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Oklahoma Bombing: Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 1

Life During Wartime


Air Strike Kills 75”: in times of global strife this is the kind of print or streaming televised headline seen almost daily, and should produce no sense of surprise in anyone. A few things of key interest, however, may set this seemingly routine news item apart from others of its kind.  The terrorists were domestic. The bombing was executed by Americans upon other Americans.  The city was Tulsa, Oklahoma.  The year was 1921. And it was the first time in US history that US military personnel were mobilized against its own civilian population.

"Air Strike Kills 75" (frontispiece)
Home Grown
Home grown terrorism – of the type executed by the Timothy McVeighs of this world, the so-called “militia”-style, anti-government libertarians, constitutionalists, and other radical right-wing, white supremacist fundamentalists, intent on keeping “white” America “white” – is not new.

Rosewood, Florida, the little community of blacks in the early 1920s, was one such case of racially motivated domestic terrorism.  When the looting, burning, and lynching was over, an entire town had been wiped off the face of the map thanks to the lies of one white trash female Floridian claiming she’d been beaten and raped by a black man. This non-existent black rapist was suspected of being harbored in the mostly-black refuge town of Rosewood, Florida.  From there, racism insured no one was left with a place to live as many died and were burned from their homes in search of this non-existent suspect.  It is but one of many scars on America’s face put there by incendiary race relations.

Another is the Scottsboro, Alabama, case of the 1930s when two round-heeled, white trash female runaway teens accused a group of vagrant black youths of gang raping them.  These youths, collectively and disparagingly referred to as “The Scottsboro Boys”, were convicted multiply and in several trials that could only be termed travesties of justice.  One of the white trash women was found to have non-motile semen present in her vagina at the time of her exam the day of the rape.  “Non-motile” means not viable, at least 24 hours old and predating the time line of her alleged “rape”.  In the end, one youth died in custody, another was killed in prison; one of the white trash women recanted and championed the men.  Reparations were never made, and the last man convicted was released from prison decades later after serving time for a crime he had not committed.  

But before Rosewood, Florida, was destroyed in 1923, before miscarriages of justice were committed in Depression Era Alabama, there was Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city that during 14 hours of mob violence left thousands homeless, many dead, and 35 city blocks razed.

The catalyst for this horrific black eye on the face of American race relations was a shoeshine “boy” who needed to use the bathroom in a hurry.

Jim Crow and Diamond Dick
Jimmie Jones was a black orphan in white mid-America.  Born in 1902, he spent most of his early life in institutional care.  In 1908, he and two siblings were informally adopted by an aunt living in Vinita, Oklahoma.  In 1909, she and the children moved to live with her family, the Rowlands, in Tulsa, about 60 miles southwest of Vinita.

Jimmie Jones took his adoptive family’s last name, Rowland.  And because he liked it, he changed his own first name to “Dick”.  Dick Rowland didn’t stop there with his name-changing – the alliteration of “Diamond Dick” appealed to the teenager, so “Diamond Dick” he was.

Tulsa was settled in 1822.  The Oklahoma Territory was the forced settlement lands the United State government had set aside for its displaced Native Americans.  Many black people found a home in Indian Territory as well – the Natives tolerated their presence and accepted them much more quickly and easily than whites did.  Black homesteaders were numerous in the Indian Territory. 

Peace was not to be had, of course, because once whites began agitating for the Oklahoma lands, it was not long before Native Americans were corralled into reservations.  The blacks who had formerly co-existed peaceably with their neighbors found suddenly they had no allies in the population.  Oklahoma settled as a predominately white state with its scattered black populations living as disenfranchised people do – on the fringes, with poor housing and little opportunity.

Post-Civil War Reconstruction (a sincere effort to integrate blacks into white society with proper access to voting and opportunity) ended badly in about 1890.  Race relations declined dramatically.  To make matters worse, by the 1920s, the unofficial “Jim Crow” segregation policy (of “separate but equal”) was in full effect.  The Ku Klux Klan made a national resurgence in the Roaring Twenties, particularly in the northern states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.  In keeping with “Jim Crow” not-in-my-backyard segregation norms, blacks in Tulsa were relegated to living in a certain area of the city.  This section of Tulsa, like its counterpart Harlem in New York City, held the area’s blacks almost as securely as a prison cell would.

