A hysterical white girl related that a nineteen-year-old colored boy attempted to assault her in the public elevator of a public office building of a thriving town of 100,000 in open daylight.
Without pausing to find out whether or not the story was true, without bothering with the slight detail of investigating the character of the woman who made the outcry (as a matter of fact, she was of exceedingly doubtful reputation), a mob of 100-per-cent Americans set forth on a wild rampage that cost the lives of fifty white men; of between 150 and 200 colored men, women and children; the destruction by fire of $1,500,000 worth of property; the looting of many homes; and everlasting damage to the reputation of the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma. — Walter F. White, “The Eruption of Tulsa,” The Nation, June 29, 1921.
In 1921, the Greenwood district in Tulsa was a community of 15,000 Black people—a small city within a segregated city. There were working people, those who had fled the slave-like chains of sharecropping, veterans back from World War 1, as well as doctors and lawyers and business owners. Some called it the “Black Wall Street.” The white racists of Tulsa hated Greenwood, and the powers openly expressed a desire to drive the Black people out.
On May 31, 1921, a Black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland rode an elevator operated by a white woman. When the elevator reached the lobby, some people allegedly heard the woman scream and saw Rowland run from the scene. No charges were ever filed against Rowland. But he was arrested and taken to the county jail.
The next morning, the headline in the Tulsa Tribune screamed out: “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” That night, a white mob of some 2,000 descended on the courthouse, intent on lynching Rowland. But then a group of Black men, some in World War 1 military uniforms, marched from Greenwood, courageously confronting the lynch mob. Shots were exchanged, and the Black men, greatly outnumbered, retreated to Greenwood.
The lynch mob got official backing when the police deputized hundreds of the men. One “deputy” said after being sworn in: “Now you can go out and shoot any nigger you see and the law’ll be behind you.” At dawn, about 10,000 racists armed to the teeth, including with machine guns, invaded Greenwood. There was even strafing and bombing from aircraft.
The people of Greenwood tried to resist—but they could not hold back against the overwhelming force of the enemy. Gangs of white people, many of them Klansmen, went house to house, looting and killing. The fires set by the invaders would destroy about 1,200 houses and businesses, wiping Greenwood off the map.
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