The Tulsa race riot (May 31st to June 1st 1921) in the US killed 75 to 150 people, burned down 35 city blocks, and left thousands homeless. With the help of the police, planes and the National Guard, hundreds to thousands of White men rioted in Greenwood, aka Black Wall Street, a Black neighbourhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It all started with a White woman: Sarah Page accused “Diamond Dick” Rowland, a Black man, of attempted rape.
Fearing a lynching, Black men from Greenwood arrived at the courthouse armed with guns to protect Rowland. Many had fought in the First World War. A White mob was already there. The police tried to talk the Black men into leaving when a fight broke out and a gun went off, leaving one person dead. Then all hell broke loose.
The police handed out guns and badges to hundreds of White men. Other Whites broke into hardware stores and took guns.
The governor sent the National Guard to Greenwood to disarm Blacks and take them prisoner, supposedly for their own protection. They sent some 5,000 to the convention centre, ball park and fairgrounds. But they did not disarm any Whites!
At five in the morning a whistle blew and a plane flew overhead. Some say it dropped a bomb, others say it was looking for Black snipers, pointing them out to Whites. For the next six hours there was constant gunfire as Whites invaded Greenwood, robbing and burning it down. Some Whites would not shoot on unarmed Blacks, but others did. Parts of Greenwood were like a battlefield. But in other parts Whites pulled pianos and Victrolas out of houses and were singing and dancing in the streets.
Greenwood had had its own hospital, hotels, shops, two newspapers and two cinemas. But when the riot was over, it looked like it had been hit by a war.
Over the next few days the 5,000 Black prisoners were given a green tag and let go if their employer came for them. The rest were put to work for little pay cleaning up Greenwood. Blacks without green tags were arrested.
Months later Sarah Page dropped her case against Diamond Dick Rowland. He left town and was never heard from again.
A grand jury looked into the riot. As a White newspaper, the Tulsa World, reported:
“Grand Jury Blames Negroes for Inciting Race Rioting; Whites Clearly Exonerated”
Many blamed “black agitators”, like W.E.B. Du Bois or Black newspapers, who pushed the dangerous idea that Blacks and Whites should have equal rights, as promised by the US Constitution.
Rebuilding: Most insurance policies had a riot exclusion clause and would not pay. The city blamed the riot on Greenwood and would not pay. And the courts bent over backwards to protect the city and insurance companies – except in one case: when the city tried rezone Greenwood for industry.
In 2001 the mayor held a “celebration of conscience”, made an official apology and gave each survivor the city could find a medal – but no reparations.
Source: mainly “Reconstructing the Dreamland” (2002) by Alfred L. Brophy; Al Jazeera (2014).
- grand jury
- Du Bois
- MOVE bombing
- The 1920 Duluth lynching
- Red Summer
- Mystic Massacre
- Japanese American internment
- Detroit riot in 1967