Timely History: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Well, this is frustrating on multiple levels.

The Tulsa Race Massacre occurred 99 year ago. I write “Timely History” to highlight current events through the prism of history. It’s the nerd equivalent of “staying in my lane.” I’m not a sociologist and there are many others who will write opinion pieces which will articulate things much better than me.

However, historical events very often do the speaking for you. I find it’s more powerful when you just report facts.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 1921, Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner, entered an elevator to go to the top floor restroom. It was the only one available to him in the area due to segregation. Sarah Page, an elevator operator, was working the elevator at that time and was the only other person with Rowland in the elevator. At some point, someone else in the building heard Page scream and then saw Rowland leave. They reported the incident to the police. There are no records about the police questioning Page, but she is on record later declining to press charges on anything.

Rowland was picked up while the investigation was ongoing. A white mob found out where Rowland was held and made threats about a lynching. Willard McCullough, the Sheriff of Tulsa County, proceeded to take extensive defensive measures to protect Rowland including placing Rowland on upper floors, disabling the buildings elevator, placing armed deputies on the roof and stairs (with the instructions to shoot anyone unauthorized who attempted to use the stairs), and then went to talk to the crowd himself in an attempt to disburse them (he was booed away).

Rumors of a lynching brought members of the nearby black community to the scene to stop the lynching. They came armed. White crowd members went home for guns and returned. More black men arrived with weapons when they heard whites were showing up with guns. A shot was fired.

All hell broke loose.

In an attempt to just stick to the facts, reporting the aftermath is the only somewhat reliable information. Approximately $32 million in today’s dollars damage was done to sections of Tulsa. The vast majority of the damage done was to the Greenwood section of Tulsa, which was known as “Black Wall Street.” 6,000 blacks were detained in nearby fairgrounds over the ensuing days.

If the facts seem to leave some maddeningly large holes in the narrative, well, that’s because there are maddeningly large holes in the narrative. Here are the main ones:

Why have I never heard of this? Because this event was generally not talked about. All sources I found point this out. It wasn’t until 1996 that efforts were made to document this fully.

How many people actually died during the massacre? 36 officially. Maybe 300. The numbers vary wildly and rumors of mass graves which seem unsupported make for very murky details. However, it is *generally* accepted that 36 is way too low. It is fact that black victims made up the majority of the dead.

What actually happened in the elevator? The most popular opinion is that Rowland tripped and grabbed Page as he fell. She was startled and screamed. No one knows, basically.

How did the rumor of the lynching get started? This seems like the most important part of how this thing exploded. The white crowd showed up because of what was reported and the rumored lynching. The black crowd showed up to avoid the lynching. So how did it start? Apparently, the Tulsa Tribune seems like a possible culprit as it was rumored that the paper published an editorial entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Smoking gun, right? Well, no one can locate that edition of the paper. The microfilm copy of that edition has the relevant page missing. (Did you just say, “What the f—?” I sure did.)

What else should we know? Tons. This is just the slightest overview of the event and I didn’t even touch on the racial tensions of the era because, holy hell, good luck trying to do that in a blog post. Read below for a lot more. Educate yourself.

For Further Reading:









Leave a Reply