Tulsa’s “colored” section of town was called Greenwood, and it flourished in spite of segregation.  It boasted several restaurants, theaters, clothing shops, and hotels.  It was dubbed “The Black Wall Street” because of its seeming meteoric economic successes.  The Greenwood “colored folk” were relatively prosperous.  By internalizing and insulating their economies (a practice used successfully by East Coast Jews), the black denizens of Greenwood lived much better than their share-cropper counterparts in the South or elsewhere in their own state.  The Greenwood people circulated their money and resources within their community where it was feasible – they bought goods from black-owned businesses, they educated their children, and managed to make substantial economic gains in spite of the racism.

This affluence, of course, was a thorn in the side of many white residents.  Poor whites in every part of the country where blacks prospered were consumed with jealousy at their successes, while they – proponents (and shining examples) of a “white” America – were not making ends meet. This discomfort led to uneasy peace between successful blacks and their poor white trash counterparts in many parts of the country.  [Rosewood’s destruction was just as much motivated by this economic jealousy as it was any alleged rape of a white woman by a black man.]

Against this segregated backdrop Diamond Dick Rowland went to a segregated school in Tulsa.  He entered the “colored” (“separate but equal”) Booker T. Washington High School.  He didn’t stay long; Diamond Dick couldn’t live up to his nickname without walking-around money.   He dropped out of high school, and started looking for a job.

Shoeshine Boy Meets Sweet Sarah
Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” laws meant everywhere one went there were “colored” water fountains from which blacks drank, “colored” restaurants that would seat and serve African-Americans food (many “white” restaurants would take an order but hand it out “to go” through the back door or a side window).  Even for the most basic functions there were “separate but equal facilities” – “Colored” and “White” public restrooms made sure that even when doing the things all people, regardless of color, must do daily there could be no chance of commingling. 

Diamond Dick got a job shining shoes in a fairly affluent part of Tulsa.  At a time when men cared about how their shoes looked (and the pair any man was wearing might have been the only pair he owned) a clean and shined shoe was a sign of good grooming.  Every hotel had its own shine staff (guests could leave their shoes in the hall at night outside their doors; in the morning, the newly-shined shoes would be sitting in the same spot, ready to wear). Shoe shiners roamed the streets of all large cities, there were shine stands set up almost on every corner, and just as there were beauty parlors, there were also shine parlors

Within the confines of that world, a shiner could get a good reputation and his own steady-customer base.  The tips could be paltry or generous.  Rowland’s quality of work is not known, but he certainly stood a good chance of making decent money (for 1921) working at such a job.

The white man who ran the shine parlor where Diamond Dick worked had no “Colored” toilet facilities for his shoe shiners to use.  Nearby on Main Street was the Drexel Building.  Rowland’s employer had made arrangements with this building’s management to use a “Colored” bathroom at its top floor for his workers.

Elevators had been in use for some time, but still required operators to handle the mechanics of starting, stopping, accelerating, and braking the car.  Good elevator operators could always stop the car level with the desired floor; bad ones halted the car a few inches or even a foot above or below floor level.  The familiar admonisher to “Watch Your Step” by the operator was not a simple platitude or nicety as it is today: one literally had to watch as the car might suddenly jerk downward causing a rider to fall if the car was not exactly at floor level.

In the earliest decades of the 20th Century marriageable ages for women were young – teen girls routinely married and had children before their age of majority.  [A good example of a 1920’s child bride was infamous gangster gun moll Bonnie Parker.  She married at the age of 15 just six days before her 16th birthday.  By the age of 19, when she met Clyde Barrow (the homosexual sociopath/Depression-era robber) she had been separated from her husband for some time.  She had a tattoo of two hearts entwined on her right thigh with her name and her husband’s on the hearts.  She wore her wedding ring every day, and it was one of the items taken off her corpse when she and Clyde Barrow were gunned down by a vigilante group in 1934.]

Sarah Page was such a child bride.  At 17, though, her life experience also included a divorce after her hasty marriage.  She was originally from Missouri, but had found her way to Tulsa.  She was reputedly trying to make her own way, living in a rented room and attending a local business school.  The reality is at her age she may have been prostituting part-time in her rented room.  She did, however, get a regular job as an elevator operator for the Drexel Building’s sole elevator car.  [At that time, the job of elevator operator was almost exclusively a female occupation.  At about the same time that white Sarah Page got her job, many employers were migrating to African-American women as their preferred operators.]

