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Oklahoma Journeys

Tulsa Race Riot, 1921


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This week on Oklahoma Journeys we take a look at Tulsa in 1921. Following the Civil War, a number of African-Americans moved into the Indian Territory establishing a number of unique all-black towns. By the end of World War One, Greenwood, the main business street in North Tulsa, had become known as Oklahoma's Black Wall Street. But in 1921 an incident in Tulsa led to the start of one of the worst race riots in the history of our country. That's the story this week on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

In 1921 the black community in Tulsa was thriving. The section of north Tulsa known as Greenwood was a buzzing enclave of successful businesses and residential areas. In fact, Greenwood was known by the nickname the Black Wall Street, an indication of its wealth, success and far-reaching reputation. At this time Tulsa, as well as the rest of the country, was segregated. Black and white sections of town were quite well known, and each group knew where the boundaries were. In this week of 1921, an encounter between a white woman and a black man in an elevator - no one knows what really happened - led to accusations of rape and assault against the black man, Dick Rowland.

Taken to the county jail, a lynch mob soon formed demanding that the young man be turned over to them. A group of African-Americans intent on protecting Rowland from the mob drove to the jail; a shot was fired and the scene soon disintegrated into mob violence. For a day and a half crowds of whites used the situation as an excuse to rampage through Greenwood shooting, looting, and burning. To prevent Greenwood residents from protecting their property, most blacks were rounded up and held against their will. For hundreds of black Tulsans May 30, 1921, was the day that all of their hopes and dreams literally went up in smoke. Along with their houses, some lost family members and loved ones to the murderous actions of the white crowds. Blacks of all ages and gender were subjected to horrific brutalities and offenses. It took over 72 hours for the National Guard to arrive and even then order was slow to return. After the day and a half of rioting was over, more than 35 city blocks of Tulsa lay in smoking charred ruins. No one knows exactly how many people died in the affair; the estimates range from as low as 38 upwards into hundreds.

You can learn more about the Tulsa Race Riot by visiting the Oklahoma History Center. You'll learn more about the African-American experience in the territory and the state in the exhibit "Realizing the Dream," an exhibit that focuses on the black experience and tells the stories of many Oklahoma African-Americans and their accomplishments and contributions to our state and our country. The Oklahoma History Center is located on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to the collection, preservation, and sharing of our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.