Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Tulsa Race Massacre, Oklahoma 1921 (Public Domain Image)
Tulsa Race Massacre, Oklahoma 1921

Overview: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States. A mob of white people attacked and murdered Black residents, completely destroying the all-Black neighborhood of Greenwood, called Black Wall Street, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Summary: It is likely that up to 300 people died in the violent killing on May 31, 1921. Most were Blacks. More than 1,400 Black homes and business were burned to the ground during the two days of rioting. 35 square blocks were destroyed and millions of dollars were lost. About 10,000 Black people were left homeless. White people looted, stealing goods from Black homes and businesses. Insurance companies and the city of Tulsa refused to pay for the damages. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre.

Event: Black Wall Street was a successful area of northern Tulsa where Black people lived. Sadly, rising Black wealth and Black confidence caused jealousy in southern Tulsa where white people lived. The two races did not get along. In 1921, a nineteen-year-old Black boy named Dick Rowland was accused of possibly harming Sarah Page, a seventeen-year-old white girl, in an elevator. When the girl screamed, Dick ran away and was later arrested. The Tulsa Tribune newspaper wrote an opinion article suggesting a rumor about Dick Rowland being guilty. White people who read the article became angry. A large crowd of armed white men and a small crowd of armed Black men gathered at the courthouse. Angry words between a white man and Black man turned ugly and a shot was fired. It got out of control and a riot started. Whites went to the town of Black Wall Street and attacked, murdered, and burned down buildings. The police rounded up Black men and took them away even though they had not committed any crime. However, most of the white men were only disarmed and told to go home. Sarah Page dropped her charge and Dick Rowland was free to go. An investigation to decide if a crime was committed found that the Blacks were the cause of the riot. No white man was ever charged with murder, stealing, or damaging property. In the 1930s the Tulsa Tribune newspaper article that got people riled up went missing from their volumes of old newspapers.

Impact: People did not want to hear that white people killed, burned, and destroyed Black people’s lives and property. Tulsa residents and people in America did not talk about it. Soon the event was forgotten. Nearly 100 years later Oklahoma’s Education Department agreed to teach schoolchildren about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that happened in their own state. The 2020 movie Black Wall Street Burning is making people aware of Tulsa’s dark past.

Take-away: The bad part of human nature is to refuse to take blame for doing wrong. Rumors can do great harm. Tulsans knows that they cannot change their history, but they can learn and grow from it.