Who Killed Black Wall Street?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: An incident in an elevator sparks deadly and enduring consequences.

The Tulsa Race Riot (Oklahoma Historical Society)
The Tulsa Race Riot (Oklahoma Historical Society)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact about the Negro No. 42: Which episode of racial violence destroyed the community known as “The Black Wall Street”?

The Elevator

In last week’s column on the Colfax Massacre of 1873, I closed with a reference to Barack Obama’s July 19 discussion of Trayvon Martin and the “set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Speaking from the White House as president and as a man from within that veil of “experiences,” he explained, “There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”

It does happen often, and I imagine it always has ever since the first commercial elevator was installed in Manhattan by the Otis Elevator Company in March 1857 (just two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision casting blacks out of citizenship and the meaning of “We, the people”). And it continued happening whenever black people were allowed to ride as passengers (rather than as operators) in elevators — that rush to the elevator doors — even though, contrary to the stereotype, it was a black man, the brilliant inventor Alexander Miles of Duluth, Minn., who patented a way for those doors to open and close automatically in 1887. That same year, Florida passed the first state law requiring segregation in public accommodations, and for much of the Jim Crow era that followed, Congress, hemmed in by the Supreme Court, was unwilling to do anything to protect blacks’ civil rights, not even passing an anti-lynching bill.

So however many white purses were clutched, or breaths held, when a black man entered a public elevator, he was among the most vulnerable passengers anywhere in the United States. This is the story of one such rider who, without any eyewitnesses, became the flashpoint for one of the deadliest race riots in American history.

‘Nab Negro’ 

In a city of 100,000 people, high on oil, “The Drexel Building was the only place downtown where we were allowed to use the restroom,” Robert Fairchild Sr. recalled, according to the Tulsa Reparations Coalition. That was why 19-year-old Dick Rowland was there. His boss at the white shoeshine parlor on Main Street had arranged for black employees like Dick Rowland to use the “colored restroom” on the top floor of the Drexel. “I shined shoes with Dick Rowland,” Fairchild said. “He was an orphan and had quit school to take care of himself.”

On Monday, May 30, 1921, Rowland entered the Drexel Building and took a chance violating one of the unwritten rules of Jim Crow: He rode an elevator with a white girl — alone. Really, what choice did he have? Seventeen-year-old Sarah Page was the Drexel Building’s elevator operator. No one knows how the two greeted each other, or if they’d met before, except that minutes later, someone did hear a scream — a woman’s scream. Rowland ran.

Perhaps he should’ve waited for a crowd to get onto the lift with him, because in the aftermath Page claimed Rowland had assaulted her. Not true, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, was quick to clarify in a piece he wrote for the Nation magazine June 29, 1921: “It was found afterwards that the boy had stepped by accident on her foot.” To White, it was obvious — and so he wondered why it had never “occurred to the citizens of Tulsa that any sane person attempting criminally to assault a woman would have picked any place in the world rather than an open elevator in a public building with scores of people within calling distance.” But it was too late for cooler heads, or even facts, to prevail. “The story of the alleged assault was published Tuesday afternoon [a day after the incident] by the Tulsa Tribune, one of the two local newspapers,” White added, and its headline and text were vicious.