THE JUNE 1, 1921, MASSACRE.
Ninety-nine years ago, an event took place that the powers that be made sure receded to the dustbin of history. This nefarious construct succeeded despite or because of the scale of the damage it wrought, the collusion of law-enforcement officials at every level and the horrific act of a police chief deputizing weapons-carrying citizens, many of the weapons stolen from stores, to perpetrate vigilante mob violence against African-Americans and annihilating a whole neighborhood. This historical injustice needs to be talked about; this massacre can’t remain a forgotten fact not described in history books. We need to make sure it never happens again, lest we forget.
The wholesale violence against Blacks that pulverized a neighborhood dubbed “Black Wall Street,” by Booker T. Washington after a visit there eight years earlier was neither the first nor last such vile act. It stands out for the extent of the damage, the refusal of local and state authorities to acknowledge its occurrence, to seek remedy and allow revival of bustling businesses and the return of a once-vibrant community. There is a singular peculiar feature of this declension from the ever so frail social cohesiveness: the victim of the alleged crime refused to press charges and the accused left the jail unharmed. Both were never to be heard from and or seen again in the area. This is a remarkable observation when one considers the sulfurous nature of the charge, an assault by an African-American against a young white woman at a time when the notion of eye rape was enough of a reason to deserve lynching.
The accusation itself remains murky, both in spatial, temporal and descriptive terms. It reeks of deception. In the seminal and standard chronicling of the event, Death in a Promised Land, by Scott Ellsworth, the so-called assault took place on May 30, 1921, at the Drexel building in downtown Tulsa when a shoeshine, commonly referred to then as a bootblack, Dick Rowland, rode the elevator manned by a young white teen, Sarah Page, to use a restroom. On his way down, as he exited the elevator, he supposedly assaulted her, she screamed and he ran away. However, a more recent book, Tulsa 1921, Reporting a Massacre by Randy Krehbiel, questions the location and timing of the assault; both books raised questions about the true relationship between the two actors. Damie Rowland, Dick’s adopted mother, in 1972 stated in an interview to Ruth S. Avery that the two were lovers, according to Krehbiel.
Krehbiel tells us that May 30, 1921, was Memorial Day with an elaborate parade downtown by a city renowned for its patriotism and proud of its chauvinism. On such a holiday, the stores were closed and Dick would have been unlikely to be working or to go to the building. Reports about the difficulty of stepping off the elevator added further confusion and raise possibility if indeed he was in the elevator that he may have stumbled on trying to exit and the startled young girl screamed innocently. The fact she refused to press charges is itself telling. The Tribune on May 31 mentioned the charges and The World did on June 1. We will delve on this later.
Oklahoma is not a place that readily comes to mind when thinking about Blacks’ experience. How, what and why come to the fore. How did this take place? Why was Tulsa a catnip for those of them relocating from the South? What was this Black Wall Street really like? These issues are very germane and offer a window into the era and for history buffs, it helps to understand the upheaval we are living in our present time by going back to the source of the original sin.
The second decade of the twentieth century represented a crossroads of tailwind and crosswind. The latter seemed to carry the day, to neuter any lift while standing ready to facilitate a tailspin of African-Americans’ flight.
Foremost was the reality of white, reactionary America smarting over the almost sundering of the Union over the powder keg called slavery and the aftermath of its dissolution. The North won the war but to paraphrase Frederick Douglass, the South was able to gain in peace what it couldn’t achieve through war with the help of its accomplices from the North. The Compromise of 1877, hereafter coined Hayes-Tilden, sealed the fates of black Republicans who were members of Congress and state legislatures. In a turnaround of tsunami proportion, President Ulysses Grant removed federal troops from the South so that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes could get the White House over the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, in a resounding death knell of Reconstruction. This socially progressive period of the Union where enfranchised former slaves were able to compete on an equal basis with whites and were able to achieve groundbreaking, if not existential, changes in the makeup of the Union for the better, came to a halt.
