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.
Accounts vary as to who fired first, but it was reported that a Black man shot into the air after being told to hand over his pistol. The shot kicked off a gunfight, leaving several dead. The white mob vastly outnumbered the Greenwood militia and they chased them to their neighborhood. The mob shot at any Blacks they saw, looted stores, and began firebombing homes.
The Oklahoma National Guard took to the streets to calm down rioters with little success. Firefights lasted into the morning hours of June 1, and Greenwood residents were forced to flee after their neighborhood was essentially burned to the ground. Because historical accounts of the incident have been lost, destroyed or altered, it is difficult to confirm one aspect.
Reports say that six World War I biplanes bombed the Greenwood homes with several families still trapped inside. By the afternoon of June 1, martial law was declared and thousands of Black citizens fled the city or were detained by armed forces.
Historical accounts vary about how many people were actually killed but The Tulsa Race Riot Commission estimated in recent findings that nearly 300 people died.