The Massacre of Black Wall Street

-A +A

Through the night and into the morning the men and women of Greenwood fought gallantly for their businesses, their homes, and for the right to be human and successful.

[From The Archives]

The definition of “domestic terrorist” according to U.S. Code- Section 2331 defines it as such: (a.) Acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (b.) To intimidate or coerce a civilian population.

When we think of the people behind terrorist acts what names come to mind: the IRA, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban?  There’s a group that’s missing from this list--the white citizens of 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Black Wall Street, so named by Booker T. Washington, was a neighborhood of about 35 blocks in Tulsa maintained and occupied by people of African descent.  The Africans that moved to Tulsa were corralled to this area of town across the railroad tracks and away from white Tulsans.

These Africans, within a few years, built this neighborhood into a thriving industrial, professional, and commercial mecca.  It is said today that the “black” dollar stays in the community about 2 minutes, on Black Wall Street the “black” dollar stayed in the community for 2 weeks before touching a Caucasian palm.  The neighborhood provided needs ranging from hospitality, apparel, entertainment, to eateries, medical, as well as, law services.  This neighborhood was truly an example of African ingenuity at its best.  However, on June, 1, 1921, Black Wall Street became an example of domestic terrorism.

The destruction of Black wall street started as most lynching’s, removals, and race riots start, with the accusation of a white woman being assaulted, raped, touched, or winked at.  In this case, an African man (Dick Rowland) tripped and fell on a white female elevator operator (Sarah Page) who screamed and claimed to be assaulted.  This false claim was soon given validity by Tulsa’s white-owned newspaper, the Tulsa Democrat changed later to the Tulsa Tribune.  The Tribune, whose owner was Richard Lloyd Jones, made reference to the Greenwood area as “Little Africa” or “Niggertown”, and went as far as to state, "Tulsa appears to be in danger of losing its prestige as the whitest town in Oklahoma."   The Tribune also published an editorial entitled 'TO LYNCH A NIGGER TONIGHT’.  In the editorial Jones accused Mr. Rowland of scratching the arms of the accuser and raping her.  Jones went as far as to describe Ms. Page as “an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through Business College."

Contradicting this statement by Mr. Jones was non other than Sheriff Willard McCullough. The sheriff described Ms. Page as a new arrival from Kansas City whom he personally served divorce papers from her husband. He also referred to her as “a notorious character."

As the white citizens heard and read the falsified details of Mr. Rowland and Ms. Page’s encounter, they were now galvanized to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” as described by the definition of a domestic terrorist.  As rumor of a lynching spread through town, African citizens who happened to be veterans of WW1 sought to help protect Mr. Rowland from the mob violence.  They were turned away and told to go home by Sheriff McCullough and Tulsa’s only African police officer Deputy Sheriff Barney Cleaver.

As the men left, they were replaced by about 2,000 white Tulsans. The African veterans returned and confronted the growing white mob. The sheriff again persuaded the veterans to leave, when a white man attempted to disarm one of the veterans and a shot was fired. There was an initial stand by the war veterans, which lasted until around midnight.

The stand was short lived as the vets were greatly outnumbered and outgunned.  The veterans retreated to Greenwood, and were soon followed by a mob that had swelled to 10,000.  Included in this 10,000 was the Ku Klux Klan who were said to have a stranglehold on Tulsa. This army marching toward the Greenwood section of Tulsa with ideals of total destruction was met with a 70 man resistance, the African veterans of Greenwood.

Through the night and into the morning the men and women of Greenwood fought gallantly for their businesses, their homes, and for the right to be human and successful. Unfortunately, as reported by Walter F. White, in the June 21, 1921edition of The Nation, newspaper of the NAACP, “around 5 o’clock in the morning the white mob, now numbering more than 100,000, made a mass attack on Little Africa.  Machine-guns were brought into use; eight aero planes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section.”

Nearly 1,500 homes were also destroyed in the 35 blocks that went up in flames and more than 3,000 Black residents murdered by the Ku Klux Klan-led attacks.

The domestic terrorism continued as the white Tulsans committed “acts dangerous to human life” as described by the definition of a domestic terrorist. Quoting from Mr. White’s article, “many are the stories told to me -not by colored people- but by white residents.  One such act was the cold blooded murder of “an aged colored couple, saying their evening prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Ave.  A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.”

Mr. White continues, “One story told to me by an eyewitness of five colored men trapped in a burning house.  Four burned to death.  A fifth attempted to flee, was shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and his body was thrown back into the flames.”  In another terroristic example, Mr. White detailed the death of Dr. A. C. Jackson.  “Dr. Jackson was worth $100,000; he had been described as the most able Negro surgeon in America and was respected by white and colored alike.  A mob attacked Dr. Jackson’s home and he, his wife, and children fought of the attackers.  An officer who knew Dr. Jackson assured him that if he surrendered he would be protected.  After his surrender, Dr. Jackson was disarmed and shot and killed in cold blood.  The officer who had assured Dr. Jackson of protection stated to me, Dr. Jackson was an able, clean-cut man.  He was murdered by white ruffians.”

Interesting--as if the entire mob was not an army of ruffians.

Despite efforts by the white citizens of Tulsa to force the relocation of the African Tulsans, within days after the riot, they had started the rebuilding process. This rebuilding was attempted with thousands of African Tulsans spending the winter of 1921-1922 living in tents.

The Greenwood section wasn’t just the typical all-black American neighborhood, it was the prototype. Even at that time, Greenwood had three millionaires; two residents worth $500,000 each, which is a very significant sum even today; several men and women worth $100,000; and several people’s worth ranged between $50,000 and $25,000.

Aside from liquid assets lost or reduced here listed is the amount of property annihilated: 1200 homes were destroyed; 10,000 were left homeless; two black newspapers were set ablaze; Dunbar elementary school was destroyed; six churches were destroyed; also set afire were the offices of more than a dozen dentists, lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

What are the lessons from the events of June, 1 1921? We must always protect the people and property we hold dear. This should be done by any and all means necessary. 

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

Also Check Out...