This is the aftermath of the riot on Black Wall Street, May 31 – June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Okla. (Photo Courtesy of the Greenwood Cultural Center)

By Talibah Chikwendu
Originally published May 29, 2010

The May 31, 1921 stands as a dark day in Oklahoma and American history. A mere 58 years after emancipation, and 89 years ago, racial tensions in Tulsa, Okla., ignited. The result: One of the most successful Black townships in the country, the Greenwood area of Tulsa, was completely destroyed.

Because facts about this 16-hour nightmare were hidden for years in a “conspiracy of silence,” details were sketchy. But what’s clear is that Tulsa’s African-American district,
according to the final report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, “turned into a scorched wasteland of vacant lots, crumbling storefronts, burned churches, and blackened, leafless trees.”

Black Wall Street was the business center of the Greenwood community. Black businesses had the full support of Black residents and the area was booming. Home to a hospital, churches, banks, hotels and a variety of other Black-owned businesses, Black Wall Street was surrounded by a 40-square block area of homes.

Despite the air of success that characterized the suburb, or perhaps because of it, a
racial uneasiness existed with the adjacent city, largely fueled by Jim Crow laws and the growth of the Klu Klux Klan. This tension came to a head on May 31, 1921, when Blacks in
Greenwood, according to the Commission’s report, “had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland would be lynched after his arrest on charges later dismissed and highly suspect from the start.”

As tensions heightened, armed Blacks moved within the ranks of assembling White mobs, in an effort to save Rowland’s life and stop things before they went too far. But that plan did not go well. When a White man tried to take a gun from a Black man, it went off, and what was a harmless shot started the riot.

Many Blacks fled the area with only the clothes on their back. Some stayed to fight, but were overwhelmed, as people come into “Little Africa,” stealing and destroying personal property, and burning public buildings and homes, augmented by private aircraft dropping
incendiary devices from the sky.

When the smoke cleared, over 1,200 homes had been destroyed, leaving over 9,000
homeless. A commercial district that had multi-story buildings was leveled, with
nothing left but ash and debris.

History indicates Oklahoma may have been uniquely primed for this type of violence and destruction. According to an article in the Aug. 30, 1918 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper reporting a formal NAACP protest, White residents of Dewey, Okla.,
took a similar approach to problem solving, four years before Greenwood was destroyed.

The article indicates that on Aug. 21, 1917, a mob shot N. Widlow, a Black barber accused of killing the chief of police and wounding a city clerk. Officers from the sheriff’s office arrested the wounded Widlow. The AFRO reported, “The mob, enraged at being cheated of its victim, went to a suburb of Dewey, known as ‘Little Africa’ and burned this community,
destroying two hundred homes, two churches and a schoolhouse. None of the Negroes thus robbed of their homes was even remotely connected with the crime.”

But the Commission’s final report is definitive about the devastation of Black Wall Street. In quoting Walter White, a expert in racial violence who visited the site of the riots just days after they occurred, the Commission and the state acknowledged the horror of this moment in American history. White said, “I am able to state that the Tulsa riot, in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property, stands without parallel in America.”


Former Morgan Teacher Tells of Tulsa Riot
Originally published June 17, 1921

(The AFRO-AMERICAN is fortunate in getting this story of Tulsa from a former Baltimore young woman now living in an adjacent town. It is undoubtedly the most vivid picture yet produced of the riot there.) The Editors. 

Tulsa is located in the central part of Oklahoma and is the richest town of the state. The Negro population was completely segregated and limited to the extremes North end of town. Two short business streets, Archer and Greenwood. Among the many business enterprises were the following:

A clothing store owned by T.J. Elliot, merchant of Muskogee, who has a chain of stores throughout the state. The Stratford Hotel erected three years ago at a cost of about $50,000 by J.B. Stratford.

This same Stratford has been arrested at some point in the State of Kansas, accused of being the instigator of the trouble. He will fight extradition. Several other prominent race leaders and business owners have been named all of whom are plainly innocent of any act to promote conflict.

The Dreamland Theatre owned by J.W. Williams also lost by fire. The most elaborate pleasure house in a chain of three owned by Mr. Williams. The printing shop owned by A.J. Smith ER an, editor of the Tulsa Star. The Dreamland Confectionery also owned by the afore named J.W. Williams. The Red Wing Hotel, and many other buildings which contributed to the thrift and prosperity of the race in Tulsa. Many beautiful homes were laid in ruins. The entire Negro settlement was destroyed by flames kindled by the whites.

