enacted at 11:49 am and amazingly by noon the National Guard had the town under control.

Reports varied, but estimates of up to 6,000 people on each side of the race riot were arrested and up to 300 residents on either side were killed. The black neighborhood of Greenwood was destroyed including 191 businesses, a school, several churches and the hospital. 1,500 houses were destroyed.
 Sheriff McCullough, in keeping his word, kept Rowland safe through the entire race war. All charges were dropped and the Sheriff secretly transported Rowland safely out of town. Rowland settled in Kansas City and never set foot in Tulsa again.

Photo: Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa after one day of the race war. (public domain).