Why do TV shows have to teach us about the history that our schools and teachers seemed to just ignore?
My wife and I started watching the HBO series “Watchmen” and it’s really interesting- it has a lot do with a race riot that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma back in 1921- which I assumed was fictional event, created for the story.
The images I saw couldn’t happen in America- I mean, I’ve seen some incredibly disturbing images of our racist past but an entire community attacked? Black people killed in the streets, businesses destroyed and even airplanes flying over- shooting black people as they ran for shelter?
It’s one thing to see evidence of lynching’s- while horrific, they are a bit more believable- a large group of white people attacking and killing one (or a few) black people but to believe that a community wide lynching would even be possible doesn’t make sense- white racists flying airplanes over a town and just firing on black men, women and children just never happened…I’m pretty sure we would have been told about something like that in history class.
Maybe it’s my ignorance or the fact that I didn’t pay much attention in class but these events were created to make Watchmen a much more interesting show.
The Tulsa Race Riot (also called Tulsa Massacre, Greenwood Massacre or the Black Wall Street Massacre) is a true event that took place on May 31/June 1, 1921.
Mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma which has been called “the single worse incident of racial violence in American history” yet I don’t recall any history teacher- elementary, middle or high school- ever mentioning such an act of pure hatred.
This area was known as “Black Wall Street” because, at the time, it was the wealthiest black community in the United States.
The death toll ranges from 36 to hundreds- depending on where you get your information- records show that 26 black people and 10 white people were killed and a 2001 commission has “confirmed” 56 people were killed in total.
However, Walter Francis White of the NAACP states that roughly 50 white people and between 150 and 200 black people were killed. Mr. White also stated that the head of the Salvation Army had hired 37 black people as gravediggers to bury 120 black people in individual graves- without coffins- in three different cemeteries across the city. There is even more talk of mass graves but no evidence of that was found by the 2001 commission.
Regardless of the discrepancies in the number of dead, it’s confirmed that over 800 people were admitted to local hospitals for injuries. A majority of those people were white due to both of the “black” hospitals being burned in the rioting and, even if the “white” hospitals had went against their segregation policy- injured blacks had no way to get to these hospitals- which were located on the other side of the city.
So what could have happened to cause such a riot…to cause such an event that seems like it could have started a 2nd Civil War?
The same thing that seemed to have started most of the lynching’s in that time- false accusations.
19 year old Dick Rowland, a black shoe shiner, was accused of assaulting 17 year old Sarah Page. Ms. Page was an elevator operator in the Drexel Building, one of the only buildings in the downtown area that had a “colored bathroom”, which was on the top floor.
The clerk of a clothing store, in the same building, heard what “sounded” like a scream and saw a young black man rushing from the building. The clerk found Page in what he said was a “distraught state” and, thinking she had been assaulted, he called the police.
Based on the 2001 Oklahoma Commission Final Report it notes that it was unusual for both Rowland and Page to be working on Memorial Day- when most of the stores and businesses were closed and it suggest two theories that actually happened.
The first is that Roland and Page knew each other- the building only had one elevator and the downtown area only had one colored bathroom so they would have seen each other multiple times- with many friends speculating that the two had a relationship which would have been potentially deadly in that time and place.
The second, and more believed situation, is that Rowland stumbled getting into the elevator, accidentally falling into or grabbing Page’s arm- causing her to scream. Rowland would have fled the scene because black men have been hung for simply looking at white women and he would have been well aware of the issues an accident like this could led to.
While the police probably questioned Page, there is no written account of her statement. It’s generally accepted that the police realized what had happened was a simple accident and there was no need for a report and Page even informed the police she would not press any type of charges.
Even after that, the white people of the area demanded Rowland be arrested- at least brought in for questioning- the police found Rowland at his mother’s house and arrested him; he had to be moved to a more secure jail on top of the courthouse due to telephone calls threating Rowland’s life. While the sheriff believe in Rowlands innocence, he tried to calm the tension and keep a lynching from happening by arresting Rowland for questioning and, in part, for Rowlands own safety.
All of Rowlands friends claimed he would never hurt anyone and many of the attorneys and legal professionals knew Rowland as the “shoe shine boy” and defending him- one man said “why, I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That’s not in him!”
Adding to spark, that would led to the fire, was the Tulsa Tribune- a white owned newspaper- which published a story in the afternoon edition with the title “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator” and warned of a potential lynching of Rowland, entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
By 7:30pm that night, several hundred white residents had assembled outside the courthouse but the newly elected sheriff, Willard m. McCullough, was determined to avoid such an event. Sheriff McCullough took steps such as disabling the elevator, putting six men with rifles and shotguns on the rooftop and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intrudes on sight.
About 8:20pm, three white men entered the courthouse and demanded that Rowland be turned over to them.
A few blocks over, members of the black community gathered to discuss the situation; many determined to prevent the white mob from lynching Rowland.
