10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots

Larry Holzwarth - February 12, 2018

It began with an assumption of sexual assault, which was likely unfounded. The assumption led to a rumored lynching of a young black man. Driven by the yellow journalism of the day it turned into a two-day race riot with still disputed numbers of people killed, more than 800 injured seriously enough to require medical attention, and over 1,200 houses burned to the ground. Ten thousand were left homeless. Not until 75 years had passed was there an official independent investigation into the riot and its aftermath. Another five years passed before the state legislature took action to offer reconciliation to the families of the victims.

Tulsa preceding the riot enforced city-mandated segregation, despite the law calling for it being found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1917. Lynching was not uncommon in Oklahoma in the two decades before the riot, and the rumor of a lynching about to take place was a major factor in triggering the riot, but not the sole factor. The latent racism which permeated Oklahoma in the 1920s, in law and in life, was the primary factor. The riot was one of the most violent urban events in American history. It is often overlooked by history, other than in Tulsa, and only recently there have there been attempts to understand what occurred.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
The Greenwood section of Tulsa Oklahoma in flames on the morning of June 1, 1921. Wikimedia

Here are ten aspects of the Tulsa race riot of 1921 which are mostly forgotten to history.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
The section of Tulsa known as Greenwood was called Little Africa and the Black Wall Street. University of Tulsa

Tulsa was a segregated city

Oklahoma became a state in 1907. During the ensuing thirteen years, more than two dozen blacks were lynched in the state. Tulsa itself was segregated, and the use of public facilities such as restrooms and drinking fountains was racially restricted. The state constitution restricted black voting. In 1919 black veterans returning from the First World War believed that they had earned the right to vote and riots broke out in several cities across the country. In several northern cities, armed resistance by blacks against attacking whites occurred. Racial tensions were high.

The Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood was a prospering area almost entirely populated by blacks in 1921. Tulsa underwent an oil boom in the early twentieth century, and as the city prospered the Greenwood area flourished. Hotels, banks, grocery stores, haberdasheries, and other forms of commerce were owned by and catered to blacks, offering opportunities and services which were denied them by the white-owned facilities and businesses in Tulsa.

Greenwood featured several large homes occupied by black professionals including doctors, surgeons, dentists and lawyers. There were more than a dozen noted black physicians in the Greenwood area, including Dr. A.C. Jackson, considered to be one of the most capable black surgeons in the United States, according to one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic. There were two newspapers published in Greenwood, both owned by black publishers, which covered local, national, and international news.

Greenwood contained several churches of varying congregations and schools which worked with various youth groups and organizations. The area thrived because employment was strong and the neighborhood provided the black community with the services denied to them by the state and city segregation laws. Still, the interaction between the white and black populations of Tulsa was inevitable as part of daily life, mostly in the area of jobs.

Racial segregation also restricted the personal relationships between whites and blacks. It was considered entirely inappropriate for black men to have any form of a relationship with white women, other than working for them, and even commercial interaction was eyed suspiciously by some whites. An accusation by a white man or woman against a black person nearly always led to a conviction, as blacks were denied the right to sit on juries (only registered voters could be jurors). The fear of white lynch mobs was also present, in Tulsa as well as in the rest of the state. Racial tensions were high, both from the news of riots during the summer of 1919 (known as the Red Summer) and from the competition for jobs after the First World War.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
The ruins of the Greenwood neighborhood following the riot of May 31-June 1, 1921. Wikimedia

Memorial Day, 1921

On May 30, the Memorial Day holiday was in full swing when Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old black shoeshiner who worked on Main Street in the white section of Tulsa downtown, entered the Drexel Building. Rowland intended to use the black-only restroom located on the top floor of the building, which had only one elevator, operated by a seventeen-year-old girl named Sarah Page. Across the street, a clerk in a clothing store heard a scream coming from the Drexel Building and saw a black man running from the building. When he reached the distraught Page he assumed that she had been assaulted, and called the police.

