The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot was the deadliest massacre on American soil since the Civil War –but it is rarely mentioned in history books. Over a two-day period, 300 people were killed and over a thousand homes and businesses were looted and burned. The victims included black veterans of World War I, the proprietor of the largest African American-owned hotel in the country, and scores of innocent people.
What happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921? A mob of 10,000 whites descended on Greenwood, the richest black neighborhood in America, after a black teenager on his way to a blacks-only bathroom stepped on the foot of a white elevator operator. The same flimsy pretext was used for countless lynchings and riots, including the Florida Rosewood Massacre only two years later.
The Greenwood, Oklahoma, massacre destroyed a thriving black neighborhood as planes dropped firebombs on American citizens. The National Guard detained 6,000 black residents –but not a single white person was arrested. The Tulsa race riot death toll was at least 300 people, but the true number may never be known, since Tulsa’s only black hospitals were destroyed in the riot, and segregated white hospitals refused to treat black victims. In America’s long history of racial violence, the Tulsa massacre is one of the most tragic events.
Tulsa’s oil boom drew blacks and whites to Oklahoma. By 1920, Tulsa’s population had shot up to over 100,000 residents. But the city did not want whites and blacks to mix. On August 16, 1916, Tulsa passed a residential segregation ordinance forbidding blacks from living on a block where over 75% of the residents were white.
Segregation could not stop the commercial boom in Greenwood, the traditionally black district in Tulsa. Booker T. Washington marveled at what he called “the Negro Wall Street,” filled with black-owned businesses, two independent newspapers, and the largest black-owned hotel in the country, which was owned by Tulsa's richest black man, J.B. Stradford.
On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old shoe shiner named Dick Rowland entered an office building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to use the bathroom. Because he was black, he was only allowed to use a bathroom at the top of the building. On his way to the bathroom, he met a 17-year-old white elevator operator named Sarah Page.
According to the Tulsa Tribune, Rowland “attacked her, scratching her hands and face tearing her clothes.” According to Mary Parrish, an eyewitness to the massacre who wrote Events of the Tulsa Disaster in 1922, “A Colored boy accidentally stepped on a white elevator girl’s shoe.” Rowland was quickly arrested, and the incendiary headline from the Tulsa Tribute, which read, "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator" sent a lynch mob to the courthouse to kill Rowland.
Rumors flew that Rowland would be lynched. The fear had a solid foundation: only a year earlier, a man named Roy Belton was lynched after he was arrested in Tulsa. On May 31, 1921, an armed mob of nearly 2,000 white residents amassed outside the courthouse. At least three men demanded that the authorities hand over Rowland. Another group tried to steal weapons from the nearby National Guard Armory.
A group of 75 black residents rushed to the courthouse late that evening. They offered to help protect Rowland, but the authorities turned them down. As they were leaving, a white man approached a black World War I veteran, called him a racial slur, and attempted to seize the man’s gun. A shot rang out in the skirmish, and soon both sides began to fire.
As gunfire broke out, the small group of black residents, outnumbered 20-to-one by the white mob, retreated to Greenwood. Along the way, white shooters massacred innocent black people in downtown Tulsa. One unarmed black man was chased into the Royal Theater and murdered on stage.
The police claimed the skirmish was evidence of a “Negro uprising” and deputized nearly 500 white men – many of whom had been part of the lynch mob only minutes earlier. The police ordered the deputized members to “get a gun,” and with official support from the police, black people were shot in the streets. White mobs descended on Greenwood and began murdering innocent people.