THE TULSA RACE RIOT OF 1921
This paper is a discussion about the Tulsa Race Riot that occurred in 1921, and presents an argument that suggests that the Riot was not one event, but rather two separate, but linked events, each with their own separate set of causes.
Written to fulfill course requirements for a Bachelors Degree in History at Oklahoma State University; 1 January 1989 (HTMLized 1 February 1999)
The original copy of this paper is housed in the Special Collections department at McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa.
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is a little-known and somewhat misunderstood event in the history of the United States. It is generally considered, on those rare occasions it is discussed, to have been an isolated event in Tulsa’s past that resulted in death and considerable destruction. The theories about what happened and why are divers and often conflicting. With the paucity of information available, it is difficult to determine absolutely the course of events. Enough evidence exists, however, to justify the drawing of certain limited conclusions.
The conclusions presented in this paper stem from a view the Tulsa Race Riot, not as a single occurrence, but as two separate but linked events. Each event evolved from separate sets of causes. Each set of causes originated in the social context that existed prior to the events. It should be possible to determine some of these causes and from there interpolate other logical causes.
In the years bridging the second and third decades of the twentieth century, episodes of racial tension and violence were frequent. In July of 1917, East St. Louis, Illinois erupted into a bloody battle between blacks and whites after an aluminum plant began to hire black workers to break a strike. Three hundred people were killed, and hundreds were injured.1 In August of the same year, more than one hundred black soldiers of the 3d Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment stationed in Houston, Texas mutinied against their officers. The mutineers seized arms and ammunition and engaged in a three hour riot. This riot was in protest to the abuses that local white civilians had perpetrated against the soldiers and the lack of concern about those abuses shown by the unit’s commanders.2 As a final example, the Chicago Race Riot in late July, 1919 was based in a long-standing dispute over white-black neighborhood boundaries. A young black male accidentally entered a recreation area that was reserved for whites, triggering this riot that quickly moved beyond this otherwise minor incident and after a week of violence left many dead and wounded.3
These are samples of the more striking episodes in an epidemic of racial violence that existed between 1917 and 1922.4 The Tulsa riot was one of the last disturbances of this kind before the Detroit Race Riot in 1942.5
Each riot was catalyzed by an incident that seemed important to the instigators, but was often relatively minor when viewed in retrospect. The trigger event only gained importance in conjunction with the ongoing attitudes and already extant tensions. Of primary significance were the causes that had led up to the point of violence. For example, in the Chicago riot the trigger was insignificant, simply a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the potential for violence had been prepared beforehand by years of perceived threats to white neighborhood boundaries by black economic expansion. When that young man entered that area, the seeds of violence that had lain dormant finally sprouted.6
The Tulsa riot found its trigger in an elevator mishap and a newspaper article. An article appeared on the first page of the Tuesday, 31 May 1921 Tulsa Tribune headlined “Nab Negro for attacking girl in elevator”, along with an “inflammatory” editorial.7 The article and editorial described an attack by a young black man upon a white woman in a downtown Tulsa office building elevator.8
The young woman, Mrs. Sarah Page, filed a complaint against Dick Rowland, the young man, and by the next morning he was in police custody. That afternoon the headline and article appeared. The article’s description of the episode caused tremendous tension throughout both black and white Tulsa.9 Almost immediately talk of lynching Rowland for the assault began to circulate, along with reports that the assault had sexual overtones.10
Several black leaders began to organize for the possible necessity of defending Rowland from a lynch mob.11 The police also prepared to repel a possible lynch mob. The chief of police had Rowland transferred to a detention cell in the county jail, on the top floor of the courthouse. The county jail was considered by both the police and sheriff’s department to be easily defendable.12
By 7.30 p.m., a crowd of three hundred white curiosity-seekers had formed around the courthouse.13 An hour and a half later, the crowd had swelled to over four hundred.14 After an abortive attempt by three white men to remove Rowland from custody, the sheriff effectively barricaded the prisoner, himself, and his men into the office.15
A “company of armed and hostile”16 blacks marched up the street to the jail at 8.00 p.m. They had come to offer their services to the authorities who had Rowland in custody. They wanted to protect him from a lynch mob, such as the one that had hung Roy Belton, a white man, a year earlier.17 The sheriff and one of his black deputies convinced the men that they were not required and should return home quietly. The blacks left.18
The white crowd was still growing an hour later19 when several carloads of armed blacks arrived at the courthouse. Approximately seventy-five men got out of the cars.20 Their arrival sparked a great deal of shouting, harsh words and insults between the crowds of whites and the blacks.21
The Tulsa National Guard command communicated with higher headquarters at 10.15 p.m., in order to keep those up the chain of command abreast of the disturbance. General Charles F. Barrett, the National Guard Adjutant General, who was in constant communication with both the Tulsa unit and the Governor, told the unit’s officers that they should mobilize only to guard the armory, and that they were to assist the civil authorities if necessary. The Governor was the only person who could mobilize the unit, and he could not officially do so unless the civil authorities felt that they were no longer able to control the situation.22
At 10.30 p.m., encounters took place between individual whites and groups of armed blacks near the railroad tracks.23 At the courthouse no violence had as yet occurred.
