Monday, September 5, 2011

Deliberate destruction of an African American community: The 1921 race riot in Oklahoma

A dead African American man lies on flatbed truck, as one of the deputized rioters stand guard with a shotgun.
The United States has a dark history. School books are devoid of that history. The avoidance of this history is deliberate. One of the many blights in America's past is the wholesale slaughter of African American men accused of raping White women. The charges or accusations of rape did not have to be true.  There was a time America's history that Black man knew better than to look suggestively at a White woman, let alone rape her. The woman could have been the town's whore, but in the eyesight of White men, she was better than a Black man, woman, child. Her "virtue" had to be protected.

Once upon a time there were no rape kits to prove a rape occurred. The White woman's word was the pronouncement of guilt, punishable by death. Angry White men killed and destroyed Black communities and residents at will, knowing they would not be jailed or prosecuted for crimes committed, even if there were dozens of witnesses, none of whom would dare come forward to testify for fear of reprisal. History suggests that lynchings, and accusations of raping White women by Black men occurred mostly in southern states.

African American men, women and children were perpetually at the mercy of homegrown terrorists wearing suits, white robes and hoods. In 1919 America witnessed an exploding resurgence of violence against African Americans. Realistically, there was never a time when violence against African Americans was less than violent. So horrific were the attacks by White mobs in 1919, the NAACP’s field secretary, activist and author James Weldon Johnson, labeled it “Red Summer."

A few years later mob violence destroyed a thriving Black city within a city in Oklahoma. The year was 1921. Some historians said Whites were jealous of the successful Black owned businesses and the thriving Black community. They wanted a reason to destroy Oklahoma's Black Wall Street, better known as Tulsa's Greenwood District.

Dick Rowland, a young African American teen was the keg of dynamite that ignited the destruction and mayhem in Tulsa, and the subsequent burning down of the Greenwood District.

Hannibal B. Johnson, author of Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa's Historic Greenwood District, wrote: "In the loss of over 700 homes and 200 business houses the Negroes of Tulsa have sustained a loss of over four million dollars. Two of the finest hotels that the Negro own in America went up in smoke. The Welcome Grocery Store carried as large a stock of groceries as did any retail white store in Tulsa. Mrs. Williams, who owned the Dreamland Theatres in Tulsa, Muskogee and Okmulgee, was perhaps the one of the foremost Negro business women in the United States.

"She has one of three-story brick businesses on Greenwood, which housed her big confectionery and other floors were used for offices for the professional men of the race. Farther down the street was her theatre, the pride of the Negros of the city. The street had located on it three drug stores and two newspaper plants. The Tulsa Star had a plant worth fully $15,000. Fully 150 business houses lined this street alone, that required Negro traffic officer to stand in the streets all day long, directing the busy activities."

In a February 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Riot of 1921–some 80 years after the race riot, historian Scott Ellsworth wrote: “Tulsa was in some ways, not one city but two. Practically in the shadow of downtown there sat a community that was no less remarkable than Tulsa itself. Some whites disparagingly referred to it as ‘Little Africa’, but it became known in later years simply as Greenwood. In the early months of 1921 it was the home of an estimated 10,000 African American men, women and children.”

This bustling African American  community included two school, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington, two newspapers, three fraternal lodges, a hospital, two theaters, a public library, 23 churches and a  bank. White rioters targeted the businesses and homes they looted and burned down.

Ellsworth’s report continues: “The most notorious act of racial conflict in Oklahoma history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Significantly, the violence in the state was part of a broader story of national intolerance that followed World War I. Yet the Tulsa riot represented a defining moment in Oklahoma's history, for it forecast the extent to which some white citizens would travel to achieve the ultimate subjugation of blacks. Much like the other riots of the period, the Tulsa disaster developed from a number of immediate and remote causes, among them irresponsible journalism, rumor, racial fears, tensions related to urban migration, and weak law enforcement. Although historians cannot specifically indict the Ku Klux Klan in starting the riot, the organization created a spirit of lawlessness that made it easier for some citizens to engage in mob activity.”

Blacks who had migrated to Oklahoma 20 years earlier did not go there in search of mayhem and hang-ready-mobs. In fact, thousands of African Americans, along with southern Whites, journeyed to Oklahoma during the start of a financial boom. It was an era when the population was steadily increasing.  By 1921 Oklahoma was considered the oil capital of the world.  African Americans, plagued by racism and segregation, settled in the northeast section of Tulsa. However, migration did not change the heart and minds of White people who refused to let go of their bigotry, and how they viewed African Americans.

