By Durward Stone
On May 30th, 1921: 19-year-old shoe shiner Dick Rowland was busy shining shoes in a parlor located in downtown Tulsa, OK. Tulsa was no stranger to Jim Crow practices, so whenever it came time for Dick Rowland or any African American to take a bathroom break, using the restroom down the hall or anywhere in a place of employment was rarely an option. Due to arrangements made by Rowland’s employer, Rowland had to use the bathroom on the top floor of the Drexel building located a few doors down from the shine parlor.
The Drexel building had an elevator. 17-year-old Sarah Page was an elevator operator at the Drexel. What happened or didn’t happen after Rowland entered the elevator is still a topic of debate in 2018. The most accepted scenario is that Rowland lost his balance in the elevator and grabbed onto Page in the process. The least accepted scenarios claim Rowland assaulted Page, or they were secret lovers engaged in an argument. What’s not up for debate, is that whatever really occurred in that elevator caused Sarah Page to scream loud enough to alert a clerk working in a nearby clothing store.
Shortly after the screams, Rowland ran away from the elevator to the front exit of the Drexel. The clerk then rushed to the elevator only to see Page in a state he would later describe as “distraught”. Assuming Page was assaulted, the clerk contacted the authorities and reported the event as an “attempted assault”. Rowland was arrested the next day on May 31st.
Rowland was initially taken to the Tulsa City Jail. Shortly thereafter the Police Commissioner began to receive phone calls from citizens who wanted Rowland dead. The Commissioner then ordered Rowland’s transfer to the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse for increased security. Rowland shined the shoes of many attorneys in Tulsa. When news of his capture hit the courthouse many of these attorneys did not believe he could commit such a heinous crime.
At 3 p.m. on May 31st the Tulsa Tribune published a story bearing the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”. By 8 p.m. several hundred Tulsans gathered in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse. In response, the commissioner ordered sheriffs to disable the elevator, surround Rowland in a defensive position, and shoot anyone attempting to make their way up the stairs. According to commentary from one of the officers, Rowland was absolutely “terrified”.
At or around 7:30 pm, 30 armed African American men from the Greenwood neighborhood made their way to the front steps of the courthouse to aid sheriffs. Sheriffs denied the assistance and assured the men from Greenwood Rowland would be safe. Upon spotting the armed men from Greenwood, 1,000 white Tulsans left the courthouse and headed home to gather weapons and ammunition. A different group of 300-400 men attempted to break into the National Guard Armory of Tulsa. When these men began pulling off the metal grates covering the windows, an officer exited the building and informed the mob that guardsmen inside the armory are ordered to kill any man or men who breached the property. The threat worked, and the group of 300-400 took their raid elsewhere.
At the courthouse, the crowd had grown to nearly 3,000. Word of this got back to Greenwood causing anxiety within the community to spike. Rowland’s life was certainly in immediate danger. Against the advice of local leaders, a new group of 75 armed men headed straight for the courthouse a little after 10 p.m. to assist sheriffs again, only to be denied a second time.
The Greenwood men were instructed to go back home. As they were exiting the courthouse someone from the crowd of 3,000 ordered a Greenwood man to drop his firearm. An argument quickly ensued, then a gunshot rang through the air. There is no record of which side fired first. But that shot triggered a catastrophic and murderous set of events that would last nearly two days, leave 300+ dead, level 40 city blocks to rubble, and initiate the 1st airstrike in the History of the US
The crowd of 3,000 began firing on the group of 75 from Greenwood. This first “battle” would last less than a minute and leave 10 whites and 2 blacks laying dead in the street. Rolling shootouts occurred shortly thereafter between blacks and whites. Cars filled with men from both sides took shots at each other as citizens leaving restaurants and theatres watched in horror and fear. The black men would only shoot back at whites firing at them, but the white men would shoot at any black person in sight, regardless of age, or gender. However, the cars of white men would not follow the 75 black men into Greenwood.
The Tulsa national guard devised a plan to subdue the force of “rioters” marauding the streets. Instead of protecting the community of Greenwood the guardsmen set perimeters around white neighborhoods adjacent to it. Also, any African American spotted outside of Greenwood would be detained at a local convention hall for safety purposes. This plan led the entire city to believe the National Guard sided with the whites and the people of Greenwood were on their own.
June 1st, 1921 12a.m. is when things went from quarrelsome to warlike. The Frisco Rail Yards was a dividing line between Greenwood and white neighborhoods that bordered it and would serve as an agreed upon location for heavy gunfire between both sides. When a train filled with passengers arrived the gunshots still continued. Both sides of the rail cars were riddled with bullet holes. This battle lasted until 1:30 a.m. when Greenwood men noticed houses in the neighborhood they’re fighting for are being set to flames. They were being flanked.
