The Tulsa Race Riot By Scott Ellsworth History does not take place in a vacuum

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Stone and brick walls were all that were left of most of the homes in the Greenwood section (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).


Gone, too, were hundreds of homes, and more than a half-dozen African American churches, all torched by the white invaders. Nearly ten-thousand Tulsans, practically the entire black community, was now homeless.

Across the tracks and across town, in Tulsa's white neighborhoods, no homes had been looted and no churches had been burned. From the outside, life looked much the same as it had been prior to the riot, but even here, beneath the surface, there was little normalcy.

In one way or another, white Tulsans had been stunned by what had happened in their city. More than a few whites, including those whose homes now featured stolen goods, had undeniably, taken great joy in what had occurred, particularly the destruction of Greenwood. Some whites had even applauded as black families had been led through the streets, at gunpoint, toward the various internment centers.201 Some would soon find a new outlet for their racial views in the hooded order that was about to sweep across the white community.

Other white Tulsans were horrified by what had taken place. Immediately following the riot, Clara Kimble, a white teacher at Central High School opened up her home to her black counterparts at Booker T. Washington High School, as did other white families.202 Others donated food, clothing, money, and other forms of assistance. For many whites, the riot was a horror never to be forgotten, a mark of shame upon the city that would endure forevermore.


Many African Americans were forced to spend the winter after the riot in tents (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).


However, for black Tulsans, the trials and tribulations had only just begun. Six days after the riot, on June 7, the Tulsa City Commission passed a fire ordinance designed to prevent the rebuilding of the African American commercial district where it had formerly stood, while the so-called Reconstruction Commission, an organization of white business and political leaders, had been fuming away offers of outside aid .203 In the end, black Tulsans did rebuild their community, and the fire ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Yet, the damage had been done, and the tone of the official local response to the disaster had already been set. Despite the Herculean efforts of the American Red Cross, thousands of black Tulsans were forced to spend the winter of 1921- 22 living in tents.204 Others simply left. They had had enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Iron bed frames were all that remained of many residences in North Tulsa (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).


For some, staying was not an option. It soon became clear, both in the grand jury that had been impaneled to look into the riot, and in various other legal actions that, by and large, languished in the courts, that African Americans would be blamed for causing the riot. Nowhere, perhaps, was this stated more forcefully than in the June 25, final report of the grand jury, which stated:

We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland then and now in the custody of the Sheriff of Tulsa Country for an alleged assault upon a young white woman. We have not been able to find any evidence either from white or colored citizens that any organized attempt was made or planned to take from the Sheriff's custody any prisoner; the crowd assembled about the courthouse being purely spectators and curiosity seekers resulting from rumors circulated about the city.

"There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms,," the report added, "The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair."205


Commemoration of the riot conducted by Ben Hooks (Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).


A few other court cases, largely involving claims against the city and various insurance companies, lingered on for a number of years afterward. In the end, while a handful of African Americans were charged with riot-related offenses, no white Tulsan was ever sent to prison for the murders and burnings of May 31, and June 1, 1921. In the 1920s Oklahoma courtrooms and halls of government, there would be no day of reckoning for either the perpetrators or the victims of the Tulsa race riot. Now, some seventy-nine years later, the aged riot survivors can only wonder if, indeed, that day will ever come.



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