Walter White, secretary of Atlanta’s NAACP, was dispatched to Tulsa to cover the riots. A light complexioned man, who could easily "pass."  Passing enabled him to walk freely among Whites without harassment or threats. In his report White asked, “What are the causes of the race riots that occurred in such a place?

He answered his own question: “First, the Negro in Oklahoma has shared in the sudden prosperity in Oklahoma that has not come to many White brothers, and there are some Colored men there who are wealthy. This fact has caused a bitter resentment on the lower order of Whites, who feel that these Colored men, members of an inferior race, are exceedingly presumptuous in achieving greater economic prosperity than they, who are members of a divinely ordered superior race."

Tulsa was not a financial paradise without problems. There was talk of crooked police, political corruption, prostitution, gambling, murder, mob rule and robbery. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society,  “. . . Tulsa was also a deeply troubled town. Crime rates were sky high, while the city had been plagued by vigilantism, including the August 1920 lynching, by a white mob, of a white teenager accused of murder. Newspaper reports confirmed that the Tulsa police had done little to protect the lynching victim, who had been taken from his jail cell at the county courthouse.”

Historian tells who Dick Rowland was

Scott Ellsworth, in an essay titled The Tulsa Race Riot reveals who Dick Rowland was. As Tulsa prepared to celebrate Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, something sinister was in the air. As talk of taking the law into their own hands began circulating among some Whites--across the tracks in Greenwood, Blacks were more determined than ever no African American would fall victim to mob violence. World War veterans and newspaper editors, common laborers and businessmen, were just as prepared as they had been two years earlier to make certain that no Black person would ever lynched in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Precisely at this moment, in the highly charged atmosphere, Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, walked out of the shadows, and onto the stage of history. Although they played a major role in the single event that led to Tulsa's race riot, very little is known for certain about Rowland or Page. Rumors, theories, and unsubstantiated claims have been plentiful throughout the years, but hard evidence has been much more difficult to come by.

Dick Rowland was 19 years old in 1921. When he was born he was given the name Jimmie Jones. While it is not known where he was born, by 1908 he and his two sisters were orphans living on the streets of Vinita, sleeping wherever they could, begging for food. A Black woman named Damie Ford, who ran a tiny one-room-grocery store, took pity on young Jimmie, taking him in. "That's how I became Jimmie's 'Mama," she said an interviewer decades later.

Approximately one year later, Ford and her adopted son moved to Tulsa, where they  reunited with Ford's family, the Rowlands. Eventually, little Jimmie took Rowland as his last name, and chose his favorite first name, Dick. Growing up in Tulsa, Dick attended the city's separate all-Black schools, including Booker T. Washington High School, where he played football.

Dick Rowland dropped out of high school to take a job shining shoes in a White-owned,  White-patronized shine parlor located downtown on Main Street. Shoe shines cost a dime. Shoe shiners--or bootblacks as they were sometimes called--were often tipped a nickel for each shine; sometimes more. Over the course of a busy working day, a shoe shiner could pocket a fair amount of money, especially if he was a teenaged African American youth with few other job prospects.

What precipitated the Oklahoma race riot

The Tulsa race riot began several hours after Rowland was accused of attempting to rape a White girl. On Monday, May 30 he stepped into the elevator at the Tulsa Drexel Building. Sarah Page, 17, was an elevator operator. Reports say she was an orphan, working her way through college.

Rowland had ridden on the elevator many times. He had to ride it to get to the “Colored” bathroom on the top floor of the Drexel. The arrangement was made his boss, who had other Black employees. There was no “Colored” restroom in the building where Rowland worked. As he stepped inside the elevator it jerked, causing him to loose his balance. Instinctively, he grabbed Page’s arm to balance himself. She screamed, thinking he was attacking her. Her screams drew the attention of a clerk working at Renberg’s clothing store, located on the first floor of the building. He rushed to help Page, and then called police. The clerk told police that he saw Rowland running out of the building after he attempted to rape. That is one explanation.

The Oklahoma Historical Society has its version of what happened, as do others writing about the riot. “Eight months later an incident involving Dick Rowland, an African American shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, a White elevator operator, would set the stage for tragedy. While it is still uncertain as to precisely what happened in the Tulsa Drexel Building on May 30, 1921, the most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page's foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream.”

The Society report further stated: “The next day, however, the Tulsa Tribune, the city's afternoon daily newspaper, reported that Rowland, who had been picked up by police, had attempted to rape Page. Moreover, according to eyewitnesses, the Tribune also published a now-lost editorial about the incident, titled  'To Lynch Negro Tonight'. By early evening there was, once again, lynch talk on the streets of Tulsa.”'