Adding insult to injury, the Supreme Court miffed by the fifteenth Amendment in 1870 that awarded citizenship’s rights to Negroes, in effect reversing its previous Dred Scott decision of 1857, sided against Plessy in 1896 and codified racism by legalizing racial segregation. Separate but equal came to mean always separate and never equal. Initial Black Code laws aimed at countering the gains of the thirteenth (1865) and fourteenth (1868) Amendments turned into widespread Jim Crow laws that became pervasive soon after 1877 and African-Americans were not able to vote, let alone become elected officials, a status that lasted all the way to the mid-sixties under the Democrats’ rock-hard control of the Solid South. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 under Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson shifted the paradigm and upended the political landscape. The party of Lincoln gave up its mantra of fighting for civil rights; this trading of places occurred swiftly. What didn’t change was the two-tiered system of the goose and the gander. Slavery and Reconstruction were two incompatible brews and mutually exclusive. Each is either hated or loved. Yet quite a few of those who thought they disliked slavery found out they disliked Reconstruction even more for that concept tested their racial sensibility to the core and left a very unpleasant residue. The matter of Reconstruction is a very sore subject that warrants its own visit later.
As described by Louis Gates, it was followed by Redemption, a concerted effort by Southerners to efface the humiliation and put Blacks back in their place4. This was further consolidated by revisionists who took the helm to rewrite history and to portray Reconstruction as an abject failure. They gave cover to the animus against descendants of former slaves. In a 1-2 punch catapulting the canard of black inferiority, the movie Birth of a Nation (1915), Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916), the essay by U. B. Phillips American Negro Slavery (1918), serve as propaganda troika. The learned and uneducated each had plenty of ammunition; a pernicious condition became endemic. The narrative revolved around the white race wronged by an inferior class of beings, not exactly humans. The KKK that was formed in 1865 after the Civil War, went into decline toward the end of the 19th century and became revived after the movie. Oklahoma became a fertile bastion and it held a stranglehold on Tulsa, reaching offices of mayor, police chief, newspaper editor, lawmakers1,2,3. The refrain about Reconstruction as a failed experiment would reach fever pitch a decade later with the publication of a manifesto that won Literary Guild selection in 1930, The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln, by Claude G. Bowers5. This book didn’t mince any words and staked out the position from the beginning to set the story straight, “ That the Southern people literally were put to the torture is vaguely understood, but even historians have shrunk from the unhappy task of showing us the torture chambers.” Films that had mass appeal, daily newspapers, were part of the background of daily litany describing African-Americans as lazy, incompetent, truants, intellectually inferior and with no qualm about using the “N” word for epithet as a rule. Guilty of any accusation until proven otherwise, if proof could ever be found. A rebuke of the Bowers book would come a few years later with the masterpiece of Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America*. He singlehandedly corrected the fallacy of the inferior race in a subpar performance when given a chance to shine. This tour de force of intellectual disquisition unfortunately gets short shrift as a historical document, but even as a lengthy exegesis, it warrants reading. One reviewer fawned that “[he didn’t think] …. anything finer has been written in English in recent years…5”
African-Americans in the face of this onslaught of tyranny as usual didn’t stay put. They fought, as always, every which way. The NAACP was formed in 1909 by both black and white activists, including the famous Du Bois, and to date remains the premier civil rights movement in the country. It was and remains a citizen’s effort to change the Jim Crow system through legal means and has achieved quite a bit of success over the years. One needs to remember that the principle of coalition is always at play with the NAACP. However not all groups were willing to be so peaceful. Marcus Garvey espoused a different philosophy and another West Indian-born journalist, Cyril Briggs, formed the African Blood Brotherhood from 1919 till 1924, a militant group based in Harlem promoting armed revolt if necessary, against racism and had branches throughout the country, including in Tulsa (blackpast.org). Some of its members took up arms to defend themselves in the melee in 1921. That helped the group gain some notoriety. Some international developments were influencing national events.
The socialist movement that was sweeping Europe reached American shores. Unions in the US in some cases were stressing class warfare over racial distinctions. Quite a few scholars and luminaries were attracted to this tendency. The idea of brotherhood among humans irrespective of ethnicity became an appealing ideology. Because of the virulent racism at home, a number of African-Americans went to Europe to study and fell under the spell of left-leaning ideas. Du Bois is a good example. It is debatable the extent of this influence but nonetheless it did play a role. What is definitely not debatable is the effect of exposure to another culture and customs as it happened during World War 1 (WW1).
WW1 afforded African-American men the opportunity to be enrolled in the military and to bear arms and were able to fight in Europe. That opportunity enhanced the self-esteem of the soldier who was constantly vilified at home. The optics of a black man in uniform didn’t sit well with racists and that became a contentious point in conservative areas of the country, especially in Oklahoma that never developed a tradition of tolerance. A lot of these conservatives saw the enrollment of Negroes as a dangerous step and a threat to their hegemony. Access to weapons by African-Americans added a degree of security and defense against vigilantes. They never went down without fighting. However these external factors paled in comparison to the climate at home in terms of molding the national conversation and landscape.
