No one knows for sure what happened in that fateful elevator ride in Tulsa, Okla.’s Drexel Building on May 30, 1921. All history records is that Dick Rowland, an African-American shoe shiner, stepped into the freight car where Sarah Page, a White woman, served as the operator. Perhaps he stumbled and stepped on her foot; perhaps his very presence was too much for a White woman alone to handle. Whatever the cause, Page screamed and Rowland wisely fled, setting the stage for what is believed to be the worst case of racial violence in United States history. Within a span of 18 hours an entire Black neighborhood—more than 40 square blocks of manicured yards, precious heirlooms, treasured toys, stored memories, Black legacy and racial pride—had been eviscerated, leaving nearly 9,000 people homeless. Black Wall Street, that symbol of African-American aspiration and affluence was torched, taking with it the livelihoods, life’s work and savings of hundreds. More tragically, between 75 to 300 persons lay dead.

“For some, what occurred in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921 was a massacre, a pogrom, or, to use a more modern term, an ethnic cleansing. For others, it was nothing short of a race war,” wrote John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth in an article on

“The Tulsa Riots are symbolic of the limits of American democracy,” said Dr. Greg Carr, associate professor and chairman of the Department of Afro American Studies at Howard University. “I say that because what began May 30, 1921, as a misunderstanding—we don’t know what happened in that elevator—turned into a series of tests, with the question being, what are the limits of Black citizenship.”

Tulsa, before the riots, was a thriving modern city with a population of more than 100,000. But, as with many cities across the South, Tulsa was a tinderbox of social factors that only required a spark to ignite a racial conflagration.

The first of several key elements was the city’s infestation by a reborn Klu Klux Klan. The domestic terrorist group had received a boost with the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation, the infamous silent film that elevated the Klan to heroic status even as it reduced Blacks to unintelligent, rutting beasts who lusted after White women. And, with the KKK’s resuscitation came the heightened threat of lynching, a spectacle that was not uncommon in Oklahoma during the early years of the 20th century.

Added to the Klan’s presence was the affront presented by Tulsa’s affluent and vibrant Black community. “These were not welfare recipients,” Carr said of the city’s 10,000 or so Black residents.

Clustered in the enclave of Greenwood District, Tulsa’s African Americans were a self-serving community boasting some of the finest businesses in the Southwest. “Black Wall Street” boasted several hotels, a hospital, schools, family-owned businesses, dozens of lawyers, doctors, realtors, dentists and other professionals, churches, two newspapers, the Dreamland Theater, the Y.M.C.A. Cleaners, the East End Feed Store, and Osborne Monroe’s roller skating rink among other establishments.

Such success undermined an underlying belief in the “material value of being White in a racist society… that no matter how poor a White person may be they are still better than Blacks,” Carr said. And so the riot was also precipitated by “a strong element of racial humiliation. There was this idea of we’re going to put those Blacks in their place.” That was evident, Carr added, when after the riots, White citizens wandered through the Black business district, looting and passing out pilfered goods like treats.

So take a heavy dose of racial animus and jealousy, add the bitter flavoring of the Klu Klux Klan, mix in high crime rates and vigilantism, then throw in the classic elements of a racist outbreak in the U.S.—a young Black man and a White woman and the idea that White womanhood has to be protected at all costs —and you have the brew for disaster.

The day after Rowland’s unfortunate elevator ride, the city’s daily newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune falsely reported that the Black shoe shiner—who had been arrested and jailed—had attempted to rape the White female elevator operator. Further inciting White rage, the Tribune also reportedly published an editorial on the incident titled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” By 7:30 that night hundreds of Whites had gathered outside the courthouse demanding that Rowland be surrendered. Concurrently, 25 armed African Americans, many of them World War I veterans, approached authorities, offering their services to help protect Rowland. The sheriff rejected both requests. Later, 75 Black men offered protection for Rowland and, again, were rejected. As they were leaving, however, a White man tried to disarm a Black veteran. A shot was fired and that single shot set the riot in motion.

Denied a lynching, the White mob set out for vengeance, killing unarmed Blacks, committing “drive-by” shootings in Black neighborhoods and setting fires along the fringes of the Black business community.

In this, the White riff-raff was supported by authorities, who did little to nothing initially to stop the flood of violence. In fact, the Oklahoma Historical Society reports, Tulsa police officers deputized former members of the lynch mob and, according to an eyewitness, instructed them to “get a gun and get a nigger.”

Before dawn on June 1, after hours of plotting, thousands of Whites had gathered on the outskirts of Greenwood. Then, at daybreak, they struck, swarming into the Black enclave like a swarm of angry ants. They looted homes, burned the businesses and shot and killed hapless Black citizens. Outnumbered by about 10 to 1, the African-American residents tried to defend themselves, forming battle lines and digging trenches. But local authorities called in the National Guard, who, the Tulsa Tribune reported, mounted two machine guns and fired into the area. The Blacks surrendered and were disarmed—although Whites were not similarly disarmed, several Black news reports stated, giving the Whites an unfair fighting advantage. Several eyewitness accounts also reported small planes dropped explosive devices into Greenwood, which, in the end, was enveloped in a big dark cloud.

Much of this story, historians aver, has not been told or has been buried in obscurity.

“It’s too incendiary,” Carr, the Howard professor, said. “Terrorism is an act of violence committed by an enemy of the state. the terrorist in Tulsa was actually the state of Oklahoma, which could not be looked to for protection but was actually responsible for attacking its citizens.”

He added, “I think if those types of were elevated to prominence in American history they would require our contemporary citizens to confront the deeper question about the responsibility of government to the citizenry and this country has never been comfortable with that type of discussion.”

Dr. John Hope Franklin speaks about his family’s experience with Black Wall Street:

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO