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

Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator

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Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator

A Negro delivery boy who gave his name to the public as "Diamond Dick" but who has been identified as Dick Rowland, was arrested on South Greenwood Avenue this morning by Officers Carmichael and Pack, charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl in the Drexel Building early yesterday.

He will be tried in municipal court this afternoon on a state charge.

The girl said she noticed the Negro a few minutes before the attempted assault looking up and down the hallway on the third floor of the Drexel Building as if to see if there was anyone in sight but thought nothing of it at the time.

A few minutes later he entered the elevator she claimed, and attacked her, scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes. Her screams brought a clerk from Renberg's store to her assistance and the Negro fled. He was captured and identified this morning both by the girl and the clerk, police say.

Tenants of the Drexel Building said the girl is an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through business college.89

Since Gill's thesis first appeared, additional copies of this front-page article have surfaced. A copy can be found in the Red Cross papers that are located in the collections of the Tulsa Historical Society. A second copy, apparently from the "State Edition" of the Tulsa Tribune, could once be found in the collections of the Oklahoma Historical Society, but has now evidently disappeared.90

This front page article was not, however, the only thing that the Tulsa Tribune seems to have printed about the Drexel Building incident in its May 31 edition. W.D. Williams, who later taught for years at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, had a vivid memory that the Tribune ran a story titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight".91 In fact, however, what Williams may be recalling is not another news article, but an editorial from the missing editorial page.

Other informants, both black and white, buttress Williams' account. Specifically, they recalled that the Tribune mentioned the possibility of a lynching -- something that is entirely absent from the "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator" story, and thus must have appeared elsewhere in the May 31 edition. Robert Fairchild later recalled that the Tribune "came out and told what happened. It said to the effect that 'there is likely to be a lynching in Tulsa tonight'". One of Mary Parrish's informants, whom she interviewed shortly after the riot, provided a similar account:

The Daily Tribune, a white newspaper that tries to gain its popularity by referring to the Negro settlement as "Little Africa", came out on the evening of Tuesday, May 31, with an article claiming that a Negro had experienced some trouble with a white elevator girl at the Drexel Building. It also said that a mob of whites was forming in order to lynch the Negro.

Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett, who led National Guard troops from Oklahoma City into Tulsa the next day, recalled that there had been a "fantastic write-up of the [Drexel Building] incident in a sensation-seeking newspaper."92

Given the fact that the editorial page from the May 31 Tulsa Tribune was also deliberately removed, and that a copy has not yet surfaced, it is not difficult to conclude that whatever else the paper had to say about the alleged incident, and what should be done in response to it, would have appeared in an editorial. "To Lynch Negro Tonight' certainly would have fit as the title to a Tribune editorial in those days. Moreover, given the seriousness of the charges against Dick Rowland, the aggressiveness of the paper's anti-crime campaign, and the fact that a Tribune editorial had mentioned the lynching of Roy Belton only four days earlier, it is highly likely that any editorial the paper would have run concerning the alleged Drexel Building incident would have surely mentioned lynching as a possible fate for Dick Rowland. Exactly what the newspaper would have said on the matter, however, can only be left to conjecture.

The Tuesday, May 31, 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune hit the streets at about 3:15 p.m.. And while the "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator" was far from being the most prominent story on the front page of the city edition, it was the story that garnered the most attention. Making his way through downtown toward his office in Greenwood shortly after the Tribune rolled off the presses, attorney B.C. Franklin later recalled that "as I walked leisurely along the sidewalk, I heard the sharp shrill voice of a newsboy, "A Negro assaults a white girl."93

Indeed, lynch talk came right on the heels of the Tribune's sensational reporting. Ross T. Warner, the white manager of the downtown offices of the Tulsa Machine and Tool Company, wrote that after the Tribune came out that afternoon, "the talk of lynching spread like a prairie fire." Similar memories were shared by Dr. Blaine Waynes, an African American physician and his wife Maude, who reported that after the Tribune was issued that day, that rumors of the "intended lynching of the accused Negro" spread so swiftly and ominously that even "the novice and stranger" could readily sense the fast-approaching chain of events that was about to unfold. By 4:00 p.m., the talk of lynching Dick Rowland had already grown so ubiquitous that Police and Fire Commissioner J.M. Adkison telephoned Sheriff Willard McCullough and alerted him to the ever-increasing talk on the street.94

Talk soon turned into action. As word of the alleged sexual assault in the Drexel Building spread, a crowd of whites began to gather on the street outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse, in whose jail Dick Rowland was being held. As people got off of work, and the news of the alleged attack reported in the Tribune became more widely dispersed across town, more and more white Tulsans, infuriated by what had supposedly taken place in the Drexel Building, began to gather outside the courthouse at Sixth and Boulder. By sunset -- which came at 7:34 p.m. that evening -- observers estimated that the crowd had grown into the hundreds. Not long afterwards, cries of "Let us have the nigger" could be heard echoing off of the walls of the massive stone courthouse.95


Tulsa County Court house where alleged murder Roy Belton was handed to an angry mob. This event helped black leaders decide to offer assistance to Tulsa officials when Dick Rowland was held in the same position (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).


Willard M. McCullough, who had recently been sworn in as the new sheriff of Tulsa County, however, had other ideas. Determined that there would be no repeat of the Roy Belton affair during his time in office, he quickly took steps to ensure the safety of Dick Rowland. Organizing his small force of deputies into a defensive ring around his now terrified prisoner, McCullough positioned six of his men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the courthouse. He also disabled the building's elevator, and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight.

McCullough also went outside, on the courthouse steps, and tried to talk the would-be lynch mob into going home, but was "hooted down" when he spoke. At approximatley 8:20 p.m., in a near replay of the Belton incident, three white men entered the courthouse and demanded that the sheriff turn over Rowland, but were angrily turned away. Even though his small force was vastly outnumbered by the ever-increasing mob out on the street, McCullough, unlike his predecessor, was determined to prevent another lynching.96

Word of the alleged incident at the Drexel Building, and of the white mob that was gathering outside of the courthouse, meanwhile, also had raced across Greenwood. After reading the stories in the afternoon's Tribune, Willie Williams, a popular junior at Booker T. Washington High School, had hurried over to his family's flagship business, the Dreamland Theater, at 127 N. Greenwood. Inside, he found a scene of tension and confusion. "We're not going to let this happen," declared a man who had leapt onto the theater's stage, "We're going to go downtown and stop this lynching. Close this place down."

Outside, similar discussions were taking place up and down Greenwood Avenue, as black Tulsans debated how to respond to the increasingly dire threat to Dick Rowland. B.C. Franklin later recalled two army veterans out in the street, urging the crowd gathered about them to take immediate action, while perhaps the most intense discussions were held in the offices of the Tulsa Star, the city's premier African American newspaper.

What went unspoken was the fact an African American had never been lynched in Tulsa. How to prevent one from taking place now was no easy matter. It was not simply the crime that Dick Rowland had been charged with -- although that, by itself, made the situation particularly dire. Rather, with the lynching of Roy Belton only nine months earlier, there was now no reason at all to place much confidence in the ability of the local authorities to protect Dick Rowland from the mob of whites that was gathering outside the courthouse. However, exactly how to respond was of utmost concern.

For A.J. Smitherman, the editor of the Tulsa Star, there was no question whatsoever that a demonstration of resolve was necessary. Black Tulsans needed to let the white mob know that they were determined to prevent this lynching from taking place, by force of arms if necessary. Others, including a number of war veterans as well as various local leaders, the most prominent being hotel owner J.B. Stradford, vigorously agreed. Moreover, when Dr. Bridgewater had led a group of armed men downtown to where three accused African American men were being held only two years later, a rumored lynching did not take place. "Come on boys", Smitherman is said to have urged his audience, "let's go downtown."