Monday, May 30, 1921, found both Diamond Dick and Sarah Page at their respective jobs.  The day was a holiday, and a Memorial Day parade had already passed in the street.  Rowland’s employer certainly would have taken advantage of the extra foot traffic by having his shine parlor open.  Sarah worked the Drexel Building’s elevator – chances are the building was closed for proper business that day but may have been open solely to transport people to better parade viewing spots in the windows facing Main Street. 

After the parade had passed, Diamond Dick Rowland walked over to the Drexel Building to ride the elevator to the “Colored” bathroom on the top floor. As the teenage Sarah Page coaxed the elevator car to a stop on the ground floor, Rowland entered the car.  He tripped – he either stumbled at the car’s lip (not level with the floor) or he stepped on Sarah Page’s foot. Either way, Diamond Dick Rowland fell into or against Sarah Page, and she screamed. And in the world of Jim Crow segregation, a screaming white woman in the presence of a black man could only mean one thing: rape.  

When Worlds Collide
Rowland was horrified.  Sarah, truthfully, had been rattled and her shriek was reflexive.  He panicked, however, and ran from the building.  The first floor of the Drexel Building had a clothing store.  It happened to be staffed that Memorial Day with a white clerk who heard a woman’s scream and glanced up as Rowland ran from the building.  The clerk hustled out to the elevator and found an agitated Sarah Page.  Without her saying a word, the clerk concluded the running black man, 19-year-old Diamond Dick Rowland, had attempted a sexual assault on Sarah.  He called the police. 

No record exists of what she told responding officers or what she said in a subsequent interview.  It would be wonderful to think she defended Rowland by saying his touching her had been an accident, and she overreacted.  However, in Tulsa in 1921, she probably did no such thing – as a teenage divorcée, and an out-of-towner at that, her reputation was already sullied enough with the locals.  She certainly did not need the added onus of “nigger lover” thrown on her, too.  Despite the overzealous claims of her heroic store clerk, she must have downplayed the incident because police did nothing that day about Rowland.  Instead, they began to quietly look into the situation.  Chances are Sarah Page told just enough of the truth to ease her own conscience – the story spread, though, and the public jumped to its own conclusions.

Tulsa Tribune (byline, May 31, 1921)
Word of Rowland’s attack on Sarah burned through town.  The next day, May 31, he was arrested and taken to jail (in a surprisingly humanitarian move, local police may have saved his life by taking him into custody despite the lack of evidence of wrongdoing).  Newspapers of the day had morning, afternoon, and evening editions – The Tulsa Tribune printed a story of his arrest under the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” in its first edition of the day. The text of the headline is all that is known of the story – no copies of this particular newspaper were archived or survived.  However, the not-so-hidden meanings in the headline itself were clearly understood by the paper’s white readership.

Rowland is identified by name in the opening line of the article.  The headline describes him as “Negro”.  The fact the paper used the word “girl” in describing the alleged victim of his “assault” means she was white – had she been African-American, the paper’s headline would have read “Negress” instead of “girl”.  [And they would not have even bothered to print the story – who cared if a black man assaulted a black woman?]  The word “assault” in those days was a clear euphemism for sexual assault, most specifically rape.  Thus, the inflammatory headline, when read by white Tulsans, clearly stated a black man had raped a white woman.

Because no copies of this paper exist, rumors about another inciting article in its pages have been carried from generation to generation.  It was alleged that in the back of the same issue detailing Rowland’s “crime” and arrest was another article suggesting a lynch mob be formed to pull him from the jail, and get “justice” for the insult done to white womanhood. [In 1950 when microfilming of the Tulsa Tribune’s “dead” issues took place, the only copy for this critical date had the left-hand side of its back editorial page, and the story about Rowland, both torn away from its third and final edition of the day.  A black-owned newspaper, Oklahoma City’s The Black Dispatch, was able previously to reprint the five-paragraph text of the original Tribune “Nab Negro…” story, but that remains the only close-to-the-source archived material.]

Lynching was a very real concern not only for the jailers holding Rowland (they could have been assaulted or killed if they stood in a mob’s way), but the black community of Greenwood feared for his life, too.  Rowland’s arrest sparked a series of actions leading to the destruction of a town.

