The Tulsa Race Riot
I need you to imagine for a moment a scenario. The time period is shortly after World War I. The place is an unspecified city, which is segregated by law. There comes a time when tensions grow, and violence sparks. There is a two-day event which occurs–without much warning–and it destroys entire portions of the city. The destruction of specific neighborhoods, and the shops and homes owned by the occupants of these neighborhoods were looted and destroyed. The destruction left behind damages costing nearly twenty-seven million dollars–current value with inflation.  The members of the community were run out, shot, or wrangled up like cattle and placed in interment camps.
If I stopped here–and assuming the title didn’t clue you in–there is a likely chance that you would think that I am referring to Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht is a two-day pogrom which occurred in Nazi Germany and occupied Austria. This event was orchestrated to drive out Jews from the area, to allow the Jewish properties to be looted and sold to support the German army, and to strike fear into the Jews all throughout Europe.
What you may not know is that years before this, America had their own “Kristallnacht.” The year was 1921, and the place was Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was Memorial Day, and boy and girl were involved in what some people believed could have been a lover’s quarrel, others believed the event was as innocent as boy tripping and stumbling into girl, and there were those that believed that boy tried to rape the girl.
The real issue is that girl was white, and boy was black. The city had lots of racial tension, and due to Jim Crow laws, the city was racially segregated. The city’s ordinance stated that whites nor blacks could live on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were of the other race. The entire story of the boy’s activities and the city’s protection over the next day goes back and forth. They are rumors quickly spreading of lynching mobs, and within hours, mobs did ascend on the boy. The residents of “black Wall Street” gathered up all available weapons, and armed to the teeth, headed to defend him.
Initially, the boy in question, Dick Rowland, was arrested and placed in the main jail. When the Sheriff’s Office started to receive calls threatening the life of Rowland, he was moved to a more secure jail over the courthouse. Sensationalist newspaper headlines quickly lit a fire underneath both blacks and whites. “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator” and “To Lynch Negro Tonight” were popular headlines of the day.
White mobs arrived at the courthouse demanding that Rowland be turned over to them. The sheriff, Sheriff McCullough, stood by what was right and had his deputies strategically placed in the courthouse, determined to protect Dick Rowland.
An important factor to remember about the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is that it was full of men that had just come home from war. These men, both black and white, were trained in combat and had access to weapons. A small group of black men, roughly thirty men in size and all former WW I veterans, gathered up their rifles and shotguns. These men were determined to protect Rowland and prevent a lynching. Upon arriving to Rowland’s aid, they were sent away by Sheriff McCullough. He assured them of the boy’s safety, and the men went home. The one-thousand whites congregated around the courthouse saw these black men arrive with weapons and responded in kind. The whites saw this small band of blacks as a threat and assumed the worst–a Negro uprising!
So what did they do?
You guessed it…the white men ran home and got their guns. Within a couple of hours, the lynch mob had doubled. Now more than two-thousand whites, armed with weapons, were requesting Rowland’s head.
Check back tomorrow when I cover the last event that sparked a riot that has been described as:
…perhaps the costliest incident of racial violence in American history. At the same time, it is perhaps the most marginalized, being almost forgotten until this decade.