The Tulsa race riot refers to an incident of racial violence that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma from May 31 to June 1, 1921. The incident was instigated by male members of the white community, which prompted the black community to take defense. There were fatal casualties on both sides, as well as a massive loss of property. Racial violence was quite common in those days, with lynching against blacks and repressive laws to pervade the course of justice or to deny it outright. Large-scale mass incidences of racial violence did occur, but the Tulsa race riot was by far the most vicious. The black community in Tulsa lost a lot, as houses and businesses were razed down and friend and family killed. It also appears to be that efforts have been made to erase evidence of events that led to the riots. Repatriation for the survivors of the riots and their survivors is long overdue, as the efforts of private parties through the court have been futile. Repatriation in the form of a symbolic gesture of acknowledgement and empathizing with the survivors, as well as ensuring their social welfare is appropriate.
Tensions were caused by concerns for employment, especially for the troops coming home from the First World War. The whole country struggled to get a grip on rapidly transforming social changes. By the time it ended, sixteen to eighteen hours later, Greenwood District had been burned to the ground and more than 150 people had died. Greenwood District was Oklahoma’s second-largest black community. The area had several black-owned businesses, a library branch, churches and newspapers. It was a neighborhood of prosperity and high education, by all accounts a “dreamland”. It was a self-sufficient community with grocery, drugs and a bank, dubbed “Little Africa”. The events that led to the violence have been subject to speculation and study ever since. Social groups and individuals have called for repatriation and justice for the victims of the violence.
The lynching of blacks by whites, the recently established and rapidly growing Ku Klux Klan and the determination of the blacks to protect themselves and their neighborhood created an environment ripe with tension. Prosperity and pride in Greenwood promoted ideas of equality, voting rights and community development. World war one had brought forth passionate talk of equality and democracy by leader, but reality did not live up to the expectation of the black people. Sensationalistic reporting of an incident involving a young white woman and a young black man by newspapers, rumors and lies catalyzed the outbreak of violence by heightening tension. Vigilantism and crime rates in the city were high,.
The beginning of the event is tracked down to a young man called Dick Rowland, as he rode the elevator at Drexel building. A young white female elevator reporter, Sarah Page, is reported to have screamed out. What caused her to scream out can only be speculated, as no trace of the statement taken by the police can be found. Some accounts of the event say Dick unintentionally stepped on her foot, some accounts say he grabbed her arm in an attempt to steady himself when he lost his balance. Some say he attempted to rape her. Some accounts claim that Sarah was hysterical, and her reputation is questioned in some. What is generally reported in all accounts is that it was perceived that Rowland had somehow assaulted Sarah Page.
News of a black man assaulting a young white woman would have spread like wildfire, and it did. News of black men raping white women were a common lie, with the favorite one being that of two “black brutes” raping one black woman. It was the ultimate excuse to launch a manhunt that would eventually end in a lynching or two. It represented an outrageous “crossing of the line”. The black man was perceived as a savage animalistic brute, and such rape was indeed considered very disturbing (chastity violated by “alien blood” and protection of white womanhood). The only appropriate “justice” was to kill the black man like an animal, without, justification and with full conviction and wrath. Such rumors had triggered riots and racial disturbances elsewhere with wild success, and it proved to be particularly effective in Tulsa. Lynching was also, seemingly, seen as a useful social tool to maintain the line between blacks and whites by white supremacists, and anti-lynching bills were never successful in some parts. Every lynching therefore presented an opportunity to express their superiority and scare the blacks to submission or leaving.
Although no original copies apparently remain, the 31st May circulation of The Tulsa Tribune reportedly played the biggest role in spreading inflammatory news, by claiming outright that Rowland had attempted to rape the girl. The publication stirred anger and outrage in both communities. The Tribune allegedly carried an editorial titled “To Lynch Negroid Tonight.” Rowland had by this time fled to his mother’s home in Greenwood, after realizing the gravity of the situation. Rowland was, with little doubt, about to be lynched. White males began congregating for the lynching at the Tulsa County Courthouse. The black community, bearing in mind the recent lynching of a young white male by the whites for murder, were anxious to ensure the safety of Rowland. Even more significant was the lynching of Claude Chandler a few months before. The desperate, futile efforts to rescue Chandler, who had been “kidnapped” from jail under suspicious circumstances, and the frustration of his ultimate murder was still a fresh memory, an open wound. Some of them were World War 1 veterans, who armed themselves in anticipation of violence.
