One of the worst race riots in the nation’s history occurred in Tulsa over a 14-hour period on May 31- June 1, 1921. Dozens of people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were left homeless. Most of the segregated black district, known as Greenwood, was destroyed. Although the riot itself lasted only a few hours, its repercussions are still felt today.
Click each chapter to read more about Tulsa's race riot.
- Randy Krehbiel, World Staff Writer
The Tulsa of 1921 was a humming, bustling place that reveled in the title “Oil Capital of the World.” It had earned the name by making itself into the financial, manufacturing and transportation hub of the great Mid-Continent oilfields surrounding it. From barely 1,000 inhabitants in 1898, it had grown to more than 72,000. Tulsa County’s population was about 110,000, making it the most densely populated and fastest-growing county in the state.
Most Tulsans were native-born and white. A surprisingly small number – fewer than 1,000 – identified themselves as American Indians. About 9,000 were black, with most of them living in the community centered on Greenwood Avenue northeast of downtown Tulsa. Most black Tulsans worked as laborers and domestics, but a substantial number were teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals.
Tulsa, like the rest of Oklahoma, was racially segregated. Greenwood had its own schools, its own post office substation, its own police station and its own branch library. It also had its own thriving commercial district, which Booker T. Washington had called the “Black Wall Street of America.”
Only two decades earlier, Tulsa had barely mustered the 1,000 inhabitants necessary for incorporation. Two decades before that, it did not exist at all.
Tullasi – or “Old Town” – a Lochapoka Creek village established in the 1830s near present-day 18th Street and Cheyenne Avenue disappeared during the Civil War. In 1879, the first official use of the name “Tulsa” appeared on a U.S. Post Office operating out of the Perryman Ranch headquarters near present-day 41st Street and Trenton Avenue.
Modern Tulsa, though, began in 1882, when a small tent city sprang up around Atlantic and Pacific Railroad where it met the Arkansas River.
The discovery of the Glenn Pool oil field in 1905 fueled Tulsa's ambitions. Subsequent discoveries in the surrounding countryside transformed Tulsa from cow town to budding metropolis.
With World War I came a great surge in demand for petroleum products. As much as 20 percent of the oil powering the Allied armies passed through Tulsa's pipeline terminals, refineries and rail yards. Some $36 million in building permits were issued from 1917 to 1921, with such lasting landmarks as Central High School, the Exchange National Bank, First National Bank, Cosden, City Hall, Mayo, McFarlin, Sinclair, U.S. Post Office and Atlas Life buildings completed or started.
Tulsa politics could be bumptious. The electorate was more or less evenly divided between Republican and Democrat, and with city elections held every two years, changes in administration were frequent. In 1920, real estate attorney and former municipal judge T.D. Evans, a Republican, was elected mayor on a single-plank platform: to push through a bond issue to pay for a reservoir on Spavinaw Creek, 90 miles away, and the pipeline to bring fresh water to Tulsa.
Three of the four city commissioners elected that year were also Republicans, as was City Auditor Mary Seaman, the first woman to hold municipal office in Tulsa. The recently hired police chief, John Gustafson, was a former railroad detective and private investigator whose appointment had been opposed by Tulsa County Sheriff Willard McCullough. A former cowboy with an elegant handlebar moustache, McCullough had served as Tulsa County sheriff off and on since statehood and had been returned to office in 1920 after the incumbent, Jim Woolley, failed to prevent the lynching of a suspected murderer.
Crime and law enforcement were important issues in Tulsa. Less than two weeks before the riot, Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Katherine VanLeuven led an investigation of the Tulsa Police Department that revealed a poorly trained and sometimes corrupt force so ill-equipped it did not have a single reliable automobile. When officers need transportation to crime scenes, they were taken in private cars driven by volunteer citizens.
During the course of the investigation, a Southern Methodist minister named Harold Cooke touched on underlying racial tension. An open proponent of vigilantism and unabashed racist, Cooke complained bitterly of blacks and whites drinking and dancing together in road houses and speakeasies, and of black porters in cheap hotels acting as agents for white prostitutes.
In Tulsa, as in the rest of Oklahoma and throughout the United States, race was an important issue. Many states, including Oklahoma, tried to keep blacks from voting and restricted their activities, sometimes through so-called “Jim Crow” laws and sometimes through intimidation. Increasingly, blacks resisted discrimination. From Washington, D.C., to Chicago to the rural Arkansas delta, racial conflict degenerated into deadly armed violence.
