Historical events, be they great or small, do not exist in isolation, but are a product of the age during which they occurred. Often times, the reasons why a particular historical incident turned out the way it did can be readily located, while for others, the causes may be more difficult to locate. In both cases, one rule still holds true: that the events of the past cannot be separated from the era when they occurred.
The same applies to the Tulsa race riot as well. To understand the riot, one cannot begin with the first shot that was fired, nor even with the seemingly insignificant chain of events that led to the first signs of real trouble. Rather, we must begin with the spirit of the times. Only seeing the world as Tulsans did in 1921, and by grasping both their passions and their fears, can we comprehend not only how this great tragedy could occur, but why, in the end, that it did.
Of all the qualities that impressed out-of-town visitors about Tulsa in the days before the race riot, one of them was just how new and up-to-date everything seemed. From the modern office buildings that were rising up out of downtown, to the electric trolleys that rumbled back and forth along Main Street, to the rows of freshly painted houses that kept pushing the city limits further and further into the surrounding countryside, compared to other cities, Tulsa was nothing short of an overnight sensation. Indeed, Tulsa had grown so much and so fast -- in a now-you-don't-see-it, now-you-do kind of fashion -- that local boosters called it the Magic City.
The elixir which had fueled this remarkable growth was, of course, oil. The discovery of the nearby Glenn Pool -- reputed to be the "richest small oil field in the world" -- in 1905, and by the farsightedness of local leaders to build a bridge across the Arkansas River one year earlier, the sleepy rural crossroads known as Tulsa, Indian Territory. was suddenly catapulted into the urban age.
A birds eye view of Tulsa in 1918 (Courtesy Mark Adkinson).
By 1910, thanks to the forest of derricks which had risen up over the nearby oil fields, Tulsa had mushroomed into a raucous boomtown of more than 10,000. Astonishingly, its real growth was only beginning. As the word began to spread about Tulsa -- as a place where fortunes could be made, lives could be rebuilt, and a fresh start could be had -- people literally began to pour in from all over the country. Remarkably enough, by 1920, the population of greater Tulsa had skyrocketed to more than 100,000.
The city that these newcomers had built was, in many ways, equally remarkable. Anchored by the oil industry, and by its new role as the hub of the vast Mid-Continent Field, by 1921 Tulsa was home to not only the offices of more than four-hundred different oil and gas companies, but also to a score of oil field supply companies, tank manufacturers, pipe line companies, and refineries. While the city also enjoyed its role as a regional commercial center, serving nearby farms and ranches, for good reason it was already being referred to as the Oil Capital of the World.
Despite its youth, Tulsa also had acquired, by 1921, practically all of the trappings of older, more established American cities. Four different railroads -- the Frisco, the Santa Fe, the Katy, and the Midland Valley -- served the city, as did two separate inter-urban train lines. A new, all-purpose bridge spanned the Arkansas River near Eleventh Street, while street repair, owing to the ever-increasing numbers of automobiles, was practically constant. By 1919, Tulsa also could boast of having its own commercial airport.
A new city hall had been built in 1917, a new federal building in 1915, and a new county courthouse in 1912. New schools and parks also had been dedicated, and in 1914, the city erected a magnificent new auditorium, the 3,500 seat Convention Hall. Tulsa had grown so quickly, in fact, that even the old city cemetery had to be closed to new burials. In its place, the city had designated Oaklawn Cemetery, located at Eleventh Street and Peoria Avenue, as the new city cemetery.2
In 1921, Tulsa could lay claim to two daily newspapers the Tulsa World, a morning paper, and a newly renamed afternoon daily, the Tulsa Tribune plus a handful of weeklies. Radio had not arrived yet, but the city was connected to the larger world through four different telegraph companies. Telephone service also existed -- with some ten-thousand phones in use by 1918 -- although long-distance service was still in its infancy. While the city was linked both to nearby towns and to the state capital at Oklahoma City by a network of roads, rail travel was by far the fastest and most reliable mode of transportation in and out of town.
Seven different banks, some of which were capitalized at more than one-million dollars each, were located downtown, as were the offices of dozens of insurance agencies, investment advisers, accounting firms, stock and bond brokerages, real estate agencies, and loan companies. By 1921, more than two-hundred attorneys were practicing in Tulsa, as were more than one-hundred-fifty doctors and sixty dentists.
Frequently awash in money, the citizens of Tulsa had plenty of places to spend it from furniture stores, jewelry shops, and clothing stores to restaurants and cafes, motion picture theaters, billiard halls, and speakeasies. Those who could afford it could find just about anything in Tulsa, from the latest in fashion to the most modern home appliances, including vacuum cleaners, electric washing machines and Victrolas. For those whose luck had run dry, the city had its share of pawnshops and second-hand stores.3
Many Tulsans were especially proud of the city's residential neighborhoods -- and with good reason. From the workingman's castles that offered electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and spacious front porches, to the real castles that were being built by the oil barons, the city could boast of block after block of handsome, modern homes. While Tulsa was by no means without its dreary rooming houses and poverty stricken side streets, brand new neighborhoods with names like Maple Ridge, Sunset Park, Glen Acres, College Addition, Gurley Hill, and Irving Heights were built year after year. Some f the new homes were so palatial that they were regularly featured on picture postcards, chamber of commerce pamphlets, and other publications extolling the virtues of life in Tulsa.4
So too, not surprisingly, was downtown. With its modern office buildings, its graceful stone churches, and its busy nightlife, it is easy to see why Tulsans -- particularly those who worked, played, or worshiped downtown -- were so proud of the city's ever- growing skyline. What the pamphlets and the picture postcards did not reveal was that, despite its impressive new architecture and its increasingly urbane affectations, Tulsa was a deeply troubled town. As 1920 turned into 1921, the city would soon face a crossroads that, in the end, would change it forever.
However, chamber of commerce pamphlets and the picture postcards did not reveal everything. Tulsa was, in some ways, not one city but two. Practically in the shadow of downtown, there sat a community that was no less remarkable than Tulsa itself. Some whites disparagingly referred to it as "Little Africa", or worse, but it has become known in later years simply as Greenwood.5 In the early months of 1921, it was the home of nearly ten-thousand African American men, women, and children.
Many had ties to the region that stretched back for generations. Some were the descendants of African American slaves, who had accompanied the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws on the Trail of Tears. Others were the children and grandchildren of runaway slaves who had fled to the Indian nations in the years prior to and during the Civil War. A few elderly residents, some of whom were later interviewed by WPA workers during the 1930s, had been born into slavery.6
However, most of Tulsa's African American residents had come to Oklahoma, like their white neighbors, in the great boom years just before and after statehood. Some had come from Mississippi, some from Missouri, and others had journeyed all the way from Georgia. For many, Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former states of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope, a place worth sacrificing for, a place to start anew. And come they did, in wagons and on horseback, by train and on foot. While some of the new settlers came directly to Tulsa, many others had first lived in smaller communities -- many of which were all-black, or nearly so -- scattered throughout the state.