“Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” the page-one story ran. In it, the Tribune claimed Rowland had gone by the nickname “Diamond Dick” and that he’d “attacked [Page], scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes.” More menacing, the paper let the people of Tulsa know exactly where Dick Rowland was after being “charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl … He will be tried in municipal court this afternoon on a state charge.”
No wonder one black Tulsan remembered the headline differently: “To Lynch a Negro Tonight,” as an op-ed in the Tulsa Tribune was titled. Accusations about black men raping white women had long been used to justify lynching, an idea called the “old thread-bare lie” by activist Ida B. Well-Barnett in her 1892 book, Southern Horror: Lynch Law in all Its Phases. The same lie received a higher profile in 1915 with the release of D.W. Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation, which featured white actors in blackface attacking white women. On Memorial Day 1921, Dick Rowland had stepped into more than just an elevator, and more than one scream would follow.
The First Shot
Blacks made up 12 percent of Tulsa’s population. Most resided north of the city in Greenwood, sometimes called the “Negro Wall Street of America” because of the number of prominent citizens (including at least three millionaires, according to Walter White) who had seen their fortunes rise as a result of the oil boom. Unwelcome downtown, except when working, Greenwood blacks had established their own newspapers, theaters, cafes, stores and professional offices.
Those in Tulsa who paid attention to the news were well-aware that a white man had been lynched out of the county jail a year earlier, the same year that in Oklahoma City, young African-American male Claude Chandler had been hanged from a tree after being dragged out of jail on charges of killing a police officer. Greenwood blacks feared Rowland would be next, and so they gathered at the black-owned Tulsa Star to figure out what to do.
Twenty-five or so black men, including veterans of World War I (which had just ended three years before), took the ride to Tulsa’s downtown, where, encountering a growing white mob, they formed a line and marched, with arms, up the courthouse steps to offer the white police force help in protecting Rowland. The police refused their offer, just as they had whites’ demands to release Rowland to their brand of ask-no-questions justice. On the roof, police riflemen stood at the ready. Below, “cries of ‘Let us have the nigger’ could be heard echoing off the walls” (quoted from Scott Ellsworth’s, “The Tulsa Race Riot,” included in Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921) (pdf).
Even though the black visitors returned to their cars, whites in the mob were enraged by their audacity and rushed home to get their guns. Others made an unsuccessful attempt to supply themselves with ammunition from the National Guard Armory. By 9:30 p.m., there were 2,000 whites crowding the courthouse, from “curiosity seekers” to “would-be lynchers,” according to Ellsworth.
Back in Greenwood, black Tulsans canceled regular activities, while another round of men, this time about 75, decided it was time to head down to the courthouse. With their guns at the ready, they wanted to make one thing clear: There was not going to be any lynching in Tulsa that night.
“Then it happened,” Scott Ellsworth writes. “As the black men were leaving the courthouse for the second time, a white man approached a tall African-American World War I veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver. ‘Nigger,’ the white man said, ‘What are you doing with that pistol?’ ‘I’m going to use it if I need to,’ replied the black veteran. ‘No, you give it to me.’ ‘Like hell I will.’ The white man tried to take the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out. America’s worst race riot had begun.” Dick Rowland was now almost incidental — in fact, he was about to be in one of the safest places in the city: jail.