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   Vol.65/No.12            March 26, 2001 
Report reveals facts on 1921 racist riot against Blacks in Oklahoma
(feature article)
A commission charged with compiling for the first time an official government record of the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, released its findings February 28. The May 31–June 1, 1921, rampage through Tulsa's Black community by a racist mob was one of the worst such riots in U.S. history. Through the determination of the survivors of the assault and the refusal by the Black community to let the events be swept under the rug forever, the Oklahoma state legislature in 1997 set up the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission to unearth the facts of the infamous days.

The commission's report explains that over the course of 16 hours a mob of up to 2,000 killed between 100 and 300 people; demolished the entire 35-square block Greenwood District; torched 1,200 homes, the Dunbar Elementary School, and six churches; destroyed two Black community newspapers, the Tulsa Star and Oklahoma Sun, along with offices of more than a dozen dentists, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals; and left 10,000 people homeless. No one has ever been arrested, charged, or prosecuted for any crimes perpetrated against the Black community on those two days.

It took the commission four years to complete its mission. The work by volunteers and others included digging through newspaper files, government and National Guard records, and historical archives; interviewing survivors; gathering photographs and secondhand accounts; and using sophisticated equipment to help reveal the location of unmarked burial sites of riot victims.

The commission recommended the state and city pay $33 million in reparations, a proposal not readily welcomed by Oklahoma governor Frank Keating. Some legislators said they are more attracted to the suggestion of building a memorial site for the victims and providing some economic development funds to the Greenwood district where the rampage took place.

The commission report gives a glimpse of the social dynamics of institutionalized racism that existed in Oklahoma and the rest of the United States in the years leading up to the riot and in its aftermath. The report helps illustrate that the events were not an isolated case, but one example of the brutal methods used by the wealthy rulers against African Americans in the United States.  
Oil boom
Tulsa's population grew from 10,000 in 1910 to 100,000 in 1920 due to the rapid influx of workers seeking jobs in the booming oil industry. The migration of working people included Blacks looking for work and seeking to escape the racism and brutality of the Jim Crow system of segregation in the southern states. Tulsa's Black community also included descendants of African slaves who had accompanied Native American tribes in the Trail of Tears, forced marches out of their lands on orders of the U.S. government, and descendants of runaway slaves who had fled to what was then the Indian Territories before and during the Civil War.

The majority of the city's 10,000 Blacks lived in the Greenwood district near downtown Tulsa. Kept out of the oil industry and from most of the manufacturing jobs by the employers, Black workers labored under harsh conditions as janitors, ditchdiggers, porters, day laborers, maids, and domestic servants. A small layer of Black businessmen and entrepreneurs grew up and fostered a prosperous commercial district that became known as the "Negro Wall Street." The community featured an active cultural, political, and social life, including a library, two newspapers, two large theaters, and a number of business associations, fraternal orders, and women's clubs.

But legal discrimination and violence against Blacks was as integral to Oklahoma as it was elsewhere in the country. Racist laws were being passed by both the state and federal government during those years. In 1911 Oklahoma adopted a number of segregation laws, ranging from barring African Americans from voting to mandating segregated phone booths, becoming the first state to do so.  
History of lynchings
Over this same period the practice of lynching criminals became more directed against Blacks. In 1911, all but one of the state's lynching victims were African Americans, and over the next decade 23 Black Oklahomans--including two women--were lynched by whites in more than a dozen communities. In 1919 alone, "more than two dozen different race riots broke out in cities and towns across the nation," according to the report, and more than 75 Blacks were lynched by white mobs.

It was common, the report notes, for white politicians and the local media to promote and perpetuate racist attitudes and try to build resentment among whites against Blacks, especially by pointing to the supposed prosperity of the Greenwood district. With a drop in the price of crude oil and subsequent layoffs by the oil barons, the local rulers scagegoated the Black community. During this time, the Ku Klux Klan, and other right-wingers were whipping up an anticrime and anticorruption campaign that blamed Blacks for the increase in crime and the inept politicians for not responding to the supposed threat.

Examples of right-wingers taking the law into their own hands as the way of dealing with the ills of society were frequently praised in the local media. The antiworker attacks were not limited to Blacks, even though they were usually the victims.

