White Lies in the Promised Land

Originally published in Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946, a multimedia CD-ROM, Worth Publishers, 2001.

The shoe-shine parlor where Dick Rowland worked as a bootblack made its toilet facilities available only to whites in the early 1920s, so the nineteen-year-old black Tulsan had to walk across the street on May 30, 1921, to the Drexel Building to use its top-floor accommodations. Rowland, as usual, stepped onto the elevator, this day operated by a young white woman, Sara Page. Although no one knows for sure what happened next, most likely Rowland accidentally stepped on Page’s foot; she was screaming in fright as the elevator door opened.

Rowland was quickly arrested, and word of the incident spread throughout Tulsa. A front-page article published in the Tulsa Tribune the next day suggested that Rowland had sexually assaulted Page; the headline was even more direct: “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Within hours of publication of the newspaper, several thousand angry, armed whites congregated at the Tulsa courthouse, demanding access to the young prisoner.

They were soon joined, however, by a crowd of equally angry blacks, who defiantly marched to the courthouse upon hearing of the lynching plans. W. D. Williams’s interview with historian Scott Ellsworth describes a man climbing onto the stage of a local black theater to rally the patrons: “We’re not going to let them lynch him. So close this place down. We’re going to town to stop them.” This spirit of self-defense was typical in many black communities in the post-World War I period. African-American soldiers had recently returned home from fighting in a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” only to endure lynching, beatings, and persistent job and housing discrimination. In cities across the country, they repeatedly expressed their determination to secure racial justice for themselves and their race. Indeed, a tall black veteran, carrying an army-issue pistol, led the black crowd to the Tulsa courthouse.

A presumed sexual assault of a white southern girl by a black man, rumors of a threatened lynching by an armed white crowd, assertive and armed African Americans—a riot only awaited a spark to set it off. According to one account, the black crowd started to disperse when a white man approached the black veteran, demanding “Nigger, what are you doing with that pistol?” “I’m going to use it if I need to,” was the response. As the affronted white man reached to disarm the veteran, someone fired a shot, setting off gunplay on both sides. Of the assembled crowd at the courthouse, a dozen black and white Tulsans were killed.

Throughout the night of May 31, 1921, white mobs took the offensive. Heavily armed, they roamed the city’s black neighborhoods, burning homes and businesses and shooting indiscriminately. In Tulsa’s all-black district of Greenwood, wrathful whites killed outnumbered residents, sometimes brutally. For example, NAACP official Walter White’s report in the Nation describes how “a mob broke into the house” of an elderly black couple, “shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.”

The postwar period in the United States saw devastating race riots around the nation: in small cities like Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee; and in larger ones such as Chicago, where a four-day riot in 1919 left two dozen African Americans dead and more than three hundred injured. But the Tulsa race riot was perhaps the worst. In fact, white Tulsans’ twenty-four-hour rampage was one of the most vicious and intense race riots in American history before or since, resulting in the death of anywhere from 75 to 250 people and the burning of more than 1,000 black homes and businesses.

Other than intermittent shooting, the violence ended in Tulsa on June 1, the day after it began. Black Tulsans searched for relatives and scoured torched homes for belongings, while others tried to flee the city. Greenwood resident Robert Fairchild’s attempt to leave the city was blocked by National Guard troops, who ordered him instead to the city fairgrounds for detention. Fairchild was later permitted to return to work and to survey the damage to his home and neighborhood. But many other black Tulsans were not so lucky, as thousands became homeless refugees in their own city. Martial law meant that approximately six thousand African Americans—more than half the city’s black population—were forcibly interned at the fairgrounds, forbidden from holding funerals, required to work at relief efforts that most whites shunned, and obliged to carry passes when they were finally released from the fairgrounds.

Although the city’s white leaders assured the nation’s press that restitution and reconciliation would be forthcoming, other whites denied any responsibility for the carnage. Explaining the death and destruction, a white Methodist pastor argued that “when criminal and liquor-frenzied niggers appeared on the streets and outraged the white people of this community, the thing was off.” In an article in the magazine Survey, Amy Comstock, personal secretary to the editor of the Tulsa Tribune, argues that the stimuli for the rioting included the failures of white Tulsans to educate the “childlike Negro mind” and to prevent the rampant crime and debauchery of “Niggertown” in “a city too busy building to give thought or care to the spawning pools of crime.”

The riot was particularly bitter for African Americans who had viewed the rapidly growing Tulsa (the “magic city” of a nascent Southwest) as a good place to live. Indeed, for many African Americans, the Greenwood area of the city was their “promised land.” Greenwood boasted its own library, newspapers, schools, theaters, restaurants, and hotels—the trappings of a robust black middle class. “Negro Wall Street,” as the area was known locally, stood proudly as one of the most prosperous black communities in the nation. As the events of 1921 showed, however, Tulsa was still a firmly segregated city, and there were strict limits placed on African-American success.

After seven decades of public reticence, white Tulsans are finally acknowledging their city’s troubled past. In 1996, Tulsa residents, black and white, gathered for the first time at the rebuilt Mount Zion Baptist Church to commemorate the 1921 riot’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The painful memory of those black Tulsans who gave their lives in defense of their community remains the most poignant legacy of the city’s tragic racial history.