The media depicted that the most tragic bombing on United States soil happened on the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Plain and simple, they are wrong. A deadlier bomb occurred in the same state back in 1921. Individuals in high places would like to forget that it ever happened. In the current editions of the World Book Encyclopedia, search under the heading of “riots”, “Oklahoma”, and “Tulsa”, there is conspicuously no mention of the Tulsa race riot of 1921. This omission by no means is a surprise, or even a rare case. One would be hard-pressed to find documentation of the incident, let alone an accurate accounting of the events that occurred, in any other “scholarly” reference or American history book. It is a shame because this race riot could open a lot of naive eyes. Author Ron Wallace, a Tulsa native, noted this fact when he started to research the riot, which was one of the most tragic incidents of violence ever visited upon people of African descent. It was a Black holocaust in America. “Black Wall Street” was the name that fittingly was given to one of the most affluent all-Black communities in America. The Greenwood district neighborhood of Tulsa consisted of thriving schools, hospitals, and theaters. It was a bustling commercial and social “island” located on the Northeast side of Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the spring of 1921, however, it took just two days for this business district to all be destroyed. In today’s terms, there was over $30 million in damage, from fifty-five to four hundred killed and eight hundred injured, and families fortunes had exported overnight. Also known as “Little Africa”, the best description of Black Wall Street would be to compare it to a mini-Beverly Hills. It was proof that African Americans had successful infrastructure. The few accounts around of the demise of the “Little Africa” refer to the incident as a “race riot”, yet nothing could be further from the truth. It is best described as a terrorist attack on an affluent black neighborhood. In the present year of 2016 America struggles to understand contemporary violence against African Americans. This bloody event from the turn of the century seems to have had a recurring effect that is felt in predominately Black neighborhoods to this day.
In 1907, Oklahoma rich in oil deposits officially became a state. It offered a promise of a chance at a better life for many formerly enslaved African Americans. It was a chance to start over and get away from the still-repressive Southern states. The Frisco railroad tracks in Tulsa divided the “white” part of town from the Greenwood district, which was called “Little Africa.” At the time laws prevented both whites and blacks from living in neighborhoods that were seventy-five percent the other race, so segregation “naturally” fell into place. Businesses owned by a thriving black middle class in Greenwood Avenue, buildings that were red bricked, only grew during an oil boom in the 1910s. The kind of businesses that were thriving in the Greenwood District consisted of theaters, night clubs, churches, and grocery stores. The schools in the district were superior to those of the white areas, as well as many of the individuals in Greenwood Avenue had indoor plumbing before those in the white areas did. Due to the fact African Americans couldn’t shop in areas that were predominately white, a lot of the money spent in Greenwood went back into the community. The community supported two of its own newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. The Oklahoma Sun covered state and national news and politics as well. The dollar circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community. In today’s society, a dollar leaves the Black community a lot quicker. There were Ph.D’s residing in Black Wall Street, attorneys, and doctors. There was also pawn shops everywhere, brothels, jewelry stores, 21 churches, 21 restaurants, and two movie theaters. At the time Oklahoma had only two airports in the entire state, with six blacks owning their own planes. The average student on Black Wall Street wore a suit and tie to school due to the morals and respect they were taught at a young age. The community encompassed over 600 businesses and 36 square blocks with over a population of 15,000 African Americans. When the lower=economic Europeans looked over saw what the black community had created, jealousy started to brew.
Black Wall Street was a perfect illustration of a typical black community in America that did business. It was in an unusual location though. At the time, Oklahoma was set aside to be a Black and Indian state. There were over 28 Black townships there. The individuals of this proposed Indian and Black state elected a Black governor, a treasurer from the state of Kansas. This led to the Ku Klux Klan putting it out there that if he was to assume office that they would have him killed within 48 hours. The community was so tight and wealthy because they exchanged dollars hand-to-hand, as well as depending upon one another as a result of the Jim Crow laws. It was not an unusual scene that if one’s home accidentally was destroyed, that within a few weeks it would be rebuilt by the help of the community. A lot of global business was conducted on Black Wall Street. What followed as the community flourished is the perfect example of jealousy. Disgruntlement and hatred builded towards the Greenwood district. The United States as a whole was still reeling from the failed Reconstruction and furiously enacting Jim Crow laws. Numerous number of African American men throughout other parts of the United States had been accused of sexual attacks on white women. These individuals were subsequently put to death, usually at the hands of a lynch mob. The Ku Klux Klan had approximately 2,000 members in the Tulsa area at the end of 1921. With the end of World War 1, veterans returning home from the war, jobs were scarce and only becoming harder to get. Envy and racial tension grew among white citizens of Tulsa. The combination of this all came to a terrifying head on May 31st and June 1st, 1921. Over the course of sixteen hours almost every business was burned to the ground. Every hotel, both hospitals, libraries, the newspapers, and doctor’s offices that individuals worked their entire lives to build and make successful were gone in a blink of an eye. Police detained and arrested 6,000 of the 10,000 African Americans who lived in the Greenwood District. 9,000 of the individuals were left homeless and thirty-five city blocks that were comprised of 1,256 residences were razed. In today’s terms, it was the destruction of a $30 million dollar business district. Several prominent black businessmen and doctors, including A.C. Jackson who was at the time recognized as one of the top surgeons by the Mayo brothers, were killed. Dr. Jackson was shot after he surrendered to the mob in order to protect his family and was being taken to jail. Yet, no-one was found guilty of his murder. A respected top surgeon, who helped save numerous peoples lives, was treated like a criminal who committed a crime equivalent to murdering someone. Treated like a criminal for trying to protect his family. In my eyes that is a hero.