Bombs were dropped from aero planes, long distance guns shot thru the houses, thus setting fire to them. In some cases the Negroes were driven out like a herd of cattle, destitute and many barely clad.

The kindling flames enabled the white mob to find their way to everything of value in the homes. Jewelry, money, furniture, even automobiles were stolen before the flames had a change to destroy them. Wearing apparel was also stolen. In fact everything. (One young man reported to me the loss of 15 suits of clothes and also $700, his savings, which were taken from him at the point of a gun) Many employers hid their colored employees in their homes. The colored teachers were taken into the homes of the white teachers of the city. Many refugees walked to Muskogee a distance of nearly sixty miles.

May 31st, a colored boy by the name of Rowland on entering an elevator accidentally stepped on the foot of the elevator girl. She became very angry and screamed, striking him with her bag. During the excitement a white man came up. Rowland escaped to the Negro district. The girl in relating the incident cased such a furor that the whites began to talk of lynching Rowland. He was arrested and placed I jail. The whites began to gather and demand the body of the boy. This was a summons to the Negroes to gather to protect Rowland. Threats from each side were made. The officials assured the Negroes that they had conditions under control.

Before the Negroes left the courthouse an altercation took place between a Negro and a white man. The white man was bantering the Negro with a gun in his hand. The Negro snatched the gun. A white man drew his gun to shoot the Negro. He was not quick enough. Another Negro dropped him with a bullet.

Then the battle took place on the day of May 31st. During the night the State Guards and Home Guards of adjacent cities were summoned. At five o’clock, June 1st, the Tulsa Home Guards reinforced by men from the country, vandals and thugs struck the Negro community. The Negroes were not expecting the attack. Men were shot down without warning. The police force was NIL. When the fires were kindled the Fire Department did not serve.

It is plainly evident that white real estate men encouraged the destruction of the homes in order to take over the advantageous locations on Archer and Greenwood. It is desired for factories a Union depot and other white institutions. The enclosed clipping from the Muskogee paper of June 8th will beat this out plainly, and show that the city commission plans to prevent Negroes from rebuilding their homes on the old sites by requiring all new buildings to be of stone. It is planned to move the colored section.

Dr. Jackson, one of the leading surgeons of the Southwest; Mr. Ed Howard, an influential business man were among those killed. Deaths: whites, 17; colored 23.

It is known that many Negroes were killed and their bodies brown in the river and otherwise disposed of so no one knows the exact number of those murdered. The last count shows 141 Negroes injured.

Bishop Ed Mozart, white, of the M.E. Church South, as said that the lecture by DuBois last winter lent flames to the riot. One would not expect a Bishop to be a propagandist. His assertion is ridiculous. Can an elephant stumble over a straw?

The drift, trifling element of both races started the trouble but escaped.. In this case the innocent suffered not with the guilty but for them. The Cleo Mitchell theatrical company playing at the Dreamland Theatre were forced to flee off the stage dressed only in stage costume, losing everything. They were outfitted by the Red Cross.


Says 200 Met Death in the Tulsa Riots
Originally published June 17, 1921

Walter F. White, assistant secretary of the NAACP, returned today after a personal investigation of the recent race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, saying that between 150 and 200 Negroes were killed in the riots and at least 50 white persons.

Having been sworn in as a deputy sheriff and having been on patrol as such during the Tulsa riot,” said Mr. White today. “I am able to state that the Tulsa riot in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property stands without a parallel in America.

“Abuse and misuse of the word assault caused the entire conflagration. A white girl operating an elevator in a public building, declared that a colored boy had attempted to assault her. Without stopping to inquire and without considering the utter impossibility of criminal assault being perpetrated in broad open daylight in the public elevator of a public building, on a principal street of a town of 100,000, a senseless mob set out to avenge the honor of white womanhood.

“As a result, between 200 and 250. White and colored citizens are known to have killed an unknown number of colored men and women and children were burned alive, 44 square blocks of business and residential property valued at a million and one-half dollars were destroyed, and everlasting damage done to the name of Tulsa and of Oklahoma.

“In justice to Tulsa it must be said that a large percentage of the white inhabitants condemned in unmeasured terms the outrage which has been perpetrated. The Salvation Army, the Red Cross, local relief agencies and churches have done commendable work in providing food, clothing and shelter for the destitute victims of the riot.

“Tulsa’s experience is exceedingly important in that conditions which led to its night of terror exist in many other cities North and South and unless unusual efforts are used the gravest consequences are to be feared. Some of the white citizens of Tulsa are attempting to blame the riot on Negro ‘radicalism.’ When I questioned them regarding the nature of this radicalism, I found invariably that it consisted of demands by Negroes that the federal Constitution be enforced and that lynching, peonage, disfranchisement and Jim Crowism be abolished.

