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

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One of the Mann Grocery stores of the Greenwood district (Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).


Most of the black-owned businesses in Tulsa were, of course, much more modest affairs. Scattered about the district were numerous small stores, from two-seater barber shops to family-run grocery stores, that helped to make pre-riot Greenwood, on a per capita basis, one of the most business-laden African American communities in the country. Grit, hard work, and determination were the main reasons for this success, as were the entrepreneurial skills that were imported to Tulsa from smaller communities across Oklahoma.

There were other reasons as well. Tulsa's booming economy was a major factor, as was the fact that, on the whole, Greenwood was not only the place where black Tulsans chose to shop, but was also practically the only place that they could. Hemmed in by the city's residential segregation ordinance, African Americans were generally barred from patronizing white-owned stores downtown -- or ran the risk of insult, or worse, if they tried. While many black Tulsans made a conscious decision to patronize African American merchants, the fact of the matter was that they had few others places to go.15

There was no dearth of African American consumers. Despite the growing fame of its commercial district, the vast majority of Greenwood's adults were neither businessmen nor businesswomen, but worked long hours, under trying conditions, for white employers. Largely barred from employment in both the oil industry and from most of Tulsa's manufacturing facilities, these men and women toiled at difficult, often dirty, and generally menial jobs -- the kinds that most whites considered beneath them--as janitors and ditch-diggers, dishwashers and maids, porters and day laborers, domestics and service workers. Unsung and largely forgotten, it was, nevertheless, their paychecks that built Greenwood, and their hard work that helped to build Tulsa.16

Equally forgotten perhaps, are the housing conditions that these men and women returned to at the end of the day. Although Greenwood contained some beautiful, modern homes -- particularly those of the doctors, business owners, and educators who lived in the fashionable 500 block of North Detroit Avenue along the shoulder of Standpipe Hill -- most African Americans in pre-riot Tulsa lived in far more meager circumstances. According to a study conducted by the American Association of Social Workers of living conditions in black Tulsa shortly before the riot, some "95 percent of the Negro residents in the black belt lived in poorly constructed frame houses, without conveniences, and on streets which were unpaved and on which the drainage was all surface".17

Not all black Tulsans, however, lived in Greenwood. As the city boomed and the newly-minted oil tycoons built mansions, purchased touring cars, and in general sought to mimic the lifestyles of their more established counterparts back East, there was a corresponding boom in the market for domestic help. Such positions were often open to African Americans as well as whites, and by early 1921, upward of two-hundred black Tulsans were residing in otherwise all-white neighborhoods, especially on the city's ever growing south side. Working as maids, cooks, butlers, and chauffeurs, they lived in servant's quarters that, more often than not, were attached to garages located at the rear of their employer's property.

For the men and women who lived and worked in these positions, a visit to Greenwood -- be it to attend Sunday services, or simply to visit with family and friends -- was often the highlight of the week. Whether they caught a picture show at the Dreamland or the Dixie, or merely window-shopped along Greenwood Avenue, they, too, could take both pride and ownership in what lay before them.18 Its poverty and lack of services notwithstanding, there was no question that Greenwood was an American success story.

Yet, despite its handsome business district and its brand-new brick church, and the rags-to-riches careers of some of its leading citizens, neither Greenwood's present, nor its future, was by any means secure. By the spring of 1921, trouble -- real trouble -- had been brewing in Tulsa for some time. When it came to issues of race -- not just in Tulsa or in Oklahoma, but all across American -- the problems weren't simply brewing. They had, in fact, already arrived.

In the long and often painful history of race relations in the United States, few periods were as turbulent as the years surrounding World War I, when the country exploded into an era of almost unprecedented racial strife. In the year 1919 alone, more than two dozen different race riots broke out in cities and towns across the nation. Unlike the racial disturbances of the 1960s and the 1990s, these riots were characterized by the specter of white mobs invading African American neighborhoods, where they attacked black men and women and, in some cases, set their homes and businesses on fire.19

These riots were set off in different ways. In Chicago, long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites over housing, recreation, and jobs were ignited one Sunday afternoon in late July 1919. A group of teenaged African American boys, hoping to find some relief from the rising temperatures, climbed aboard a homemade raft out on Lake Michigan. They ended up drifting opposite an all-white beach. The white beach-goers, meanwhile, who were already angered by an attempt by a group of black men and women to utilize that beach earlier that day, began hurling stones at the youths, killing one, and setting off nearly two weeks of racial terror. In the end, more than thirty-eight people -- both black and white -- were killed in Chicago, and scores and scores of homes were burned to the ground.20

A race riot in Washington, D.C., which broke out earlier that summer, followed a more typical pattern. After rumors had been circulating for weeks that rapists were on the loose, a white woman claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by two young African American men. Although she later admitted that her original story was false, the white press built up the incident, and racial tensions rose. Then, on July 19, the Washington Post published yet another story of an alleged assault -- "NEGROES ATTACK GIRL" ran the headline, "WHITE MEN VAINLY PURSUE". The next day, the nation's capital erupted into racial violence, as groups of white soldiers, sailors, and Marines began to "molest any black person in sight, hauling them off of streetcars and out of restaurants, chasing them up alleys, and beating them mercilessly on street corners". At least six people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. After whites threatened to set fire to African American neighborhoods, order was finally restored when the secretary of war called out some two-thousand federal troops to patrol the streets.21

