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.
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.
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.