This past May 31, 2011, was the 90TH Anniversary of the destruction of Greenwood, Oklahoma.
Derisively called “Little Africa” by its detractors, and more affectionately known as the Black Wall Street, Greenwood, a racially segregated section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a thriving Black community. Greenwood had stores, shops, banks, newspapers, schools, two theaters, a hotel, and restaurants. Greenwood also had several wealthy Black entrepeneurs. Thanks to the discovery of oil, Tulsa was booming, and so were many of its Black citizens.
But, one fatal incident happened that caused a monumental vicious attack upon Greenwood. Residents were shot, beaten, chased from their homes, had their property destroyed, or looted, and were jailed in concentration internment camps. Planes carrying White assailants fired rifles at Black Tulsans fleeing from the carnage. Black Tulsans were attacked by mobs of Whites, the local police, and soldiers. The community was bombarded from above by planes dropping incendiary bombs on their community, making Greenwood the only U.S. city bombed from the air. Within 24 hours, the once great Greenwood community was leveled and burned to ashes.
What led to the massacre in Greenwood?
Here is an account that puts forth the chain of events that set into motion the annihilation of a once proud and productive community:
“Precisely at this moment, in this highly charged atmosphere, that two previously unheralded Tulsans, named Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, walked out of the shadows, and onto the stage of history.
Although they played a key role in the events which directly led to Tulsa’s race riot, very little is known for certain about either Dick Rowland or Sarah Page. Rumors, theories, and unsubstantiated claims have been plentiful throughout the years, but hard evidence has been much more difficult to come by.
Dick Rowland, who was black, was said to have been nineteen-years-old at the time of the riot. At the time of his birth, he was given the name Jimmie Jones. While it is not known where he was born, by 1908 he and his two sisters had evidently been orphaned, and were living “on the streets of Vinita, sleeping wherever they could, and begging for food.” An African American woman named Damie Ford, who ran a tiny one-room-grocery store, took pity on young Jimmie and took him in. “That’s how I became Jimmie’s ‘Mama,”‘ she told an interviewer decades afterwards.
Approximately one year later, Damie and her adopted son moved to Tulsa, where they were reunited with Damie’s family, the Rowlands. Eventually, little Jimmie took Rowland as his own last name, and selected his favorite first name, Dick, as his own. Growing up in Tulsa, Dick attended the city’s separate all-black schools, including Booker T. Washington High School, where he played football.78Dick Rowland dropped out of high school to take a job shining shoes in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor located downtown on Main Street. Shoe shines usually cost a dime in those days, but the shoe shiners — or bootblacks, as they were sometimes called — were often tipped a nickel for each shine, and sometimes considerably more. Over the course of a busy working day, a shoe shiner could pocket a fair amount of money — especially if he was a teenaged African American youth with few other job prospects.
There were no toilet facilities, however, for blacks at the shine parlor where Dick Rowland worked. The owner had arranged for his African American employees to be able to use a “Colored” restroom that was located, nearby, in the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street. In order to gain access to the washroom, located on the top floor, Rowland and the other shoe shiners would ride in the building’s sole elevator. Elevators were not automatic, requiring an operator. A job that was usually reserved for women.79In late May 1921, the elevator operator at the Drexel Building was a seventeen-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. Thought to have come to Tulsa from Missouri, she apparently lived in a rented room on North Boston Avenue. It also has been reported that Page was attending a local business school, a good career move at the time. Although, Tulsa was still riding upon its construction boom, some building owners were evidently hiring African American women to replace their white elevator operators.80Whether – and to what extent — Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly rode in Page’s elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers — a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility. Damie Ford later suggested that this might have been the case, as did Samuel M. Jackson, who operated a funeral parlor in Greenwood at the time of the riot. “I’m going to tell you the truth,” Jackson told riot historian Ruth Avery a half century later, “He could have been going with the girl. You go through life and you find that somebody likes you. That’s all there is to it.” However, Robert Fairchild, who shined shoes with Rowland, disagreed. “At that time,” Fairchild later recalled, “the Negro had so much fear that he didn’t bother with integrated relationship[s].”81Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 30, 1921 — although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most — but not all — stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day. A large Memorial Day parade passed along Main Street that morning, and perhaps Sarah Page had been required to work in order to transport Drexel Building employees and their families to choice parade viewing spots on the building’s upper floors. As for Dick Rowland, perhaps the shine parlor he worked at may have been open, if nothing else, to draw in some of the parade traffic. One post-riot account suggests another alternative, namely, that Rowland was making deliveries of shined shoes that day. What is certain, however, is that at some point on Monday, May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland entered the elevator operated by Sarah Page that was situated at the rear of the Drexel Building.82What happened next is anyone’s guess. After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. It also has been suggested that Rowland and Page had a lover’s quarrel. However, it simply is unclear what happened. Yet, in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape.83A clerk from Renberg’s, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel Building, however, reached the opposite conclusion. Hearing what he thought was a woman’s scream, and apparently seeing Dick Rowland hurriedly flee the building, the clerk rushed to the elevator, where he found a distraught Sarah Page. Evidently deciding that the young elevator operator had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault, the clerk then summoned the police.” 