The ‘spark’ that touched off the riot was an incident between a white deputy and an armed black man outside the courthouse. The deputy was attempting to disarm one of the blacks when the gun for which they were wrestling discharged.24
The crowd panicked and split into several confused groups. The armed blacks and the police began firing, first into the air, then eventually into the crowds and at each other. The police, quickly joined by the few armed whites, drove the blacks north. Many of the unarmed whites, led by a few police officers, broke into pawn shops and hardware stores searching for weapons and ammunition.25
The battle rushed north, dividing along several of the main streets until it reached First Street. There the blacks drew, and for a short time held, a battle-line. The line broke after an hour and a half of shooting and the blacks fell back a block north to the railroad tracks. A line of black snipers formed at the tracks to prevent the white rioters from entering the black district. The blacks held back the whites across a “no man’s land” of gravel and steel.26
Shortly after midnight, the whites attempted to burn down the buildings protecting the black snipers. This arson, however, had no strategic result at the time.27
Between 12.30 and 2.30 a.m., the battleground fell relatively silent, disturbed only by the occasional, sporadic gunfire from one side or another.28 No record exists of any moves made, by either side, to establish mutual, peaceful communication.
It is this period that defines the division of the riot into two separate events. Before this period of relative calm, the riot was an armed brawl. After this point, the hostilities assume the guise of organized urban warfare. The riot shifted emphasis, and became two separate events.
It is possible that, during this two-hour lull, the authorities could have put an end to the riot, had they taken any form of calm and decisive action directed towards that goal. The decisive actions that they did take only nurtured the violence. These actions included establishing and overseeing the arming of a small army of “Special Deputies”, mostly volunteers from the white rioters.29
Serious confusion existed, and still exists, as to who was actually in charge. There was a division between a minority of police officers and sheriff’s deputies who were trying to maintain the peace, and those who were leading the special deputies.30 No actions were taken against armed whites violating the law, while all blacks caught on the streets were arrested. The only preparations that were made by the whites were those done to put down and contain the blacks.31
At roughly 2.30 a.m., the battle increased in intensity as the whites tried to weaken the black’s defenses and push across the rail-yard. They were pushed back by the black defenders who were now joined by other blacks coming to defend their homes from an invasion of their district by the whites.32
It is impossible to establish an accurate timetable of the next morning because of the confusion inherent in the events. At daybreak, the loosely organized army of white rioters entered the black district in two movements. The first movement was a push from the south that came across the rail-yard, covered by white snipers. According to one witness, there was a machine gun atop the granary tower that covered this southern push as well.33 This push moved through the business district, and into the neighborhood, looting and burning.34 The second front attacked from the north down Standpipe Hill. A machine gun on the hilltop covered this attacking force. This second front ran into, and through, crowds of black refugees who were fleeing from their homes.35 Whites in spotter planes oversaw the entire battle. These planes, with no known official authority, were used to locate pockets of black resistance for the white ground forces.36 Eyewitness reported outrages committed by whites as the white belligerents swept over the district. Most of these reports involved the murder of blacks who had surrendered or were obviously non-hostile or noncombatants.37
It can not be supposed that the relative majority of the white population was involved in the invasion, nor even in favor of it. There is a report of a white policeman trying to stop the white invaders at daybreak from crossing the rail-line.38 A National Guard captain was shot while trying to stop the whites atop Standpipe Hill from machine-gunning refugees.39 However, those police trying to protect the black populace were ineffective, and there were other police in apparent collusion with the white looters40 The police slowly brought the surviving black populace into “protective custody.”41
At 8.00 a.m., National Guard troops, under General Barrett, arrived from Oklahoma City42 What they did between that time and 11.29 a.m.,43 when General Barrett declared martial law, is not documentable. The fighting came to a stop when martial law was declared. The black district, after five to six hours of battle and looting, was a mass of black clouds of smoke rolling above the ruins of thirty-some city blocks of rubble and ashes.44 Conservatively, $1.5 million in real estate, including the black business district once called the “Black Wall Street”,45 had been destroyed.
