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



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W. H. Twine and A. J. Smitherman at Twine's law office in Muskogee (Courtesy Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries).

 

Nor was Smitherman alone in his sentiments. If there was one issue which united African Americans all across the nation, it was opposition to mob law. Moreover, that opposition was particularly strong in Oklahoma, as many blacks had immigrated to the state in no small measure to escape the mob mentality that was far from uncommon in some other parts of the country.



However, both the lynching of Roy Belton in Tulsa, and that of a young African American in Oklahoma City that same week, brought to the surface some dire practical issues. In a situation where a black prisoner was being threatened by a white mob, what should African Americans do? Smitherman was quite clear on the answer.

As early as 1916, it has been reported, "a group of armed blacks prevented the lynching of one of their number in Muskogee."62 In a similar situation, which happened only five months prior to the Tulsa riot, Smitherman had strongly praised a group of black men who had first armed themselves, and then set out in pursuit of a white mob that was en route to lynch an African American prisoner at Chandler. "As to the Colored men of Shawnee," Smitherman wrote, . . . they are the heroes of the story. If one set of men arm themselves and chase across the country to violate the law, certainly another set who arm themselves to uphold the supremacy of the law and prevent crime, must stand out prominently as the best citizens. Therefore, the action of the Colored men in this case is to be commended. We need more citizens like them in every community and of both races.63

Five months later, when a group of African Americans in the state capital had not gathered until after a black youth had been lynched by a white mob, Smitherman was unsparing in his criticism. "It is quite evident," he wrote, "that the proper time to afford protection to any prisoner is BEFORE and during the time he is being lynched."64

It also was clear that there were black Tulsans who were prepared to do just that. A little more than a year before Roy Belton was lynched, an incident occurred in Tulsa that -- while it received little press coverage at the time --- gave a clear indication as to what actions some black Tulsans would take if they feared that an African American was in danger of becoming the victim of mob violence.

The incident began on the evening of March 17, 1919, when a white ironworker was shot by two armed stick-up men on the outskirts of downtown. The ironworker died of his wounds some twelve hours later, but before he succumbed, he told Tulsa police detectives that his assailants were black, and he provided the officers with a rather sketchy description of each man. "Violence is feared," wrote the Tulsa Democrat of the shooting, "if the guilty pair is taken in charge."65

Some forty-eight hours later, Tulsa police officers arrested not two, but three, African American men in connection with the shooting. Despite proclamations by the police that the accused men would be protected, concerns for their safety quickly spread across the black community, and rumors began to circulate that the trio might be in danger of being lynched. The rumors reached a crescendo the day after the ironworker's funeral, when a delegation of African American men -- some of them armed -led by Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, a well-known physician, paid an evening visit to the city jail, where the accused men were being held.66

"We understand there is to be some trouble here," Dr. Bridgewater reportedly informed a police captain.

The police officer was adamant that nothing of the kind was going to occur. "There is not going to be any trouble here," the captain allegedly replied, "and the best thing you fellows can do is beat it back and drop the firearms." Despite his confidence, however, the officer allowed a small contingent to visit with the prisoners in their cells. Apparently satisfied with the situation, Dr. Bridgewater and the other African American men returned to Greenwood. There was no lynching.67

Whatever relief black Tulsans may have felt following this affair did not last long. With the lynching of Roy Belton some seventeen months later, the door to mob violence in Tulsa was suddenly pushed wide open. If a white could by lynched in Tulsa, why would a black not suffer the same fate? Moreover, as editor Smitherman observed, the Belton lynching had also clarified another matter -- one that would prove to be of vital importance on May 3l, 1921. "The lynching of Roy Belton," Smitherman wrote in the Tulsa Star, "explodes the theory that a prisoner is safe on the top of the Court House from mob violence."68

The death of Roy Belton shattered any confidence that black Tulsans may have had in the ability, or the willingness, of local law enforcement to prevent a lynching from taking place in Tulsa. It also had done something else. For more than a few black Tulsans, the bottom line on the matter had become clearer than ever. Namely, the only ones who might prevent the threatened lynching of an African American prisoner in Tulsa would be black Tulsans themselves.

Despite the clarity of these conclusions, it is important to note that white Tulsans were utterly unaware of what their black neighbors were thinking. Although A.J. Smitherman's editorials regarding lynching were both direct and plainspoken, white Tulsans did not read the Tulsa Star, and Smitherman's opinions were not reported in the white press. As dramatic and as significant as the visit of Dr. Bridgewater and the others was to the city jail during the 1919 incident, it received little coverage in the city's white newspapers at the time, and was no doubt quickly forgotten.

