One of the worst race massacres in the nation’s history occurred in Tulsa over a 14-hour period May 31-June 1, 1921.
Dozens of people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were left homeless. Most of the segregated black district, known as Greenwood, was destroyed. Although the massacre itself lasted only a few hours, its repercussions are still felt today.
Greenwood remembers this tragedy through a detailed timeline surrounding the horrific event.
In 1879, the first official use of the name “Tulsa” appeared on a U.S. Post Office operating out of the Perryman Ranch headquarters near present-day 41st Street and Trenton Avenue. Modern Tulsa, though, began in 1882, when a small tent city sprang up around Atlantic and Pacific Railroad where it met the Arkansas River.
Tulsa, like the rest of Oklahoma, was racially segregated. Greenwood had its own schools, its own post office substation, its own police station and its own branch library. It also had its own thriving commercial district, which Booker T. Washington had called the “Black Wall Street of America.”
Though far from ideal, Tulsa was considered a better place than most for blacks. Besides the thriving business district, Greenwood attracted a relatively large number of doctors, lawyers and teachers. Its schools, though poorly funded, were exceptional. The Tulsa Star, a lively weekly newspaper edited by A.J. Smitherman, promoted independence and unity, and exhorted blacks to stand up for their rights.
With World War I came a great surge in demand for petroleum products. As much as 20 percent of the oil powering the Allied armies passed through Tulsa’s pipeline terminals, refineries and rail yards. Some $36 million in building permits were issued from 1917 to 1921, with such lasting landmarks as Central High School, the Exchange National Bank, First National Bank, Cosden, City Hall, Mayo, McFarlin, Sinclair, U.S. Post Office and Atlas Life buildings completed or started.
On Monday, May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland got onto an elevator on the third floor of the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main St. For some reason, he came into contact with Sarah Page, the white elevator operator, and Page cried out. Her cry was heard by a store clerk, who called police.
People who knew Rowland said the elevator did not stop level with the third-floor threshold, causing him to trip as he entered the car and fall against Page. Police later said that whatever happened, it was almost certainly not intentional. In any case, Page’s cry caught the attention of a Renberg’s employee, who apparently summoned police. Rowland fled, but Page and the clerk, if not actually naming the man she said attacked her, supplied enough of a description that authorities had no difficulty locating him.
At about 10 p.m., a former county investigator named E.S. MacQueen confronted a black man, sometimes identified as Johnny Cole, in front of the courthouse. As MacQueen and Cole wrestled over the latter’s gun, it discharged. As more than one person observed, “All hell broke loose.”
The crowd scattered. McCullough, who had been trying to talk to the crowd, ran for cover in a nearby hotel. Walter Daggs, an oil company manager who lived near the courthouse was shot and killed, apparently by a stray bullet. Sixteen-year-old Homer Cline was killed as he left the bank where he worked. A.B. Stick, gunned down outside the Hotel Tulsa, was reported certain to die but somehow survived.
Some sources say a black man was killed at the courthouse, others say not. The World said an unidentified black man was chased down in an alley and killed – then said no black fatalities had been reported. News of fatalities and injuries was often fragmentary, second-hand and contradictory. Cleo Shumate, a white tool dresser, was reported to have been shot about 8 p.m., well before the massacre began.
At dawn, a force of “citizens, police and members of the national guard,” numbering perhaps 1,500, moved into Greenwood from the south and west, under orders to take into protective custody unarmed blacks and to subdue any who resisted. To people in Greenwood, it looked more like an invading army.
“It then dawned upon us that the enemy had organized in the night and was invading our district, the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium,” wrote Mary Jones Parrish, a Greenwood resident who recorded her experience and those of some of her neighbors in a pamphlet called “Events of the Tulsa Disaster.”
Authorities, still operating on the premise of a “Negro uprising,” maintained they wanted to get control of Greenwood, not destroy it. They failed on both counts.
Most Greenwood residents surrendered peacefully or fled northward. Many were hidden by employers or other acquaintances and sometimes even total strangers. The few who stayed behind to fight were overwhelmed.
The National Guard reported engaging in several short skirmishes as it moved down from Standpipe Hill – the hill just west of the present Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus – and one longer battle in which about 50 blacks “fought like tigers.” The last organized resistance came from gunmen in the Mount Zion Baptist Church tower. When they refused to come out, the new church, valued at $80,000, was set on fire.
Mount Zion Baptist Church rebuilt, slowly and painfully, over a period of many years. For a while, it had to meet in the church basement, the only part of the building still usable. A freeway runs where the fairgrounds and Dr. A.C. Jackson’s house once stood and cuts the old Greenwood in two. The formerly bustling business district was reduced to a single block.
In 1997, the Oklahoma Legislature authorized a special commission to investigate the Tulsa Race Massacre. The commission’s report, issued in 2001, recommended reparations for living black survivors of the massacre. The recommendation was never acted upon.
In 2003, a federal lawsuit was filed against the state of Oklahoma, city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Police Department on behalf of about 200 survivors and descendants of blacks living in Greenwood at the time of the massacre. In 2004, the courts dismissed the suit, ruling the statute of limitations had run out.
The documentary premiered in Tulsa on Oct. 19, 2008, but would also be shown in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and several other cities to raise awareness and also to raise money for the survivors.
“They didn’t compensate anyone,” said survivor Julius Scott, 87, of Tulsa. “They compensated the Japanese, they compensated the Native Americans, but they didn’t compensate us.”