Ninety-six years ago this month — and 80 years before 9/11 — a terror attack took place in America’s heartland.
Unlike 9/11, the dates May 30-June 1, 1921 are not marked by a national remembrance. No bells are tolled for the victims, and there is no moment of silence.
But like 9/11, the events leading up to the attack are shrouded in mystery. The identities of the instigators of the events are kept hidden, and the “official” account shields the key players behind the scenes. And like in 9/11, the government actors responsible for keeping Americans safe failed to do so, but were never held accountable for their failures. Even the name given the event – the Tulsa Race Riot — is used to cover what really happened.
In 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, an African-American community named Greenwood prospered. It prospered so well, in fact, that it became known as Black Wall Street. It was also called Little Africa.
Segregation laws that forbade whites and blacks from living in a neighborhood that was populated by more than 75 percent of the other race created an insular community for Greenwood’s blacks. Some 10,000 blacks lived, shopped and worked in Greenwood. Additionally, blacks who worked for white businesses and white business owners were forbidden from shopping in white-owned stores, so they, too, shopped in Greenwood, and money there thrived. According to accounts, Greenwood’s schools offered educational opportunities superior to the nearby white schools, and homes and businesses in Little Africa were equipped with electricity and indoor plumbing before the nearby those of the nearby white communities.
White resentment toward the thriving black community simmered until May 31 when a 19-year-old shoe shiner named Dick Rowland was arrested after being accused of raping a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page.
What exactly happened between the two remains murky. There is speculation that Rowland may have stepped on Page’s foot or stumbled into her causing her to scream; that the two were lovers and had a lover’s quarrel; or that nothing at all happened between the two, who found themselves in a building together on Memorial Day, May 30, when most businesses were closed and as a parade passed through town. But a male clerk working in the building reported to police that he heard a woman scream, found Page on the elevator looking distraught and he assumed she had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault.
No police record has been found indicating that Page claimed to police that she had been the victim of an attempted assault, nor has any evidence been found even indicating police interviewed Page. And the most likely explanation, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society, “is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream.” Nevertheless, the next morning, Rowland, who reportedly was seen hurriedly leaving the building the day before, was arrested by a two detectives — one white and the other black – and taken to the police station.
When word leaked that Rowland had been arrested and the reason for it, tensions began building. By late that evening word spread through Black Wall Street that Rowland was going to be lynched. A lynching was not an unlikely scenario in Tulsa in the early 1920s – for blacks or whites. Just nine months earlier a white teenager accused of murder had been dragged from his jail cell and lynched by a white mob, and law enforcement did little to prevent it.
According to accounts, the sequence of events leading up to the “riot” unfolded like this:
- By 7:30 p.m. a mob of angry whites had gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse demanding Rowland be handed over to them. The sheriff refused. By 9 p.m., a group of about 25 armed blacks – many of them veterans of WWI – arrived at the courthouse and offered the sheriff their services to help protect Rowland. The sheriff turned down their offer.
- The white mob, seeing they were outgunned, attempted to break into the nearby National Guard armory, but were turned away by guardsmen on duty.
- By 10 p.m. word swept through Black Wall Street that whites were storming the courthouse. About 75 armed black men again went to the courthouse to offer their services. They were again turned down.
- As the black men were leaving a white man tried to disarm a black veteran and a shot was fired. The “riot” began.
But it was less a riot and more an armed assault – aided and abetted by local police, some guardsmen and some unknown players in airplanes – on the community. Not only did police stand back as the carnage began, they even deputized members of the lynch mob, giving them official status. Blacks were shot down and their homes and businesses looted and burned.
Members of the National Guard who did not join in the attack stayed back to “protect” the white neighborhoods from feared-but-never-materialized black counter attacks.
The next morning, as the armed assault continued, planes began circling over the community. Witnesses claimed the planes’ occupants were shooting at blacks and dropping incendiary devices on homes and buildings.
When it was all over late the next day, at least 300 blacks were dead and hundreds more were injured. Some 40 square blocks of Greenwood (Black Wall Street) were burned to the ground. Some 6,000 blacks were arrested and detained the night of the riots – and afterward — for their “protection,” and many held for many days.
Not a single white person was ever arrested or charged with the events of that night.
Rowland was later exonerated on the assault charge.
An all-white grand jury blamed black Tulsans for the riots.
Thousands of black Tulsa residents spent the winter of 1921-1922 living in tents. And the Greenwood community never again prospered as it had before.