Call Me!
In the evening of May 31, 1921, with Rowland still in police custody and the beginnings of mob stirrings, someone from the city of Tulsa placed a phone call to the “colored” movie theater in Tulsa’s “Little Africa” (as its Greenwood section was also known).  The receiver of the call was sufficiently alarmed to talk to some of his friends.  This group of blacks armed themselves and headed toward the police station with the goal of keeping Rowland safe from lynching.

The county sheriff had already repulsed three white men who’d entered the jail demanding Rowland.  He ordered his deputies to the rooftops in defensive positions. By 7:30 PM, about 100 white people gathered in a mob near the courthouse.  The sheriff crossed Sixth Street and asked them to disperse to no avail.

About an hour later, a group of 25 armed black men arrived at Tulsa’s courthouse (alerted in the wake of the phone call to the theater).  Many of these men were veterans of World War I; they offered their services to help protect the jail in case there was trouble. The sheriff told them to go home to keep the situation from escalating. They left and headed back to Greenwood. 

What was not known by the blacks who advanced to protect Rowland was Tulsa’s Police Commissioner James Moore Adkinson, already recognizing the volatility of the situation, had suggested finding Rowland and getting him out of town to avert disaster.  He was not thinking of Rowland’s safety, of course, but he recognized the air of violence fometing.  What he didn’t know was that Rowland was in custody; by the time he learned this fact it was too late.

Enraged white mob members, seeing the armed blacks, tried to break into the National Guard armory but were repulsed by a handful of local guardsmen. In Greenwood, rumors spread, and at 10:00 PM a story surfaced that whites were storming the courthouse to lynch Rowland (they were not).  A second group of armed African-American men, about 75 of them, marched back to the courthouse to see the situation for themselves. Again, they offered to help defend the jail, but the sheriff told them to go home.  At that point there was nothing but muttering and agitation in the air. 

Unfortunately, a confrontation in the street was in the offing as the armed men left.  A white deputy named John McQueen asked black veteran Johnny Cole (holding a military issue Colt .45 pistol and leaning inside a car window), “Where you going with that gun, nigger?”  Cole’s response was probably not terribly politic under the circumstances: “I’m going to use it if I have to.”  “No, you’ll give it to me,” McQueen said as he reached for Cole’s weapon.  “Like hell I will,” Cole retorted.  McQueen and Cole struggled with the gun, and a shot was fired.  It struck a black bystander named Andy Brown in the chest – reports differ, but he died either there on the street or inside the police station (as no “white” ambulance would transport him).

Burning Tulsa (June 1, 1921)

That was all the agitated whites, milling nearby, needed as an excuse.  The first shot had been fired, they didn’t know by whom, but a full-scale race war broke out on Main Street in Tulsa.  For the next 14 hours the city was under siege.

Mob violence is a living, breathing thing.  With no brain or thought, it spreads exponentially.  From the first beatings to the arsons to the shootings, within hours of the street skirmish outside the courthouse the town was literally and figuratively on fire.  Whites not otherwise caring about Rowland or the situation saw an opportunity to “get back” at the “uppity niggers” in Greenwood, and joined the roving bands of arsonists and thugs.

An unarmed black man was murdered in a downtown movie theater.  Carloads of white vigilantes drove into black neighborhoods and shot indiscriminately into homes and at people on the streets.  By midnight fires had been set on the edge of the “Little Africa” commercial district.  Whites settled into all-night cafes and on the streets, and organized for a dawn invasion of Greenwood.


Overview of burning (Tulsa, June 1,1921)

Roaming whites, having been deputized, were given informal instructions to “get a gun and get a nigger.”  Little was done to control the violence at its outset near the courthouse in the first few hours.  People rampaged with impunity.  Many black citizens were rounded up and “arrested” for being on the street.  Others were corralled into detention areas “for protective custody” by roaming gangs of armed whites.  

Black residents "under arrest"
Members of the local National Guard were mobilized.  These guardsmen, however, did nothing to quell the street violence.  Instead, they spent most of the night patrolling a white neighborhood rumored as targeted for a black assault.  The nonexistent attack never came. 

Shortly before dawn on June 1, thousands of armed whites had gathered along the fringes of Greenwood. When daybreak came, they poured into the African American district, looting homes and businesses and setting them on fire.