Hannibal  B. Johnson, author of Black Wall Street writes, “. . . Roland’s flight seemed reasonable and rational under the circumstances. Sarah Page initially accused young Rowland of assault, but quickly retreated from the accusation. The damage, however, had already been done. Summoned to the jail, Sarah Page provided a statement corroborating, in all material aspects, Dick Roland’s account of the events of that fateful day. She admitted that her encounter with Dick Rowland had been inadvertent and innocent.”

Robert Fairchild, Sr., who survived the riot, said he worked with Rowland. “Dick was a quiet kind of fella. Never no trouble. The Tribune called him ‘Diamond Dick.’ Me, or nobody in Greenwood ever heard that name for him before. They invented it (the newspaper). Neither one of us probably saw a diamond.”

Scott Ellsworth wrote: “While it appears that the clerk stuck to his interpretation that there had been an attempted rape, and of a particularly incendiary kind–no record exists as to what Sarah Page actually told police when they interviewed her.”  Ellsworth noted that whatever Page said, the police did not reach the same conclusion as the clerk. The police initiated a low-key investigation into the affair.

Walter White wrote; “ Sarah Page was of an exceedingly doubtful reputation. It seems to never have occurred to the citizens of Tulsa that any sane person attempting criminally to assault a woman would have picked any place in the world rather an open elevator in a public building with scores of people within calling distance.”

Riot survivor Binkey Wright said, “My daddy knew Dick was going with Sarah Page, the young White elevator operator. He met her when he stacked the concession stand where she worked.”

On Tuesday, May 31, without fanfare, Rowland,  hiding out in his mother’s home in Greenwood, was  arrested by Det. Henry Carmichael, a White officer and patrolman Henry C. Park, a Black officer. Rowland was booked and jailed. Rushing to press without the facts, the Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory story in its afternoon edition. The headline title read: "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl on Elevator". An editorial in the same edition suggested lynching Rowland. The news spread quickly in Greenwood.

“Talk soon turned to action. By 7:30 p.m. hundreds of whites had gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, demanding that the authorities hand over Dick Rowland, but the sheriff refused. At about 9 p.m., after reports of the dire conditions downtown reached Greenwood, a group of approximately twenty-five armed African American men, many of them World War I veterans, went down to the courthouse and offered their services to the authorities to help protect Rowland. The sheriff, however, turned them down, and the men returned to Greenwood. Stunned, and then enraged, members of the White mob then tried to break into the National Guard armory, but were turned away by a handful of local guardsmen.

At about 10 p.m. a false rumor hit Greenwood that Whites were storming the courthouse. This time, a second contingent of African American men, perhaps seventy-five in number, went back to the courthouse and offered their services to the authorities. Once again, they were turned down. As they were leaving, a White man tried to disarm a Black veteran, and a shot was fired. The riot was on.” (Oklahoma Historical Society)

“Fearing for the worst,” writes Johnson, “the Tulsa National Guard mobilized at 11 p.m. on the eve of the destruction , Tuesday, May 31. Meanwhile, the Tulsa police began deputizing White men–some of the very same men who had actively participated in the courthouse disturbance only hours earlier. Bands of White men in search of firearms and ammunition for the impending civil war looted hardware stores and pawnshops, seizing some $43,000 in guns and ammunition.”

The  Chicago Tribune reported that private airplanes were used to drop kerosene and dynamite on businesses and homes in Greenwood. Whatever was used to burn down Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, it was evident the next morning. The African American residential and business districts were no more than piles of ashes.  Not one White person was accused of any wrongdoing, much less arrested.

"Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all Black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days. Twenty- four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and estimated reports of deaths began at 36." (Oklahoma Historical Society)

Although Rowland was exonerated of the rape charge, an all-White grand jury blamed Blacks for the riot. Despite overwhelming evidence, no Whites were ever sent to prison for the murders and arson that occurred during the riot.

Because the 1921 Tulsa riot was so sparsely covered, information and facts are just as sparse. Decades later when the Oklahoma Commission to Study researched the riot it found that news pages covering the story had mysteriously disappeared from the files of the defunct newspaper. The other daily paper did not cover the story in full. The Commission discovered the story in a 1946 master’s thesis written by Loren Grill.

A lone Greenwood resident walks among the burned ruins, observing the willful destruction of his once thriving Black Wall Street community.
African American residents--who were outnumbered by an army of angry White people in and around Oklahoma--are rounded up at gun point, arrested, and held in detention for an indefinite period of time. White looters and rioters were among those deputized to keep the peace and make arrests.

One of many charred bodies of African American residents who were incinerated during riot.

Little girls carries her sister or brother after the riot.

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