The police questioned Page when they arrived, but a written report of what she told them has never surfaced. Rumors that Page and Rowland knew each other began shortly after the ensuing chaos, but have never been confirmed. The police did not immediately start searching for Rowland, indicating that what they were told by Page did not constitute sexual assault. What actually happened to cause Page to scream is uncertain, but Rowland fled to the Greenwood area. The next morning he was arrested by two officers at his mother’s home in Greenwood and held in the jail in the county courthouse.

When the newspapers reported the story that afternoon it was in a sensationalized fashion, and the Tulsa Tribune ran an opinion piece which allegedly warned of Rowland being lynched that night. Copies of the paper do not exist other than on microfilm, and that is missing the page which supposedly contained the warning editorial. A mostly white crowd began to congregate around the courthouse that afternoon. A year earlier, a white prisoner had been taken by a mob from the jail and lynched, and the Sheriff was determined to protect Rowland from a similar fate. Guards armed with shotguns, rifles, and handguns were placed on the roof of the courthouse and within.

Meanwhile, the black community in Greenwood was divided over how to respond to what they believed was the possibility of Rowland being taken out and lynched, especially considering that such a fate had occurred to a white man the preceding year. One of the community’s leaders, O. W. Gurley, went to the courthouse and received assurances from the sheriff that there would be no lynching. Impressed with the sheriff’s assurances and the preparations Gurley observed, he returned to Greenwood and urged restraint.

Despite Gurley’s pleas for calm, a group of about 30 men, most of them veterans, armed themselves and went to the courthouse with the intent of backing up the sheriff and his men as they protected Rowland. When they arrived the Sheriff and a black deputy informed them that Rowland was safe and that their support was unnecessary, asking them to go home. The white crowd observed the armed blacks, and many of them began to arm themselves as well. Some of the growing crowd attempted to break into the National Guard Armory to obtain weapons but were repelled by Guardsmen. The white mob around the courthouse was by now around 2,000, growing steadily and many were armed.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
Wounded being taken by National Guard troops to the Convention Hall. Wikimedia

The Riot Begins

Despite the pleas of several community leaders for the growing crowd to break up and go to their homes it continued to swell, raising additional concerns in Greenwood. Shortly after 10 PM, another larger group of armed blacks went to the courthouse to offer support to the sheriff, who again refused their assistance and asked them to go home. During this time someone demanded that another person give up his gun and was refused. This was followed by a gunshot, and the first shot was followed by an exchange of gunfire between the black and white groups.

Patrons leaving a nearby movie theater were caught in the crossfire. There were casualties among the contending crowds, but reports are conflicting as to how many. At least a dozen were killed between the two sides. The black group was heavily outnumbered and tried to withdraw to Greenwood but they were pursued by the white mob and by the local National Guard troops, who deployed in a manner to protect the surrounding white neighborhoods and took into custody blacks found outside the confines of the Greenwood neighborhood wherever they could.

The pursuing white mob looted stores and businesses as they entered the Greenwood area (and some white-owned businesses in the downtown district). By midnight another group of armed whites attempted to enter the courthouse but were turned back by the sheriff and his men. Meanwhile, sporadic gun battles continued around the fringes of the Greenwood area. Most of the gunfights occurred along the railroad tracks which marked the boundary of Greenwood. In several, all-night cafes and restaurants meetings were held to discuss activities once it became light.

Throughout the night and early morning gun battles continued. An arriving passenger train was hit with gunfire as it pulled into the station, but there were no injuries. Several groups of armed whites ignited homes and businesses on Archer Street in Greenwood, using rags and other combustibles thrown on roofs. Buildings were fired into what would today be called drive-by shootings, in many cases, gunfire was returned by the occupants. Shortly after midnight several of the businesses on Archer Street were ablaze, and when Tulsa firemen arrived they were held back at gunpoint by the arsonists.

