1921 Race Riot: Tribune mystery unsolved
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
May 31, 2002
1/20/13 at 8:42 AM
Earlier this month Tulsa collector Beryl Ford found something historians have thought would
clear up one of the Tulsa Race Riot's enduring mysteries.
Namely, the contents of the May 31, 1921, Tulsa Tribune.
The lower right hand column in at least one edition of that evening's paper carried a story
headlined "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator." Supposedly, there was also an editorial
on the back page suggesting the black man might be or should be lynched.
But what the Tribune really said, didn't say and may have said blurred as quickly as a page
of wet newsprint in the aftermath of the May 31-
June 1 riot. The best witness, the newspaper itself, is unavailable. By the time file copies
were microfilmed around 1950, the front-page arrest story had been torn out of the May 31
Tribune's third and final edition.
So was the left-hand side of the editorial page.
The Black Dispatch, an Oklahoma City newspaper, reprinted the arrest story under the
headline "The False Story which set Tulsa on Fire." Only five paragraphs long, it describes in
lurid language the arrest of "Diamond Dick" Rowland, a black "delivery boy," for an alleged
assault on "a 17-year-old white elevator girl" later reports identified as
In the language of the day, "assault" meant "rape." When Rowland's arrest degenerated into
14 hours of some of the most concentrated civil violence on record, the May 31 Tribune took
much of the blame.
Tulsa Police Department Chief of Detectives J.W. Patton cited "a colored and untrue account"
in the "afternoon newspaper" -- the Tribune. Adjutant General Charles Barrett complained of
Both later claimed they were misquoted. No matter. In local lore and in book after book and
story after story, the Tribune of May 31, 1921, became the spark that ignited one of the
bloodiest riots in U.S. history.
The missing editorial became the Holy Grail of riot researchers. In Scott Ellsworth's 1982
book "Death in a Promised Land," a man recalls the piece as headlined "To Lynch Negro
Tonight." In Tribune newsroom legend, the headline ended in a question mark while the editorial
reported lynching rumors and appeared only in a first edition
with limited circulation.
In 1997, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed, a reward was offered for a copy of
the editorial. It was not claimed.
So it was with some excitement that Ford discovered he had among the thousands of
newspapers he's accumulated over the past 40 years a complete copy of a first edition May 31
And it contained . . . nothing.
Not even the arrest story. Further research revealed the Tribune's first edition was
typically a reprint of the previous day's final edition.
So Rowland's arrest story appears in the June 1, 1921, issue of Ford's bound early editions.
The editorial in the space torn from the back page of the late May 31 edition concerns
disarmament in Europe.
But just because the Tribune always carried its late edition editorials in the next day's
early edition does not mean it did so on May 31 and June 1, 1921. It doesn't rule out the
possibility an editorial (or story) was printed in the second edition, of
which no copy is known to exist, and killed for the late edition. And it doesn't explain the
deep-seated belief that whatever was in the Tribune that day inflamed whites and blacks alike
and alluded to lynching, when in fact the arrest story did not contain the word or any
suggestion of it.
Certainly many people believed otherwise. Mary Parrish, who interviewed a number of black
riot survivors during the summer of 1921, wrote, "An evening newspaper hurled the news
broadcast, with the usual `Lynching is feared if the victim is caught.' "
Pharmacist P.C. Thompson told Parrish "immediate cause" of the riot was "a report in the
Tulsa Tribune that threats were being made to lynch a Negro for attempted criminal assault
upon a white girl . . ."
Nevertheless, some riot authorities now doubt an editorial (or news story) advocating
summary punishment for Rowland ever appeared in the Tribune.
One of those is Alfred Brophy, a legal scholar and contributor
to the race riot commission's final report. Now a law professor at the University of Alabama,
Brophy's book about the riot, "Reconstructing the Dreamland," was published last winter.
"I think it's very unlikely there was an editorial that called for the lynching of Dick
Rowland," said Brophy. "If there had been, the Black Dispatch would have pointed it out."
Others, including Ford, think the Tulsa World would have, too. The two newspapers were
bitter enemies and wasted no opportunity to skewer the other. The World did, in fact, promote
the idea that the Tribune's arrest story sparked the riot. It said nothing about an editorial.
Many commentators of the day, including Walter White of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People, said the word "assault" suggested enough to anger whites and
bring Tulsa's blacks to armed alert. Vigilante violence had become so common and so horrific as
to be an epidemic.
For its part, the Tribune blamed the Tulsa riot on bad
city government. Although White said Managing Editor Victor Barnett admitted to him the arrest
story was overblown and substantially untrue, the paper maintained its reporting played no part
in what followed.
No one knows who tore the arrest story and half the editorial page from the only copy of
the May 31 Tribune to be microfilmed, or why.
Until microfilmed, the file copies were available to just about anyone. In 1947, when Loren
Gill wrote a University of Tulsa master's thesis on the riot, he cited the June 1 first edition
Tribune for the arrest story, suggesting it had already been ripped out of the May 31 final
The Tribune apparently kept bound copies of all editions, but only final editions were
microfilmed. Ford wound up with the early editions. The rest seem to have been destroyed.
And the mystery of the missing editorial continues.
Randy Krehbiel, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8365 or via e-mail at