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”?
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.
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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.
“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.
It would be impossible, in this limited space, to recount every horror inflicted on black Tulsans through the long night — their businesses, their properties, their civic and cultural centers, their lives. For those seeking to know more, I strongly encourage you to read the findings of the government-sponsored 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission, released in a 188 page-report in February 2001. Other indispensible books include Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 and Alfred Brophy’s Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation.
There would be no reconciliation the night of May 31 in Tulsa. After the courthouse gunfight, a dozen black and white men were dead or wounded. Outnumbered (it wasn’t even close), the blacks who’d driven down from Greenwood retreated through the streets while scores of whites were deputized on the spot by the Tulsa Police Department, which now perceived the event as “a Negro uprising.” Even one white who was turned away, a bricklayer named Laurel Buck, was told, “Get a gun, and get busy and try to get a nigger,” according to Ellsworth.
A black Tulsan was gunned down running out of an alley near Younkman’s drugstore. Another was chased into a white movie theater, where, spotted in the projector’s glow, he was shot in the head. Still another was shot on West Fourth and knifed to the point where a white doctor, seeing him “writhing,” realized “it was an impossible situation to control, that I could be of no help,” reports Ellsworth.
In the Nation, Walter White tried to convey the terror that swept north to Greenwood into the next morning, June 1:
[T]he [white] mob, now numbering more than 10,000, made a mass attack on Little Africa. Machine-guns were brought into use; eight aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section. All that was lacking to make the scene a replica of modern ‘Christian’ warfare was poison gas. The colored men and women fought gamely in defense of their homes, but the odds were too great. According to the statements of onlookers, men in uniform, either home guards or ex-service men or both, carried cans of oil into Little Africa, and, after looting the homes, set fire to them.
One incident White recounted involved a black doctor, A.C. Jackson:
Dr. Jackson was worth $100,000; had been described by the Mayo brothers ‘the most able Negro surgeon in America’; was respected by white and colored people alike, and was in every sense a good citizen. A mob attacked Dr. Jackson’s home. He fought in defense of it, his wife and children and himself. An officer of the home guards who knew Dr. Jackson came up at that time and assured him that if he would surrender he would be protected. This Dr. Jackson did. The officer sent him under guard to Convention Hall, where colored people were being placed for protection. En route to the hall, disarmed, Dr. Jackson was shot and killed in cold blood. The officer who had assured Dr. Jackson of protection stated to me, ‘Dr. Jackson was an able, clean-cut man. He did only what any red-blooded man would have done under similar circumstances in defending his home. Dr. Jackson was murdered by white ruffians.’
Reading these passages, it’s impossible not to recall President Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin: It “could’ve been me” — it could have been us. Really, it could’ve been anyone during the Tulsa Race Riot, because at one point, according to Ellsworth, “[a]t least one white man in an automobile was killed by a group of whites, who had mistaken him to be black.” In the fog of a riot, as in war, no one is safe from being profiled.
It continued when the Tulsa police and National Guard troops arrived in Greenwood on the morning of June 1 and imposed martial law. Still convinced blacks were to blame for the riot, the troops focused their efforts on detaining Greenwood’s residents instead of shielding them from the terror. Estimates are that close to 4,000 to 6,000 Greenwood residents (almost half the population) were arrested and relocated to holding centers throughout the city, leaving their homes and businesses even more vulnerable to attack.
The “deadly pattern” was set, Scott Ellsworth writes:
First, the armed whites broke into the black homes and businesses, forcing the occupants out into the street, where they were led away at gunpoint to one of a growing number of internment centers. Anyone who resisted was shot. Moreover, African-American men in homes where firearms were discovered met the same fate. Next, the whites looted the homes and businesses, pocketing small items, and hauling away larger items either on foot or by car or truck. Finally, the white rioters then set the homes and other buildings on fire, using torches and oil-soaked rags. House by house, block by block, the wall of flame crept northward, engulfing the city’s black neighborhood.
The last shots in the Tulsa Race Riot were fired sometime after noon on Tuesday, June 1. In the aftermath, there were 26 African Americans and 10 whites reported dead, but many who’d lived through it found the official count dubiously low. Eighty years later, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission report determined that some 1,256 homes were burned in Greenwood, and while an exact count of those killed could not be established, even the best evidence pointed to between 75 and 300 killed, with a ratio of three or four blacks to every one white, but really it’s hard to be precise when so many of the black victims were buried without dignity — or even in a pine box. Then there are the families that fled. Aaron Myers, in his entry on Tulsa in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (a reference book I co-edited with Kwame Anthony Appiah), puts that number at more than 700 — 700 families displaced by what followed from an elevator ride gone bad.
So many more questions remained — most of all, why?
Visiting Tulsa in the immediate aftermath, Walter White pointed to three general causes: poor and working-class whites’ resentment of blacks prospering in Tulsa’s oil economy; blacks’ determination to “emancipat[e] themselves from the old system”; and “rotten political conditions,” where “in a county of approximately 100,000 population, six out of every one hundred citizens were under indictment for some sort of crime, with little likelihood of trial in any of them.”
Whites in Tulsa had their own narrative. At least one, Amy Comstock, in her piece for Survey in July 1921, agreed that general lawlessness was a problem in Tulsa, but she located it in Greenwood: “It was in the sordid and neglected ‘Niggertown’ that the crooks found their best hiding place … There, for months past, the bad ‘niggers,’ the silk-shirted parasites of society, had been collecting guns and munitions. Tulsa was living on a Vesuvius that was ready to vomit fire at any time.”
