Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

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In , seventy-five years after the riot, a bipartisan group in the state legislature authorized formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of renamed Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Massacre, in November There was an effort toward public education about these events through the process. The Commission's final report, published in , said that the city had conspired with the mob of white citizens against black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants.

The park was dedicated in In Oklahoma had a racially, socially and politically tense atmosphere. The War had ended in with the return of many ex-servicemen. The American Civil War was still in living memory, even though it had ended in Civil rights for disenfranchised peoples were lacking and the Ku Klux Klan had seen a recent resurgence. Tulsa, as a booming oil city, supported a large number of affluent, educated and professional African Americans.


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This combination of factors played a part in the rising tensions which were to culminate in the coming events. The territory of Northern Oklahoma had been established for resettlement of Native Americans from the Southeast, some of whom had owned slaves.


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Other areas had received many settlers from the South, whose families had been slaveholders before the Civil War. Oklahoma was admitted as a state on November 16, The newly created state legislature passed racial segregation laws, commonly known as Jim Crow laws , as its first order of business.

The Oklahoma Constitution did not call for strict segregation; delegates feared that, should they include such restrictions, U. President Theodore Roosevelt would veto the document. Still, the very first law passed by the new legislature segregated all rail travel, and voter registration rules effectively disenfranchised most blacks. That meant they were also barred from serving on juries or in local office, a situation that whites enforced until after passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of Major cities passed additional restrictions.

In the early 20th century, lynchings were common in Oklahoma as part of a continuing effort by whites to assert and maintain white supremacy. During the twenty years following the riot, the number of known lynchings statewide fell to two. On August 4, , Tulsa passed an ordinance that mandated residential segregation by forbidding blacks or whites from residing on any block where three-fourths or more of the residents were of the other race. Although the United States Supreme Court declared such an ordinance unconstitutional the following year, Tulsa and many other border and Southern cities continued to establish and enforce segregation for the next three decades.

As returning veterans tried to reenter the labor market following World War I , social tensions and anti-black sentiment increased in cities where job competition was high. At the same time, black veterans pushed to have their civil rights enforced, believing they had earned full citizenship by military service.

Tulsa Race Riot (1921)

In what became known as the " Red Summer " of , industrial cities across the Midwest and North experienced severe race riots, most often led against blacks by recent immigrant groups, who often competed with blacks for low-paying jobs. In Chicago and some other cities, blacks defended themselves for the first time with force but were often outnumbered. Northeastern Oklahoma was in an economic slump that increased unemployment.

Since , the Ku Klux Klan had been growing in urban chapters across the country. Its first significant appearance in Oklahoma occurred on August 12, Greenwood was a district in Tulsa organized in following Booker T.


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  4. Washington 's tour of Arkansas, Indian Territory and Oklahoma. Greenwood became so prosperous that it came to be known as "the Negro Wall Street" now commonly referred to as "the Black Wall Street". Black professionals, including doctors, dentists, lawyers, and clergy, served their peers. Most blacks lived together in the district and during his trip to Tulsa in , Washington encouraged the co-operation, economic independence and excellence being demonstrated there.

    Greenwood District was formally established in Tulsa in , namesake of the Greenwood District Washington had established as his own demonstration in Tuskegee, Alabama, five years earlier. Greenwood residents selected their own leaders and raised capital there to support economic growth. In the surrounding areas of northeastern Oklahoma, blacks also enjoyed relative prosperity and participated in the oil boom.

    He encountered Sarah Page, the year-old white elevator operator on duty.

    Death in a Promised Land : The Tulsa Race Riot of - bimansoftbowgau.ml

    The two likely knew each other at least by sight, as this building was the only one nearby with a restroom which Rowland had express permission to use, and the elevator operated by Page was the only one in the building. A clerk at Renberg's, a clothing store on the first floor of the Drexel, heard what sounded like a woman's scream and saw a young black man rushing from the building. The clerk went to the elevator and found Page in what he said was a distraught state.

