Tulsa, Oklahoma. 1921.
Some time about or after 4 p.m. on May 30, 1921, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner employed at a Main Street shine parlor, entered the only elevator of the nearby Drexel Building at 319 South Main Street to use the top-floor restroom, which was restricted to Black people. He encountered Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator on duty. The two likely knew each other at least by sight, as this building was the only one nearby with a restroom which Rowland had express permission to use, and the elevator operated by Page was the only one in the building.
Later a clerk at Renberg’s, a clothing store on the first floor of the Drexel, claimed to have heard what sounded like a woman’s scream and saw a young Black man rushing from the building. The clerk went to the elevator and found Page in what he said was a distraught state. Thinking she had been assaulted, he summoned the authorities.
A 2001 Commission would report “Whether – and to what extent – Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have at least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly ridden in Page’s elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers – a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility. Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 30, 1921 – although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most – but not all – stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day.”
After the arrest, rumors spread through the city that Rowland was to be lynched. Upon hearing reports that a mob of hundreds of White men had gathered around the jail where Rowland was being kept, a group of 75 Black men, some of whom were armed, arrived at the jail in order to ensure that Rowland would not be lynched. The sheriff persuaded the group to leave the jail, assuring them that he had the situation under control. As the group was leaving the premises, complying with the sheriff’s request, a member of the mob of White men allegedly attempted to disarm one of the Black men. A shot was fired, and then according to the reports of the sheriff, “all hell broke loose.” At the end of the firefight, 12 people were killed: 10 White and 2 Black. As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded. White rioters rampaged through the Black neighborhood that night and morning killing men and burning and looting stores and homes. Around noon on June 1, the Oklahoma National Guard imposed martial law, effectively ending the massacre.
About 10,000 Black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to a bit less than $33 million today). More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals, and as many as 6,000 Black residents were interned in large facilities, many of them for several days. The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead. The 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 Black and 13 White, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records. The commission gave several estimates ranging from 75 to 300 dead.
(By Events of the Tulsa Disaster, Mary E. Jones Parrish – This file was derived from: Panorama of the ruined area tulsa race riots.jpg:, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67180952)
Many survivors left Tulsa, while Black and White residents who stayed in the city kept silent about the terror, violence, and resulting losses for decades. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories.
At the time the Black community in Tulsa was the most prosperous in the nation, the community that was destroyed was sometimes referred to as “Black Wall Street.”
This is the hidden history that some don’t want taught. These are the sins that some think we are better off not knowing. This is horrible, but we have a responsibility to remember. To remember, to repent, and to restore.
A century is no time at all. As big as this was and it was hidden for so long. How many other smaller and more personal atrocities have been committed in the name of Status Quo in the 100 years since?
Forgotten history is a time bomb waiting to be repeated, over and over.