Not everyone agreed with the plan of action. O.W. Gurley, the owner of the Gurley Hotel, seems to have argued for a more cautious approach. So, too, apparently, did Barney Cleaver, a well-respected African American deputy sheriff, who had been trying to keep in telephone contact with Sheriff McCullough, and therefore have something of a handle on the actual conditions down at the courthouse.97

Despite some entreaties to the contrary, at about 9:00 p.m. a group of approximately twenty-five African American men decided to cast their lot not only with an endangered fellow member of the race, but also, literally, upon the side of justice. Leaving Greenwood by automobile, they drove down to the courthouse, where the white mob had gathered. Armed with rifles and shotguns, the men got out of their automobiles, and marched to the courthouse steps. Their purpose, they announced to the no doubt stunned authorities, was to offer their services toward the defense of the jail -- an offer that was immediately declined. Assured that Dick Rowland was safe, the men then returned to their automobiles, and drove back to Greenwood.98

The visit of the African American veterans had an electrifying effect, however, on the white mob, now estimated to be more than one thousand strong. Denied Rowland by Sheriff McCullough, it had been clear for some time that this was not to be an uncomplicated repetition of the Belton affair. The visit of the black veterans had not at all been foreseen. Shocked, and then outraged, some members of the mob began to go home to fetch their guns.99

Others, however, made a beeline for the National Guard Armory, at Sixth and Norfolk, where they intended to gain access to the rifles and ammunition stored inside. Major James A. Bell, an officer with the local National Guard units -- "B" Company, the Service Company, and the Sanitary Detachment, all of the Third Infantry Regiment of the Oklahoma National Guard -- had already been notified of the trouble brewing down at the courthouse, and had telephoned the local authorities in order to better understand the overall situation. I then went to the Armory and called up the Sheriff and asked if there was any indications of trouble down there", Bell later wrote, "The sheriff reported that there were some threats but did not believe it would amount to anything, that in any event he could protect his prisoner." Bell also phoned Chief Gustafson, who reported, "Things were a little threatening."100

Despite such vague answers, Major Bell took the initiative and began to quietly instruct local guardsmen -- who were scheduled to depart the next day for their annual summer encampment -- to report down at the armory in case they were needed that evening. Meanwhile, a guardsman informed Bell that a mob of white men was attempting to break into the armory. As Bell later reported:

Grabbing my pistol in one hand and my belt in the other I jumped out of the back door and running down the west side of the Armory building I saw several men apparently pulling at the window grating. Commanding these men to get off the lot and seeing this command obeyed I went to the front of the building near the southwest corner where I saw a mob of white men about three or four hundred strong. I asked them what they wanted. One of them replied, "Rifles and ammunition", I explained to them that they could not get anything here. Someone shouted, "We don't know about that, we guess we can." I told them that we only had sufficient arms and ammunition for our own men and that not one piece could go out of there without orders from the Governor, and in the name of the law demanded that they disperse at once. They continued to press forward in a threatening manner when with drawn pistol I again demanded that they disperse and explained that the men in the Armory were armed with rifles loaded with ball ammunition and that they would shoot promptly to prevent any unauthorized person entering there.

"By maintaining a firm stand," Bell added, ". . . this mob was dispersed."101

Major Bell's actions were both courageous and effective but as the night wore on, similar efforts would be in exceedingly short supply. With each passing minute, Tulsa was a city that was quickly spinning out of control.

