Encounter in the Drexel Building elevator
Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoeshiner, went into the Drexel Building on 319 Main Street to use the restroom at the top of the building, which was restricted to Black people.
Inside the elevator, he met Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator.
A clerk at the Renberg’s clothing store on the first floor of the building heard a woman scream and reportedly saw a young Black man rushing from the building. The clerk went to the elevator and found Page in what he claimed was a distraught state. He believed she’d been assaulted and called the police.
The 2001 Oklahoma Commission Final Report noted that Rowland and Page would reasonably have recognized each other, as the Drexel Building restroom was the only one near his place of work that he had express permission to use. The report mentioned that some have speculated that the two had been lovers, and made note of the odd fact that the two both happened to be at work in downtown Tulsa on Memorial Day, when most businesses would have been closed. However, it was possible that Rowland was working that day to take advantage of Memorial Day parade traffic, or was delivering freshly shined shoes.
“What happened next,” the 2001 Final Report declared, “Is anyone’s guess.” No one knows for certain what happened. What came out were accusations of attempted rape “in broad daylight,” while many who came to Rowland’s defense said that the young man was incapable of committing such a heinous act.
One explanation for the encounter reported throughout the years is that Dick Rowland tripped as he entered the elevator, reached out for something to help catch himself, and grabbed Sarah Page’s arm, who then screamed.
The Renberg’s clerk who heard a woman’s scream concluded that she was the victim of attempted sexual assault and called the police, who questioned Sarah Page. However, no written account of her statement seems to exist.
Page told the police that Rowland grabbed her arm, but nothing else had occurred, and she declined to press charges.
The police determined that what happened was “less than an assault,” reaching a different conclusion than what the Renberg’s clerk claimed, and conducted an investigation rather than launch an all-points-bulletin man-hunt.
Even though Sarah Page declined to press charges and the police investigation was relatively “low-key,” Dick Rowland was still in danger. Even a mere accusation of assault could mean a death sentence for a Black man: there was a strong likelihood that angry white mobs could form and attack him and others. Between the years 1907 and 1920, twenty-seven Black people had been lynched in the state of Oklahoma. Rowland fled to his mother’s house in the Greenwood neighborhood.
Dick Rowland arrested
The next morning, Dick Rowland was arrested on Greenwood Avenue by two Tulsa police officers: a white detective named Henry Carmichael, and one of just a handful of African-American officers, Patrolman Henry C. Pack.
Rowland was booked at police headquarters and taken to the jail, which at the time was at the top of the Tulsa County Courthouse.
Word of the incident in the Drexel Building and the subsequent arrest spread quickly throughout Tulsa’s legal community.
Breaking news and missing news
In 1921, Tulsa had two daily newspapers: the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune. Both papers heard about the arrest of Dick Rowland, but since the Tribune printed the evening edition, they had the first opportunity to report on the situation. The evening edition was released at 3:15pm on Tuesday, May 31st.
What exactly the Tribune reported on that day is difficult to fully know. The paper is now defunct. The original bound volumes of issues dated to the time of the Race Massacre no longer exist in their entirety. There is a microfilm copy of the first reports of the elevator incident and Rowland’s arrest, but by the time microfilm photography was performed many years later, someone had deliberately torn the May 31st, 1921 front page article and all of the editorial page from the newspaper.
However, we have known what that front-page story said because of the efforts of Loren Gill, who wrote his master’s thesis on the Massacre in 1946. The inflammatory headline read: Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.
Since Gill wrote his thesis, several copies of this newspaper article surfaced. Other members of the Black community, such as W.D. Williams, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, recalled that the Tribune also ran an article titled To Lynch Negro Tonight, which may have been the editorial page that was purposely removed.
Several other accounts substantiate Williams’s account—that the editorial page of the Tribune expressly mentioned the possibility of a lynching occurring. With the evening edition hitting the streets, rumors began to spread through Tulsa like wildfire.
A crowd gathers
By 4:00pm, talk of lynching Dick Rowland had reached such a fever pitch that the Police and Fire Commissioner called the Tulsa Sheriff and warned him of the rumors circulating on the street.
As people got off work that evening, the news spread across town, and white Tulsans began to gather on the street outside of the County Courthouse at Sixth and Boulder. Later in the evening, the crowds had grown to include hundreds, and begun to call out, “Let us have the nigger!”
