Today we will visit the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This was the site of one of the most heinous crimes white Americans have ever committed against Black Americans after the abolishment of Slavery. In May of 1921, Dick Rowland, a young Black man, was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting Sarah Page, a young White woman. After several inflammatory and irresponsible articles and editorials in the Tulsa Tribune newspaper, an angry White mob assembled outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse demanding Rowland be turned over so he could be lynched. A group of Black men, some of them armed, drove downtown marched up to the courthouse and offered to ‘protect’ Rowland. The Tulsa sheriff declined their offer and reassured them that no harm would come to Rowland. The Black men got back into their cars and returned to the Greenwood neighborhood. The appearance of armed Black men at the courthouse shocked and infuriated many in the lynch mob who immediately set off to break into the nearby Armory to arm themselves. Courageously, the National Guardsmen on duty drew their weapons and dispersed the lynch mob which headed back to the courthouse. Meanwhile, another, larger contingent of Black men returned to the courthouse to again offer to ‘protect’ Rowland. Again, the sheriff refused their offer. As the group of Black men began to leave, an altercation between one of them and a member of the lynch mob broke out and a shot rang out and chaos reigned the evening of May 31 and all day June 1, 1921. The entire Greenwood community was burned to the ground and over 300 Blacks were shot dead. Later, an official investigation would BLAME THE BLACKS for starting the riot and effectively curtailing any hope for reparations or other compensation. 4,000 homes were destroyed and 1,000 people spent the harsh Oklahoman winter in tents.
Video (8 parts):
Here is an excerpt of an excellent historical account of what happened (entire article available here):
In the city’s African American neighborhoods, meanwhile, tension continued to mount over the increasingly ugly situation down at the courthouse. Alerted to the potentially dangerous conditions, both school and church groups broke up their evening activities early, while parents and grandparents tried to reassure themselves that the trouble would quickly blow over. Down in Deep Greenwood, a large crowd of black men and women still kept their vigil outside of the offices of the Tulsa Star, awaiting word on the latest developments downtown.104
Some of the men, however, decided that they could wait no longer. Hopping into cars, small groups of armed African American men began to make brief forays into downtown, their guns visible to passersby. In addition to reconnaissance, the primary intent of these trips appears to have been to send a clear message to white Tulsans that these men were determined to prevent, by force of arms if necessary, the lynching of Dick Rowland. Whether the whites who witnessed these excursions understood this message is, however, an open question. Many, apparently, thought that they were instead witnessing a “Negro uprising,” a conclusion that others would soon share.
In the midst of all of this activity, rumors began to circulate, particularly with regards to what might or might not be happening down at the courthouse. Possibly spurred on by a false report that whites were storming the courthouse, moments after 10:00 p.m., a second contingent of armed African American men, perhaps seventy-five in number this time, decided to make a second visit to the Courthouse. Leaving Greenwood by automobile, they got out of their cars near Sixth and Main and marched, single file, to the courthouse steps. Again, they offered their services to the authorities to help protect Dick Rowland. Once again, their offer was refused.105
Then it happened. As the black men were leaving the courthouse for the second time, a white man approached a tall African American World War I veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver. “Nigger”, the white man said, “What are you doing with that pistol?” “I’m going to use it if I need to,” replied the black veteran. “No, you give it to me.” Like hell I will.” The white man tried to take the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out.106 America’s worst race riot had begun.
While the first shot fired at the courthouse may have been unintentional, those that followed were not. Almost immediately, members of the white mob — and possibly some law enforcement officers — opened fire on the African American men, who returned volleys of their own. The initial gunplay lasted only a few seconds, but when it was over, an unknown number of people — perhaps as many as a dozen — both black and white, lay – dead or wounded.107
Outnumbered more than twenty-to-one, the black men began a retreating fight toward the African American district. With armed whites in close pursuit, heavy gunfire erupted again along Fourth Street, two blocks north of the courthouse.108
Dr. George H. Miller, a white physician who was working late that evening in his office at the Unity Building at 21 W. Fourth Street, rushed outside after hearing the gunshots, only to come upon a wounded black man, “shot and bleeding, writhing on the street,” surrounded by a group of angry whites. As Dr. Miller later told an interviewer:
I went over to see if I could help him as a doctor, but the crowd was gathering around him and wouldn’t even let the driver of the ambulance which just arrived to even pick him up. I saw it was an impossible situation to control, that I could be of no help. The crowd was getting more and more belligerent. The Negro had been shot so many times in his chest, and men from the onlookers were slashing him with knives.
Unable to help the dying man, Dr. Miller got into his car and drove home.109
A short while later, a second , deadlier, skirmish broke out at Second and Cincinnati. No longer directly involved with the fate of Dick Rowland, the beleaguered second contingent of African American men were now fighting for their own lives. Heavily outnumbered by the whites, and suffering some casualties along the way, most were apparently able, however, to make it safely across the Frisco railroad tracks, and into the more familiar environs of the African American community.
Thanks for your attention.