Air Strike
Race relations were at their worst – the summer of 1919 was called “Red Summer” in recent memory because almost simultaneously in many major cities white-on-black violence broke out into riot levels leaving many, both black and white, dead.  Tulsa was blazing. Newspaper reporters wired the story minute-by-minute where it was picked up in the out-of-town press and spread across the country.
Tulsa World, June 1, 1921 (front page)

Atrocities piled up.  A prominent black surgeon, A.C. Jackson, was shot down without provocation after he surrendered to a white “arrest” squad.  From the armory the National Guard had produced at least one machine gun that was used to spray the Greenwood area.  Furthermore, biplanes, idled for crop dusting, were put into use.  At daybreak, six of these were commandeered and used as spotter planes.  Also, they served as low flying sniper planes.  Flyovers of the Greenwood section of town also allowed National Guardsmen to light dynamite and air drop it onto commercial buildings and homes.

mob gathered in front of Tulsa Police station
In the end the black defenders of Greenwood could not save it from white hatred.  They were outgunned and outnumbered.  Many blacks had been arrested and detained away from the skirmishing.  Additional National Guard troops were brought in to restore order.  Their first directive was to disarm the white mob.  When they arrived at about 9:15 AM on June 1, 1921, most of Greenwood had been put to the torch and was a blazing ruin.  Martial law was declared at 11:00 AM, and hostilities ceased.
Mt. Zion Church (on fire)
The worst had been done.  Greenwood was razed.  The “uppity Negroes”, according to local whites, got what they deserved.  Over 800 people had been admitted to local hospitals with injuries.  Over 6,000 Greenwood residents had been illegally detained at three local facilities. Thirty-five city blocks holding 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire.  The Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics officially listed the death toll at 36; other, more plausible estimates range from a reasonable 75 to the Red Cross’ high estimate of about 300 dead.
Redneck & Black resident "detainees" (June 1, 1921)
white rioters watching fire (June 1, 1921)
Given that their section of Tulsa was now a burned-out husk, local whites assumed the blacks of Tulsa would simply leave town.  The majority of Tulsa’s blacks, roughly 10,000 people, were left homeless.  A strong effort to force them to relocate started within days of the riot.  However, they almost immediately began the arduous task of rebuilding and revitalizing “The Black Wall Street”.  Thousands, refusing to leave, spent the winter of 1921-22 uncomfortably living in tents, pitched on their own properties or in communal groups while the area was rebuilt.
Man inspects smoldering aftermath
Legally, when looking for blame for the riot, an all-white grand jury laid the cause squarely at the foot of the black denizens of Greenwood.  As was typical in the times of Jim Crow, in spite of the fact there were numerous eyewitnesses and other overwhelming evidence, no white people were ever convicted or sent to prison for their part in the murders and arson activities of June 1, 1921.
Family sifting through home ashes (June 1921)
Like the “good” citizens in Levy County, Florida, would do (after they burned out and murdered the black residents of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923), white Tulsans did not speak of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  In 1997, a commission to instigate reparations for the survivors of the genocidal attempt revealed some unsettling facts not previously addressed.  Scientists and historians found evidence supporting long-held claims that unidentified riot victims had been buried in unmarked grave sites.
Diamond Dick Redux
Tangentially, Dick Rowland and his clumsiness caused the Tulsa riot.  Directly, the blame can be laid on Jim Crow and the “laws” regarding intercourse between black men and white women.  Black men were supposed to avert their eyes, never speak directly to a white woman unless spoken to, and certainly he was never to touch her aggressively.

Sarah Page, the affrighted teenage girl who’d been “assaulted by a Negro” wrote a letter to the Tulsa County Attorney on behalf of Dick Rowland and the charges against him. In her letter she said categorically she had no desire to prosecute Rowland.  The County Attorney moved for dismissal of all charges, and in September 1921, Dick Rowland was exonerated of any wrongdoing.  He wisely decided to leave Tulsa immediately – he would not have been safe for any length of time.  He moved to Kansas City, and nothing more was heard from him.

Sarah Page, too, faded into the background.  What remains of these two teenagers is the image of a black rapist and his hapless, white, female victim.  The truth is Dick Rowland was a clodhopper who couldn’t keep to his own feet, and Sarah Page was a scared little girl, alone in the Big City, who overreacted to an accident.  Such humble beginnings, however, have bred some of history’s greatest disasters and atrocities.

Burnt-out tent dweller (Tulsa aftermath, 1921)



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