Looking Back at a Shameful Moment in American History
By Ismail Muhammad
It began in the early evening of May 31, 1921. Rumors floated around Greenwood, an African-American enclave of Tulsa, Oklahoma: a nineteen year-old Dick Rowland was going to be lynched because he allegedly assailed a young White girl, Sarah Page, earlier in the day.
Determined to prevent another lynching of a Black man–they were all too common in those days, and someone had been lynched just the previous month–Greenwood residents gathered at the County Courthouse to stand vigil. They found a mob of angry Tulsa residents, and the mixture of two groups created a potentially explosive situation. Soon, both sides were armed, and the stage was set for one of the worst instances of civil unrest since the Civil War.
According to court documents obtained by the L.A. Sentinel with the help of Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, the riot was set off when a White resident attempted to disarm a Black resident. The gun went off, prompting White residents to fire upon the Black men. After one of their ranks was killed, Greenwood’s residents fled the scene and attempted to regroup at Greenwood.
Police Chief John Gustafon deputized between 250 and 500 White men and issued guns to the impromptu militia to beat back a “Negro uprising”. Soon enough, the National Guard was called in and the militia had commandeered the city’s gun stores. They crossed the Frisco railroad that separated Greenwood from the White part of Tulsa and began to assault the enclave. They shot indiscriminately at Black residents and burned down everything they could. Oklahoma Governor J.B.A. Robertson, who declared martial law to combat the “uprising”, sanctioned the riot.
The mob set fire to businesses and homes, killed an estimated 300 citizens, and forced hundreds of people into “internment centers.” The assault continued into the morning of June 1st as Chief Gustafon ordered more National Guard units from the nearby town of Muskogee. As part of the martial law order, Black residents were forcibly removed from their houses and placed into camps. Witnesses recalled up to 20,000 White rioters in Greenwood on June 1st, looting and burning everything they could.
By the end of the night, Greenwood, which was known as “Black Wall Street” due to its number of Black-owned businesses and Black professionals, was fighting for its very life. Businesses like the Stradford Hotel and the Oklahoma Sun newspaper made Greenwood a renowned haven for ambitious African-Americans. The court documents estimate that “by 1921 Greenwood boasted 108 business establishments” ranging from restaurants to movie theaters.
None of that existed by 11:00 a.m. of June 1st. An estimated forty-two square blocks had been destroyed, and thousands of African-Americans became refugees. The rioters forced their male prisoners to perform physical labor until such time as they saw fit to release the Black men.
In a matter of a night, a proud emblem of the African-American community had been laid waste. Both Tulsa and Oklahoma attempted to bury the incident, but in 1997, the State authorized the creation of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which uncovered the full scope of the injustice Greenwood residents endured.
In 2003, Professor Ogletree and Johnnie Cochran filed a suit against the State of Oklahoma and the City of Tulsa for restitution. The suit was dismissed, and the Supreme Court has refused to hear the case. In 2009, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to provide restitution to the surviving victims–but the bill never made it out of committee hearings. As of now, justice for the survivors of that night is still elusive.