This report about last week’s fatal shootings in Tulsa, Oklahoma and subsequent arrests included a reference to one of the most deadly race riots in American history. But many Americans have probably not heard of the wave of violence that left as many as three hundred of Tulsa’s African Americans dead and thousands more homeless. This episode falls into the category of “America’s Hidden History.” And in this case, the concealment of the facts was very deliberate.
In the early 1920s, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a boisterous postwar boom town, getting rich quick on oil that had recently been discovered there. It was a place where the postwar Ku Klux Klan recruiters found fertile grounds. The isolationist mood, or the America First movement also called “Nativism,” was also flourishing. In the popular mood of the country, America was white and Christian, and it was going to stay that way. In 1921, when a black shoe shiner was arrested for assaulting a white girl in an elevator, the publisher of the local paper—eager to win a local circulation war—published a front-page headline screaming, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
It was a familiar story in that era—a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Soon after the paper hit the streets on June 1, 1921, whites began to gather outside the
courthouse where the accused shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, was being held. (Rowland was eventually released when the woman did not press charges.) Blacks from the Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, some of them recently discharged war veterans, also began to descend on the courthouse to protect Rowland from being lynched. Shots were fired and soon the wholesale destruction of an entire community began in hellish force. A mob of more than 10,000 whites, fully backed by the white police force, went wild. It was called a riot but in modern parlance there is a better term—“ethnic cleansing.”
As historian Tim Madigan put it in his book on Tulsa, The Burning,
“It soon became evident that whites would settle for nothing less than scorched earth. They would not be satisfied to kill negroes, or to arrest them. They would also try to destroy every vestige of black prosperity.”
When it was over, there were many dead blacks, some of them dumped into mass graves, and their neighborhood was in cinders, with more than 1,200 homes burned. Insurance companies later refused to pay fire claims, invoking a riot exemption.
To add to the crime, the story disappeared from local history. Even local newspaper files were eventually cleaned out to remove evidence of the incident. For decades, the riot and killings were hushed up, kept alive only by oral traditions of a few survivors. Only after nearly eighty years of silence did Tulsa and the Oklahoma legislature come to grips with the past. Historians looking into the city’s deadly riot believe that close to 300 people died during the violence. In 2000, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, a panel investigating the incident, recommended reparations be paid to the survivors of what is still considered one of the nation’s most deadly race riots.
A report on the riots and the Tulsa Race Riot Commission report on reparations can be found at the Oklahoma Historical Society.
This post was adapted from Don’t Know Much About® History