Rather, when it came to the matter of lynching, black Tulsa and white Tulsa were like two separate galaxies, with one quite unaware of what the other was thinking. However, as the year 1921 began to unfold, events would soon bring them crashing into one another.

In 1921, most Tulsans received their news through either one or both of the city's two daily newspapers -- the Tulsa World, which was the morning paper, or the Tulsa Tribune, which came out in the afternoon. While the World went all the way back to 1905, the Tribune was only two years old. It was the creation of Richard Lloyd Jones, a Wisconsin born newspaperman who had also worked as a magazine editor in New York. Hoping to challenge the more established -- and, in many ways, more restrained -- Tulsa World, Jones had fashioned the Tribune as a lively rival, unafraid to stir up an occasional hornet's nest.69 As it turned out, Tulsa's vexing crime problem proved to be an ideal local arena in which the Tribune could hope to make a name for itself

Sensing just how frustrated many Tulsans were with the local crime conditions, the Tribune launched a vigorous anti-crime campaign that ran throughout the early months of 1921. In addition to giving broad coverage to both local criminal activity, and to sensational murders from across the state, the Tribune also published a series of hard-hitting editorials. Using titles such as "Catch the Crooks", "Go After Them", "Promoters of Crime", "To Make Every Day Safe", "The City Failure", and 'Make Tulsa Decent", the editorials called for nothing less than an aggressive citywide clean-up campaign.70

Not surprisingly, the Tribune's campaign ruffled the feathers of some local law enforcement figures along the way, including the county attorney, the police commissioner, and several members of the Tulsa Police Department. While it is uncertain as to how much of the Tribune's campaign had been motivated by partisan political concerns, both the paper's news stories and its editorials caused considerable commotion. Allegations of police corruption -- particularly regarding automobile theft -- received a great amount of attention, and ultimately led to formal investigations of local law enforcement by both the State of Oklahoma and the City of Tulsa.71

By mid-May 1921, the Tribune's anti-crime and anti-corruption campaign seemed to be on the verge of reaching some sort of climax. Branding the city government's investigation of the police department as a "whitewash", the newspaper kept hammering away at the alleged inability of, or refusal by, local law enforcement to tackle Tulsa's crime problem. "The people of Tulsa are becoming awake to conditions that are no longer tolerable," argued a May 14 editorial. Two days later, in an editorial titled "Better Get Busy", the Tribune warned that if the mayor and the city commission did not fulfill their campaign pledges to "clean up the city", and "do it quick", that "an awakened community conscience will do it for them."72

Just what that might entail was also becoming clearer and clearer. The very same months during which the Tribune waged its anti-crime campaign, the newspaper also gave prominent attention to news stories involving vigilante activities from across the Southwest. Front-page coverage was given to lynching threats made against African Americans in Okmulgee in March, Oktaha in April, and Hugo in May. The horsewhipping of an alleged child molester in Dallas by a group of masked men believed to be members of the Ku Klux Klan that also took place in May, was also given front-page treatment. Not surprisingly, the specter of Tulsa's own recent lynching also re-emerged in the pages of the Tribune in a May 26 editorial. While asserting that "Lawlessness to fight lawlessness is never justified", the editorial went on to claim "Tulsa enjoyed a brief respite following the lynching of Roy Belton." Moreover, the Tribune added that Belton's guilt had been "practically established . . .."73

A revived discussion of the pros and cons of vigilante activity was not the only new element to be added to the ongoing conversation about crime that was taking place in Tulsa in late May. Despite latter claims to the contrary, for much of early 1921, race had not been much of a factor in the Tribune's vigorous anti-crime and anti-corruption campaign. Crimes in Greenwood had not been given undue coverage, nor had black Tulsans been singled out for providing the city with a disproportionate share of the city's criminal element.74

But beginning on May 21, 1921, only ten days before the riot, all that was to change. In a lengthy, front-page article concerning the ongoing investigation of the police department, not only did racial issues suddenly come to the foreground, but more importantly, they did so in a manner that featured the highly explosive subject of relations between black men and white women. Commenting on the city's rampant prostitution industry, a former judge flatly told the investigators that black men were at the root of the problem. "We've got to get to the hotels," he said, "We've got to kick out the Negro pimps if we want to stop this vice."