Important to note is that 9 months earlier, a Black man named Roy Belton had been accused of shooting a white man. An armed group of white men had demanded than then-Sheriff James Wooley release him, which he allowed. They drove Roy Belton to a secluded area in Jenks and lynched him.
Sheriff Willard M. McCullough had just been sworn in, and was determined to prevent another situation like what happened to Roy Belton. He organized his deputies to form a defensive ring around Dick Rowland, and sent more armed officers to the roof with orders to shoot intruders on sight. McCullough himself went out to attempt to talk the mob down, but was drowned out.
Three white men managed to enter the courthouse and demanded that Sheriff McCullough turn over Dick Rowland, but they were angrily refused, and Dick Rowland remained inside the Tulsa County Jail.
A determined Greenwood community
The Black community in Greenwood was fully aware of what was happening outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse, and concerns and fears were growing.
Inside the Dreamland Theater at 127 N. Greenwood, another crowd had gathered. According to the account of Willie Williams, then a junior at Booker T. Washington High School, and the son of the theater’s owners, a man leapt onto the stage and declared that they must go downtown and stop the lynching.
A lynching had never taken place inside Tulsa proper. And the lynching of Roy Belton in Jenks less than a year before did not instill Greenwood with confidence that predominantly-white law enforcement would protect Dick Rowland from the gathered mob outside the Courthouse. The recent end of World War I meant that war veterans had returned home. Many of the gathered people believed that a demonstration of resolve, backed by force of arms, would be necessary to stop mob violence.
Twenty-five African-American men drove from Greenwood to downtown Tulsa, armed with rifles and shotguns, and in front of a crowd of nearly 1,000 whites gathered outside the Courthouse, announced they were there to assist the Sheriff and county Deputies in defending the jail.
Law enforcement authorities declined their help, and reassured that Dick Rowland would be safe, the twenty-five men got into their vehicles and returned to Greenwood.
Tensions and anxieties rise; groups arm themselves
Shocked and outraged by the unexpected appearance of armed Black veterans, many in the white crowd outside the Courthouse went home to retrieve their firearms.
Others began seeking weapons in the area—namely, the National Guard Armory at Sixth and Norfolk.
Authorities began to contact National Guardsmen that a mob of 300 white men was attempting to break into the Armory to gain access to guns and ammunition. Major James A. Bell managed to disperse the group and keep them away from the Armory, saying that men inside were armed and would shoot members of the mob if they attempted to steal the weapons inside.
While Major Bell’s actions prevented immediate armament, tensions continued to escalate as the night wore on. By 9:30pm, the white mob outside the Courthouse had grown to over 2,000 people, and multiple community figures, like a Reverend, a local judge, and even the Chief of Tulsa Police, John Gustafson, failed to talk the lynch mob into going home. Adding to tensions was the fact that Gustafson did not order Tulsa Police to respond en mass to the situation, and even returned to his office at the height of pressures outside the Courthouse.
Meanwhile in Greenwood, families waited anxiously outside the Tulsa Star newspaper offices for updates. Soon, small groups of armed African-American men began to drive into downtown, intending to send a message to the white crowds that they were prepared to prevent a lynching with force if necessary.
The white mob began to conclude that they were witnessing a “Negro uprising.”
“Like hell I will.” – First shots fired
A second group of armed African-American men went to the Courthouse and again offered to help the Sheriff defend the Courthouse and protect Dick Rowland. Again, they were refused.
As the group was leaving the Courthouse, one of the men, a tall Black World War I veteran carrying an army-issue revolver, was approached by a white man, resulting in the following exchange:
“Nigger, what are you doing with that pistol?”
“I’m going to use it if I need to.”
“No, you give it to me.”
“Like hell I will.”
The white man tried to wrestle the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out.
The white mob began firing on the Black men, who returned shots. The firefight only lasted a few seconds, but by the end of it, an unknown number of people, speculated to be a dozen or so, both Black and white, lay dead or wounded.
The African-American men were outnumbered 20 to 1 and began retreating toward Greenwood, the white mob firing at them just two blocks from the Courthouse. This skirmish continued as the group made it across the Frisco railroad tracks.
