Remembering the Destruction of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa 'Race Riots'

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On this day in 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, often called Black Wall Street, was destroyed. Hundreds of Tulsa's white residents  descended on the prosperous community following allegations that a black man, shoe shiner Dick Rowland, sexually assaulted Sarah Page, a white elevator operator. What actually happened in the elevator remains unconfirmed. By some reports, Rowland stepped on Page's shoe causing her to scream out, and by others he grabbed her arm.

Reports of the attack spread swiftly, and the following day, the Tulsa Tribune printed an article titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight"  Rowland was apprehended. A white mob showed up to the Tulsa Courthouse, but was prevented from lynching Rowland by the police and a group of armed Black men. A shot was fired.

Frustrated, the white citizens turned their violence on the wealthy Black community.  Tulsa's police force allowed and encouraged the violence that ended in estimated 300 dead and thousands injured.

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Black Wallstreet was the wealthiest Black community in the United States. Whites demolished 35 city blocks of land including 1200 houses, 600 businesses, 30 grocery stores, 21 churches and restaurants, 2 movie theaters, a hospital, bank, post office, and libraries.

In these events we saw the early use of militarized force on American citizens. Military planes dropped firebombs on the district's structures.
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Greenwood homes on fire

8-10,000 Black residents were left homeless and destitute following the attacks. They lived in tents around the city through the winter of 1921 where they were monitored by police (the same police that encouraged the attacks) and members of the National Guard.
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Tent home
Dick Rowland was exonerated, but an all-white jury found Black Tulsans responsible for the attack

This was a clear example of White American terrorism. This tragedy is often billed as the worst single incident of racially motivated violence in American history. Many of those killed in the attacks were buried without proper record.

Not until 2012 was the "race riot" included in Tulsa school curriculum and no reparations have been paid to those who lost their homes and businesses. The exclusion of these events from history texts only reminds us of how diligent we must be in telling and retelling the stories.

For more information on the Race Riots, read Jim Madigan's The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

Photo credit: Oklahoma Historical Society

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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