    Thinking she had been assaulted , he summoned the authorities. The Oklahoma Commission Final Report notes that it was unusual for both Rowland and Page to be working downtown on Memorial Day, when most stores and businesses were closed. It suggests that Rowland had a simple accident, such as tripping and steadying himself against the girl, or perhaps they had a quarrel. Whether — and to what extent — Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation.

    It seems reasonable that they would have least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly ridden in Page's elevator on his way to and from the restroom.

    Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers — a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility. Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 30, — although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most — but not all — stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day.

    Yet in the days and years that followed, many who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape. The word "rape" was rarely used in newspapers or academia in the early 20th century. Instead, "assault" was used to describe such an attack. Although the police likely questioned Page, no written account of her statement has been found.

    It is generally accepted that the police determined what happened between the two teenagers was something less than an assault. The authorities conducted a low-key investigation rather than launching a man-hunt for her alleged assailant. Afterward, Page told the police that she would not press charges.

    Regardless of whether assault had occurred, Rowland had reason to be fearful. At the time, such an accusation alone put him at risk for attack by white people. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Rowland fled to his mother's house in the Greenwood neighborhood. Cleaver was deputy sheriff for Okmulgee County and not under the supervision of the city police department; his duties mainly involved enforcing law among the "colored people" of Greenwood but he also operated a business as a private investigator.

    He had previously been dismissed as a city police investigator for assisting county officers with a drug raid at Gurley's Hotel but not reporting his involvement to his superiors. Among his holdings were several residential properties and Cleaver Hall, a large community gathering place and function hall. He reported personally evicting a number of armed criminals who had taken to barricading themselves within properties he owned.

    Upon eviction, they merely moved to Cleaver Hall. Cleaver reported that the majority of violence started at Cleaver Hall along with the rioters barricaded inside. Charles Page offered to build him a new home. The Morning Tulsa Daily World stated, "Cleaver named Will Robinson, a dope peddler and all around bad negro, as the leader of the armed blacks.

    He has also the names of three others who were in the armed gang at the court house. The rest of the negroes participating in the fight, he says, were former servicemen who had an exaggerated idea of their own importance They did not belong here, had no regular employment and were simply a floating element with seemingly no ambition in life but to foment trouble. Pack, a black patrolman, located Rowland on Greenwood Avenue and detained him. Pack was one of two black officers on the city's police force, which then included about 45 officers. Late that day, Police Commissioner J.

    Adkison said he had received an anonymous telephone call threatening Rowland's life. He ordered Rowland transferred to the more secure jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Rowland was well known among attorneys and other legal professionals within the city, many of whom knew Rowland through his work as a shoeshiner.

    Some witnesses later recounted hearing several attorneys defend Rowland in their conversations with one another. One of the men said, "Why, I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That's not in him. The Tulsa Tribune , one of two white-owned papers published in Tulsa, broke the story in that afternoon's edition with the headline: "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator", describing the alleged incident. According to some witnesses, the same edition of the Tribune included an editorial warning of a potential lynching of Rowland, entitled "To Lynch Negro Tonight". The paper was known at the time to have a " sensationalist " style of news writing.

    Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

    All original copies of that issue of the paper have apparently been destroyed, and the relevant page is missing from the microfilm copy, so the exact content of the column and whether it existed at all remains in dispute. The afternoon edition of the Tribune hit the streets shortly after 3 PM, and soon news spread of a potential lynching. White people began congregating at and near the Tulsa County Courthouse. Willard M. McCullough, the newly elected sheriff of Tulsa County , was determined to avoid events such as the lynching of white murder suspect Roy Belton in Tulsa, which had occurred during the term of his predecessor.

    McCullough organized his deputies into a defensive formation around Rowland, who was terrified.

    Death in a Promised Land

    He disabled the building's elevator, and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight. The sheriff went outside and tried to talk the crowd into going home, but to no avail. According to an account by Scott Ellsworth, the sheriff was "hooted down". Although vastly outnumbered by the growing crowd out on the street, Sheriff McCullough turned the men away.

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