Tuesday, May 31, 2011

90th Anniversary of 1921 Tulsa Race Riot

May 31-June 1, 1921 marks the 90th anniversary of one of the worst and costliest race riots in American history.   

It happened in Tulsa, OK and while the official death toll was claimed to be 26 Blacks and 13 whites killed, the death toll from the riot was estimated to be over 3900 people.  Of the 3900 people killed, 300 were Whites, the rest African American

It also marked one of the first times a US city experienced being bombed from the air.

In addition to Tulsa being the hometown of the late historian John Hope Franklin, the Wilson brothers who make up the 80's funksters the GAP Band are from there.   The GAP acronym in the band's name stands for the main streets that traverse the Greenwood neighborhood, Greenwood, Archer and Pine.

Okay, now that I slipped some trivia in here to get your attention, back to the story.

So what did the Greenwood section of Tulsa do to deserve this?   Be more wildly successful at capitalism than the jealous White residents of Tulsa.

Greenwood was populated by 10,000 people at the time of the 1921 riots and was a separate, self sufficient city on the north side of the Frisco railroad tracks.

It was founded by O.W. Gurley, a young African American entrepreneur from Arkansas who resigned a presidential appointment from President Grover Cleveland in order to participate in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1899.

In 1906 he purchased 40 acres of land in 1906 on Greenwood Avenue, which was named for the town of Greenwood, MS.  When the Great Migration of African Americans out of the Deep South started, the rooming house Gurley built near the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and the railroad track became popular.with evacuees from the state.  Gurley then plowed that income into other successful business such as a hotel and an 80 acre farm he purchased in Rogers County.   Gurley also founded Vernon AME Church and continued to grow his own personal fortune as he molded Greenwood into a self contained self reliant community.

When the oil boom of the 1910's began in the field just outside of town Greenwood was well positioned to take advantage of it.   There were several multimillionaire Black businessmen who resided there.  Greenwood's office buildings were home to the majority of the Black lawyers in the Tulsa area, fifteen doctors, realtors, and other prosperous businessmen.  One of the doctors was A.C. Jackson, well known to the Mayo brothers (yep, those Mayo Clinic brothers) and regarded as 'one of the finest Negro surgeons in the country' until he was killed during the riots.  Several Greenwood residents even owned airplanes.

Because of Tulsa's segregation, the Greenwood residents and Blacks in the area could only do their shopping there, so businesses in there thrived.

In an economic feat we'd love to come close to repeating in the African American community today, a dollar which entered the Greenwood community turned over 36 times before it left.  The 'Negro Wall Street' even flexed its economic muscles on an international level.  It was cutting multinational deals that brought still more money, prestige and business opportunities into the town that Tulsa's White denizens derisively called 'Little Africa'.

Greenwood had its own bus system, a dozen churches, schools, and hospitals. It had two newspapers, the Tulsa Star and Oklahoma Sun that covered not only Greenwood events, the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma, but also national political development inside and outside the African American community..

Tulsa wasn't any economic slouch either because of the oil boom, but they were still not happy that African Americans were getting their well deserved share of the economic pie.

The seeds for the riot were planted in a May 30 incident. Dick Rowland stepped into an elevator in the Drexel Building operated by a white woman named Sarah Page.

No one knows what precipitated it, but something happened between the 17 year old Page and 19 year old Rowland.  In the early 20th century, Black man being involved in an incident with a white woman, whether real or imagined equaled lynching    After she screamed Rowland understandably didn't stick around to sort out whatever happened between them with the po-po's and quickly departed the building to his mother's house in Greenwood.

He was later arrested and held in the Tulsa County Courthouse lockup as inflammatory headlines in the Tulsa Tribune riled up the White community.  The Black community was equally incensed and prepped to defend Rowland not only because of his sterling character, but persistent memories of an earlier incident in which Roy Belton was snatched from jail and lynched by a mob while in police custody.  

Twenty five armed Black men with World War I combat experience headed to the courthouse from Greenwood and offered their services to Sheriff Willard McCullough, which he refused.     .  

At the same time, egged on by those sensationalist headlines by the now defunct Tulsa Tribune a large mob of whites mobilized to grab Rowland from the jail and lynch him.   Sheriff McCullough didn't want that happening on his watch and deployed his officers to prevent it from happening.  

The sudden appearance of the initial group of armed Black men didn't sit well with members of the white mob and they returned home to grab their own weapons.  There was an attempt to raid the National Guard Armory, but it failed because the commander of it was warned about the events taking place at the courthouse.

Tensions are rising in Greenwood.   Despite the assurances from Sheriff McCullough and Deputy Sheriff Barney Cleaver, Tulsa first Black officer that they would protect Rowland, the recent lynching of Roy Belton was still on their minds and didn't inspire much confidence amongst the Black citizens that history wouldn't repeat itself again.    .  .

Shortly after 10:00 PM despite misgivings from O.W. Gurley and other Greenwood leaders, a larger group of 75 armed Black men headed to the courthouse to once again offer their help to the sheriff in protecting Rowland from the growing mob.   The offer was declined again as Cleaver asked the Black men to return to Greenwood so they could defuse the situation.  

Just as the Black men prepared to return to Greenwood one elderly white man derogatorily demanded a young Black World War I vet surrender his army issued pistol.   The Black man refused to do so and fired a warning shot in the air.   The whites, fearing a 'Negro uprising' was beginning fired shots into the armed Black contingent.which was immediately returned.  The exchange of gunfire at the courthouse left a dozen men on both sides dead or wounded and evolved into a rolling gunfight as the remaining vastly outnumbered Blacks retreated toward Greenwood with armed members of the mob in hot pursuit.

Other World War I African American vets in Greenwood dug trenches and prepared to defend their community.   Realizing they were outnumbered and outgunned, they abandoned those defensive lines and retreated back into Greenwood.  

A little after 5 AM an all out assault on Greenwood began in which an assembled group estimated to be 5000-10,000 whites swarmed into the neighborhood  

Businesses and homes were looted and set ablaze.   Firefighters attempting to put out the flames were shot at or held at gunpoint.   The Black residents of Greenwood, outnumbered by a 10-1 margin fled as they were harried by people in vehicles on the ground indiscriminately firing at men, women and children.  They were also attacked from the air as whites aboard six two seater World War l era biplanes 'for observation' dropped incendiary devices on Greenwood and fired at the fleeing African Americans for good measure.  .

By the time the Oklahoma National Guard arrived on the scene by train in the late afternoon of June 1, 3600 African Americans were dead and there wasn't much left of once prosperous Greenwood.

The property damage added up to $1.5 million (in 1921 dollars) and 10,000 people were left homeless.  In that 35 block area over 600 businesses were lost along with the bus system, 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters.   A hospital, a bank, the post office, libraries, schools, law offices, and a half-dozen private airplanes went up in flames as well .

Greenwood founder O.W. Gurley lost nearly $200,000 as a result of the riot and moved to California, never to return to the area along with many of the African American residents burned out of their homes.

Another person who left the Tulsa area was Sarah Page
The 1921 riot was blamed on African Americans in the report compiled in the wake of the riot and the events were whitewashed and expunged from Tulsa's collective memory.   There's no record in the archives of Tulsa's white newspapers about the inflammatory headlines and editorials they published that exacerbated the situation.  Greenwood arose from the ashes, but never regained its former glory as the 'Black Wall Street'.
Black residents of Tulsa never forgot it, and in 1997 pushed for reparations for the heinous events of May 31-June 1, 1921.

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