The white mob continued to set businesses and some homes afire throughout the remaining hours of darkness, and many black families began trying to escape from Greenwood. Others joined in the multiple gun battles which at times nearly died out, only to flare up again. Throughout the early morning hours, the number of dead and injured continued to mount, on both sides of the conflict. A rumor began to spread among the white rioters that a train of armed black supporters would be arriving sometime during the following day.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
The remains of a residential block following the riot of June 1. Wikimedia

June 1

At dawn of the first of June, a steam whistle was sounded, and some of those who have studied the riot believe it to have been a prearranged signal to attack the center of Greenwood. Most of the businesses on Archer Street had been destroyed during the fires of the pre-dawn hours. Several cars filled with rioters raced into Greenwood firing as they went, and they were met with return fire. Other rioters left the areas where they had been undercover and began to work their way into the neighborhood.

Some residents simply fled for the outskirts of town. Others fought back but were heavily outnumbered and forced to withdraw under fire. White rioters established detention centers and those blacks who escaped the gunfire were forced to relocate to them at gunpoint. Homes were broken into and any persons found attempting to shelter inside them were forced out into the street, where they were exposed to gunfire. Others were shot in their homes during the break-ins. Many whites were shot as well by gunfire from houses.

Throughout the morning several aircraft circled the Greenwood neighborhood, and later it was claimed that at least some were reconnaissance aircraft allowing deputies to monitor the situation. Several witnesses on the ground reported that shots were fired by riflemen from the airplanes at blacks on the ground. Others reported that the aircraft dropped burning rags which had been soaked in turpentine on the rooftops of buildings. Several of the aircraft described by witnesses was privately owned.

Many black residents of Tulsa worked in some of the city’s white neighborhoods as cooks, maids, gardeners, and chauffeurs. Those in Tulsa’s white neighborhoods that employed live-in servants were approached by rioters who demanded that their servants be turned over to be taken to detention centers. Most complied with these demands but the few who did not found their homes attacked by the rioters, and their property vandalized.

Up until mid-morning of June 1, there was minimal police presence in the Greenwood area. Many witnesses later reported that what law enforcement was present was involved in the riot supporting the white attackers. Sheriff’s deputies remained primarily concerned with protecting the courthouse and the prisoner Rowland. The Mayor of Tulsa, T.D. Evans requested the help of the governor and National Guard troops were dispatched to the city by special train.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
The worst of the looting and arson was over by the time the State National Guard troops arrived. Wikimedia

The National Guard Arrives

Around 9:15 on the morning of June 1, a special train pulled into Tulsa carrying 109 troops of the Oklahoma National Guard. Until then, all the Guard troops in Tulsa had been from the Tulsa Armory and had been deployed to protect white areas which abutted Greenwood, though some were actively involved in the shooting in Greenwood while others were taking black residents to detention areas. Upon arrival the Guard commander, adjutant General Barrett reviewed the situation and got reports from Mayor Evans. He also called for additional troops. Most of the troops under his command were from Oklahoma City.

Just before noon, Barrett declared martial law. By that time the hospital which treated black patients in Greenwood had been burned, and many injured blacks were treated at the detention centers which had been established. What was then known as Convention Hall (today it is a theater), a baseball stadium and the Fairgrounds were established as detention centers. Under martial law, all black residents were ordered to the detention center. Several thousand had fled from the city during the violence. Several prominent community leaders had been killed, including Dr. Jackson.

By early afternoon the National Guard had brought the situation under control, at least as far as the violence was concerned. Some guardsmen reported being fired upon by whites as well. Guardsmen took custody of black prisoners and escorted them to detention centers or turned them over to the police of sheriff’s deputies. They also established protective cordons for firefighters, but most of the riot area had burned itself out. Blacks taken to detention areas were disarmed. So were any whites encountered by the troops.

Several deaths of blacks injured in the rioting occurred in the detention areas. The remaining hospitals in Tulsa were segregated, and it is unlikely that they treated injured blacks, or at least many of them, because of their segregation policies and their distance from the riot area. Under martial law, blacks would not have been able to travel across the city without escort. At least 800 people were treated for various injuries by Tulsa’s hospitals and doctors.

