svc52 asked in Arts & HumanitiesHistory · 1 decade ago

What forces were play to cause the Great Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?

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  • Veto R
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    1 decade ago
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    There were a number of factors in the 1920s that led to the Tulsa Race Riot on Memorial Day 1921, including a vigilante mood among Tulsa citizens set against the backdrop of national segregation and race relations.

    Some of these factors go back to the discovery of oil around Tulsa in 1905. Fueled by an oil boom, Tulsa went from a town of under 10,000 people in 1910 to a city of over 100,000 people in 1920. That is tremendous growth and that growth came great problems. Historically oil field workers -- roughnecks -- have taken pride in their rough ways. In Tulsa, oil brought riches, but it also brought in the roughnecks and with the roughnecks came illegal drugs, prostitution, robberies and crime. Even though alcohol was banned nationwide in 1920, it was easily available in Tulsa, which gained the reputation of being a sin city, a place where you could let your inhibitions go.

    While the roughnecks and others may have enjoyed the freewheeling atmosphere that defined Tulsa in 10s and 20s, many did not. In 1917, the all-white Knights of Liberty, a citizen's vigilante group, was formed. While this group only went after white citizens -- and, btw, it appears, unlike many such cities, that there was not a single black citizen lynched in Tulsa prior to the riots -- it was praised by Tulsa and Oklahoma law enforcement and judicial officials. In 1919, a white mob took Roy Belton, who was white, from the Tulsa jail and lynched him for the murder of taxi driver Homer Nida, who was also white. Again, local law enforcement officials did nothing to stop the event and it was generally praised in the area by political and judicial leaders.

    A.J. Smitherman, though, editor of the black Tulsa Star, immediately recognized the danger. He was concerned about the safety of black citizens if they were arrested for a crime against a white person. If white law enforcement officials gleefully cheered the lynching of white suspects, he believed they would lead the way for a black suspect being lynched. And he started broaching, in his paper, the subject of what Tulsa's black population should do if there was a danger of a mob lynching a black suspect.

    Smitherman's worries were valid. In the South, where many of Tulsa's white and black citizens were from, lynching was a common tactic used by white political leaders to institute terror among blacks. But, it wasn't just the South that widespread racial issues were present. Race riots had broken out in Chicago and New York and the United States had, nationally, passed a series of laws that made segregation easier. Most cities, including Tulsa, were segregated. Aside from a few blacks hired as domestics, blacks were not allowed to shop or live in white areas. And, whites rarely visited black neighborhoods. And, Tulsa's black neighborhood, Greenwood, was impressive, fueled by the same oil boom that exploded Tulsa's growth.

    Further, in the days following World War 1, returning black soldiers were no longer willing to accept second-class citizenship. These men had fought and suffered in a war for democracy. And they, like later World War 2 black veterans, saw the great hypocrisy of a nation that fought for liberty in Europe but created black ghettos populated by second-class citizens at home. Black WW1 veterans returned home and infused the civil rights movement with a new militancy.

    Moreover, and it's hard to imagine a day when newspapers were actually relevant, but in the days before television and radio, they were, Tulsa had a new newspaper -- the Tulsa Tribune -- going against the established Tulsa World. Richard Lloyd Jones, owner of the Tribune, went for shock to increase his newspaper's sales. And, Jones targeted crime. Underlying many of the Tribune's articles on crime in Tulsa -- which, as noted, was rife -- was the idea that many crimes originated in the black neighborhoods of Tulsa. In early May 1921, Rev. Harold G. Cooke went on a vice tour and reported through the Tribune that he had visited a roadhouse in Tulsa where young white women actually danced with black men. In the racially charged United States, this was about the worst charge that Cooke could have leveled.

    On Memorial Day -- May 30 -- 1921, most of the town was closed. But, black shoeshiner Dick Rowland went to work downtown Tulsa and white elevator worker Sarah Page, who was white, also went to work. Because of segregation, the only restroom Rowland could use was located in the top floor of the building Page worked in. No one knows exactly what happened, but it appears that Rowland tripped entering Page's elevator and reached out to steady himself only to grab Page's arm. Page screamed. Rowland ran. A white clerk working in the building reported the incident as an attempted sexual assault on Page. Rowland was arrested the next day.

    The night -- May 31 -- a white mob gathered in front of the courthouse to lynch Rowland. Tulsa County Sheriff Jim Woolley prevented the lynching. However, a group of

    Source(s): The night -- May 31 -- a white mob gathered in front of the courthouse to lynch Rowland. Tulsa County Sheriff Jim Woolley prevented the lynching. However, a group of 25 armed young black men made the trip to the courthouse in a show of force in support of Rowland. After Woolley informed them they were not needed -- that he had everything in control -- they returned to Greenwood. A few hours later, after the mob outside the courthouse grew, a second group of armed black men -- this time about 75 in number -- made a second trip to the courthouse. Again, Woolley declined their offer to help him defend the courthouse. As this second group was leaving, one of their number was confronted by a member of the forming lynch mob. A fight ensued for the black man's pistol, a shot went off -- no one knows who fired, and the riot was on. The white mob forgot about Rowland in the courthouse and turned their attention to Greenwood through out the rest of the night of May 31 and the morning hours of June 1. Blacks -- particularly WW1 veterans -- put up strong resistance to the attacking mob, but they were overwhelmed. The mob was also joined by members of the Tulsa Police Department and the local National Guard, which deployed machine guns against Greenwood. Before state National Guard troops were able to restore order, 100-300 blacks were killed, 10-to-20 whites were killed and Greenwood was virtually burned to the ground. Woolley, btw, with very limited resources at his disposal, managed to protect Rowland through the riots. Rowland was released from custody in September 1921 and quickly left Tulsa. In the racially-charged atmosphere of the 1920s, Rowland's release from custody lends great credence to the story that he merely tripped when he entered the elevator and Page screamed when he grabbed her arm in an attempt to steady himself....
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