It has never been settled with what exactly occurred between a black man named Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, an elevator operator at the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. It is this controversy that sparked the massacre. On May 30th, 1921, Memorial Day, some of the workers at the Drexel Building heard a scream that was followed by Rowland being seen rushing away from the building. Speculation had it that the two were lovers, which would have gotten both parties involved into serious trouble, although this was never confirmed. What is clear though, is that her scream was interpreted as a sign that Rowland “assaulted” her. Upon questioning by the police, she denied the claim that she was assaulted. Yet, the afternoon paper the Tulsa Tribune ran the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” It was an allegation that the local police were aware that could mean Rowland would become victim to a lynch mob. They took Rowland into protective custody at the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Word spread like a burning fire throughout the community, followed by hundreds of whites fathering outside of the courthouse with guns and torches. News of a potential lynching hit the Greenwood District, and several of the black veterans of World War 1 who had weapons at their homes went and gathered them for protection. A number of African American men headed toward the jail, weapons in hand, with the intention of preventing Rowland’s demise. They even offered to help the sheriff defend Rowland from the mob, an offer in which the sheriff declined probably aware that the entire scene was about to explode. It sure did.
The white mob outside of the jail grew to 2,000 individuals, many of which had brought weapons from their houses. Later that evening, more black men arrived in automobiles with their weapons ready. An apparent scuffle between a sheriff’s deputy and one of the armed black men, shots rang out and then, as many eyewitnesses claimed, “all hell broke loose.” Soon ten white men and two black were lying dead in the street. The black men who were armed backed up to defend Greenwood but they were vastly outnumbered. They took to the heights of nearby buildings and residences and began shooting from above. The mob then began to set fire to the buildings and houses in the Greenwood district, refusing to allow firefighters to extinguish the blazes by having them at gunpoint. Skirmishes, drive-by shootings, and outright murders occurred throughout the night, as more buildings caught fire. A number of Greenwood’s African American citizens fled on foot out of fear of their lives. By mid-day on June 1st, all that was left of the thriving community was ashes, bodies, and still-burning neighborhoods. The National Guard troops arrived, an with the declaration of martial law, the chaos came to a halt. The troops rounded up roughly 6,000 African American men. Only those who were vouched for, by a white person or employer, were released. The rest of the individuals were jailed. Yet, those responsible for the whole situation, were not held responsible for their actions. No white Tulsa was ever arrested or tried. The blame for the entire situation was squarely put onto the residents of Greenwood. Much like in Ferguson, Missouri almost 100 years later, the Tulsa police department took no responsibility. With that said, a few individuals of the department had put themselves at great risk by keeping Rowland from being lynched which is admirable on their end.
After the embers cooled and the dead were buried the racial violence continued to happen. Tulsa’s white leaders worked to keep Greenwood from being rebuilt. Ordinances were passed to prevent homes from being rebuilt in the district. Also, there was talks of rebuilding the district as an industrial center which would relocate blacks to an area much further from downtown. African American lawyers were able to win an injunction to stop that form happening, and many residents did rebuild, although most of them without any insurance money, since insurance companies would refuse to pay damages from riots. Greenwood’s rebuilt district flourished surprisingly, until, in the 1950s two major interstate highways and “urban renewal” efforts pushed almost all of the back residents out of the district and further North. To this day, including the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, this massacre remains the single largest massacre of African American citizens in the history of the United States. Although it may be a dramatic example, Black Wall Street illustrates the kinds of events that strain history and have perpetuated racial inequity in the United States. This massacre should be discussed about in school and learned. It shows that while African Americans have done wrong and aren’t perfect, neither are White Americans. There is nothing to justify what happened in 1921. There is no way to cover up that this event was motivated by nothing but racism. It is a story that showed show the youth of America that it is both parties involved with the racial inequity in the United States. As a human being, this story deeply saddened me. In order for the world to flourish and survive, every one of all races and color have to come together and see people as humans. Not see color. Until the day that happens, America will never truly stand for everything that it claims to…. G.