As the National Guard worked to bring the city under control Governor James Robertson demanded an investigation of city offices and the County Sheriff’s department. By June 9 a Grand Jury was ready to hear the testimony of what had transpired. Prior to the seating of the Grand Jury local businessmen established a committee for the purpose of creating a financial structure to rebuild the destroyed neighborhood of Greenwood, but little in the way of funds were forthcoming.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
The Tulsa World edition of the morning of Wednesday, June 2, 1921. Yale University

Casualties and damages

Greenwood was almost completely destroyed by the rioting. Most of the churches were destroyed by fire, as was the junior high school. A full 35 city blocks which comprised the Greenwood neighborhood was razed. Nearly 200 businesses were destroyed by looting and fire, and more than 1,200 homes were burned beyond salvage. Another 200 plus houses were wrecked by vandals and looted. Estimates of the number of automobiles destroyed varied widely. In terms of today’s dollars the property loss exceeded $30 million.

According to the American Red Cross an estimated 10,000 black men, women and children were made homeless by the riots, and despite promises of aid to help them rebuild, the majority of them were forced to live in tents for over a year. Instead efforts to change fire ordinances which would have prevented the area from being rebuilt for other than businesses were passed by the city. These were eventually found to be unconstitutional, but they helped delay the availability of funds for the rebuilding of homes.

The loss of human life was also reported in numbers which varied widely depending on the source. Numbers were as low as 9 whites and 21 blacks and as high as three hundred total of both whites and blacks by the Red Cross. National newspapers reported numbers as they were estimated by their reporters. According to the Red Cross, many burials took place without records being kept. An accurate estimate of the death toll is impossible today, as is the number of injuries.

More than 6,000 black people were held in the detention areas for up to eight days before they were allowed to return to where their homes had been. A black attorney and resident of the Greenwood neighborhood, Buck Colbert Franklin, began what became a lengthy legal battle to prevent the city from enforcing the ordinance passed to prevent rebuilding of the residential buildings in the district. Franklin was an eyewitness to the riots and their immediate aftermath, and a ten-page manuscript which he wrote was discovered in 2015 and now resides in the Smithsonian.

The losses from looting and theft were almost impossible to count. Documents in the Smithsonian report that for many years following the riot black women would see their jewelry, missing since the riot, being worn by white women they encountered on the streets of Tulsa. Many of the losses suffered were insured, but the insurance policies contained riders which made the insurer not liable for losses caused by riot. These included both personal property and real property.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
Postcards like this one were produced in the aftermath of the riot. Wikimedia

Legal Action

A special Grand Jury convened on the ninth of June and over the next 12 days heard testimony from witnesses. The Grand Jury was all white, as disenfranchised blacks could not sit on juries. The result of the testimony was a decision by the Grand Jury that the riot was caused by the blacks who had come to the courthouse. The responsibility for the riot and the resulting loss of life and damages was thus placed on the black community. The grand jury also faulted the Tulsa police for not preventing the riot.

According to the Grand Jury’s official report, issued on June 25, “We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921…” The statement went on to say, “The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.” The Grand Jury handed down 85 indictments for actions occurring during the riots. Prosecutors brought charges in 27 different cases but in the end, nobody was convicted of any crimes involving the riots or the events which led up to them.

The charges against Dick Rowland, who spent the period of the riot in the secure jail within the County Court House, were dismissed in September. Sarah Page declined to press charges and prosecutors dropped the case. Speculation over what happened led some to believe that Rowland tripped and reaching out to support himself accidentally grabbed her, causing her to let out a startled scream. Others speculated that Rowland and Page knew each other and that they were in fact lovers, but there is no evidence of that beyond salacious gossip. Rowland left Tulsa following his release and exoneration.