*Dubois’s decision to write this iconic text happened when a submission to Encyclopedia Britannica was accepted contingent on his removal of “a paragraph on the positive Reconstruction role of black people,” we learn in the preface of the book. Of course, instead of complying he decided to write this hefty rebuttal.
Woodrow Wilson was president from 1913 to 1921. He systematically removed African-Americans from the federal workforce. The Postal Service, a big employer of African-Americans had to let go many of those employees and stop giving jobs to any. His resume included stint as president of Princeton University and governor of NJ. His racist side has been ignored until a few weeks ago in the wake of Black Life Matters, when Princeton University has decided to remove his name from a building at the school.
Lynching was a common occurrence and a punishment not exclusively applied to African-Americans but meted out in a disproportionate amount to that group. Billie Holiday immortalized this torture in the song Strange Fruit. It became a social event and the gruesome nature sometime ventured into the macabre. Burning the individual at the stake, removal of sex organs and hanging the naked body were some of the more nauseous practices1. Ads for lynching were routinely published in newspapers. Worse was the fact that lynching attracted big crowds of people who would the day after go to church and vow to love thy neighbor. Because of all of such negative developments, life for an African-American was a hardship, more acute in the Deep South for certain. Other places kept beckoning for relocation.
Isabelle Wilkerson in The Warmth of other Suns would describe, “Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become perhaps the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century… Over the course of six decades [1915-1970], some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America.” She went on to chronicle the cauldron-like life in the Deep South and the need to escape it. However, it was also a matter of leaving behind one type of torment to face another one. The resettlement of African-Americans in major metropolitan regions would be associated with Whites rioting and destroying their properties. In the early part of the twentieth century, that happened in Nebraska, NY, Boston, Detroit, etc.
In the case of Oklahoma, it was not considered part of the Deep South in geography, but it would soon join it in spirit and its eager adoption of Jim Crow laws. Oklahoma became a state in 1907. It was a mixture of an annexation of Indian lands and appropriation of virgin territory. Whereas NY City has been named the Big Apple by jazz musicians and has since adopted this moniker, Tulsa itself has had the reputation of the Magic City basically from the discovery of oil. Its magnetism relied on this reputation on one hand and its geographical location.
Tulsa itself officially incorporated in 1898 but it goes back quite a few years in existence as per Russell Cobb in The Great Oklahoma Swindle. It has metamorphosed over the years. As far back as 1540, the explorer Hernando DeSoto described it as Tullahassee in its Creek language name, meaning “old town.” He translated it into Tallise. Then it became Tulsey Town up to its present name of Tulsa. African-Americans have had a presence in that part of the country for quite some time. The Creeks (Indian tribe) enslaved and intermarried them in a model reminiscent of ancient Greece and Rome*. As Tulsa grew in size, it attracted more blacks because it was not technically part of the South. However, there was a climate of both intolerance and social progress.
*Another historical fact not well disseminated is the role that Africans played in those societies that afforded them upward social mobility. They reached the highest echelon in the military, papacy in Rome (africaresource.com, catholicnewsherald.com, talesoftimesforgotten.com).
This paradoxical coexistence is definitely difficult to fathom. For example, even though African-Americans weren’t supposed to vote statewide, they still did in Tulsa. There were some African-American police officers. There was a prominent union movement with socialist ideation that welcomed African-Americans. Intolerance nonetheless won the day. The use of vigilantes for summarily carrying out acts of justice was encouraged by law-enforcement officials**. Severe and cruel punishments would be inflicted to even white individuals. The two daily papers in the white establishment had an outsize influence on the justice system.
A successful all-black neighborhood was always on a collision course with the establishment because it portends of economic might that begets ideas of equality, political ambition and these were always considered toxic ideas. So long as African-Americans remain as an underclass, they don’t represent a threat. Otherwise this was an explosive waiting for a spark to go off. As we shall see, two unforgivable allegations weighed: assault of a white woman by a black man and the audacity of black men to take up arms to defend themselves against a mob.
**A group called the Knights of Liberty operated in Tulsa with the approval of the police and on numerous occasions applied tar and feather after a whipping with knowledge and approval of police, as per Ellsworth.
REYNALD ALTEMA, MD
- Ellsworth, Scott. Death in a Promised Land: the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
- Krehbiel, Randy. Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre. University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.
- Bobb, Russell. The Great Oklahoma Swindle. University of Nebraska Press, 2020.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. Oxford university Press, 2007.
- Lane, Charles. The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. Henry Holt, NY, 2008.