A Grim Chapter

Historical image of the 1921 Tulsa race riot.
The Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was called “Black Wall Street.” It was destroyed 100 years ago in the most violent race riot in U.S. history.

On May 30, 1921, 19-year-old shoe shiner Dick Rowland, who was Black, shared an office building elevator with 17-year-old elevator operator Sarah Page, who was white. According to police reports, an employee heard Page scream and saw Rowland running out of the elevator. The following day, Tulsa police arrested Rowland for assault. Fueled by inflammatory stories in the Tulsa Tribune, an estimated crowd of several hundred white men assembled outside the Tulsa County Courthouse that evening, demanding that police turn Rowland over to them. A group of about 25 Black men, some of them armed, arrived at the courthouse from the Greenwood section of Tulsa, known as Black Wall Street, to further protect Rowland, an offer Tulsa County Sheriff Willard McCullough declined. The Black men left the scene, but about 75 returned around 10 p.m., by which time the white crowd had swelled to about 2,000. McCullough told the Black men to leave, and as they were complying, one of the white men in the crowd attempted to forcibly disarm a Black man, resulting in an accidental discharge of the weapon, which rapidly escalated into a lopsided gun battle. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society’s account of the riot: 

“The African American men engaged in a fighting retreat back to Greenwood as armed whites attacked them. The local police force expanded as the chief deputized 500 white men and boys. Those who did not have weapons went to local pawnshops, hardware stores, and sporting goods stores, breaking in and stealing guns. The targets of the mob evolved from the original armed group to any African American person. Indiscriminate killing began. As both sides reached Greenwood, deadly battles erupted, particularly along the Frisco railroad tracks. In other parts of Greenwood, whites drove into the neighborhood and killed residents from their cars. Some whites began setting fires to property in Greenwood at around 1 a.m. White rioters prevented the fire department from extinguishing the flames.”

In commemoration of the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, Mt. Lebanon Public Library and the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon are sponsoring a community event featuring Hannibal B. Johnson, author of Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma and chair of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. The event will be at 7 p.m., Wednesday, September 22, in the Mt. Lebanon High School Fine Arts Theatre. 

Johnson will provide an introduction to the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the deadliest single act of anti-Black violence in American history. He will be joined by Mt. Lebanon High School history teacher Pete DiNardo for an informal discussion on an array of topics ranging from historic amnesia to how communities deal with trauma to the issue of reparations. Books will be available for sale following the event. Registration is required for this in-person event. Call the Mt. Lebanon Public Library at 412-531-1912 or click on the Events Calendar at www.mtlebanonlibrary.org to register.