Dr. George Miller, a white physician, was later interviewed and gave a horrifying account of what he found in the street when he rushed out of his office after hearing gunshots: angry white people standing over a Black man who had been shot many times in the chest. As he lay dying, they slashed at him with knives. The crowd wouldn’t let the driver of an ambulance approach to help the man.
“Special Deputies” begin looting Black businesses to “borrow” weapons
The lynch mob outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, now armed, took to the streets of downtown.
Many of them moved to the Tulsa Police Department headquarters on Second Street, and as many as 500 white men and boys were sworn in by police officers as “Special Deputies,” and given ribbons or badges. One man who was sworn in recounted a police officer telling him to “Get a gun and get a nigger.”
These men began breaking into a variety of downtown stores to steal guns and ammunition. The owner of J.W. MeGee Sporting Goods testified that a Tulsa police officer helped pass out guns taken from his shop.
A Race Massacre
What followed was death, looting, and the wholesale destruction of the Greenwood community.
A crowd of whites gathered in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse one last time around midnight to demand that Dick Rowland be turned over to them, but they were once more refused by law enforcement. Soon it became clear that what was happening was no longer about Rowland.
The 2001 Final Report details numerous graphic first-hand accounts of death: a Black man attempting to hide and being shot in front of moviegoers at the Royal Theater. A mob broke into the home of an elderly African-American couple as they were saying evening prayers, shot them in the head, looted their house, and set it on fire.
Fire was a common tactic: Black homes and businesses began to burn around 1:00am, and when the Tulsa Fire Department arrived and attempted to help put out the fires, the mobs forced them to leave at gunpoint.
By 4:00am, more than 2 dozen Black-owned businesses had been set on fire.
Throughout the night and early morning hours, there had been sporadic firefights and buildings set ablaze. Dick Rowland was still inside the Tulsa County Jail, and the white mob was mostly remaining on the downtown side of the Frisco railroad tracks. Greenwood residents began to conclude that they had prevailed, and that the rioting and looting were over.
But at 5:00am on June 1, a loud sound, either a train whistle or a siren, went off. Some believed this was a signal to the white mob to begin an invasion of Greenwood. Crowds of white people began to surge north into the Greenwood neighborhoods.
African-Americans were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the white mob, and they began fleeing north. Residents who remained later testified that white groups broke into houses and forced the people there to march to detention centers.
Rumors began to spread that Mount Zion Baptist Church was being used as a fortress and armory—supposedly there had been caskets filled with rifles delivered to the church, but no evidence of this was ever found.
First-hand accounts recounted airplanes with white people inside, firing rifles and dropping dynamite and firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing African-Americans.
The information about attacks from airplanes on June 1 has long been a debated subject. Some experts who worked with the Oklahoma Commission for their 2001 Final Report drew the conclusion that there was no reliable evidence to support those claims. Although newspapers with primarily Black audiences reported the use of nitroglycerine, turpentine, and rifles, those newspaper articles cited anonymous sources. And as historians like Beryl Ford looked through photographs of the event, they concluded that there was no evidence of buildings destroyed by explosions.
However, in 2015 an eyewitness account of the events, written by B.C. Franklin, was discovered and is now in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. In it, he described dozens of airplanes flying over Greenwood, flaming balls of turpentine covering the sidewalks, and noted that many burning buildings had caught fire at their rooflines.
Mount Zion Baptist Church burns
African-American men positioned themselves in the belfry of the new Mount Zion Baptist Church. The church had held its first service on April 4, 1921. There, they had a vantage point allowing for defensive fire against the incoming attack.
Earlier in the night, Tulsa police had given a machine gun to National Guardsmen, which turned out to be defective and could only shoot one bullet at a time. A group of white rioters set up a machine gun and fired on Mount Zion’s belfry, overwhelming the men inside and causing chunks of bricks to fall from the building.
Soon, the homes and properties on the other side of Mount Zion began to burn as arsonists were now able to move in. A little while later, Mount Zion itself was set ablaze.
National Guard arrives
After a series of overnight telegrams between Tulsa officials and Oklahoma Governor J.B.A. Robertson, 109 troops from the Oklahoma National Guard arrived by train at 9:15am.