Though far from ideal, Tulsa was considered a better place than most for blacks. Besides the thriving business district, Greenwood attracted a relatively large number of doctors, lawyers and teachers. Its schools, though poorly funded, were exceptional. The Tulsa Star, a lively weekly newspaper edited by A.J. Smitherman, promoted independence and unity, and exhorted blacks to stand up for their rights.
Three weeks before the riot, a middle-aged black couple was arrested in Tulsa for refusing to sit in the back of a street car. They were fined $10.
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On Monday, May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland got onto an elevator on the third floor of the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main St. For some reason, he came into contact with Sarah Page, the white elevator operator, and Page cried out. Her cry was heard by a store clerk, who called police.
The Drexel Building, at 319 S. Main St., was four stories tall. Renberg’s Department Store occupied the first two floors, with offices and small businesses upstairs.
The building was probably quiet that morning. It was Memorial Day and most downtown stores, including Renberg’s, were closed. Rain dampened the holiday activities, including a parade.
Although Dick Rowland seems to have been fairly well known, his true identity is a bit of a mystery. He is generally identified as the son of Dave and Alice “Ollie” Rowland, who operated a boarding house in the Piro Building on East Archer Street. Some sources, though, say his name was actually John or Johnny Rowland, and that he was the adopted son or even grandson of Dave Rowland. Damie Rowland, Dave and Alice’s daughter, said in a 1972 interview that she had taken in young Johnny while living in Vinita and that he had been born in Arkansas. The 1920 Census listing for the Rowland household includes an adopted son named John who had been born in Texas.
Adding to the uncertainty is a slight age discrepancy. The Census recorded John Rowland’s age as 16 in 1920. Dick Rowland’s age, when he was arrested a year later, was given as 19.
Almost nothing is known of Sarah Page. Originally described as a 17-year-old orphan working her way through business college, it later developed that she may have been as young as 15 and had come to Tulsa from Kansas City while waiting for a divorce to be finalized.
Some, including Damie Rowland, have fostered the notion that Page and Rowland were romantically involved. Though possibly true, the story cannot be verified through contemporary accounts.
People who knew Rowland said the elevator did not stop level with the third-floor threshold, causing him to trip as he entered the car and fall against Page. Police later said that whatever happened, it was almost certainly not intentional. In any case, Page’s cry caught the attention of a Renberg’s employee, who apparently summoned police. Rowland fled, but Page and the clerk, if not actually naming the man she said attacked her, supplied enough of a description that authorities had no difficulty locating him.
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Rowland’s arrest the next morning was reported in a front-page story in that afternoon’s Tulsa Tribune. Headlined “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” the somewhat sensational account reported, accurately if perhaps imprudently, that Rowland was to be charged with attempted assault. It said Rowland scratched Page and tore her clothes.
This, in the parlance of the day, was tantamount to an accusation of attempted rape. The mere suggestion of attempted assault, when it involved a white woman, had in the past triggered gruesome lynchings from Duluth, Minn., to the Florida swamps.
Some sources say the Tribune also published an editorial, under the headline “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” This is possible, but does not seem likely. For one, the Tribune actually editorialized against lynching, both before and after the riot. A call for vigilante justice would have been almost inconceivably inconsistent.
Also, no such editorial has ever been found. This in itself does not prove one didn’t exist. The only known copies of the May 31, 1921, Tribune were an early “state” edition – essentially a reprint of the previous day’s last edition, and therefore of no use – and a microfilm image of a file copy, made in the 1940s. The front page arrest story had been torn from this paper and part of the back page – the editorial page – was missing. This has led to speculation that the inflammatory editorial was torn out along with the arrest story.
Again, this is possible but not probable.
A surviving “state” edition of June 1, 1921 – the state edition being a virtual reprint of the previous day’s last edition – shows the arrest story on the front page. The space where the missing editorial would have been is a piece on European disarmament.
The editorials could have been switched, but a more likely explanation is that confusion arose over an editorial that appeared on the front page of the June 1 Tribune. This editorial condemned lynching but included the phrase “a story starts that a negro in the county jail was to be lynched.”
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the Tribune’s three loudest critics – the rival Tulsa World, the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch and the NAACP – never mentioned an editorial in their attacks on the newspaper.
The NAACP’s Walter White blamed the Tribune’s use of the word “assault.” The Black Dispatch reprinted the May 31 arrest story under the headline “The False Story which set Tulsa on Fire.” The World, on June 1, tweaked the Tribune for its “colored account” of the elevator incident.
Page, who seems to have fled the city on June 1, subsequently wrote to the county attorney, asking that the charges against Rowland be dropped. The case was dismissed at the end of September.