One example listed is that of the Knights of Liberty, a rightist antilabor organization formed in 1917 after the United States had entered World War I. Encouraged by the white press and praised by it afterwards, members of this outfit tarred and feathered more than a dozen local members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and forced them out of town at gunpoint.  
Armed Blacks try to stop mob
Events in Tulsa were precipitated with the arrest of Dick Rowland, a young Black worker, who was falsely accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white woman. Incited by inflammatory stories in the newspapers about the incident, a white mob began to gather outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse where Rowland was being detained.

Having every belief that Rowland would be lynched, 25 armed African American war veterans "decided to cast their lot not only with an endangered fellow member of the race, but also, literally, upon the side of justice," and offered their services to the authorities to defend the courthouse, the commission reports.

The appearance of the armed men had an electrifying effect on the white mob, estimated to be more than 1,000 strong. The authorities refused their offer but a second group of 75 Blacks returned to make another offer to defend the city building. By that time the crowd had grown to nearly 2,000 people. It was then, the report describes, that a shot went off after a white man tried to take away a gun from one of the Blacks as they were leaving the courthouse.

Almost immediately the white mob and possibly some law enforcement officers opened fire on the African American men who fired back in self-defense. They began a retreat, fighting their way back to the Greenwood district.

What followed was a pogrom that took place with the complicity of the city authorities and National Guard. In 16 hours of terror, the white mob shot, looted, and torched Black homes and businesses, forcing thousands to flee for refuge into the countryside. Reports by survivors of the attack that they were bombed from the air by Sinclair Oil Company planes are probably accurate, according to the commission.

Many who joined the assault were among the 500 white men deputized and armed after the shooting broke out at the courthouse, including the would-be lynchers who had gathered there that night.

The intervention of the National Guard was not only late and militarily inadequate, but, the report explains, targeted the Black community as well. Instead of disarming the racist mob, the Guard unit concentrated its efforts on disarming and arresting nearly all of Greenwood's residents, putting them in holding centers. It was the city's official policy to only release a Black person if a white agreed to take responsibility for the detainee's subsequent behavior.

Blacks organized to defend themselves and their community. John Hope Franklin in the foreword to the book Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 wrote, "Many more whites were killed during the riot than any whites were willing to admit" in the years that followed.

The report contains a chilling list of how "civil officials" deputized and armed those who perpetrated the violence and "failed to take actions to calm or contain the situation." People, "some of them agents of the government, also deliberately burned 1,256 homes, along with virtually every other structure" in the Greenwood district. "No government at any level," the report says, "offered adequate resistance, if any at all," to the assault, and in the end "the restoration of Greenwood after its systematic destruction was left to the victims of that destruction."

Although unable to determine the exact role of the Ku Klux Klan in the assault, "Everyone agrees that within months of the riot Tulsa's Klan chapter had become one of the nation's largest and most powerful, able to dictate its will with the ballot as well as the whip," the commission found. "Everyone agrees that many of the city's most prominent men were klans men in the early 1920s and that some remained klans men throughout the decade."

The Daily Tribune, according to the report, played a big role in playing up the charges against Rowland, with a May 31, 1921, headline "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator." The paper is also said to have run an editorial, "To Lynch Negro Tonight." All copies of the pages with these two articles have been destroyed.  
Kept from history books
For half a century the Tulsa race riot went unacknowledged and almost forgotten in the official history books and newspapers. The report describes how the Tulsa Tribune's "Fifteen Years Ago" column ignored the riot and reprinted an article about Tulsa's social life as the most important event that year. Ten years later in the Tribune's "Twenty Five Years Ago" feature studiously ignored the riot again.

With the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and an increased awareness of African American history in the two decades that followed, the Tulsa riot began to get some exposure.

Interest in having the true history of the murderous assault on the Black community come to light was demonstrated by the fact that close to 50 people volunteered to help the commission as unpaid researchers and hundreds called the Tulsa County Historical Society volunteering information.

The 200-page report, which includes a number of pictures, can be found on the web at
Related article:
Tulsa racist riot: what it showed  
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