Because very little has been written about the riot, a discussion of the primary authors on the subject is not difficult. Contemporary accounts centered their attention on the beginning of the riot and the armed blacks marching on the courthouse. Thus placing the white segment of the community in the position of defending itself. These accounts, however, tend to ignore the retributive counter-invasion.
General Barrett’s history of Oklahoma46, and Colonel Douglas’s history and description of contemporary Tulsa47 typified the official view of the little-discussed riot. Barrett was the Commanding Officer of the National Guard troops that came and restored order. His history makes a concerted effort to keep any apparent bias from damaging his credibility as an historian. Douglas was also present during the events of the riot, although only as an uninvolved observer. He also tries to maintain a clear picture of the events, but is not as successful as Barrett in keeping a bias against the black participants from coloring his narrative.
Mary Parrish, a black woman, made a collection of accounts told by survivors, and published these shortly afterwards together with her own experience of the riot. Mrs. Parrish’s account, and the others collected in her book, are from the perspective of blacks who were forced from their homes, usually by heavy fighting nearby. Her sources were people who had lost everything they owned. There is a strong criticism against the initial rioters, both black and white, as well as the white looters. Her book is a major source for the study of the riot, but its contradictions and inconsistencies clearly show the innate difficulties in comparing multiple eyewitness accounts.48
A number of firsthand accounts of the events given by blacks who survived the events exist, but none of the accounts are from people who were actually involved in the riot or the battle. Many of their accounts take as fact events that may have well been rumor or conjecture.49
Also, few of the firsthand accounts found after the fact show the events from a white perspective. Most whites seemed to be unwilling to talk about the subject, although all of the official documentation that is available is from a white point of view. No one who will admit to having actually been involved have left a firsthand account of either the riot or the destruction of north Tulsa. Witnesses seem unwilling to commit, or possibly incriminate themselves, and so it is difficult to establish firmly what has happened. Much of the primary source material are interviews taken generally from people who were not directly involved in the combat. Even newspapers and the other official sources have trouble corroborating each other on details.