Just how much the Tribune story actually contributed to what followed has been debated since the day it appeared. Police Chief John Gustafson and police commissioner J.M. Adkison minimized its importance, and word of Rowland’s arrest almost certainly would have gotten around anyway. But others – including, according to one report, Gov. J.B.A. Robertson – thought the story was the root cause of the riot.
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At 4 p.m., an anonymous caller told Police Commissioner J.M. Adkison, “We are going to lynch that negro, that black devil who assaulted that girl.” Adkison and Police Chief John Gustafson arranged to move Rowland from the city jail to the more secure county lockup on the top floor of the courthouse at Sixth Street and Boulder Avenue.
Whites, attracted by the rumors, began gathering at the courthouse until they numbered an estimated 2,000.
Adkison and Gustafson wanted Sheriff Willard McCullough to take Rowland out of town, but McCullough refused. He reasoned that Rowland was safer in the jail than in a car on an open road somewhere. In this, McCullough was no doubt correct, but there is some indication that Adkison and Gustafson thought spiriting Rowland out of town would disperse the crowd. This was, in fact, a tactic that had worked elsewhere.
McCullough, though, was not about to make the same mistake his friend and rival Jim Woolley had the previous year, when Woolley had allowed a mob to take murder suspect Roy Belton from the jail. The lynching that ensued essentially ended Woolley’s career in elective office and led to McCullough’s election as sheriff in November 1920.
Rather than risk trying to sneak Rowland out of town, McCullough put him in a cell, ordered the only elevator to the jail disabled and had six of his deputies barricade themselves inside with the prisoner. McCullough, Deputy Barney Cleaver and County Commissioner Ira Short remained behind, with McCullough and Cleaver, a black man with a long career in Tulsa law enforcement, trying to disperse the crowd outside.
Interestingly, no police seem to have been in evidence at the courthouse. Some sources say bad relations between the sheriff’s and police departments contributed to the failure to control the situation before it got out of hand.
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Responding to the growing crowd at the courthouse and fears, fanned by phone calls from unidentified sources, for Rowland’s safety, a group of black men assembled at the offices of A.J. Smitherman’s newspaper, the Tulsa Star, on North Greenwood Avenue. After arming themselves, they marched and drove to the courthouse.
Sheriff McCullough said Barney Cleaver, one of his black deputies, was the first to inform him of the threats on Rowland’s life. Cleaver, the sheriff said, had telephoned to tell him of a call, apparently similar to the one to Adkison, received at a north side motion picture theater.
This call was taken very seriously. Although Tulsa did not have a history of racial violence – the 1920 lynching victim, Roy Belton, was white – it did have more than its share of vigilantism. During World War I, citizens had been harassed and beaten in the name of patriotism, often under color of the local Council of Defense or the Home Guard, a local militia organized to replace National Guard units called into active duty.
Mary Jones Parrish, a young black woman who would record her recollections and those of others in a little book called “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” said she went outside on the night of May 31 to find “that some of our group were going to give added protection to (Rowland).”
At least two earlier contingents of concerned blacks had already visited the courthouse. McCullough and Cleaver assured them that Rowland was in good hands and persuaded them to return to Greenwood.
The intent of the white crowd is difficult to gauge. Not surprisingly, officials later described the white crowd, at least initially, as more curious than hostile. Without radio, much less television, the only way to see what was happening was to go in person.
But the crowd was not completely docile, either. McCullough was hooted down, the World reported, when he tried to disperse the whites. Shortly before the shooting started, a band of irate whites presented themselves at the National Guard Armory, about a mile east of the courthouse, demanding weapons and threatening to break in when they were denied.
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In any event, McCullough said the only effort to get at Rowland occurred at 8:20 p.m., when three unidentified white men entered the courthouse.
“I … told them there had been some talk of a lynching and that they might as well get out for no one was going to get the negro,” McCullough said. “They went out and got into an auto on Boulder street and talked loudly and gesticulated and soon a crowd gathered.”
It was at that point, McCullough said, that he ordered his men to run the building’s lone elevator to the top floor, disable it and barricade themselves inside the jail.
Over the next hour and a half, McCullough received several telephone calls from concerned black leaders as well as from Maj. James A. Bell of the local Oklahoma National Guard. McCullough assured all of them the situation was under control.
Gustafson was more concerned. But, instead of trying to break up the crowd at the courthouse, he focused his attention on the armed blacks. Eventually, he asked Bell for help “to clear the streets of negroes,” but Bell told him only the governor could call the local guardsmen into service.