What really caused this massacre was the jealousy, envy, and hatred of racist Whites towards Greenwood. That Black residents were so prosperous and excelled at making their community a city on a hill, enraged so many racist Whites. Add to that, at the time the Klan was growing in huge numbers in the Mid-West, lynchings were at the highest all across America, and to add fuel to fire, Woodrow Wilson, a racist and demagogue president if there ever was one, was in office, making life a living hell for Black citizens. Greed, envy, and a racist environment of sweltering hate all sought to destroy the economic strength of Greenwood. And just the thing to kindle a race massacre was the tired old threadworn cry of “We must protect our pure white women!” screams.
Once racist Whites got wind of a supposed attempted rape of a White woman, the die was cast for the assault upon Greenwood:
Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator
“A Negro delivery boy who gave his name to the public as “Diamond Dick” but who has been identified as Dick Rowland, was arrested on South Greenwood Avenue this morning by Officers Carmichael and Pack, charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl in the Drexel Building early yesterday.
He will be tried in municipal court this afternoon on a state charge.
The girl said she noticed the Negro a few minutes before the attempted assault looking up and down the hallway on the third floor of the Drexel Building as if to see if there was anyone in sight but thought nothing of it at the time.
A few minutes later he entered the elevator she claimed, and attacked her, scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes. Her screams brought a clerk from Renberg’s store to her assistance and the Negro fled. He was captured and identified this morning both by the girl and the clerk, police say.
Tenants of the Drexel Building said the girl is an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through business college.89Since Gill’s thesis first appeared, additional copies of this front-page article have surfaced. A copy can be found in the Red Cross papers that are located in the collections of the Tulsa Historical Society. A second copy, apparently from the “State Edition” of the Tulsa Tribune, could once be found in the collections of the Oklahoma Historical Society, but has now evidently disappeared.90This front page article was not, however, the only thing that the Tulsa Tribune seems to have printed about the Drexel Building incident in its May 31 edition. W.D. Williams, who later taught for years at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, had a vivid memory that the Tribune ran a story titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight”.91 In fact, however, what Williams may be recalling is not another news article, but an editorial from the missing editorial page.
Other informants, both black and white, buttress Williams’ account. Specifically, they recalled that the Tribune mentioned the possibility of a lynching — something that is entirely absent from the “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” story, and thus must have appeared elsewhere in the May 31 edition. Robert Fairchild later recalled that the Tribune “came out and told what happened. It said to the effect that ‘there is likely to be a lynching in Tulsa tonight’”. One of Mary Parrish’s informants, whom she interviewed shortly after the riot, provided a similar account:
The Daily Tribune, a white newspaper that tries to gain its popularity by referring to the Negro settlement as “Little Africa”, came out on the evening of Tuesday, May 31, with an article claiming that a Negro had experienced some trouble with a white elevator girl at the Drexel Building. It also said that a mob of whites was forming in order to lynch the Negro. ” 
The mob was bent on making Greenwood pay for the supposed assault upon the sanctity of pure White womanhood:
“By 9:30 p.m., the white mob outside the courthouse had swollen to nearly two- thousand persons. They blocked the sidewalks as well as the streets, and had spilled over onto the front lawns of nearby homes. There were women as well as men, youngsters as well as adults, curiosity seekers as well as would-be lynchers.” 
Death ensued for many Black Tulsans:
“The mob action was set off when several [white] men chased a Negro man down the alley in back of the theater and out onto Fourth Street where be saw the stage door and dashed inside. Seeing the open door the Negro rushed in and hurried forward in the darkness hunting a place to hide.
Suddenly he was on the stage in front of the picture screen and blinded by the bright flickering light coming down from the operator’s booth in the balcony. After shielding his eyes for a moment he regained his vision enough to locate the steps leading from the stage down past the orchestra pit to the aisle just as the pursuing men rushed the stage. One of them saw the Negro and yelled, “there he is, heading for the aisle”. As he finished the sentence, a roaring blast from a shotgun dropped the Negro man by the end of the orchestra pit
Around midnight, a small crowd of whites gathered — once again — outside of the courthouse, yelling “Bring the rope” and “Get the nigger”. But they did not rush the building, and nothing happened.117 Because the truth of the matter was that, by then, most of Tulsa’s rioting whites no longer particularly cared about Dick Rowland anymore. They now had much bigger things in mind.” 