Echoing these sentiments was the testimony of Reverend Harold G. Cooke, the white pastor of Centenary Methodist Church. Accompanied by a private detective, Cooke had led a small group of white men on an undercover tour of the city's illicit nightlife -- and had been, it was reported, horrified at what he had discovered. Not only was liquor available at every place that they visited, but at hotels and rooming houses across the city. It was said, African American porters rather routinely offered to provide the men with the services of white prostitutes. Just beyond the city limits, the Tribune reported, the group visited a roadhouse where the color lines seemed to have disappeared entirely. "We found whites and Negroes singing and dancing together," one member of Reverend Cooke's party testified, "Young, white girls were dancing while Negroes played the piano."75

Considering Oklahoma's social, political, and cultural climate during the 1920s, the effect of this testimony should not be taken lightly. Many white Tulsans no doubt found Reverend Cooke's revelations to be both shocking and distasteful. Perhaps even more importantly, they now had a convenient new target for their growing anger over local crime conditions. African American men who, at least as far as they were concerned, had far too much contact with white women.

As it turned out however, Tulsans did not have much time to digest the new revelations. Only five days later, on May 26, 1921, the city was rocked by the news of a spectacular jailbreak at the county courthouse. Sawing their way through their cell doors and through the one-inch steel bars that were set in an outer window, and then lowering themselves four stories to the ground on a rope that they had made by tying their blankets together, no less than twelve prisoners had escaped from the top floor jail. Remarkably, however, that was not the last jailbreak that month. Four days later, early on the morning of Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, six more prisoners -- sawing through the same hastily repaired cell doors and window bars also escaped from the courthouse jail.77

Although some of the escapees were quickly apprehended, the jailbreaks were one more ingredient in what had become, by the end of May 1921, an unstable and potentially volatile local atmosphere. For more than a few white Tulsans, local conditions regarding crime and punishment were fast becoming intolerable. Frustrated over the amount of lawbreaking in the city, and by the apparent inability of the police to do anything about it, they had helped turn the city into a ticking time bomb, where anger and frustration sat just beneath the surface, waiting to explode. Moreover, during the last ten days of the month, they also had been presented with, however fleetingly, a compelling new target for their fury, namely, black men who, to their eyes, had an undue familiarity with white women.

As Tulsa prepared to celebrate Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, something else was in the air. As notions of taking the law into their own hands began to once again circulate among some white Tulsans, across the tracks in Greenwood, there were black Tulsans who were more determined than ever that in their city, no African American would fall victim to mob violence. World War veterans and newspaper editors, common laborers and businessmen, they were just as prepared as they had been two years earlier to make certain that no black person was ever lynched in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Precisely at this moment, in this highly charged atmosphere, that two previously unheralded Tulsans, named Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, walked out of the shadows, and onto the stage of history.

Although they played a key role in the events which directly led to Tulsa's race riot, very little is known for certain about either Dick Rowland or Sarah Page. Rumors, theories, and unsubstantiated claims have been plentiful throughout the years, but hard evidence has been much more difficult to come by.

Dick Rowland, who was black, was said to have been nineteen-years-old at the time of the riot. At the time of his birth, he was given the name Jimmie Jones. While it is not known where he was born, by 1908 he and his two sisters had evidently been orphaned, and were living "on the streets of Vinita, sleeping wherever they could, and begging for food." An African American woman named Damie Ford, who ran a tiny one-room-grocery store, took pity on young Jimmie and took him in. "That's how I became Jimmie's 'Mama,"' she told an interviewer decades afterwards.

Approximately one year later, Damie and her adopted son moved to Tulsa, where they were reunited with Damie's family, the Rowlands. Eventually, little Jimmie took Rowland as his own last name, and selected his favorite first name, Dick, as his own. Growing up in Tulsa, Dick attended the city's separate all-black schools, including Booker T. Washington High School, where he played football.78

Dick Rowland dropped out of high school to take a job shining shoes in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor located downtown on Main Street. Shoe shines usually cost a dime in those days, but the shoe shiners -- or bootblacks, as they were sometimes called -- were often tipped a nickel for each shine, and sometimes considerably more. Over the course of a busy working day, a shoe shiner could pocket a fair amount of money -- especially if he was a teenaged African American youth with few other job prospects.

There were no toilet facilities, however, for blacks at the shine parlor where Dick Rowland worked. The owner had arranged for his African American employees to be able to use a "Colored" restroom that was located, nearby, in the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street. In order to gain access to the washroom, located on the top floor, Rowland and the other shoe shiners would ride in the building's sole elevator. Elevators were not automatic, requiring an operator. A job that was usually reserved for women.79

In late May 1921, the elevator operator at the Drexel Building was a seventeen-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. Thought to have come to Tulsa from Missouri, she apparently lived in a rented room on North Boston Avenue. It also has been reported that Page was attending a local business school, a good career move at the time. Although, Tulsa was still riding upon its construction boom, some building owners were evidently hiring African American women to replace their white elevator operators.80