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At about 10 p.m., a former county investigator named E.S. MacQueen confronted a black man, sometimes identified as Johnny Cole, in front of the courthouse. As MacQueen and Cole wrestled over the latter’s gun, it discharged. As more than one person observed, “All hell broke loose.”
The crowd scattered. McCullough, who had been trying to talk to the crowd, ran for cover in a nearby hotel. Walter Daggs, an oil company manager who lived near the courthouse was shot and killed, apparently by a stray bullet. Sixteen-year-old Homer Cline was killed as he left the bank where he worked. A.B. Stick, gunned down outside the Hotel Tulsa, was reported certain to die but somehow survived.
Some sources say a black man was killed at the courthouse, others say not. The World said an unidentified black man was chased down in an alley and killed – then said no black fatalities had been reported. News of fatalities and injuries was often fragmentary, second-hand and contradictory. Cleo Shumate, a white tool dresser, was reported to have been shot about 8 p.m., well before the riot began.
Denied weapons at the National Guard armory, whites – including some police – broke into Bardon’s Sporting Goods at 510 S. Main St., across the street from the courthouse, and began taking guns, ammunition and just about everything else in sight. Police involvement may be partially explained by the fact that Bardon’s seems to have sold ammunition to the department on a regular basis.
Looting, all of it by rampaging whites, was reported throughout downtown, as shots whizzed haphazardly. Gustafson called in his entire force – around 65 men – and Adkison began commissioning “special deputies” – perhaps as many as 400 of them. Oklahoma National Guard Adjutant Gen. Charles Barrett told Col. L.J.F. Rooney, senior office in Tulsa, to make his troops available to local authorities, even though it would be hours before they could be officially called to duty.
The first few Guardsmen to arrive at police headquarters found the street choked with men in uniform – American Legion members, assembled in formation. Although no doubt well-intentioned, their presence initially added to the general chaos. With “much promiscuous shooting,” the World reported, the ex-soldiers marched through the business district. Fortunately, the newspaper said, “no one was hurt.”
According to the World, shooting continued for two hours “over the city and centered in the north part of the business district,” until the last of the blacks had retreated into Greenwood.
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The shots at the courthouse touched off two hours of fighting and general chaos in downtown Tulsa, culminating in the return of Rowland’s intended protectors to the Greenwood area shortly after midnight. The handful of National Guardsmen available, along with some volunteers, tried to get between the combatants along the Frisco Railroad tracks and Detroit Avenue. Although the fighting never completely stopped, it did die down during the early morning hours, causing many to believe the riot was playing itself out.
Col. L.J.F. Rooney, the senior officer among the Tulsa National Guard units, wanted to establish an armed perimeter around Greenwood but gave up the idea as impractical.
“We didn’t have enough men,” Rooney said. “It would have taken at least 1,000 men to restore any degree of order and to put an effective guard line about the negro district would have required that many more.”
At about 1:30 a.m., Maj. Byron Kirkpatrick of the Oklahoma National Guard finally secured the necessary signatures for the telegram formally asking Gov. J.B.A. Robertson for National Guard assistance.
Kirkpatrick’s primary obstacle had been getting to Sheriff McCullough, who was still barricaded in the top floor of the courthouse, threatening to shoot anybody who showed himself in the stairwell leading to the jail. A Tulsa World reporter finally persuaded McCullough to let him in with the telegram.
Three National Guard units were based in Tulsa – a rifle company, a supply company and a sanitary (or medical) unit. An artillery unit had been authorized and was in the process of forming but had not been equipped. On the night of May 31 and morning of June 1, the Tulsa units had perhaps 35 men under arms. This did not include the medical unit, which was employed primarily in caring for wounded and injured blacks.
Besides the guardsmen, Rooney had at his disposal, at least in theory, several hundred ex-servicemen, most of them members of American Legion posts in Tulsa, Cleveland, Okla., Broken Arrow and Bristow. Rooney put these men under the command of Major Charles Daley, a Tulsa police inspector and staff officer to Adjutant Gen. Charles Barrett.
Restoring order along the Frisco tracks was not the only concern of the authorities. Rumors persisted throughout the night that hundreds of blacks were descending on Tulsa, reinforcing the notion of a “Negro uprising” and causing Rooney to stretch his men even thinner. Squads were sent to guard the city power plant and water works, while the police, ex-servicemen and the special deputies roamed the city in “auto patrols,” rounding up blacks living in servant quarters outside Greenwood and looking for the supposed invaders.
