There are few that can even recall the era, much less the event. It was 90 years ago – May 31, 1921 – that an accident in a downtown Tulsa elevator unleashed a series of events that became the Tulsa Race Riot.
For many years, the episode that changed the dynamics of the north Tulsa business district was kept under tight wraps, not included in any history of the state of Oklahoma. The actions of that day became mixed with folklore and hand-me-down stories and little of the facts were written until a 1981 treatise by Scott Ellsworth entitled “Death in a Promised Land.”
At the time, the first two blocks of Greenwood north of Archer were known as “Deep Greenwood,” and some called the business district in that stretch “Black Wall Street.” One visitor called it a “regular Monte Carlo” after seeing the many grocery stores, the two movie theaters, the restaurants, dry goods stores, and confectionaries. They were two and three-story brick buildings that housed an immense amount of business and commerce.
While there was friction at the time, much of the trouble was labor-related. What sparked the riot is now believed to have been an accident that was followed by some heavy-handed newspaper reporting.
According to author Scott Ellsworth, there was a 19-year old named Dick Rowland who was making deliveries May 29th, and stepped into the elevator at the Drexel Building (which for many years housed the downtown Renberg’s store) at Third and Main. The facts are lost to time, but Rowland may have stepped on the foot of the elevator operator, a 17-year old named Sarah Page, causing her to lose her balance.
It is considered fact that almost immediately Ms. Page screamed and Rowland bolted from the elevator.
The consensus is that Rowland grabbed her arm to keep her from falling.
The newspaper headline of the May 31, 1921 issue was missing when the Tulsa Tribune was microfilmed, and all bound copies that would have contained the issue are missing.
A later account by Adjutant General Charles Barrett, who had led the National Guard into Tulsa to quell the riot, noted that an inflammatory headline and story in a “sensation-seeking paper” almost immediate brought out a crowd of some 300 whites seeking retribution.
They had read in the newspaper that Rowland had assaulted Page in the elevator.
By the time the mob had grown to some 1,500 to 2,000 persons, another group was facing them, a crowd that had been called out to provide protection to Rowland against a threatened lynching. That group included a man with a gun.
When a white tried the wrestle the gun away, it fired, and according to the sheriff at the time, “the race war was on.”
The riot lasted less than 24 hours, but some forty blocks of residential and businesses in north Tulsa were destroyed. Some 39 persons were killed and another 800 were injured. The accompanying image shows the burning of the Mt. Zion Church in the Greenwood District.
It was one of the worst racial confrontations in the US in the post WWI era.
A remembrance walk will take place Tuesday evening at the park named for the man who wrote the foreword to Ellsworth’s book. The vigil at the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, at 415 North Detroit, will begin at 7:30pm.