The racial atmosphere in the United States of America after the First World War was extremely tense and hostile. The economic success that some African American communities had enjoyed was perceived as a threat to the economic interests of the white majority. An enormous cloud of racial tension gripped the U.S at the time, and what ensued was a horrific and unimaginable bloodlust.
From 1917 to 1923, there was a wave of racial tensions engulfing the United States. This was exacerbated by the resurgence of the white supremacist group Ku Klux Clan, which was baying for the blood of African Americans. The group was involved in numerous lynchings (premeditated extrajudicial killings by a group; informal public executions by a mob to punish an alleged transgressor, punish a convicted transgressor, or intimidate) and other acts of racially motivated violence. The Black community would make attempts at fighting back this animosity but ultimately, they were overpowered.
This was a dark period in the history of the United States – the wave of racial intolerance spread like wildfire across U.S cities. The East St Louis Massacre of 1917 emboldened white supremacist mobs to engage in summary judgment over the black people simply because of their skin colour and economic status. During this massacre, white mobs destroyed the life of “every discoverable black man.” The scenes were extremely dreadful. The clashes left 39 black people dead and 9 white people dead. However, historians think that these figures were suppressed as up to hundreds of black people could have been killed in those clashes. White mobs would roam in the streets of East St Louis and stone black men to death while they passionately pleaded for their lives to be spared.
These massacres would continue unabated up to 1923, gripping 26 cities in the U.S including Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska; Elaine, Arkansas; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbia, Tennessee; Houston, Texas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. For the white mobs, this was a brutal display of fire and fury towards the black communities. Black people were attacked, murdered, and maimed indiscriminately. The African Americans never provoked these white mobs. White privilege saw no white person being held accountable for these grisly massacres.
The motive was to punish the Black communities for their attempts at equality and economic success when slavery and the slave trade ended. They wanted to wrest this economic success away from the black communities who were now flourishing. White people perceived Black people to be fierce competition for jobs, political power, and homes. Black veterans from World War I were propelled by their military service to resist injustice. It was dubbed, “The rise of the New Negro”. This is what incensed the white supremacists the most. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the white mobs burnt everything to the ground.
On the morning of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, who was a 19-year-old shoe-shiner, walked into the Drexel Building. He entered into an elevator on the first floor. When the elevator reached the third floor, a young white elevator operator named Sarah Page screamed, and Rowland fled the scene. The accounts of what exactly happened differed from person to person. The Oklahoma Historical Society said in a report, “The most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream.” The story became exaggerated as it traversed through the white community. With each telling, the events of the incident increasingly became very distorted.
On the following day, Rowland was arrested by the police. The Tulsa Tribune carried an inflammatory report on its first page that the police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page. By evening, a mob of white men went to the courthouse demanding that Rowland be handed over to them. Sheriff Willard McCullough refused to hand over Rowland to the furious white mob and had his men barricade the top floor to protect Rowland. That same night, a group of 25 armed black men – most who were World War I veterans – arrived at the court ready to defend and protect Rowland from the summary justice of the white mob. The sheriff turned the group of black men away, after which some of the white mob attempted to break into the National Guard armoury nearby. There were rumours of a possible lynching and another group of 75 armed black men returned to the courthouse, but they were met by some 1,500 white men some of whom were armed as well.
There were struggles and shots were fired. A white man was shot. Seeing that they had been outnumbered, the group of black men retreated to Greenwood (the black suburb in Tulsa were successful black people were now residing and doing business. Greenwood was successful to the point that it was named the Black Wall Street). Some of the white Tulsans were given weapons by city officials. Over the next several hours, white people in Tulsa committed numerous acts of morbid violence in which a Black unarmed man was shot in a movie theatre. The white community was under a maddening spell spurred by the false belief that there was a large-scale insurrection among the Black Tulsans.
Hundreds of white people descended on Greenwood on the dawn of June 1, 1921. What followed was to go down as one of the worst racial episodes in the scarred history of the U.S. The whites destroyed homes and businesses by looting and burning them to the ground. More than 300 black people were killed, and their bodies were dumped into the Arkansas River or buried in mass graves. They burned homes and businesses over an area of 35 city blocks. That day, more than 100 businesses were destroyed, as well as a school, library, a hospital, and dozens of churches. More than 1,200 Black-owned houses were burned. Firefighters who had come to help reported that they had been threatened by the rioters with guns and were forced to leave. It was catastrophic for the Blacks who had built their thriving community in Greenwood, Tulsa. The economic losses in the Black community amounted to more than $1 million.
After the riots ended, all charges against Rowland were dropped. It was concluded that Rowland had stumbled into Page or had stepped on her foot. Rowland left Tulsa and reportedly never returned. Walter White, who became the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said in a report, “One story was told to me by an eyewitness of five colored men trapped in a burning house. Four were burned to death. A fifth attempted to flee, was shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and his body was thrown back into the flames.”
There were even reports that white men flew planes over Greenwood dropping kerosene bombs on the community. B.C Franklin, a lawyer in Greenwood, witnessed the massacre. “The sidewalk was literally covered with burning turpentine balls. For fully forty-eight hours, the fires raged and burned everything in its path, and it left nothing but ashes and burned safes and trunks and the like that were stored in beautiful houses and businesses.” His account of the unfortunate events in Greenwood has been preserved by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Tulsa police did not even take any action to stop the senseless destruction. Some eyewitness accounts say the police were involved in the looting and burning of valuable property.
Two weeks after the massacre, the city officials shifted the liability of these horrors to the Black community. The guilty white people were exonerated. The Tulsa City Commission issued a report which declared that Black people had destroyed and pillaged Greenwood. “Let the blame for this Negro uprising lie right where it belongs—on those armed Negroes and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it and any persons who seek to put half the blame on the white people are wrong,” the commission said, without any shred of remorse.
The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was kept a secret from the American public. For decades, there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead or any sort of commemoration for those who were the victims of such horrors. What happened was a deliberate attempt to cover up the massacre of 1921 in Tulsa. The Tulsa Massacre was rarely mentioned in history textbooks, and it was never taught about in school. It was a case of selective amnesia as successive governments decided not to afford the story any opportunity to be heard by the American public. The interest in the story only began to emerge in the 1970s as few scholars started delving into the story. In 1996, on the riot’s 75th anniversary, a service was held at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which rioters had burned to the ground.
No white person was ever found to be guilty in association with the barbaric violence they unleashed on Greenwood in Tulsa. The devastating episode of racial terror left a big emotional toll on the Black community in Tulsa and the generations that came. It was an act of injustice that should have resulted in the perpetrators being held accountable and rightly punished.
People who had sacrificed a lot of their lives in building their economic success suddenly found themselves mired in a quagmire of poverty and economically disempowered. The brazen dishonesty of the city officials compounded the physical and emotional scars of the Black Tulsans.
Similarities can still be seen with the recent killings of black people in the United States by the police force with the case of George Floyd being the most glaring one this year as it caught the attention of the world. The racial terrain of the United States remains uneven, and it is inspired by these past events which are not addressed enough in the public. The story of Tulsa is now finding public space, with public television series such as Watchmen basing their plot around those events in Tulsa.