Rooney and about 30 men and officers established themselves along Detroit Avenue, on a rise called Standpipe Hill, where gunfire had been exchanged between adjoining white and black neighborhoods. The Guardsmen came under fire from both sides and an ex-serviceman named Wheeler, who had volunteered to join the Guard unit, was seriously wounded by a white gunman.
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At dawn, a force of “citizens, police and members of the national guard,” numbering perhaps 1,500, moved into Greenwood from the south and west, under orders to take into protective custody unarmed blacks and to subdue any who resisted. To people in Greenwood, it looked more like an invading army.
“It then dawned upon us that the enemy had organized in the night and was invading our district, the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium,” wrote Mary Jones Parrish, a Greenwood resident who recorded her experience and those of some of her neighbors in a pamphlet called “Events of the Tulsa Disaster.”
Authorities, still operating on the premise of a “Negro uprising,” maintained they wanted to get control of Greenwood, not destroy it. They failed on both counts.
Most Greenwood residents surrendered peacefully or fled northward. Many were hidden by employers or other acquaintances and sometimes even total strangers. The few who stayed behind to fight were overwhelmed.
The National Guard reported engaging in several short skirmishes as it moved down from Standpipe Hill – the hill just west of the present Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus – and one longer battle in which about 50 blacks “fought like tigers.” The last organized resistance came from gunmen in the Mount Zion Baptist Church tower. When they refused to come out, the new church, valued at $80,000, was set on fire.
Along the Frisco tracks, Maj. Charles Daley and about 25 men were trying to hold back an angry horde of perhaps 1,000. Daley said he repeatedly sent for help from the police, but was told they were “busy elsewhere.”
“Finally the crowd broke away from Daley,” reported The Tulsa Tribune, “and the invasion of the negro district began.”
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Six aircraft, probably JN-4 biplanes from a local airstrip, were employed by the police during the attack. Local authorities insisted the planes were used solely for reconnaissance purposes. Some on the ground, though, said the planes were used to bomb and strafe Greenwood and its fleeing residents.
As a practical matter, dropping explosive or incendiary devices from a JN-4 would probably not have been very easy or effective, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
The JN-4, or “Jenny,” was a two-seat trainer built for World War I but never used in combat. The Army wound up with a large surplus of them, which it sold in kits throughout the country. The planes were constructed of shellac-coated canvass fabric over a wood frame, and were favored by barnstormers because of the aircraft's low cost to own and maintain.
At its best, aerial bombing during World War I was more of a psychological than tactical weapon. Bombsights were crude, in some cases no more than crosshairs over a hole in the bottom of the fuselage, and accuracy was almost nil.
Dropping bombs from a Jenny would have been even more imprecise. It would have required throwing the explosive or incendiary device out of the cockpit without hitting the plane’s lower wing span or, in the case of an incendiary, catching the plane on fire. All accounts seem to agree the planes’ appearance coincided with the invasion of Greenwood, which raises the likelihood that the bombs would have been at least as much of a danger to the National Guard and the other whites flooding into the neighborhood as they were to blacks.
On balance, it seems most likely that all or substantially all of the damage to Greenwood was inflicted by those on the ground. The airplanes, though, immediately took on significance far beyond whatever role they may have played in the battle. To many, blacks and whites, they represented the oppression and brutality that reduced Greenwood to ashes.
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As Tulsa’s black population was rounded up and taken to detention centers at the Convention Hall (present-day Brady Theater), McNulty Park (10th Street and Elgin Avenue) and later the fairgrounds (Admiral Boulevard and Lewis Avenue), looters and vandals descended on the Greenwood district, setting fires and stealing and destroying residents’ possessions.
Some of those involved were the very people who were supposed to bring order to the chaos. Among them were the “special deputies” appointed during the night by Adkison. So was the Home Guard, a militia organized during World War I to replace National Guard units called to active duty. During the war, the Home Guard singled out and terrorized those it deemed insufficiently supportive of the war effort. It also took action against those it considered immoral. Although officially disbanded in 1919, members of the Home Guard apparently put on their old uniforms and waded into the fray on the morning of June 1, 1921.
“Most people, like myself, stayed in their homes, expecting momentarily to be given protection by the Home Guards or State Troops,” E.A. Loupe told Mary Jones Parrish. “Instead of protection by the Home Guards, they joined in with the hoodlums in shooting at good citizens’ homes.”
Col. L.J.F. Rooney, the senior National Guard officer in Tulsa, complained that “there were many men in the negro district wearing khaki clothes (i.e. uniforms) who were not members of the national guard.”