“As Walter White, who visited Tulsa immediately after the riot, later reported:
Many are the stories of horror told to me – not by colored people – but by white residents. One was that of an aged colored couple, saying their evening prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Avenue. A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.120It appears that the first fires set by whites in black neighborhoods began at about 1:00 a.m. African American homes and businesses along Archer were the earliest targets, and when an engine crew from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived and prepared to douse the flames, white rioters forced the firemen away at gunpoint. By 4:00 a.m., more than two-dozen black-owned businesses, including the Midway Hotel, had been torched.” 
When the National Guard was called in, they turn their wrath upon the Black citizens of Greenwood, rounding them up and locking them in internment camps:
“Another interesting aspect regarding the guardsmen who gathered at the armory exists. Not only were the Tulsa units of the National Guard exclusively white, but as the evening wore on, it became increasingly clear that they would not play an impartial role in the “maintenance of law and order.” Like many of their white neighbors, a number of the local guardsmen also came to conclude that the race riot was, in fact, a “Negro uprising,” a term used throughout their various after action reports. At least one National Guard officer went even further, using the term “enemy” in reference to African Americans. Given the tenor of the times, it is hardly surprising that Tulsa’s all-white National Guard might view black Tulsans antagonistically.” 
In the aftermath, Black Tulsans strove to put back the pieces of their lives and of Greenwood:
“However, for black Tulsans, the trials and tribulations had only just begun. Six days after the riot, on June 7, the Tulsa City Commission passed a fire ordinance designed to prevent the rebuilding of the African American commercial district where it had formerly stood, while the so-called Reconstruction Commission, an organization of white business and political leaders, had been fuming away offers of outside aid .203 In the end, black Tulsans did rebuild their community, and the fire ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Yet, the damage had been done, and the tone of the official local response to the disaster had already been set. Despite the Herculean efforts of the American Red Cross, thousands of black Tulsans were forced to spend the winter of 1921- 22 living in tents.204 Others simply left. They had had enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma.” 
To add venomous insult to injury, Greenwood’s Black residents found themselves accused of the horrific massacre:
“For some, staying was not an option. It soon became clear, both in the grand jury that had been impaneled to look into the riot, and in various other legal actions that, by and large, languished in the courts, that African Americans would be blamed for causing the riot. Nowhere, perhaps, was this stated more forcefully than in the June 25, final report of the grand jury, which stated:
We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland then and now in the custody of the Sheriff of Tulsa Country for an alleged assault upon a young white woman. We have not been able to find any evidence either from white or colored citizens that any organized attempt was made or planned to take from the Sheriff’s custody any prisoner; the crowd assembled about the courthouse being purely spectators and curiosity seekers resulting from rumors circulated about the city.
“There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms,,” the report added, “The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.” 
There was no decision to compensate Black Tulsans who lost property, no effort to give them justice for the nightmare they suffered. In 1997, seventy-five years later, a reconciliation committee was formed to study, develop, and address the “historical account” of the riot. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission developed its report on February 21, 2001. Included in the report were recommendations for substantial restitution, in order of priority:
“Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the 1921 Tulsa race riot
Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa race riot
A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa race riot
Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood district
A memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims of the Tulsa race riot”
“Five elderly survivors of the riot, led by a legal team including Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree, filed suit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma (Alexander, et al., v. Oklahoma, et al.) in February 2003, based on the findings of the 2001 report. Ogletree said the state and city should compensate the victims and their families “to honor their admitted obligations as detailed in the commission’s report.” The plaintiffs did not seek reparations as such; rather, they asked for the establishment of educational and health-care resources for current residents of Greenwood. However, the federal district and appellate courts dismissed the suit citing the statute of limitations on the 80-year-old case, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. In April 2007, Ogletree appealed to the United States Congress to pass a bill extending the statute of limitations for the case.”
Today, many people are unaware of Greenwood and its destruction. There are some survivors who still live and their experience of this most shameful episode in America’s history has been documented:
To view the list of survivors, click here.
Greenwood-Tulsa deserves to be remembered. The fact that racism, hate, envy and jealousy sought to destroy a once prosperous community still did not destroy the drive, the ambition and the dedication that created the community that was once known as the Black Wall Street of America.
For further reading on Greenwood:
Text and photo sources 1-8 excerpted from “Of Reparations and America’s Ethnic Cleansing of Black America”
Here is a video on Tulsa’s Greenwood community. Additional videos are on YouTube.