Landmark Moments in American History: The Tulsa Race Massacre

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is remembered as one of the worst instances of racial violence in American history. On May 30, 1921 19 year old Dick Rowland, a shoeshine, entered an elevator to access a “black only” bathroom at the Drexel Building. 17 year old Sarah Page served as the elevator operator. Sometime during the elevator ride Rowland made contact with Page, causing her to scream, and causing him to run off. The police were called and they conducted a low-key investigation, but presses were not charged.

The following morning Rowland was detained by detective Henry Carmichael and patrolman Henry C. Pack and taken to the Tulsa city jail. He was moved to the Tulsa County Courthouse later that day after the police received an anonymous call threatening Rowland’s life. The newspaper the Tulsa Tribune picked up the story and published an article that afternoon titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator”. One hour after its publishing a crowd began to form with rumors circulating that they intended to lynch Rowland. In response, 50-60 armed black men, many World War I veterans, arrived at the courthouse to protect Rowland. Seeing this, over 1,000 white men disbursed to return with their own guns.

Later on more armed black men arrived. A struggle ensued between a white man trying to disarm one of the black men and a shot rang out. Gunfire was exchanged between the two groups leaving 10 white men and 2 black men dead. A National Guard unit responded along with a local chapter of the American Legion. Throughout the night and into the morning open fighting spread throughout the city and some white rioters began burning down buildings. The Fire Department attempted to extinguish the fires, but eyewitness accounts claim they were fired upon to prevent them from doing their jobs. Many black citizens fled the city as white rioters invaded black neighborhoods. Some eyewitness accounts claim that several airplanes circled the city firing rifles and dropping fire bombs as they flew by.

By 9:15 am on June 1, 109 National Guard troops under the command of Adjunct General Charles Barrett arrived from Oklahoma City. By noon they had declared martial law and suppressed most of the violence. Martial law was not formally withdrawn until June 4. Estimates claim that 75-300 died as a result of the riots and over damages totaled $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property.

The history of the massacre was often omitted from local, state, and federal history until 1996 when the state of Oklahoma formed the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission published its final report in 2001 and recommended a reparations program for descendants and survivors. The massacre became required in Oklahoma schools in 2002 and was officially added to curriculum in 2020. A memorial park was also dedicated in 2010. While a dark moment in America’s history, it remains an important one and serves as a healthy reminder and lesson for future generations.

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