Tulsa police also seem to have been involved in the mayhem. More than one witness identified officers, usually out of uniform, among the arsonists. V.B. Bostic, a black deputy sheriff, was rousted from his home by a white traffic officer named Pittman, who then joined in setting fire to Bostic’s house. I.J. Buck, a white Greenwood property owner, said a policeman turned him aside when Buck tried to save one of his buildings.
“He said: ‘You ain’t got no business building buildings for negroes,’ ” Buck testified in court.
“After the homes vacated,” said one Greenwood resident, “one bunch of whites would come in and loot. Even women with shopping bags would come in, open drawers, take every kind of finery from clothing to silverware and jewelry. Men were carrying out the furniture, cursing as they do so, saying, ‘These damned Negroes have better things than lots of white people.’ ”
Fire soon consumed Greenwood’s main business district and more than 1,100 homes. Only a few houses, one or two churches on the perimeter of the community and Booker T. Washington High School survived.
“Nothing,” the Tulsa World’s Tom Latta wrote the next day, “that the mind is capable of conceiving permits a word of defense or excuse for the murderous vandalism” inflicted on Greenwood.
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The most prominent Tulsan killed in the riot was Dr. A.C. Jackson, a 40-year-old surgeon living at 523 N. Detroit Ave. According to Jackson’s white neighbor, former police commissioner and retired judge John Oliphant, Jackson had raised his hands to surrender to a group of whites when two of them shot Jackson dead in what Oliphant called “cold-blooded murder.”
Born in Memphis and raised in Guthrie, where his father was a law officer, Jackson graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, practiced for awhile in Tulsa and Claremore, then trained as a surgeon in Memphis. His work was such that he attracted the attention of the Mayo Brothers, and in 1919 he returned to Tulsa as a specialist in “chronic diseases and surgery for women.”
Jackson lived on what was one of the most exclusive blocks in all of Greenwood. His neighbors included Booker T. Washington High School principal E.W. Woods, Tulsa Star publisher A.J. Smitherman and physician R.T. Bridgewater. Why Jackson, one of the gentlest of men, would have been singled out is not known. Perhaps he was mistaken for the more outspoken Smitherman or Bridgewater. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The riot had all but died down, Oliphant said, when Jackson “came walking toward me with his hands in the air. ‘Here am I. I want to go with you,’ he said. A body of about seven men, all armed, intercepted him and two young fellows fired on him. He fell to the ground and one of the men fired again.”
Jackson’s killers were never identified.
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By mid-morning on June 1, the violence and destruction were beginning to subside. Tulsa-based National Guardsmen, soon reinforced by units from Oklahoma City, Bartlesville and other communities, began securing the Greenwood area. At 11:15 a.m., Gov. J.B.A. Robertson declared martial law with Adj. Gen. Charles Barrett in command. Some looting continued through the afternoon, until by evening about 30 whites had been arrested for “pillaging.”
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According to some accounts, the Oklahoma City units, which included a machine gun company, were involved in the final attack on Mount Zion Baptist Church. This is not mentioned in any of the officers’ action reports and seems unlikely since those troops did not arrive until 9:30 a.m., by which time the church was already on fire.
A lawyer and former newspaper publisher who had served in the Oklahoma House and Senate, Barrett had limited military experience but was a fair administrator. He issued a number of field orders, some of which have since been misinterpreted.
For instance, Barrett temporarily banned all funerals in downtown churches. Over time, this was seen as an attempt to keep blacks from burying their dead. In fact, it had almost no effect on black funerals, since those would not have been held in the downtown white churches, anyway. The purpose of the ban was to keep grieving white families from coming into contact with blacks still staying in some downtown churches.
Barrett also ordered a moratorium on property transfers in Greenwood. This was to head off speculation and forced sales.
Martial law was eased on June 2 and lifted altogether at 5 p.m. on June 3.
By mid-day on June 1, Greenwood had been emptied of all but a handful of its inhabitants. A few found refuge in downtown churches or the homes of white employers, acquaintances and even strangers. Fewer still somehow rode out the riot in their own homes. The majority by far had either fled the city or been taken into what was described as protective custody.
Forced to march for blocks through white neighborhoods with their hands in the air while their homes and possessions burned behind them, the detainees were subject to harassment and humiliation. Some were robbed of whatever valuables they had managed to stuff in their pockets.
They were taken first to Convention Hall, now the Brady Theater. It soon proved inadequate, and McNulty Park, the local minor league baseball stadium at 10th Street and Elgin Avenue, was put into service. Finally, in the afternoon, the detainees were transported to the fairgrounds at Admiral Boulevard and Lewis Avenue.
