A young African American man stepped onto an elevator on May 31, 1921. Dick Rowland, likely on a break from his shoe shine job, had planned to use the restroom on the fourth floor of the Drexel Building. He and his colleagues had restricted access to public facilities; this was the one they were permitted to use . He probably took that trip twice a day every day, but on this Monday, what happened next lit the city of Tulsa on fire.
The white elevator operator, Sarah Page, screamed. A clerk nearby rushed to her aid while Rowland ran from the building. Reports vary about the specifics but versions of the story spread through Tulsa. A white woman was attacked, people said, by a black man. Others speculated that the two could have been in a relationship. Or perhaps Rowland tripped, grasping Page as he fell.
By close of business the next day, white Tulsa demanded justice by mobbing the courthouse, where Rowland was being jailed. And black Tulsa was interested in keeping Rowland safe. In fact, until that night, African Americans had built a city within a city. It was called Greenwood, or Black Wall Street. Whites referred to derogatorily as Little Africa. Greenwood was a commercial and residential district just a sneeze north and east of downtown. Doctors and lawyers and business owners operated here. African American families built hotels, car dealerships, theaters. They had everything they needed within the confines of Greenwood. Greenwood wasn’t only a product of convenience. African Americans, remember, were not permitted to shop, or worship, or build where whites shopped, worshipped, built.
I’ll spare you the details. But what happened in Tulsa was happening in cities all over the country after World War I. A night of back and forths between the thousands strong white crowd and the hundreds strong African American community, whites lit the fuse. A white man tried to take the gun of a black man, who had offered to keep Rowland the prisoner safe.
The riot began.
Armed white men and women, even some children, surrounded Greenwood. At first, they targeted the commercial district. By four a.m. on Wednesday, the business section of Greenwood was in flames. Groups of white men formed battalions around the city and plotted to overtake key Greenwood strongholds. When the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which had been dedicated just a month prior, was surrendered, it was nearly over for Greenwood. At this point, white citizens pulled black residents from their homes, then looted and burned the houses. Eyewitnesses claim airplanes strafed Greenwood with bullets.
When the fires finally died, after eighteen hours of rioting, Greenwood was gone. Thirty-five city blocks were ruined. Millions of dollars in damage had been done. The earliest reports claimed sixty nine “negroes” were killed, but eyewitnesses and Red Cross reports indicate that over 300 men, women and children were killed. There were minimal white casualties.
But that was just the start of their victimization.
After the riot, city leaders moved to rezone the area formerly known as Greenwood. Their changes made in financially impossible for most African Americans to rebuild. Furthermore, insurance companies refused to pay out on policies for black businesses and families. Their reasoning was that the blacks had started the riot. Mt. Zion was rebuilt by congregation money. They received exactly zero insurance money. Only one insurance payout was made: for ammunition.
While Greenwood residents waited to find out about their insurance claims, they built a tent city amid the rubble. Summers are brutal in Oklahoma, and the winters aren’t much better. The winds don’t so much whip down the plains as charge like so many sharpened blades, right into our bones. These people lived in tents with no water, no heat, no protection.
Eventually, Greenwood dried up. People moved on. White leaders took over that portion of the city. Then, they cut a swath of land to build a highway. The road was a very fine geographical boundary of what had been a symbolic separation. If you stand on the right hill these days, Stand Pipe Hill, where young boys ran to watch Greenwood burning, you can see the concrete ribbon that physically separates white from black.
It’s as if the city never recovered.
I tell this story often. I tell everyone I meet, every visitor to Tulsa, every new friend I make. It fascinates me. It disturbs me. It elucidates the very real racial pain that seethes still in our city and in others. What happened was systematic racism, aided by city leaders and even the newspapers which announced, before the riot, the planned (illegal) lynching of Rowland. What happened here isn’t much talked about. Only in recent decades have younger residents sought to find a way to reconcile.
To reconcile. To reconcile is to make right, to balance the scales in favor of justice. But we wonder how reconciliation is possible when all the major players have long since ceased to be. How can we make amends for things we, personally, did not do? How do we crash through that ribbon of highway intentionally?
I tell the story because it’s all I can do. I take visitors to the Reconciliation Park. We wander in silence through the healing labyrinth. We press our fingertips to the brass plaques embedded in the street where the Dreamland Theatre was or Williams’ Grocery. We walk through the bones of houses still stuck in the red clay. We imagine where the family whose front steps we can see, peeking out from green grass, might have hung laundry. We can see where kids might have played. Nobody remembers Rowland or Page. They’re relative footnotes to one of the bloodiest race riots in American history.
To learn more about the riot, the most comprehensive telling is here. I have finished a novel with the riot as a backdrop.