Tulsa Race Riot Key Facts: Setting the Stage



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Tulsa Race Riot - Key Facts:

Setting the Stage:

  • October 29, 1917, the home of J. Edgar Pew, a wealthy oil man, was bombed. The Tulsa World used yellow journalism to blame the I.W.W. because their leadership was against the war (and portrayed as pro-German). A week after the bombing the police will raid the I.W.W. local’s offices and arrest 12 men, including the local secretary, placed under a high bond even though no incriminating evidence was found. The men were found guilty at their trial, fined $100, and remanded to jail. That night near midnight they were supposedly being moved to county jail when they were “hi-jacked” by the Knights of Liberty taken to a remote location west of town, stripped to the waist, tied to a tree, whipped until their backs were bloodied, then tarred and feathered. They were freed and told to leave town and not come back.



  • In 1920, Roy Belton, a white accused murderer, had been removed from the 3rd floor of the courthouse jail (supposedly the most secure part of the jail) and lynched by a mob. This made Tulsa blacks fearful that a black inmate would not be safe.


Race Riot Details

  • Greenwood was a thriving black neighborhood in Tulsa.

  • On May 30, 1921, a young boot-black named Dick Rowland went to the Drexel building. His purpose--to use the restrooms on the top floor.

  • The elevator operator, a white girl named Sarah Page, was about 17 yrs. old

  • Dick Rowland ran out of the elevator moments after entering; Sarah accused him of assault.

  • The Tulsa Tribune reportedly ran an inflammatory article with references to lynching a Negro for assaulting a white girl on May 31.

  • Justly alarmed, black Tulsans gathered on Greenwood Avenue to discuss their options. About 9:15pm false reports reached Greenwood that a white mob was storming the courthouse.

  • Shortly after, a group of 25-30 armed black Tulsans appeared at the courthouse and offered the sheriff their help.

  • The sheriff declined and the group left, apparently satisfied the police had things under control. The white crowd remained.

  • Around 10:30 pm another armed black group arrived at the courthouse amid the news that the white crowd numbered nearly 2000.

  • The sheriff encouraged the blacks to leave and they appeared to be doing so when a white man tried to disarm a tall black veteran. A shot was fired and the race war was on.

  • Additional gunfire was exchanged. Outnumbered the blacks began to retreat back toward Greenwood.

  • Some of the whites broke into McGee’s Hardware and other stores to steal guns and ammunition

  • The 1st fire was started near 1:00 am on June 1, 1921

  • Through the remainder of the night and early morning the white mob moved into the Greenwood District shooting, wounding, killing, and burning until the defenders were finally subdued.

  • Not all whites supported the rioters. Some of Greenwood’s nearest neighbors helped the black defenders.

  • During … rioting, over 800 people were admitted to local hospitals with injuries, an estimated 10,000 were left homeless, 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire, and $1.8 million (nearly $17 million after adjustment for inflation) in property damage.” (Wikipedia)

  • The number of dead is disputed. Official reports place the dead at 39; 26 black, 13 white. However a more accurate number may be closer to 300.

  • Oklahoma National Guard troops arrived from Oklahoma City about 9:00 am, and placed the city under martial law by about noon.

  • No one was held accountable for the riot. Sarah Page declined to file charges against Dick Rowland. He was released from jail



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