Through the afternoon and into the next day, National Guard patrols went out into the countryside to pick up Greenwood residents. Some had gotten as far as Claremore and Bartlesville. A few made it all the way to Kansas City. A good many simply kept going and never looked back.
Detainees were given food, water and medical attention that first day. The black hospital had been burned, so a makeshift clinic for injured blacks was set up at the National Guard Armory. Maj. Paul Brown, a Tulsa physician and commanding officer of the sanitary detachment, then commandeered beds in white hospitals for the most serious cases.
Many detainees were released within hours, while others remained at the fairgrounds camp for weeks. Generally, detainees were held until a white person vouched for them, at which point they were given a card to wear on their clothes. Those without cards were subject to arrest.
Those with nowhere else to go were allowed to stay at the fairgrounds camp, regardless of whether or not they had been released. At its height, the camp housed about 5,000.
Those who remained were required to pay for their meals, either out of their own pockets or by working at various tasks, including cleaning up the debris in Greenwood. For this, they were paid standard laborers’ wages. It was by no means an easy existence, but some whites soon complained that blacks were being “spoiled” at the fairgrounds and by the attention given them by the Red Cross and other charitable organizations.
Although the destruction of Greenwood was generally condemned by black and white Tulsans alike, overall blame was quickly assigned to the blacks who had gone to the courthouse to protect Dick Rowland.
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The true death toll will probably never be known. Thirty-seven death certificates were issued for riot-related fatalities, but most experts believe the total was higher – perhaps much higher. Hundreds and perhaps thousands were injured.
Property damage in Greenwood was put at $1.5 million to $2 million at a time when a good house could be built for less than $1,000. According to the Red Cross, 1,256 homes were burned and another 215 looted but not destroyed.
Of the 37 death certificates, 25 were for black males and 12 for white males. Nine black victims, burned beyond recognition, were not identified.
Two other deaths are sometimes included in the confirmed total: a still-born black infant found during the riot and a white male shot several days later when he drove through a checkpoint on the outskirts of town.
The number of dead and injured has been the subject of controversy from the very start. Early on, the Tulsa World reported 100 dead, then scaled its estimate back to 30, saying some bodies had been counted twice and others thought dead were only injured.
Maj. Charles Daley, the National Guard officer who had been installed in the Tulsa Police Department as a sort of inspector general, contributed to the confusion by saying he expected the toll to reach 175. After inspecting the burned area with another National Guard officer, however, Daley said no additional bodies were found and the number of dead was much lower than previously thought.
There was indeed much confusion. Some people reported dead weren't, and some reported “slightly injured” were in fact dead. A few of the dead were either misidentified or had been living under assumed names. According to the Red Cross, many people and especially whites were reluctant to seek medical attention for even major injuries.
Stories abound of bodies “stacked like cordwood,” loaded on trucks, dumped in the Arkansas River, thrown down mine shafts and burned in the city incinerator. Some, on examination, are more plausible than others; none, at this late date, can be proved or disproved.
On June 3, 1921, just two days after the riot, the Tulsa World reported that 13 black victims of the riot were buried in Oaklawn cemetery “in separate graves and in plain caskets,” a description that suggests a suspicion of something otherwise even then.
In 1999 and 2000, a commission authorized by the Oklahoma Legislature and the Oklahoma Geological Survey probed for mass burial sites at several locations in Tulsa, including Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery and the former Booker T. Washington Cemetery.
Their search was unsuccessful.
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A grand jury convened the second week of June said the armed blacks at the courthouse were the direct cause of the riot, but said indirect causes were more to blame. Among the indirect causes cited were agitation for social equality and lax law enforcement. Eighty-eight indictments were issued, mostly for black men, but few seem to have been served. A few people arrested during and after the riot were convicted of or pleaded guilty to minor crimes such as possession of stolen property.
Immediately after the riot, a group of white businessmen proposed moving the black neighborhood further to the northeast and converting the Greenwood area to a warehouse district. This effort ultimately failed when the business group could not raise the necessary capital. In September, Tulsa County’s three district judges ruled the city had illegally extended its fire code in an attempt to thwart blacks from rebuilding. Their decision effectively ended the real estate group’s scheme.
The group’s efforts, though, helped feed suspicions of conspiracy and cover-up. Some have suggested the entire incident, including the encounter between Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, had been staged to provide an excuse to lay waste to Greenwood. They point to the actions – or inaction – of authorities during the buildup to the riot and failure to protect Greenwood property on the morning of June 1.
