On the evening of May 31, 1921, a mob of people appeared at the Tulsa County Courthouse in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were drawn by rumors afoot in the community that Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old black man, would be lynched. Those rumors, in turn, were started by a story on the front page of the Tulsa Tribune that Rowland had been arrested for attempting to assault an orphaned white girl in an elevator in a building in downtown Tulsa the day before. Rumors of lynching drew black men, veterans of World War I (1914–1918), to the courthouse as well. They hoped to prevent what they feared would be a lynching of Rowland. In the late evening hours, around 10 p.m., the black men who had shown up to prevent the lynching clashed with police and the mob. And the riot began. By the time it ended around noon the next day, thirty-five blocks of the prosperous black section of Tulsa had been burned, leaving thousands homeless and thousands of black people in custody.
Tulsa was the last of the terrible World War I–era riots that began in East Saint Louis, Illinois, in 1917 and continued in Chicago and many other cities in 1919. The Tulsa riot was also likely the worst in terms of loss of life. Like the other riots of the era, Tulsa had its origins in the rising prosperity of the black community, as well as its rising aspirations, which caused the black community to come into conflict with the white community. People in Greenwood, as the black section of Tulsa was known, were doing well; there was a weekly newspaper, churches, rooming houses, schools, stores, even two movie theaters. And many of the Greenwood residents were men who had fought in World War I. They had traveled the world and seen that life might be organized differently from how it was in Tulsa. They returned, as one newspaper said in the riot’s aftermath, “from the war in France with exaggerated notions of social equality and thinking [they could] whip the world” (Tulsa Tribune 1921). Thus, people in Greenwood participated in the national renaissance of black culture and pride. They read the vehicles of the renaissance, like W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Crisis and the sensational Chicago Defender. When they heard that Rowland was in danger, they acted to protect his life. And in doing so they put in motion events that led to the destruction of their own community.
After the riot began, the Tulsa police department acted to put down what was called at the time a “negro uprising.” The police chief deputized hundreds of men and told them to get a gun and “get a nigger.” The police department worked in conjunction with local units of the National Guard to disarm Greenwood residents and take them to what newspapers called “concentration camps” around the city. Those who refused to give up their weapons peacefully were shot. The arrests and fighting continued throughout the night, but around dawn of June 1, the deputies, working in conjunction with a mob and the police and National Guard, swept through Greenwood. First, residents were arrested and disarmed; then looters followed and, once they had taken everything of value, homes and businesses were burned.
In the aftermath of the riot, virtually every African American resident of Tulsa was left homeless. Thousands left the city, never to return. Others vowed to rebuild, even in the face of opposition from the city. The mayor wanted to relocate the black section of Tulsa farther away from the city and to convert the burned area into an industrial and railroad center. “I’ll keep what I have until I get what I lost” was the rallying cry of many in Greenwood. And, despite receiving little assistance from the city, Greenwood was rebuilt. Meanwhile, an all-white grand jury blamed the riot on African Americans. About the same time as the riot, the Ku Klux Klan was gaining membership throughout the state. Riot victims could not hope for justice through the courts at the time.
The Tulsa riot has received renewed attention due to the Oklahoma legislature’s Tulsa Riot Commission, which in 2001 recommended that the surviving victims receive reparations from the state. In 2003 a team of lawyers led by Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of riot victims, which was dismissed in 2004. The few remaining Tulsa riot victims and their lawyers continue to seek compensation from the state legislature and elsewhere.
SEE ALSO Racism; Reparations; Riots; Wilmington Riot of 1898
Brophy, Alfred L. 2002. Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921—Race, Reparations, Reconciliation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brophy, Alfred L. 2006. The Functions and Limitations of a Historical Truth Commission: The Case of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. In Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, eds. Elazar Barkan and Alexander Karn, 234–258. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Ellsworth, Scott. 1982. Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Tulsa Tribune. 1921. Negro Tells How Others Mobilized, at 1. June 1.
Alfred L. Brophy