Rowland was eventually detained at Tulsa County Courthouse. The assembling mob prompted the sheriff to take action to protect Rowland from the potential lynching. Groups of blacks and whites appearing outside the Tulsa County Courthouse were turned away and urged to go home by the sheriff and city officials. The whites, seeing armed groups of black men, were fearful of an uprising, and the blacks were weary of yet another lynching. The whites went home to get their guns, and some headed to the National Guard Armory, only to be turned away. Eventually, a confrontation between the two groups led to a gunshot, which was enough to ignite the tension that had been brewing. Blacks were detained and taken to the National Guard Armory. Exchanges of fire led to fatalities on both sides, and the white rioters, having the upper hand by their sheer numbers and firepower, went on rampage in Greenwood, shooting indiscriminately, starting fires, killing and looting. The macabre frenzy and hysterical orgy of sheer anarchy lasted for more than 16 hours. Scores were left homeless, most blacks left Tulsa, some stayed to rebuild immediately.
The legacy of the Tulsa race riot is puzzling. Arguably one of the most vicious incidents of civil disturbance in twentieth-century America, it is better known abroad than In the U.S, and generations of African-Americans grew up without ever knowing about it. The reason is in partly because the blacks themselves did not talk about it, as they had to rebuild their lives and just keep going. Recent efforts in reconciliation and repatriation have renewed the interest in the incident. The 75th anniversary of the event particularly increased the publicity of the riot. Many years have passed and justice is long overdue for the survivors of the Tulsa race riot.
Although repatriation in the form of monetary compensation does no harm and is indeed helpful, the best action that can be taken to help bring about justice and reconciliation are symbolic gestures. Monetary compensation would only be helpful if it carried with it a symbolic gesture. This could be in the form of state-commissioned artwork, naming of streets and building in commemoration of the injustice, and acknowledging responsibility where it is due. For example, a statue expressing empathy and apology for the injustice could go a long way to help not just the victims and the perpetrators, but also the wider society to come to terms with the past. White Tulsans kept silent about the riot, realizing that the reputation the city would gain from the publicity would be damaging, and also because of embarrassment.
Attempts at legal action against those deemed responsible for the injustice have been made, but limitations of time and evidence make most of the proceedings fruitless. Most of the survivors of the event are now very old, and the long process of the law is just too tiring for them. Direct consequences of the riot such as crippling or any other physical or mental condition should be investigated and such individual should receive full support as far as their health is concerned. The seeming destruction of evidence concerning the triggering of the riot is a show of unwillingness to take responsibility, and no further reconciliation can take place without acceptance of due responsibility.
The descendants of the Tulsa race riot, on the other hand, should have their social welfare assured in terms of adequate social amenities such as schools, medical and transport facilities around Tulsa. Social workers should be tasked with finding out if any of the survivors have any special need that the state could help alleviate, fulfill or solve. Those orphaned by the events of the riot should receive educational support in the form of scholarships. No doubt some of the people in the white community got unduly affected by the riot, and they should also be supported just as much as the Africa-Americans.
Brophy, A. L. (2003). Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hirsch, J. S. (2003). Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy. Chicago: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Messer, C. (2008). The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921: Determining Its Causes and Its Framing. New York: ProQuest.
Mullins, D. (2014, July 19). Survivors of infamous 1921 Tulsa race riot still hope for justice. Retrieved from aljazeera.com: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/19/survivors-of-infamous1921tulsaraceriotstillhopeforjustice.html
Steven, L. D. (2011). Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1. New York: ABC-CLIO.