De­struc­tion of a neigh­bor­hood

The first of a two-part tale of how his­tory tried to for­get the tragic events of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL - By Kevin Myrick SJ Edi­tor

Later this spring, Cedar­town is set to be trans­formed into a to­tally dif­fer­ent time and place once again, and will be part of a tragic and com­pli­cated turn of events in Amer­i­can his­tory, and one that most peo­ple know noth­ing about.

It took decades for even a factfind­ing com­mis­sion to de­ter­mine the full ac­count­ing of what oc­curred dur­ing the week­end of Memo­rial Day 1921 in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa. Even some of those facts are wholly un­known to­day.

Amer­i­cans of all back­grounds have likely never heard of the riot that de­stroyed a neigh­bor­hood in Tulsa dur­ing that week­end, or of many other ri­ots dur­ing the months and years lead­ing up to the dev­as­ta­tion that film­mak­ers now pro­pose to recre­ate.

Ob­vi­ously, when the pro­duc­tion crews turn back the clock in Cedar­town to 1921 to rep­re­sent the area, lo­cal res­i­dents won’t suf­fer through the ter­ror and de­struc­tion wrought on those in real life nearly a cen­tury ago. Yet it is worth ex­am­in­ing for at least in brief as Polk County is set to stage this piece of his­tory that time has tried to for­get, and is now be­ing brought back to the fore­front in liv­ing color.

Be­low is an ex­pla­na­tion of how a man who was later found to be in­no­cent on all charges sparked off the deaths of hun­dreds of his fel­low cit­i­zens, and how an area of a city rose from the ashes to be­come a cen­ter of pros­per­ity known at the time in seg­re­gated Amer­ica as “The Black Wall Street.”

The Tulsa of a cen­tury ago is not the same place as it is to­day. No place can re­main the same for long, as gen­er­a­tions shape the land­scape to the pur­poses of their time. Cedar­town’s Main Street, though it holds the same ar­chi­tec­tural char­ac­ter­is­tics as it did when it was grow­ing up in the 1900s, but the store­fronts and fa­cades, paint col­ors and cre­ative sig­nage have changed in in­ter­ven­ing decades as dif­fer­ent stores opened and closed.

Back in the 1900s, Cedar­town was a pros­per­ous but oth­er­wise mi­nor cor­ner of the world, with sto­ries yet to tell. In the oil-rich boom­ing area around Tulsa, it was cen­ter stage for a eco­nomic rev­o­lu­tion. Part of that growth re­volved around mi­gra­tion of African Amer­i­cans around the coun­try, and the good times of big money in Tulsa at­tracted mi­gra­tion to the city of all races. Seg­re­ga­tion poli­cies of the era kept the black res­i­dents of the city in a north­ern dis­trict that later be­came known as Green­wood.

The flour­ish­ing econ­omy of the 1910s sur­round­ing the oil boom for north­east Ok­la­homa helped the com­mu­nity grow over the decades with busi­nesses and shops, two news­pa­pers, and the of­fices of 15 well-known black physi­cians in the coun­try. That’s just a snapshot of the busi­ness ac­tiv­ity.

If a true au­thor­ity ex­ists for the story of Tulsa’s Green­wood Dis­trict dur­ing the early 1900s, it is Han­ni­bal B. John­son.

A grad­u­ate of Har­vard Law School, at­tor­ney, ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Tulsa and au­thor of seven dif­fer­ent books on black his­tory in Ok­la­homa — sev­eral of those on the race riot it­self — he has stud­ied the Green­wood dis­trict and events that con­spired in 1921 to see it de­stroyed.

He said ten­sions be­tween the seg­re­gated races were on the rise dur­ing those years, as in­ci­dents across the na­tion were in­creas­ing and the deaths of blacks were oc­cur­ring across the coun­try.

Race ri­ots had al­ready oc­curred in a num­ber of cities through­out the coun­try in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C. in the two years lead­ing up to Tulsa’s tragic events. John­son said those had just as much an im­pact on the mind­set of cit­i­zens — num­ber­ing around 100,000 in 1921 — as did an­other is­sue as well.

The pros­per­ity of the Green­wood neigh­bor­hood was just as much a cat­a­lyst, ac­cord­ing to John­son, since so­cioe­co­nomic fac­tors were at play as much as racism at the time. “So many of the Green­wood res­i­dents were well off by the stan­dards of the day, some had nice clothes and cars and pianos in their homes,” he said. “Many owned busi­nesses, were pro­fes­sion­als. That had an im­pact too.” All of this was just kin­dling that sparked the hu­man fire that de­stroyed a neigh­bor­hood. Ex­plain­ing that re­quires a tale of mis­un­der­stand­ing, sen­sa­tion­al­ism, and ul­ti­mately acts of vi­o­lence trig­ger­ing one of the worst ri­ots in Amer­i­can his­tory.