About 9:30pm, a group of 50 black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, arrived at the jail to support the sheriff and his men- who were greatly outnumbered by the white mob. Once this happened, about 1,000 white people returned home and got their guns as well- while other white men headed to the National Guard armory to break in and steal weapons.
A few more black people showed up with guns, hundreds more white people showed up with their guns and started to storm the courthouse- one white man demanded that the armed black men surrender but they refused and “a shot was fired” – it has not been determined if the first shot was an accident or meant as a warning shot but it started the gun battled the turned into the riot; it has also not been determined who fired the first shot.
There was chaos with gunfights breaking out and everyone shooting at everyone else- but many white rioters focused on the courthouse, still supporting the lynching of Rowland, with the hopes of getting to him.
The gun fights last throughout the night and Wednesday morning, around 1:00am, groups of armed white people started throwing lit oil rags into buildings and setting fires. While the fire department showed up- they were held at gunpoint and shot at by the white mob with a quote by Scott Elsworth stating “it would mean a fireman’s life to turn a stream of water on one of those Negro buildings. They shot at us all morning when we were trying to do something but none of the men were hit. There is not a chance in the world to get through that mob into the Negro district.”
Numerous eyewitness accounts describe airplanes firing rifles and dropping firebombs on buildings, homes and fleeing families. Law enforcement officials later said the planes were to provide reconnaissance and protect against a “Negro uprising” and it’s believed that law enforcement was aboard many of those planes. A manuscript by eyewitness and attorney Buck Colbert Franklin, discovered in 2015, stated that “at least a dozen or more planes circled the neighborhood and dropped burning turpentine balls on office buildings, hotels and multiple other buildings.” He also stated that “men fired rifles at young and old black residents, gunning them down in the streets.”
About 10,000 black people were left homeless and property damage was more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property. ($32 million in 2019 standards)
The National Guard finally arrived around 9:00am and began arresting the black residents (those not dead or hadn’t already fleet the city) and taking them to detainment centers. A 1921 letter from an officer of the Service Company- Third Infantry- Oklahoma National Guard reported numerous events such as –
– Taking about 30-40 blacks into custody
– Searching for negroes and firearms
– Detailing a NCO to take 170 negroes to the civil authorities
– Delivering an additional 150 negroes to the Convention Hall
There were no convictions for any charges related to the violence and it was almost like it never even happened. Very few white people were arrested while all the black people that could be found were taken to centers throughout the city.
In 1996, as the riots 75th anniversary neared, the “Tulsa Race Riot Commission” was formed and, in 2018, the name was officially changed to the “Tulsa Race Massacre Commission.”
All evidence found shows that, while a few white people were killed, this event was considered a race massacre against black people and this entire community.
Based on the report present by the commission- the causes and damages were thoroughly documented and actions for substantial restitution to the black residents were recommended. Such things as “direct payment of reparations to survivors and descendants of the survivors of the 1921 riot.” A scholarship should be established, as well as an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood district and a memorial for the reburial of the remains of the victims.
Most of those never happened, however, the Oklahoma state legislature did pass 300 college scholarships for descendants, created a memorial park and economic development zone in Greenwood. Later, in 2001 the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act” was passed into law which acknowledged that the acts occurred but failed to deliver any substantial reparations.
As of December 17th, 2019- in preparation of the 100th anniversary- a “murder investigation” is in process with a team of forensic archaeologists announcing they had found anomalies consistent with that of human-dug pits beneath the ground at Oaklawn Cemetery that are likely candidates for mass graves.
The case against Dick Rowland was dismissed at the end of September 1921 due to a letter by Sarah Page telling the county attorney she did not wish to prosecute the case…because there was not a case to prosecute. Rowland left Tulsa and moved to Kansas City and there is little else publicly known of the remainder of his life.
There is little known of the life of Sarah Page as well.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is nothing short than just that- a massacre. While many of the black people tried to fight back and protect Dick Rowland, it was a massacre of an entire community based on the hatred of a racist white mob. While a few white people were killed (some believed killed due to cross fire actually fired by other white people) many more black people were killed and an entire 35 block community was destroyed- effecting over 10,000 black people.
I’m honestly ashamed of myself for first hearing about this from a TV show based on a comic book.
American Reality is based on true history that most of us were never taught. These are the stories and situations we need to face and understand. When you hear people yelling about “making America great again”- we need to realize that this country is still struggling to reach the greatness it claimed to have generations ago- we still aren’t there.
I look around today and it’s very hard to ignore that we are still on the verge of a race riot breaking out- one fake news story, one gun shot and this could all happen again and, sadly, many American’s would be a part of that white mob and be yelling for public lynching’s. (Don’t believe me, check social media comments from time to time.)
History repeats itself because we refuse to learn from it. We refuse to use the lessons learned to help make us truly great.
Of course, I say we “refuse” but, in reality, many of us don’t even know they happened.
Love, Peace and Sharkyness