Saturday, July 18, 2015

Destruction Of Black Wall Street - The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

  Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. The state had been settled by many white Southerners of whom many were former slave owners. Between 1907 and 1921 thirty-one people were lynched in the state and 26 of them were black. It had been settled by many blacks and a number were veterans of World War I. Tulsa Oklahoma had a sizeable population of blacks who had become very prosperous at a time when other blacks were not doing all that well on a national level. The Greenwood section of Tulsa was so prosperous that it was known as the Negro Wall Street. Blacks created businesses and services such as grocery stores, newspapers, movie theaters, nightclubs and churches. There were doctors, dentists, lawyers and clergy. An oil boom was going on and many blacks had benefited from it. On August 16, 1916, Tulsa passed an ordinance forbidding blacks or whites from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were of the other race. This kept the black sections black and the white sections white.



  Memorial Day 1921 fell on Monday May 30th. A 19 year old black shoe shine boy named Dick Rowland, who worked at a Main Street shoe shine parlor, boarded an elevator in the nearby Drexel building. He usually rode the elevator up to the Colored only restroom on an upper floor. Dick knew Sarah Page, the white 17 year old female elevator operator very well. Dick and Sarah were the only two on the elevator, because most businesses were closed for Memorial Day. Sarah was heard to scream and it was later speculated that Dick tripped as he was walking on to the elevator. Falling he grabbed Sarah's arm to steady himself. Another theory put forward was that Dick and Sarah were lovers and were having a lovers quarrel. Somehow it was reported that there had been an attempted rape. The police arrested Dick but they soon realized that no rape had been committed and Sarah refused to press charges.

  A white newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, printed the story and an editorial warned that Dick Rowland might be lynched. Willard McCullough, the newly elected white sheriff, was determined to protect Dick from the lynch mob. He positioned his men all over the courthouse. The sheriff also disabled the elevator and gave orders to shoot on sight anybody trying to get to the prisoner. The sheriff tried to calm the gathering mob but was shouted down. A meeting was called in the black section of Greenwood and the younger black war veterans were determined to protect Rowland. The older black citizens were worried that things would get out of control if they got involved. Heavily armed, the young men showed up at the courthouse. The sheriff and his black deputy refused their help. Local white leaders, including a pastor, tried to talk the white mob into going home. A even larger group of armed black men showed up at the courthouse. Their heir help was also turned down. It is a mystery what happened next but a shot was fired.




  

  A gun battle broke out in which ten whites and two 2 blacks.were killed. The blacks retreated toward the Greenwood section of Tulsa and the armed whites gave chase.The white's shot into a crowd leaving a movie theater which caused a mass panic. By 11:00 PM the National Guard arrived on the scene but was only deployed to protect white neighborhoods. One prominent KKK member said that he saw at least five black bodies along with one that was being dragged behind a car. Later that night another white mob showed up at the courthouse to lynch Rowland but the sheriff managed to disperse them. During the morning hours of June 1st there were more armed clashes. The whites set the black business district on fire. When the fire department tried to put out the fires they were turned away. As the armed blacks prepared for a fight there was a mass exodus of unarmed blacks from Tulsa.

  At 5:00 AM a siren sounded which was the signal for a mass attack. One white man was shot dead as he stepped out from cover. A car load of five whites died in a fusillade of bullets. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of whites the defenders retreated North to the edge of the black district. Many black people fled in panic but were gunned down in the streets. Whites looted empty black businesses and homes. They rounded up blacks that were still at home and sent them to detention centers. The whites even flew airplanes over the Greenwood district shooting blacks and dropping fire bombs. The blacks that stood and fought would ultimately die while the ones who surrendered were taken prisoner. Many white families who employed blacks as maids, or in other positions, were told to hand over their employees. Some whites complied but the ones who didn't were harassed and vandalized. Around noon the National Guard was finally able to declare martial law and suppress the violence.






  To this day nobody knows how many people actually died in this riot. The authorities and newspapers were all over the place with casualty figures. The best estimate is that about 30 whites and as high 300 blacks died. There was an unknown number of injured. At least 800 people, mostly white, were admitted to the white hospitals. The two black hospitals were burned down and blacks had nowhere to go because of segregation laws. More than 6,000 blacks were arrested. The commercial section of Greenwood was destroyed. There were 1,256 houses burned and 215 more were looted but not destroyed.Property losses were 1.5 million along with 750,000 in personal property losses. It would be the equivalent of thirty million in today's dollars. Over the years there have been numerous lawsuits and requests for reparations with varying degrees of success. The worse thing about the Tulsa riots was that it was blotted out of the history books. Very few Americans know about this blot on American history. . .


  

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