It wasn’t un­til decades af­ter the neigh­bor­hood burned and was re­built that the State of Ok­la­homa de­cided a com­mis­sion was needed to es­tab­lish the facts of what hap­pened to the Green­wood Dis­trict of Tulsa on Memo­rial Day and those fol­low­ing in 1921. By then, most of the peo­ple who were in­ti­mately in­volved with the event were long dead, but some sur­vivors re­mained. Along with records kept by of­fi­cials at the time, and tes­ti­mony pro­vided by eye­wit­nesses to the events, the state fi­nally re­leased a re­port on what hap­pened over three days in Tulsa. The 2001 Race Riot com­mis­sion, ac­cord­ing to the Tulsa His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and Mu­seum, es­tab­lished clear facts of what hap­pened.

Like all of his­tory, some things just aren’t know. There’s still ques­tions over how many ac­tu­ally died as a re­sult of the vi­o­lence in the riot.

“It is re­ally im­por­tant to un­der­stand was a trig­ger in­ci­dent, wasn’t the cause,” John­son said. “The causes of the riot were much more fun­da­men­tal. Con­tex­tu­ally, it was em­blem­atic of what was hap­pen­ing in the na­tion at the time.”

Yet one thing is cer­tain for John­son and the com­mis­sion it­self: most don’t be­lieve the event that set off the com­mu­nity didn’t ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

The story of those three days be­gins with two peo­ple: a 19-year-old black shoeshiner named Dick Row­land, and a 17-year-old white el­eva- tor op­er­a­tor named Sarah Page.

The pair were in an el­e­va­tor to­gether on Memo­rial Day, May 30, 1921, in the city’s Drexel Build­ing at Third and Main streets in Tulsa around 4 p.m.

Row­land was only in the build­ing be­cause it was the only place he was al­lowed to use the re­stroom in the dis­trict as seg­re­ga­tion laws were strictly en­forced on that and sev­eral other bans for free use of fa­cil­i­ties for all in pub­lic.

It is fair to say ac­counts vary on what hap­pened be­tween Row­land and Page in the el­e­va­tor. John­son said that in a 1970s in­ter­view with the Tulsa World, Row­land’s mother claimed the two had a re­la­tion­ship with one an­other, both com­pletely il­le­gal and taboo in 1920s Amer­ica. Oth­ers be­lieve that though the two knew each other by sight, they likely never in­ter­acted and an ac­ci­den­tal bump or Row­land try­ing to steady him­self af­ter trip­ping and fall­ing in the el­e­va­tor. El­e­va­tors at the time weren’t as smooth a ride as they are to­day, af­ter all.

What­ever hap­pened, Row­land left the el­e­va­tor in a hurry af­ter a clerk in a store in the build­ing thought he heard what was a scream, then found Page in the el­e­va­tor dis­traught, and then sum­moned the authorities.

Row­land fled to his mother’s house in the Green­wood neigh­bor­hood to hide, fear­ful he might be ar­rested and lynched. That fear was jus­ti­fied, John­son said. The year pre­vi­ous, the cit­i­zens of Tulsa had lynched a white mur­der sus­pect Roy Bel­ton.

The next day on May 31, Row­land was ar­rested by one of the city’s two black po­lice of­fi­cers and was ini­tially taken to the Tulsa city jail, un­til later in the day when a threat to Row­land’s life was re­ceived by the city’s po­lice com­mis­sioner, J.M. Ad­ki­son. He was then moved to the Tulsa County Court­house, and was put un­der a guard by the Sher­iff.

De­spite all this, po­lice had ar­rested Row­land even though Page didn’t want to press charges, and he was later re­leased from cus­tody with­out harm.

Yet what Amer­i­cans to­day would call “fake news” prompted hun­dreds of Tulsa’s white res­i­dents to sur­round the court­house.

In what would be de­scribed as a “sen­sa­tion­al­ist” story, the Tulsa Tri­bune printed in an af­ter­noon edi­tion fol­low­ing the ar­rest an ac­count that painted Row­land’s en­counter with Page as a rape, though the term “as­sault” was used at the time. It also is alleged to have in­cluded an edi­to­rial that en­cour­aged an at­tack on Row­land.

Sub­se­quent years saw copies of the edi­tion with the of­fend­ing ar­ti­cles were ap­par­ently de­stroyed, in­clud­ing the rel­e­vant page from the edi­tion’s mi­cro­film copies, so the ex­is­tence of the col­umn and the story is only alleged.

It didn’t stop events from spi­ral­ing out of con­trol from there, and that’s a part of the story that will be con­tin­ued in a sec­ond part in next week’s edi­tion of the Stan­dard Jour­nal.

Beryl Ford Col­lec­tion / Tulsa County His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety

A dra­matic rooftop photo cap­tures the de­struc­tion of “Lit­tle Africa” in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, dur­ing the in­fa­mous race riot touched off by a white mob and po­lice on June 1, 1921.

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