“There will be a state investigation of the riot but in the opinion of the citizens of Tulsa it will amount to nothing. The Tulsa riot has convinced me that the only hope of averting repetitions of it lies in federal interference.


Was Any Law Broken at Tulsa, Oklahoma
By William Pickens
The Associated Negro Press
Originally published June 17, 1921

Attorney General Daugherty has ordered an inquiry to “find out” whether any of the laws of the nation were violated at Tulsa, Oklahoma. We are not to criticize, primarily, this attitude of the cabinet officer, but we do wish to call attention to what a system of national government we live under.

It is the saddest phase of the whole matter, that the great nation is in doubt as to wheter any of its laws were violated by murder, massacre, arson and general savagery in the heart of its territory. Were any of its laws broken? Of course there is no doubt that heads were broken at tulsa, and long ere this, they know that all around the world, even the people of Turkey and Poland and Russia have read about the horrors of Tulsa. But the Attorney General of the United States must inquire to see if any laws were broken so that mayhap we can find some technical excuse for proceeding against those who overthrew all the laws that existed in Tulsa, national, state and municipal.


Tulsa Colored Citizens Must Raise $12,500 by Aug. 10 to Save Their Case
Originally published Aug. 5, 1921

400 claims have been filed against City and County for property burned following the riot of May 31, when 31 blocks of business and residence property was entirely burnt out. Value of the property nearly 5 million dollars.

50 colored men have been indicted and must be defended to get a fair trial. The city will not permit colored to rebuild on their own lots unless they rebuild with brick therefore thousands are living in tents with dirt floors, with winter approaching. Help Now – or all is lost.

About $4,000 has been raised by Tulsa Relief Committee and the NAACP. $8,000 more must be raised by August 10th. If 8,000 men would send $1.00 the cause would be saved. DO IT NOW.

Send funds to Tulsa Relief Committee, S.S. Hoker, chairman; I. Tyler Smith, treasurer, Tulsa Oklahoma or Eastern Headquarters 1816 12th Street N.W. Washington, D.C.


Tulsa Victims Will Sue for $4,000,000
Originally published August 19, 1921

Victims who owned property destroyed June 1st by race-rioting will sue the city for $4,000,000. The whites who owned property in the colored section are also preparing to file separate suits for losses totaling more than $500,000.

Negroes are building rapidly in the burnt districts of Tulsa. Mr. G.F. Gabe, a prominent colored man, when questioned as to whether or not they feared arrest for violating fire and building regulations, said, “They had better get the jail ready for us, because we are going to keep on building. Negroes are not waiting for winter to come and not have any place to live. They are building on their own ground and if the city authorities intervene they will carry their cases to the highest courts in the land for redress.”

Over sixty-five house buildings have been put up, some temporarily for water. Cops stopped work on seven houses. In one instance, Mayor Evans, white, told P.W. Ross to go ahead and build his. “Don’t care what the building inspector says.”

Mr. Curley and several other prominent business men are building fireproof store blocks on North Greenwood Ave The Redding Hotel will soon be completed. This structure will be five stories high and have fifty rooms.

Four thousand colored people are still living in tents.


Alleged Inciter of Tulsa Riot Given Release
Originally published Oct. 7, 1921

Dick Rowland, bell-boy who alleged to have raped Sarah Page, white, June 1st last, which precipitated the Tulsa riots, was released from the county jail last week. It was brought out in the investigation that Rowland was entirely innocent of any crime or misdemeanor, that the White girl never complained of any such charges as were. Published in the while daily newspapers. Sarah Page vanished and has never been apprehended since the day she made a statement refuting the charges alleged against Rowland.

Criminal cases of rioting against J.H. Smitherman, editor. M.S. Weaver, Mose Fitzgerald, Eugene Wharton, Andrew Brown,, A.B.J. Taylor and William Dixon, leading colored citizens came before the court last week. Charges against Dixon was dismissed. The others have asked for a change of venue.

Greenwood, the colored section of Tulsa, destroyed by fire, is being rebuilt rapidly, although it is feared that the winter season will catch some of the riot victims still living in tents.


Prisoners Help Tulsa
Originally published Dec. 6, 1921

New York, Dec. 6 – The NAACP today announced receipt of a check for $116.50 sent by colored inmates of the Wisconsin State Prison at Waupun Miss., to aid the colored victims of the riot and disastrous conflagration in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Talibah Chikwendu

Special to the AFRO