The truth was the United States during and after World War I was suffering an epidemic, not of influenza, but of race riots. Among the most notorious were the East St. Louis Riot of 1917 and the Red Summer Riots of 1919 in Chicago, which, over four days, claimed the lives of two dozen blacks with hundreds more injured. Scholars, including Cameron McWhirter, author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, have offered many theories about the causes of these race riots: conflicts over jobs, whites’ fury at the number of black families moving into their cities, blacks’ willingness to push back against the excesses of Jim Crow and the visible public presence of black World War I veterans in uniform.
Shortly after the Tulsa Riot, a grand jury was convened to examine the incident. Its findings were summed up in a headline published in the Tulsa World: “Grand Jury Blames Negroes for Inciting Race Rioting; Whites Clearly Exonerated,” acccording to Brophy. Outside the courthouse, blacks knew different. One, B.F. Johnson, later had this to say, according to the Tulsa Reparations Coalition: “There seemed [to] be on the part [of] many white people a sort of joy in having unrestrained priveleges [sic] in shooting the negroes … [W]hat these boys and men did was because they had hell in their harts [sic].”
Whatever was lurking in Sarah Page’s heart, in September 1921, the most consequential elevator operator in Tulsa history was a no-show against Dick Rowland in court — and so his case was tossed. In an amazing turn of events, Rowland had survived the riot in jail and now was a free man once again. To this day, his life — and death — remain a mystery, so, too, his face, as illustrated by an ongoing debate about whether “that’s him” in the 1921 Booker T. Washington school yearbook. From what I can tell, Dick Rowland was last known to have relocated to Kansas City, where, in my fantasy, he was among the first to see the young Charlie Parker play the saxophone.
Despite initial promises from Tulsa officials to rebuild Greenwood, blacks who had lost everything found no redress from the city or the courts. Of the more than 100 suits filed in the years after the riot, only two went to trial, Brophy reports, and both plaintiffs lost. Those who sought to rebuild found their progress slowed by a lack of funds and new zoning ordinances, while even those home- and business-owners who had insurance learned their policies contained “riot exclusion” clauses. Because of the slow pace of progress, a thousand survivors spent the winter of 1921-1922 living in tents. The hurricane that had displaced them was hate.
The Long Memory of Tulsa
In 1997, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was formed by a resolution in the Oklahoma State Legislature. It was tasked with researching the facts and making recommendations about possible reparations. Based on the commission’s findings, the legislature did apologize for the Tulsa Race Riot but stopped short of providing more than limited funds for the community. As a result, in 2003, several hundred victims and descendants of the Tulsa Riot (including100 year-old Otis Clark) filed a lawsuit against the state, the city and the police department. Charles Ogletree, my friend and colleague at the Harvard Law School, led the reparations team with what contributor Alfred Brophy described as “immense humanity,” a “rigorous legal mind” and a fierce determination to pursue “justice on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves” (pdf). As compelling as their case was, however, a U.S. district court judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss because the underlying facts fell outside the statute of limitations.
Ogletree’s team pressed on to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “The lawyers in Brown v. Board of Education had to fight a lot of battles and suffer a lot of losses before they could win,” he told the Harvard Crimson in March 2004. “We’re prepared to fight equally long.” Unfortunately, a few months later, justice in Alexander v. Oklahoma was denied again, despite the plaintiffs’ argument that the clock should have started with the Tulsa Race Riot Commission’s findings in 2001, not with the whitewashing that had occurred in the 1920s. The court disagreed, stating that even if vital information to the case had been concealed in the riot’s immediate aftermath, those seeking redress could have pursued it after federal civil rights legislation had been passed in the 1960s or when Scott Ellison wrote his history of the riot in 1982. As a result, those like Otis Clark who remembered living through the riot would not live to see their day in court.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.
One tangible result of the commission’s findings was the creation of John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, dedicated in 2010 in honor of the greatest African-American historian of his generation, a Tulsa native, a member of the commission and my dear late friend, whose father, Buck Colbert Franklin, had performed heroic service as a lawyer in the immediate aftermath of the riot. Designed to continue “the American tradition of erecting memorials based on tragic events by giving voice to the untold story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the important role African Americans played in building Oklahoma,” Reconciliation Park served as an important gathering place for the community on the evening of July 16, 2013, after it was announced that a Florida jury had found Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, not guilty.
President Obama had yet to deliver his remarks from the White House pressroom on the “set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” but already Tulsans were there at Reconciliation Park to remember the souls of the long — and recently — departed. In the words of one attendee, Geoff Woodson, “This is something we should do, anyway. We still have [Interstate] 244 that divides us. We still have people that don’t want to talk about the 1921 [Tulsa] Race Riot. We need to come together. It’s the only way healing can take place.”
My intention, in presenting the Colfax Massacre and the Tulsa Riot the past two weeks, has been to aid that healing from a place of truth. None of us but God will ever know what Trayvon Martin was thinking in his final moments of struggle, or what those who were marched out of Colfax to their slaughter said to their butchers or how Dick Rowland felt when Sarah Page screamed and he was alone, but we do have a “set of experiences and a history” of facts with which to contend, and while the work ahead will be hard, it is necessary if we are going to change the way people feel when someone who “fits a profile” steps on an elevator and isn’t accompanied by the Secret Service.
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.