By 9:30 p.m., the white mob outside the courthouse had swollen to nearly two- thousand persons. They blocked the sidewalks as well as the streets, and had spilled over onto the front lawns of nearby homes. There were women as well as men, youngsters as well as adults, curiosity seekers as well as would-be lynchers. A handful of local leaders, including the Reverend Charles W. Kerr of the First Presbyterian Church as well as a local judge had tried unsuccessfully to talk the crowd into going home.102

Police Chief John A. Gustafson later claimed that he tried to talk the lynch mob into dispersing. However, at no time that afternoon or evening did he order a substantial number of Tulsa policemen to appear, fully armed, at the courthouse. Gustafson, in his defense, would later claim that because there was a regular shift change that very day, that only thirty-two officers were available for duty at eight o'clock on the evening of May 31. As subsequent testimony -- as recorded in handwritten notes to a post-riot investigation -- later revealed, there were apparently only "5 policemen on duty between courthouse & Brady hotel notwithstanding lynching imminent." Moreover, by 10:00 p.m., when the drama at the courthouse was approaching its climax, Gustafson was no longer at the scene, but had returned to his office at police headquarters.103

In the city's African American neighborhoods, meanwhile, tension continued to mount over the increasingly ugly situation down at the courthouse. Alerted to the potentially dangerous conditions, both school and church groups broke up their evening activities early, while parents and grandparents tried to reassure themselves that the trouble would quickly blow over. Down in Deep Greenwood, a large crowd of black men and women still kept their vigil outside of the offices of the Tulsa Star, awaiting word on the latest developments downtown.104

Some of the men, however, decided that they could wait no longer. Hopping into cars, small groups of armed African American men began to make brief forays into downtown, their guns visible to passersby. In addition to reconnaissance, the primary intent of these trips appears to have been to send a clear message to white Tulsans that these men were determined to prevent, by force of arms if necessary, the lynching of Dick Rowland. Whether the whites who witnessed these excursions understood this message is, however, an open question. Many, apparently, thought that they were instead witnessing a "Negro uprising," a conclusion that others would soon share.

In the midst of all of this activity, rumors began to circulate, particularly with regards to what might or might not be happening down at the courthouse. Possibly spurred on by a false report that whites were storming the courthouse, moments after 10:00 p.m., a second contingent of armed African American men, perhaps seventy-five in number this time, decided to make a second visit to the Courthouse. Leaving Greenwood by automobile, they got out of their cars near Sixth and Main and marched, single file, to the courthouse steps. Again, they offered their services to the authorities to help protect Dick Rowland. Once again, their offer was refused.105

Then it happened. As the black men were leaving the courthouse for the second time, a white man approached a tall African American World War I veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver. "Nigger", the white man said, "What are you doing with that pistol?" "I'm going to use it if I need to," replied the black veteran. "No, you give it to me." Like hell I will." The white man tried to take the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out.106 America's worst race riot had begun.

While the first shot fired at the courthouse may have been unintentional, those that followed were not. Almost immediately, members of the white mob -- and possibly some law enforcement officers -- opened fire on the African American men, who returned volleys of their own. The initial gunplay lasted only a few seconds, but when it was over, an unknown number of people -- perhaps as many as a dozen -- both black and white, lay - dead or wounded.107

Outnumbered more than twenty-to-one, the black men began a retreating fight toward the African American district. With armed whites in close pursuit, heavy gunfire erupted again along Fourth Street, two blocks north of the courthouse.108

Dr. George H. Miller, a white physician who was working late that evening in his office at the Unity Building at 21 W. Fourth Street, rushed outside after hearing the gunshots, only to come upon a wounded black man, "shot and bleeding, writhing on the street," surrounded by a group of angry whites. As Dr. Miller later told an interviewer:

I went over to see if I could help him as a doctor, but the crowd was gathering around him and wouldn't even let the driver of the ambulance which just arrived to even pick him up. I saw it was an impossible situation to control, that I could be of no help. The crowd was getting more and more belligerent. The Negro had been shot so many times in his chest, and men from the onlookers were slashing him with knives.

Unable to help the dying man, Dr. Miller got into his car and drove home.109

A short while later, a second , deadlier, skirmish broke out at Second and Cincinnati. No longer directly involved with the fate of Dick Rowland, the beleaguered second contingent of African American men were now fighting for their own lives. Heavily outnumbered by the whites, and suffering some casualties along the way, most were apparently able, however, to make it safely across the Frisco railroad tracks, and into the more familiar environs of the African American community.110


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