The incoming National Guard could not legally act until all relevant local authorities had been contacted, such as the mayor, sheriff, and police chief. Troops paused to prepare and eat breakfast as the violence, looting, and burning continued.
Tulsa National Guardsmen had by this time essentially joined the assault. The event as a whole had been re-characterized on the ground as a “Negro uprising” that needed to be put down by whites. When they came upon a group of African-Americans barricaded inside a store attempting to hold off armed attackers, the Guardsmen fought, disarmed, arrested, and marched the Black people to detention camps throughout the area.
The head of the Oklahoma National Guard, Adjutant General Charles Barrett, declared martial law just before noon. But the damage was overwhelmingly done, and the riots had essentially run their course. Even after martial law was enacted, groups of white men were seen entering the homes of wealthy African-Americans in the Standpipe Hill neighborhood, setting them on fire.
Some members of the Greenwood community fled to the countryside, and even tried to make it to Claremore amidst overwhelming obstacles and mistreatment from whites in the towns between Tulsa and Claremore.
Most of Tulsa’s Black population was rounded up and marched under armed guard to one of three detention areas: Convention Hall (now called Tulsa Theater), the Tulsa County Fairgrounds (which at the time were located a mile northeast of Greenwood), and McNulty Park, a baseball stadium.
By 8:00pm on June 1, the Oklahoma City National Guard had cleared the streets, disarmed whites and sent them away.
Differences in the wounded and dead
The 2001 Final Report gave multiple contradicting estimates as to the number of dead. Newspaper headlines of the day reported 175 deaths. The State of Oklahoma count declared it to be only 36. Several historians estimated somewhere between 75-100 deaths. Experts were able to confirm 39 casualties, all men.
Of these, 13 were white, and all taken to hospitals.
Of the 26 Black fatalities, only 8 were taken to hospitals. Hospitals at the time were segregated, the African-American Frissell Memorial Hospital had been burned down, and the only place where the hundreds of Black injured could be treated was the basement of Morningside Hospital.
Another difference was that while the white casualties were given burials and coffins, the African-Americans who died were buried in unmarked graves, dug by 37 Black men hired by the Salvation Army. Sources throughout the years named these unmarked graves as being dug at Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park, and Booker T. Washington Cemetery.
With the hurried nature of these undocumented gravediggings and burials, many still-detained families never learned how their loved ones died, nor where they were buried.
On June 4, martial law was lifted, and Tulsa’s African-American community was able to leave the internment camps, only to return to burned-out homes, businesses, and churches.
It was estimated that 1,256 homes were burned and another 215 were looted but not burned. Property losses amounted to $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property, equivalent to a total of $32 million in 2019.
More than 10,000 Tulsans were now homeless, and in spite of the efforts of organizations like the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, many African-Americans were forced to spend the winter of 1921 in tents while they attempted to rebuild what was left of their lives.
Difficulties persisted, however. Just 6 days after the Massacre, the Tulsa City Commission passed a fire ordinance designed to prevent Greenwood residents from rebuilding. The intent was to redevelop a wider industrial and commercial area, with newspapers quoting the mayor and city commissioners as saying that “a larger industrial section will be found desirable in causing a wider separation between negroes and whites.”
While the fire ordinance was eventually found unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, more damage was being done. The Tulsa Union Depot was constructed less than two years after the Massacre on land where Greenwood homes and businesses had once stood. Black families struggled to obtain funding to rebuild. The formation and dissolution of multiple committees which failed to establish reconstruction plans caused even more delays.
Grand Jury Investigation
Many Greenwood residents left Tulsa, Oklahoma after the end of the Massacre.
A grand jury investigation took place, but when their final report was released, it became overwhelmingly clear that African-Americans would be blamed for causing the riots.
The investigation found that the incident happened because of the veterans and other men who went to the Tulsa County Courthouse on the night of May 31 to offer assistance to the Sheriff. The grand jury stated that the white people assembled at the Courthouse that night were merely “spectators and curiosity seekers” and had made no organized attempt to remove Dick Rowland from the Sheriff’s custody.
“There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching, and no arms,” the grand jury report said. “The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.”
While a handful of Black people were charged with related offenses, no white Tulsan was ever sent to prison, in spite of the number of murders and arsons that took place in the Greenwood community.