No further investigation or action by the City of Tulsa or the State of Oklahoma took place for decades, other than attempting extradition of former leaders of the Greenwood community to try them for inciting the riot. In 1996 Oklahoma established a special commission to investigate the riot and make recommendations to the legislature as necessary. The commission worked for several years before delivering a report which included several recommended actions, including the payment of reparations to survivors of the riot or their descendants, as well as the establishment of the scholarship funds for the descendants of riot victims.

Oklahoma’s legislature passed an act which provided for some, but not all, of the commission’s recommendations in 2001. Reparations were not included. Other legal actions have been initiated by some descendants of survivors. For many of the survivors of the riot, there was neither legal recourse nor an opportunity to rebuild. They simply left Tulsa, never to return. As of 2018, no reparations have been paid, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled that the Statute of Limitations for cases based on the riot has long since expired.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
Another post card depicting the destroyed Greenwood neighborhood in the aftermath of the riot. Wikimedia

The Rest of White Tulsa

The white mobs which had rioted and run amok in the neighborhood of Greenwood were not representative of all of white Tulsa, which reacted to the carnage and damage with shock and dismay. Despite the segregation laws in force within the city limits, many white homes were immediately opened to provide temporary housing to the homeless victims. None of Tulsa’s white neighborhoods had been touched by the riot, nor had any businesses been damaged, other than slight damage at the Armory caused by the attempted break-in on the evening of May 31.

Donations of food, clothing, money and other needed items were soon pouring into organizations established by local churches to provide what relief they could. Some were made directly to black families by the donors. Churches opened their doors for black congregations to use, separately from their own services, and tents were collected and distributed. The Red Cross provided food and shelter at the detention centers.

In the aftermath of the riots the Ku Klux Klan, recognizing in the Tulsa mobs a potentially lucrative recruiting ground, began to expand in Tulsa and in Oklahoma in general. Klan membership had been expanding since the end of the First World War, but Tulsa had not included an active chapter until after the riot. Recruiting in Tulsa began later that summer, and by the end of 1921, the Klan claimed 3,200 members in Tulsa alone, out of a white population of about 62,000. Klan activity continued to expand through the first half of the decade, concentrated in urban southern areas.

A group of about 250 whites formed a committee for public safety, determined to prevent a recurrence of the racial violence and to augment the city’s police force, which had been notably absent during the riot. The police absence was explained as being the result of deploying the limited number of officers available to protect other neighborhoods from being affected by the riot. The lack of damage in other areas was claimed as an indication that the police actions had been successful. Several eyewitnesses reported officers participating in the riot, although not in uniform.

After the release of the Grand Jury’s report, the story of the riots largely vanished from the local newspapers, and the reporters from the national press soon left for other stories. The riots were forgotten. In Tulsa, the topic of the riot was simply not discussed, despite the visible evidence of the violence just across the railroad tracks from downtown. Once the initial shock of the riot and the damage caused passed, it became a symbol of community shame for many, who chose to deal with it by simply making it go away.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
Detainees under escort of National Guardsmen following the riot. New York Times

Covering it up.

Few history textbooks discuss the Tulsa riot of 1921. Almost immediately afterward there were efforts to figuratively sweep the event under the rug. The Tulsa Tribune, which published the inflammatory editorial suggesting the existence of a plan to lynch Dick Rowland is long defunct, and the paper copies of its edition for that day are non-existent. The microfilm copy is of a newspaper with the editorial page partially torn out. The actual words of the newspaper which incited some in the crowd are thus unavailable to historians.

Starting with the afternoon of June 1, when martial law was declared and a curfew established, efforts were made to keep the truth about the events of the two-day riot away from the public. That evening the only people allowed on the streets were police, firemen, National Guard troops, and emergency personnel such as doctors and nurses. Most of the city’s black population were in the detention areas or had, in very few cases, been allowed to return to their homes, or rather to where their homes had been.

