The day after 1921’s Decoration Day – now Memorial Day – stands as a dark day in Oklahoma and American history. A mere 58 years after emancipation, and 89 years ago, racial tensions in Tulsa, Okla., ignited. The result: One of the most successful Black townships in the country, the Greenwood area of Tulsa, was completely destroyed.
Because facts about this 16-hour nightmare were hidden for years in a "conspiracy of silence," details that might explain how and why this happened are sketchy. But what's clear is that Tulsa's African-American district, according to the final report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, "turned into a scorched wasteland of vacant lots, crumbling storefronts, burned churches, and blackened, leafless trees."
Black Wall Street was the business center of the Greenwood community. There, Black businesses had the full support of Black residents and the area was booming. Home to a hospital, churches, banks, hotels and a variety of other Black-owned businesses, Black Wall Street was surrounded by a 40-square block area of homes.
Despite the air of success that characterized the suburb, or perhaps because of it, a racial uneasiness existed with the adjacent city, largely fueled by Jim Crow laws and the growth of the Klu Klux Klan. This tension came to a head on May 31, 1921, when Blacks in Greenwood, according to the Commission's report, "had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland [a Greenwood resident charged with raping a White woman] would be lynched after his arrest on charges later dismissed and highly suspect from the start."
As tensions heightened, armed Blacks moved within the ranks of assembling White mobs, in an effort to save Rowland's life and stop things before they went too far. But that plan did not go well. When a White man tried to take a gun from a Black man, it went off, and what was a harmless shot started the riot.
As the violence escalated, many Blacks fled the area with only the clothes on their back. And while some stayed to fight, they were overwhelmed, as people come into "Little Africa," stealing and destroying personal property left behind, and burning public buildings and homes, augmented by private aircraft dropping incendiary devices from the sky.
When the smoke cleared, over 1,200 homes had been destroyed, leaving over 9,000 homeless. And a commercial district that had multi-story buildings – including the Stradford, Gurley, Red Wing and Midway hotels; the Dreamland Theater; YMCA Cleaners; East End Feed Store; Osborne Monroe's Roller Skating Rink; the Tulsa Star and Oklahoma Sun newspapers;, Dunbar Elementary School and Frissell Memorial Hospital – was leveled, with nothing left but ash and debris.
Some might think this could have happened anywhere in the country during that time period. But history indicates Oklahoma may have been uniquely primed for this type of violence and destruction. According an article in the Aug. 30, 1918 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper reporting a formal NAACP protest, White residents of Dewey, Okla., took a similar approach to problem solving, four years before Greenwood was destroyed.
The article indicates that on Aug. 21, 1917, a mob shot N. Widlow, a Black barber accused of killing the chief of police and wounding a city clerk. Officers from the sheriff's office arrested the wounded Widlow. The AFRO reported, "The mob, enraged at being cheated of its victim, went to a suburb of Dewey, known as ‘Little Africa’ and burned this community, destroying two hundred homes, two churches and a schoolhouse. None of the Negroes thus robbed of their homes was even remotely connected with the crime."
Just as it is hard to find details on this 1917 incident, that was the case regarding the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots until the Oklahoma legislature formed the Commission in 1997. Because of the Commission's work, this history is no longer fading from memory, but is well documented.
Yet there are still unanswered questions. Despite several years of research the final report, issued Feb. 28, 2001, can only identify and confirm 38 dead, but notes the actual number of Black and White killed is between 150 and slightly over 300.
But the report is definitive about this: In quoting Walter White, a expert in racial violence who visited the site of the riots just days after they occurred, the Commission and the state acknowledged the horror of this moment in American history. White said, "I am able to state that the Tulsa riot, in sheer brutality and willful destruction of life and property, stands without parallel in America."