The white “rioters” took advantage and began sending cars into Greenwood for brief periods of time to shoot up houses, and occasionally commit murder if the opportunity presented itself. According to the witness account of a white resident, the home of an elderly couple was broken into in those early morning hours. Both husband and wife were shot in the back of the head, splattering their brains all over the bed. Their home was then looted and set on fire.
Fires on residences in Greenwood and sporadic gunfire transpired until about 4 a.m. In that short period of time, nearly 3 dozen black-owned businesses were burned to the ground. Many of the residents of Greenwood assumed that daybreak would bring peace to the city, but they were wrong. Most likely birthed in speculation, a rumor circulated through the white community that blacks have called in men from nearby Muskogee due to arrive by train the following morning. In preparation, white citizens along with the police and the Tulsa National Guard organized an offensive to storm the Greenwood neighborhood at dawn.
Just before dawn, as many as 5,000 – 10,000 armed white Tulsans gathered and separated into 3 units in neighborhoods opposite to Greenwood. Machine guns provided by National Guardsmen were placed at certain vantage points. As the mob began its slow descent on Greenwood a small group of four or five men took it upon themselves to drive into deep Greenwood on their own, all of them were quickly shot to death.
According to multiple witnesses both black and white, a siren went off at 5:09 a.m. and so began the wild descent of thousands of armed men into the Greenwood neighborhood. The citizens of Greenwood fought valiantly but they were grossly outnumbered. Nearly every building within the 35-block radius of Greenwood was broken into, looted, then burned. But between the machine guns, shotguns and rifles hundreds of African Americans were shot dead in the street or in their homes. Numerous witness accounts state seeing mothers dragging the dead bodies of their children away from the gunfire only to be shot at for doing so.
A man with no legs who was well known throughout the city for walking on his hands, singing songs on street corners, and selling pencils to get by, was seen tied by the neck to the bumper of a speeding car. His body flailing through the street amidst the chaos of never-ending gunshots, raging fires and the screams of men, women, and children. There was no method to the murders. Some people could flee, others holding hands high in the air begging for peace would be shot. Humanity was in it’s ugliest hour, and the citizens of Greenwood were being mowed down like high grass.
But for the thousands of invaders shooting and burning wasn’t enough. Shortly after the initial assault at 5:09 a.m. multiple low flying aircraft dropped incendiary bombs and fired ammunition over Greenwood. Multiple buildings composed of solid brick, mortar, and steel were destroyed. Since airplanes didn’t require registration in 1921 it’s hard to verify what business or individual provided the planes. However, according to the Tulsa Official Report, it’s a near certainty that at least one plane out of the 6 reported was owned by Sinclair Oil Company.
Nearly every single building in Greenwood was bombed or torched to the ground. 12 churches, 31 restaurants, four drug stores, five hotels, 8 doctors offices, more than 2 dozen grocery stores, the black public library, 1,000 homes, and 191 businesses were all gone in less than 24 hours. This was no longer about vengeance for Sarah Page. This was about punishing the community of Greenwood for being affluent and successful independent from Tulsa. Blacks who lived there had no need to be outside of Greenwood except for work. It would take a dollar 18 months to circulate out. Greenwood was self-sustaining and, in the end, white Tulsans thought the citizens living within it deserved to die for being so.
Eventually, the massacre would end. The Oklahoma National guard from Oklahoma City arrived at 9:15 a.m. with 109 soldiers. Legally they could not act until all local law enforcement agencies were put on notice. No one could find the police commissioner who protected Rowland from being killed the day before. So, the Governor had to be contacted by the Oklahoma City National guard and martial law was imposed on Tulsa a little after 11:30 a.m. The violence became manageable at about noon. At least 6,000 African Americans were detained by the guardsmen. While the White Tulsans were free to loot what little was left of Greenwood.
As far as final body counts are concerned, there are several. The least biased numbers coming from the red cross reported that 300 blacks were killed and that mass graves were hurriedly dug to hide most of the bodies. Since segregation laws still applied after the massacre, and all the black hospitals were burned to the ground, many of the surviving 6,000 black detainees received little to no medical care, adding to the original death toll of 300. Some say this could take the number of total Greenwood deaths to over 1,000 or more.
No legal action was brought against any officer of the law. No white “rioters” were arrested. Insurance claims filed by blacks went nowhere. The City of Tulsa government had Greenwood rezoned into an exclusive business district to make rebuilding too expensive for African Americans looking to start over. The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the ruling as it was deemed unconstitutional. But it was not enough, Greenwood would be no more.
Sarah Page was summoned to appear as a witness against Dick Rowland, but she never showed up to court. The charges against Rowland were dropped, and he was snuck out of Tulsa by police, and never returned to the city. The Oklahoma criminal justice system played a major role in preventing this event from being entered into the history books. Although thousands of blacks were detained, not one of them were convicted of any crime, as if nothing ever happened. Greenwood was lost and forgotten, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.