The newspaper accounts are an interesting study in themselves. In 1921, the Tulsa Tribune was a newspaper with a strong racist bias, and yellow journalistic tendencies, and thus much of its reporting is suspect. This paper places the blame for the riot squarely on the shoulders of the “Bad Niggers” and their militant activities against the white population.50 The Tulsa World, on the other hand, had a less pronounced editorial viewpoint. On the morning of the riot, the World published five editions as it tried to maintain timeliness in its coverage.51 Copies of the black papers in town from the period are almost impossible to locate, but clippings about the riot and its aftermath have survived that state that the white population and its treatment of the blacks were to blame for the riot, and its aftermath.52
Official documentation for the riot is even more difficult to find than black newspapers. Many of the police and court records are missing or unavailable. The report made by the grand jury, which had been convened by the governor to investigate the riot, placed the blame for the rioting on the black militants, an ineffective police department, the inflammatory reporting by an unnamed newspaper, and a laxity in segregation that led to unnecessary mixing of the races.53 The reports made by the Red Cross during the weeks after the riot list some important figures on damage and number of people treated for injuries, but shed no light on any details such as names or even give a death toll.54
As the years progressed, public feeling about the riot seems to have changed. Loren L. Gill’s master’s thesis, although written twenty-five years after the riot, could easily be placed with the contemporary accounts, as much of his information is from eyewitness sources, as well as the sparse official record. This thesis was the first real historical study on the subject. Gill tends to blame black agitators for actually starting the riot. He feels, however, that they may have had reason for doing so.55
The next interpretation of the event was not made until 1971. It was initially written as a newspaper article noting the fiftieth anniversary of the riot. Written by Ed Wheeler, this article’s Change in perspective clearly indicates that perception of the riot had changed, possibly as a result of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.56 Wheeler presents a view of the riot that stresses white culpability. His account is relatively impartial until he begins to discuss the aftermath of the riot. He is the first writer to speculate on a “cover-up” after the events based on the lack of information that is available. As his work progresses Wheeler becomes more interested in the “conspiracy of silence” that he sees in the riot’s aftermath than he is in the riot itself.57
R. Halliburton published his article, “The Tulsa Race War of 1921”, in the Journal of Black Studies shortly after Wheeler’s article saw print. Halliburton presents the view that the riot and ensuing destruction were an assault led by a white element against a peaceful and affluent black district. Halliburton, in his article, as well as in his later book of the same name, paints a portrait of complete white guilt.58
Finally, Scott Ellsworth published in 1982 what may well be the most influential work on this subject, Death in a Promised Land. Ellsworth’s work is basically fair to both sides; however, he still writes from the view that the whole sequence of events of the riot were primarily the fault of white Tulsa. Ellsworth carefully draws a valid portrait of an economically successful black section of Tulsa. Ellsworth centers the blame for the riot on the inability of the white population to accept the economic successes of “one of the finest black commercial districts in the entire southwest.” He also contends that the Ku Klux Klan had a great influence on the events.59
In examining the events of 31 May-1 June 1921 it is interesting to note that the that ideas most commonly held about the riot by the public are those that have little, if any, documentable basis. For example, Wheeler continually emphasizes the missing information, and while that lack of information appears to support his claims of a “conspiracy”, it is speculation. Similar ideas appear repeatedly through out the literature and in interviews, but are still speculative in nature.60
The events that can be documented as occurring reveal glimpses into the origins of the riot and destruction. In tracing those origins, the theory that the riot and the destruction were two different, but related, incidents becomes apparent. An examination of those pressures and of the causes of race riots will show that if fault must be established that each of these events was caused by a relatively small segment of the two segregated populations, which were reacting to social pressures that were consistent with the times.
In 1921, no one made any studies of the actual causes of racial disturbances. This type of study was not really begun until the causes of the race riots in the late 1960s were sought for, in the hope of avoiding their reccurance.61 The studies of those later riots are useful when looking at the riot of Tulsa.
There is no such thing as a “typical” riot.62 The riot of Tulsa in 1921 differed in many respects from the riots of forty-five years later. Many of those later riots focused against the symbols of white authority, but not against whites specifically. These riots were of a racial nature, not an interracial one.63 In 1921, however, the blacks were not rioting against the de jure white establishment, per se, but rather against the de facto white power structure inherent in the mob violence. When the armed blacks marched on the courthouse in Tulsa they desired to support the legitimate white power structure. This power structure had shown itself, via the Belton incident, to be incapable of self-defense.
The problems expressed in 1921 were similar in nature to those expressed in the late sixties. The blacks in the sixties voiced complaints about discrimination in employment, underemployment, inadequate housing and municipal services, discriminatory police practices and administration of justice, an ineffective political structure with little or no mechanism for grievance relief, and the attitude of whites in general towards blacks.64 These charges are also valid for the riot in 1921 Tulsa.