Whether - and to what extent -- Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly rode in Page's elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers -- a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility. Damie Ford later suggested that this might have been the case, as did Samuel M. Jackson, who operated a funeral parlor in Greenwood at the time of the riot. "I'm going to tell you the truth," Jackson told riot historian Ruth Avery a half century later, "He could have been going with the girl. You go through life and you find that somebody likes you. That's all there is to it." However, Robert Fairchild, who shined shoes with Rowland, disagreed. "At that time," Fairchild later recalled, "the Negro had so much fear that he didn't bother with integrated relationship[s]."81

Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 30, 1921 -- although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most -- but not all -- stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day. A large Memorial Day parade passed along Main Street that morning, and perhaps Sarah Page had been required to work in order to transport Drexel Building employees and their families to choice parade viewing spots on the building's upper floors. As for Dick Rowland, perhaps the shine parlor he worked at may have been open, if nothing else, to draw in some of the parade traffic. One post-riot account suggests another alternative, namely, that Rowland was making deliveries of shined shoes that day. What is certain, however, is that at some point on Monday, May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland entered the elevator operated by Sarah Page that was situated at the rear of the Drexel Building.82

What happened next is anyone's guess. After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. It also has been suggested that Rowland and Page had a lover's quarrel. However, it simply is unclear what happened. Yet, in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape.83

A clerk from Renberg's, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel Building, however, reached the opposite conclusion. Hearing what he thought was a woman's scream, and apparently seeing Dick Rowland hurriedly flee the building, the clerk rushed to the elevator, where he found a distraught Sarah Page. Evidently deciding that the young elevator operator had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault, the clerk then summoned the police.

While it appears that the clerk stuck to his interpretation that there had been an attempted rape -- and of a particularly incendiary kind -- no record exists as to what Sarah Page actually told the police when they initially interviewed her. Whatever she said at the time, however, it does not appear that the police officers who interviewed her necessarily reached the same potentially explosive conclusion as that made by the Renberg's clerk, namely, that a black male had attempted to rape a white female in a downtown office building. Rather than issue any sort of an all-points bulletin for the alleged assailant, it appears that the police launched a rather low-key investigation into the affair.84

Whatever had or had not happened in the Drexel Building elevator, Dick Rowland had become a justly terrified young man. For of all the crimes that African American men would be accused of in early twentieth century America, none seemed to bring a white lynch mob together faster than an accusation of the rape, or attempted rape, of a white woman. Frightened and agitated, Rowland hastened to his adopted mother's home, where he stayed inside with blinds drawn.85

The next morning, Tuesday, May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland was arrested on Greenwood Avenue by two Tulsa police officers, Detective Henry Carmichael, who was white, and by Patrolman Henry C. Pack, who was one of a handful of African Americans on the city's approximately seventy-five man police force. Rowland was booked at police headquarters, and then taken to the jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Informed that her adopted son was in custody, Damie Ford seems to have lost no time in hiring a prominent white attorney to defend him.86

Word of both the alleged incident in the Drexel Building, and of the subsequent arrest of the alleged perpetrator, quickly spread throughout the city's legal circles. Black attorney B.C. Franklin was sitting in the courtroom during a recess in a trial when he overheard some other lawyers discussing what he later concluded was the alleged rape attempt. "I don't believe a damn word of it," one of the men said, "Why I know that boy and have known him a good while. That's not in him."87

Not surprisingly, word of both the alleged incident and of the arrest of Dick Rowland had also made it to the offices of Tulsa's two daily newspapers, the Tribune and the World. Due to the timing of the events, the Tulsa Tribune would have the first crack at the story. Not only had the alleged Drexel Building incident gone without notice in that morning's Tulsa World -- perhaps, one is tempted to surmise, because word of the alleged incident had not yet made it to the paper's news desk, which may have been short-staffed due to the holiday -- but Rowland's arrest had apparently occurred after that morning's edition had already been printed.88 Being an afternoon paper, however, the Tulsa Tribune had enough time to break the news in its regular afternoon editions -- which is exactly what it did.

Precisely what the Tulsa Tribune printed in its May 31, 1921 editions about the Drexel Building incident is still a matter of some conjecture. The original bound volumes of the now defunct newspaper apparently no longer exist in their entirety. A microfilm version is, however, available, but before the actual microfilming was done some years later, someone had deliberately torn out of the May 31, 1921 city edition both a front-page article and, in addition, nearly all of the editorial page.

We have known what the front-page story, titled "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator", said for some time. In his 1946 master's thesis on the riot, Loren Gill printed the entire text of the missing -- and what he believed was no less than "inflammatory" -- story, which read:






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