By Rae Avery
Dick Rowland was a 19-year-old African American shoe shiner working in a segregated white neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Memorial Day in 1921, when he needed to use the bathroom. The top floor of the nearby Drexel Building housed the only restroom that he, as a black man, was legally allowed to use during his workday in this area. He joined the elevator attendant, Sarah Page, a 17-year-old Caucasian girl, to make the trip. What happened next will only ever be truly known to the two of them. History has a way of burying the truth in things we want to hear, or rather what we've been told to hear. But what happened next would propel into motion a tragic, senseless, and horrifying set of events that would change Tulsa forever.
In the past 94 years, many of the details surrounding the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 have been twisted to include conjecture, legend, and local lore. Whether Page and Rowland were lovers or mere acquaintances, whether there are mass graves, and even the exact number of the deceased—these things we may never know. Much is shrouded in foggy mystery. But the violent and unfathomable facts remain in photographs—faded, iconic black and white images - and in the memories of the survivors.
When the elevator doors opened again on the ground floor, people nearby heard what sounded like a woman's scream and saw Rowland rushing out of the building, and Page looking distraught. Again, no one knows whether this was simply a lovers' quarrel, or whether Rowland tripped on his way out, inadvertently falling into and startling Page. But in the racially charged atmosphere of 1921 middle America, passersby assumed the worst and immediately summoned the police on charges of assault.
In the hours that followed, many reports were heard from people who knew Rowland, had worked with him, and stood by his character and integrity, saying that he simply wasn't capable of such crimes, it wasn't in his good nature. Later on, Page would also go on to drop all charges—an important hint to the historical veracity of the official charges. Nevertheless, Rowland was arrested and brought down to the police station to remain in their custody for the time being. It would turn out to be the safest place for him.
By nightfall, word of the incident had gotten around, and a lynch mob of several hundred white men had formed right outside the courthouse (where Rowland had been moved following telephoned death threats), and demanded that the authorities hand Rowland over to them.
Members of the black community had heard what was going on, and doubting the police force's ability to maintain Rowland's safety, went to the courthouse as well, armed with guns and ammunition to aide the police if necessary. By this time, the white mob had swelled to around 1000, and as they saw the black community members arrive, each group viewed the other as a threat.
Tensions were already high in Tulsa, as soldiers had recently arrived home from World War I, and many of these white men returned without jobs, and their families, in turn, became destitute. Many of the black Tulsan soldiers, however, were viewed as heroes in their home community of Greenwood: a place that segregation laws had forced them to congregate and do business. Oppressive as it was, citizens of Greenwood prided themselves on their community’s ingenuity, hard work, good business sense and the culture of investing in each other and a common goal. They had done the unthinkable in the eyes of contemporary white America—they had produced a thriving, flourishing African American “metropolis.” Greenwood was so affluent and prosperous, it was nicknamed, "Black Wall Street." It was a truly self-built and self-sustained place. They supported each other, helped out where there was a need, were loyal to each other's businesses. Whereas, nowadays the average dollar leaves the black community in just over 15 minutes, the average dollar in Greenwood might not leave the community for nearly a year. Street after street of beautiful, well-maintained, African American owned and operated businesses, nice homes with electric lighting and indoor plumbing (newly available luxury amenities at the time), were the envy of much of the surrounding area.
Envy was just one of the components that fueled the fires of the Tulsa Race Riot that night.
With the crowds gathered at the courthouse, doubled by this time, and each side well armed, it's difficult to pinpoint who fired the first shot, but after that inaugural shot a gunfight was imminent. Several people were killed then and there in front of the courthouse, but mainly the crowd was dispersed, and smaller, more isolated gunfire would continue to erupt all over the city. Late that night, local members of the National Guard assembled themselves to patrol the city, break up the rioters, and detain any and all Africans Americans to various secured locations around town.
Throughout the night and early morning, gunfire continued—in the frenzied confusion, victims would include innocent bystanders, people merely exiting a theater. Rumors flew that each side had called in reinforcements, to the point where innocent travelers were killed simply getting off the train. Looting was also a huge problem, and as more and more black community members were being detained, the community was left very much unprotected, and rampant vandalism of African American businesses and residences ensued. White rioters broke into Greenwood homes, forcing entire families to flee, and would then steal or destroy whatever they wanted. One of the more harrowing reports tell of a black man dangling off the back of a car by a noose, being paraded around the city, dead.
Around 1 A.M., white rioters began setting fire to Greenwood businesses and homes; plunder, vandalism and arson ruled the night. The once-prosperous community went up in flames. By the next morning, planes began dropping bombs over the city on businesses and clusters of black people visible from the air. Later in the morning, the Oklahoma National Guard troops were called in (officially this time) to break up any remaining violence, and collect any African Americans who had not yet been detained, utilizing a machine gun strapped to the back of a truck.
By noon, most of the physical fight was over, but widespread devastation lay in its wake, as Greenwood lay in smoldering ruins. Unbeknownst to the residents, however, their fight was just beginning. Local real estate officials (many of whom were directly involved in leading the riot) threw out carefully constructed red tape, making rebuilding businesses and homes nearly impossible, and forcing most community members to relocate to other areas, starting over with nothing. This (among other things) has caused many to wonder at the possibility of conspiracy theories, whether the entire event was deliberately planned in order to snuff out the most prosperous African American community in the nation. We may never know.
Some restitution has been attempted. In 2001, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the "1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act" which provides a college scholarship for the descendants of those who had lived in Greenwood, a memorial commemorating the deceased, and plans to improve economic conditions in Greenwood.
Much of history is shrouded in mystery, and especially in the events of the Tulsa Race Riot. The incident was kept out of local and state history for many years - in fact, it wasn't officially acknowledged until 1996, and most (indeed, nearly all) of the newspaper articles published regarding the events in Greenwood were subsequently hunted down and burned one by one from every archive, seeming to have vanished into thin air. To the survivors however, no one can deny the atrocities committed that night, the things they would have to live with the rest of their lives. One of the greatest achievements of early 20th century black America was snuffed out in a tragic, cruel, hateful, and shameful backlash which many of its perpetrators would have preferred to have been lost to history. Others have made it their mission to make sure we never forget.
A.J. Silverman, an African-American editor and publisher of the Tulsa Star penned a poem recounting the events of that night (which he and his family survived), named simply,"A Descriptive Poem of the Tulsa Race Riots." A stirring excerpt reads, "On all sides the mob had gathered, talking in excited tones, with machine guns, ready, mounted, trained upon a thousand homes."