In the history of racial relations, the role of the black has been traditionally one of lower status. Discrimination has, through limiting growth possibilities and inhibiting prospects for advancement, kept this status quo.65 This was true in Tulsa, as it was throughout the United States in 1921.
Although blacks occupied most fields of employment, they were generally barred from many of the higher status positions.66 Those blacks who bypassed the social barriers, such as doctors, lawyers, and shopkeepers, found themselves forced to offer their services to only other blacks.67 This type of business segregation was more extreme than in Tulsa than in many other places. Tulsa supported its own black business district, two high schools, a hospital, a library, and a movie theater.68 The urban growth and prosperity of the city had trickled down to the blacks, and although they were in a less favorable position than their white neighbors, they held a higher level of prosperity than that of blacks in many other cities. This level of prosperity was in particular contrast to the rest of Oklahoma, which relied on sharecropping as the primary form of black labor and farm management.69
Many blacks were tiring of the low status position that they held in American society. These people were desirous of, if not total equality, at least social acceptance by the white segment of the community. Booker T. Washington had taught for many years that accommodation to the white position was the best idea. Only after each black person developed his own abilities until his own self-esteem had been improved would white society grant the black populace desired respect. Washington felt that no one would respect someone who did not fully respect himself.70
Many blacks felt Washington’s way was no longer an acceptable alternative. Among these people was the black activist W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois advocated a more direct approach. He felt that agitation and political activity, particularly through the N.A.A.C.P., an organization made up of both blacks and whites, was the only way to gain social acceptance.71
The African Blood Brotherhood had another view, a view that seemed to build upon DuBois’ arguments. The A.B.B. was a self-admittedly socialist, “secret”, organization whose ultimate goa1 was the unification of all black organizations under one central committee. The committee to be made up of the leaders of those organizations under its suzerainty.72 If it took militant activism to achieve that goal, then that would be done.
A chapter of the A.B.B. had been founded in Tulsa shortly before the riot, and, also, there had long been a chapter in Tulsa of another socialist organization, the Industrial Workers of the World. Previous encounters with the I.W.W. and a white K.K.K.-like group called the Knights of Liberty had at least once before resulted in a riot and lynchings.73
The blacks in American society found themselves trapped. The harsh treatment by the whites caused frustration, leading the blacks to express a desire for a change. That desire to alter the status quo was, in turn, causing the situation to worsen.74
This was the general situation in Tulsa in 1921. The already frustrating situation grew even worse. 1920 was a bad year for crops. The black sharecroppers had lived at a subsistence level before the crop failure. Now many found themselves forced off their farms, and eventually gravitated to Tulsa looking for work. In Tulsa, these itinerants only increased the black population without contributing to the economy with either their money or their labor, as there were few, if any, jobs to be had. The black community, segregated into a strictly defined ghetto, was forced to try to deal with this overcrowding in a district that the city government was not willing to assist. The city had not even built sewers into much of the district before the overcrowding, and as the situation worsened, there was little help from the city.75
Then, in early 1921, the price of oil dropped suddenly to $1.00 per barrel of crude from nearly $3.00 a barrel.76 Without any warning white workers, previously employed in the oil fields, were placed in direct competition with blacks, particularly the dispossessed sharecroppers, for the few remaining jobs. This economic fluctuation did not strike everyone in Tulsa, but in a community whose economic foundation was the price of oil, nearly everyone felt some of the tension.