There were also claims that the blacks who went to the courthouse wanted a fight. According to later testimony and notes found in the papers of Gov. J.B.A. Robertson, hotel owner John Stradford had exhorted the men at the Tulsa Star office with the promise to “send and get the Muskogee crowd” – that is, reinforcements from the nearby city of Muskogee. The African Blood Brotherhood, an arm of the Communist Party based in New York, claimed to have had a chapter in Tulsa organizing armed resistance to racial oppression.
Stradford and Smitherman were arrested after the riot, posted bail, and left Oklahoma forever. Stradford settled in Chicago, where his family became prominent. Smitherman opened a newspaper in Buffalo, N.Y.
In July, a jury found Police Chief John Gustafson guilty of dereliction of duty and removed him from office. He resumed his career as a private investigator.
In September, a large Ku Klux Klan rally was held at Convention Hall. It was the Klan’s first public appearance in Tulsa, although many people believed it had a hand in the riot.
The original Klan, organized during Reconstruction, had been broken up in the 1870s, but a new organization was formed in Atlanta in 1915. This Klan promoted a broader agenda than its predecessor, based not only on racism and white Angle-Saxon Protestantism but vigilante enforcement of its own moral code.
In April 1922, more than 1,700 Klan members marched through downtown Tulsa while an airplane carrying an electrically lighted cross flew overhead. In that spring’s city elections, Klan candidates swept every office, and did the same when county elections came around in the fall. In August 1923, Gov. J.C. Walton declared martial law in Tulsa County because of Klan activity.
Most insurance claims stemming from the riot were denied because policies typically excluded such damage. Scores of lawsuits were filed as a result. One by white property owner William Redfearn alleged the riot had in fact been a police action. Redfearn produced a number of witnesses who said police actively participated in the destruction of Greenwood.
Refearn’s suit was dismissed, as were all others. Few property owners were ever reimbursed for their losses.
Greenwood families lived in tents and makeshift shacks in their old neighborhood for much of the next year, but eventually the neighborhood did rebuild, reaching its peak during World War II.
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Few landmarks associated with the riot still stand. The most visible is the former Convention Hall, now Brady Theater, at 105 W. Brady St. Most of the area destroyed in the riot is occupied by campuses of Oklahoma State University and Langston University.
The old Tulsa County Courthouse, where Dick Rowland was held and the shooting began, was demolished in 1960 to make way for a 32-story bank building. The police station, the Hotel Tulsa and Magee’s and Bardon’s Sporting Goods stores are long gone. The armory where National Guardsmen faced down angry whites has for decades been a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.
Mount Zion Baptist Church rebuilt, slowly and painfully, over a period of many years. For awhile, it had to meet in the church basement, the only part of the building still usable.
A freeway runs where the fairgrounds and Dr. A.C. Jackson’s house once stood and cuts the old Greenwood in two. The formerly bustling business district was reduced to a single block.
In 1997, the Oklahoma Legislature authorized a special commission to investigate the Tulsa riot. The commission’s report, issued in 2001, recommended reparations for living black survivors of the riot. The recommendation was never acted upon.
In 2003, a federal lawsuit was filed against the state of Oklahoma, city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Police Department on behalf of about 200 survivors and descendents of blacks living in Greenwood at the time of the riot. In 2004, the courts dismissed the suit, ruling the statute of limitations had run out.
In 2007, Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris formally dismissed the original indictment against alleged riot participants.
For many Tulsans, the riot remains a sensitive and controversial issue. For some, it is merely something that happened long ago with little relevance today. For others, however, it remains a symbol of oppression and prejudice that speaks to modern race relations.
The opening of the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park adjoining ONEOK Field, the city’s new minor league baseball stadium, is expected to bring new life to Greenwood. It is also expected to bring greater attention to a painful but important chapter in Tulsa’s history, and to one of its most distinguished sons.
At the 2008 dedication to the park named in his honor, John Hope Franklin, in one of his last public appearances before his death, said, “Someday we’ll have the joy and pleasure of complete reconciliation. We’re moving in that direction. I hope we get there very soon.”
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Charles Barrett, “Oklahoma After Fifty Years”
Scott Ellsworth, “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921”
Mary Jones Parrish, “Events of the Tulsa Disaster”
The Black Dispatch
The New York Times
The Tulsa Tribune
A.I. Levorsen Collection
Beryl Ford Collection
Greenwood Cultural Center
Oklahoma Department of Libraries
Oklahoma Historical Society
Sapulpa Historical Museum
Tulsa World file