Alleged sexual assaults played a role in two other race riots that broke out that year. In Knoxville, Tennessee, a white mob gathered outside the jail where a black male was being held for supposedly attacking a white female. Troops were called in to quell the disturbance, but the soldiers -- all of whom were white -- instead invaded the African American district and "shot it up." In Omaha, Nebraska, a similar situation rapidly developed after William Brown, who was black, was arrested for allegedly assaulting a young white girl. A mob of angry whites then stormed the courthouse where Brown was being held, shot him, hung him from a nearby lamppost, and then mutilated his body beyond recognition.22

The savage attack on William Brown brutally demonstrated just how passionately many white Americans felt about situations involving interracial sexual relations. While this subject -- which has a long and complicated history in the United States -- cannot be dealt with in a detailed fashion here, suffice it to say that during the post-World War I era, and for many years before and after, perhaps no crime was viewed as more egregious by many whites than the rape, or attempted rape, of a white woman by a black male.23

Riots, however, were not the only form of extralegal violence faced by African Americans during the World War I era. In 1919 alone, more than seventy-five blacks were lynched by white mobs -- including more than a dozen black soldiers, some of whom were murdered while still in uniform. Moreover, many of the so-called lynchings were growing ever more barbaric. During the first year following the war, eleven African Americans were burned -- alive -- at the stake by white mobs.24

Across the nation, blacks bitterly resisted these attacks, which were often made worse by the fact that in many instances, local police authorities were unable or unwilling to disperse the white mobs. As the violence continued, and the death count rose, more and more African American leaders came to the conclusion that nothing less than the very future of black men and women in America hung in the balance.


African Americans rallied solidly behind the nation's war effort during World War I, and thousands of black soldiers served in France. Upon their return to the U. S., however, many black vets found that the democracy that they had fought to protect overseas was often unavailable to them back home (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).


World War I had done much to clarify their thinking. In the name of democracy, African Americans had solidly supported the war effort. Black soldiers -- who were placed in segregated units -- had fought gallantly in France, winning the respect not only of Allied commanders, but also of their German foes. Having risked their lives and shed their blood in Europe, many black veterans felt even more strongly that not only was it time that democracy was practiced back home, but that it was a long time overdue.25

They returned home to a nation not only plagued by race riots and lynchings, but also by a poisonous racial climate that, in many ways, was only growing worse. The very same years that saw the emergence of the United States as a major world power also witnessed, back home, the rise of some aggressive and insidious new forms of white racism.

Moreover, the new racial climate was far from limited to the South. Less than fifty years after the Civil War, a number of northern cities began to bar African Americans from restaurants and other public establishments, while in the classrooms of Ivy League colleges and universities, a new scientific racism -- which held that whites from northern Europe were innately superior to all other human groups -- was all the rage. In Washington, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson proposed dozens of laws which mandated discriminatory treatment against African Americans. And across the country, racist white politicians constantly preyed upon racial fear and hostility.26 They soon had a new ally.

Re-established in Atlanta in 1915, the so-called second Ku Klux Klan had adopted both the name and familiar hooded robes of its nineteenth century predecessor, but in many ways was a brand new organization. Launched the same year that D.W. Griffith's anti-black blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, was released in movie theaters nationwide, Klan organizers fanned out across the country, establishing powerful state organizations not only in the South, but also in places like New Jersey, Indiana, and Oregon. While African Americans were often the recipients of the political intimidation, beatings, and other forms of violence meted out by klansmen, they were not the only targets of the new reign of terror. Klan members also regularly attacked Jews, Catholics, Japanese Americans, and immigrants from southern Europe, as well as suspected bootleggers, adulterers, and other alleged criminals.27

Although still a young state, many of these national trends were well-represented in Oklahoma. Like their counterparts elsewhere, black Oklahomans had rallied strongly behind the war effort, purchasing Liberty Bonds, holding patriotic rallies and taking part in home front conservation efforts. More than a few African American men from Oklahoma -- including a large number of Tulsans -- had enlisted in the army. Some, like legendary Booker T. Washington High School football coach Seymour Williams, had fought in France.28

But when Oklahoma's black World War I veterans finally returned to civilian life, they, too, came home to a state where, sadly enough, anti-black sentiments were alive and well. In 1911, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the infamous "Grandfather Clause", which effectively ended voting by African Americans statewide. While the law was ruled unconstitutional by a unanimous vote by the U.S. Supreme Court four years later, other methods were soon employed to keep black Oklahomans from the polls. Nor did the Jim Crow legislation stop there. In the end, the state legislature passed a number of segregation statutes, including one which made Oklahoma the first state in the Union to segregate its telephone booths.29


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