With the high level of unemployment, the crime rate also rose.77 The police department applied pressure, first on the criminal class, much of whom existed on the border between black and white Tulsa. The police then spread their pressure gradually into the entire black community. The police had been warned of the possibility of a riot months before it occurred.78 However, the civil authorities had either been totally unconcerned about the problem, or else unable to understand what was happening.79 Early in 1921, an entirely new city administration had been elected. Possibly, the socioeconomic dynamics of this complex situation were beyond the comprehension of the new administration, and their ignorance of the threat potentials led them to ignore the warnings.80
Dick Rowland’s arrest precipitated a succession of events. After the Belton lynching, the blacks community knew that the civil authorities were incapable of handling the situation effectively. This knowledge, when combined with the general feelings of black powerlessness, made it possible for a small group of activists, allegedly members of the A.B.B.,81 to arouse other blacks who were looking for a way to express their desires for reform.82 The rumored lynch mob preparing to hang Rowland gave an opportunity for such a demonstration. The activists wanted to show white Tulsa that they were not willing to stand still and let this sort of thing continue.83 The primary issue, then, was not Rowland, but the black frustration with the entire socioeconomic situation as it then existed. Such social issues were not likely to be on anyone’s mind when the rioting began, but it was likely that these issues prompted the armed black presence that allowed the trigger situation to occur.84
The significance of the event quickly moved away from the issue of Rowland’s possible lynching as the riot progressed. Different motives, from different sources, led to the destruction. To understand what those motives were, the probable leaders of the white rioters must be examined.
A recent view of the riot states that the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for the riot.85 This view is fundamentally flawed. The riot occurred on the night of 31 May-1 June, 1921. The first formal appearance of the Klan in Oklahoma took place on 12 August 1921.86 No evidence exists to implicate any Klansmen in fomenting unrest. However, it should be noted that the psychological characteristics of the average Klansman were present in the rioters, and that the large Klan organization, as described in most of the articles on the Klan in Tulsa, benefited from the race riot.87
The average member of the Ku Klux Klan was a “decent, hardworking, patriotic if narrow-minded blue-collar worker”.88 He was not driven so much by vindictiveness, as by a fear of change.89 The early twentieth century, particularly right after the First World War, was a period of immense social and technological changes, and it was with the desire to maintain feelings of self-esteem, and dignity that these people turned to the Klan.90 The Klan was more than willing to grant validation to these people. The Klan presented a comforting ideology, cloaked in mystery and ceremony, that asserted that the American White Anglo-Saxon Protestant was the most important person on earth.91
In Oklahoma, the Klan is purported to have operated covertly for a few months before its formal appearance.92 However, there is no direct evidence of any such operation. Regardless, whether subversive Klan recruiters were in the crowd that night or not, someone directed a need for self-esteem into an already existent violent confrontation. Because of a lack of situational control demonstrated by the authorities, that violence became legitimized in the guise of the special deputies.93 Most whites involved in the rioting only later became involved in the burning and looting, because they saw that such behavior had been legitimized. They were operating as “free riders” on the waves of violence.94 Other whites felt the desire to express their self worth through violence and destruction. While they would have been able to keep that exigency in check under normal circumstances, the existence of the riot’s violence allowed these people to vent their desires, their behavior lending a further situational legitimacy to the riot.
This situational belief in the legitimacy of the riot may have been further fueled by the cultural racism of the era. It seems to have been culturally normal to discriminate against black people in 1921. With white racism as a cultural norm and the apparent situational acceptance of the riot’s violence, it should have been easy for even a relatively small group of white agitators to direct the response away from the armed blacks to blacks in general. This shift in emphasis leading the whites to a retaliatory invasion that quickly degenerated into total destruction, with little, or no regard for lives or property.
As this paper has striven to show, the Tulsa race riot and the subsequent destruction of north Tulsa were separate events, and although they were closely related, they did not stem from the same causes. The riot itself resulted from the presence of an armed body of blacks led by a few agitators trying to defend a black man from a perceived threat by a white population. There followed a white response to the invasion by armed and threatening blacks who were evidently seeking violence. The inability of the legitimate authorities to defuse the situation agitated the white response, so that ultimately, when first shots fired, sufficient motivations on both sides caused the shooting to continue.
Only a relatively few blacks were involved in the rioting, and certainly only a like segment of white Tulsa was involved in the actual destruction. Small groups of agitators were able to sufficiently direct the other participants in directions that would eventually achieve the agitator’s goals. For the black agitators, those goals were Dick Rowland’s safety, as well as showing the whites that force would be met with force. The white agitators were able to see to it that the relatively successful blacks, as well as those who weren’t successful, were “Put back in their places.”