The destruction of Tulsa, Okla.’s “Black Wall Street” district, also known as the “Tulsa Race Riot,” is one of the most explosive racial incidents of the early 20th Century. Angry white rioters destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, then considered the most affluent all-Black district in the nation.
The riots were sparked by unconfirmed reports of an assault of a White girl by a Black man. Jim Crow was a fact of life in Tulsa. The city passed a 1916 ordinance that forbade Blacks and Whites to live within a block of one another. This led to the self-contained Greenwood area, which blossomed into a prosperous district of Black-owned businesses and homes.
Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner, had an encounter on May 30, 1921 inside the Drexel Building elevator with a 17-year-old white operator named Sarah Page as he was headed to a restroom. A clerk in the building heard screams and alerted police, who launched an investigation.
Although Page did not press charges, the next day, a local newspaper accused Rowland of assaulting Page. Rowland was arrested that afternoon. Whites demanded that the sheriff release Rowland so they could lynch him. When Black citizens on Greenwood Avenue heard word of a potential lynching, they took up arms to defend Rowland from the mob. Around 30 men headed to the Tulsa County courthouse but were ordered home by the sheriff and a Black deputy.
Over a thousand white men, angered by the sight of armed Black men, attempted to raid an armory on May 31. By nightfall, around 2,000 people were gathered at the courthouse. Another group of 75 armed Black men returned to the courthouse but were again ordered to leave.