But not all. The Salvation Army later reported that it fed 37 black men on Wednesday evening who were employed as grave diggers. Whom had employed them was not reported, but they claimed they had buried the bodies of 120 dead black men in unmarked graves. Other reports of unmarked graves appear in old funeral home records in Tulsa. This is in clear contrast with the official reports of casualties. The exact number of people killed in the riots is unclear, largely because there was no independent investigation of the event.

The performance of the Tulsa-based National Guard troops – as opposed to those which arrived from Oklahoma City and other parts of the state – is also something which its commander’s preferred to be kept under wraps. The Tulsa Guardsman actively took part in attacks rather than trying to suppress them and were responsible for the destruction of the Mount Zion Baptist Church by machine-gun fire and burning. By contrast, the troops which came to be known in Tulsa as State Troops disarmed anyone they encountered, black or white, as they restored order to the city.

Some accounts have stated that it was the State Troops from Oklahoma City who fired on the church with a machine gun before it was set ablaze. However, the church was already burning before the State Troops arrived and was destroyed before they deployed in the riot area in Greenwood. The State Troops and local Guardsmen wore the same khaki uniforms, which may have contributed to the misidentification.

10 Dramatic Facts You Didn’t Know About the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riots
Another post card, with self explanatory caption printed on it. Wikimedia

Trying to recover

Many of the detainees were allowed to remain at the fairgrounds’ location even after they had been released, having nowhere else to go. They were housed in tents provided by the Red Cross and after their release was required to pay for their food, also provided by the Red Cross. They could do so with money or through work and were paid standard wages for laborers of the day, from funds donated to the Red Cross and other sources. This led to complaints from within some of the white community that they were being coddled at taxpayers’ expense.

One of the jobs at which they could work was the removal of the ruins of Greenwood. Although Greenwood attempted to rebuild it faced legal challenges from the changed fire ordinances, the loss of several community leaders, and shortages of money. Most insurance companies refused to pay since the cause of the losses was a riot. The Mount Zion Baptist Church was rebuilt slowly. Many black residents of the former community left and never returned.

Officially 37 death certificates were issued for deaths which occurred because of the riot, although the death toll was possibly much higher. Efforts to locate evidence of mass graves such as those reported by the Red Cross being dug the day following the riot have been unsuccessful. The many different numbers of dead and injured reported are ascribed to a number of possibilities, including simply exaggeration. The truth is nobody really knows.

John Stradford, who owned the Stradford Hotel in Greenwood and was likely the area’s wealthiest resident and businessman, was one of the persons indicted for inciting the riot by the Grand Jury, having allegedly threatened to bring in support for the blacks of Greenwood from Muskogee by train. He left Tulsa and never returned, the hotel was destroyed in the riot. From Chicago, he successfully fought extradition back to Tulsa. In 1996 he was cleared of the charges.

Greenwood struggled on for a time, but during the Great Depression, it became a high crime area, with vice rampant. The bulk of the area was replaced with a highway in the 1970s. The Greenwood Historic District today comprises a small portion of what was once known as both Little Africa and the Black Wall Street.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Race Riot Timeline”, The Tulsa World

“A Long-lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921”, Smithsonian.com

“Tulsa Race Massacre: National Guard called to stifle burning and looting”, Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa World, May 31, 2020

“Final Report”, Oklahoma Commission to Study the Race Riots of 1921

“The Eruption of Tulsa”, by Walter White. The Nation (June 15, 1921)

“As survivors dwindle, Tulsa confronts past”, by A.G. Sulzberger. The New York Times (June 19, 2011)

“Race Riot Survivors Bill Fails to Advance”, by Jim Myers. Tulsa World (April 2, 2009)

“‘Black Wall Street’ Before, During and After the Tulsa Race Massacre: PHOTOS”. MISSY SULLIVAN. History. MAY 24, 2021

“How the Tulsa Race Massacre Was Covered Up”. ALEXIS CLARK. History. JAN 27, 2021

“Researchers discover human remains in unmarked grave at Oaklawn Cemetery; further examination needed to determine Tulsa Race Massacre connection”. Tulsa World. Randy Krehbiel Oct 21, 2020

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