The Tulsa Riots: When A White Mob Burned “Black Wall Street” To The Ground

Published July 17, 2017
Updated November 13, 2017
Published July 17, 2017
Updated November 13, 2017
Tulsa Riots
Angry White Mob During Tulsa Riots
Tulsa Riot Burning Church
Tulsa Race Riot
The Tulsa Riots: When A White Mob Burned “Black Wall Street” To The Ground
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“Black Wall Street.” That was the nickname given to Greenwood, a one-square mile neighborhood full of wealthy black families in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ever since the oil boom of the early 20th century, doctors, lawyers, oil barons, and business-owners alike lived and thrived in the affluent suburb — that is until the Tulsa riots of 1921, when their homes were burned to the ground.

It all started when a 19-year-old shoe shiner named Dick Rowland was accused of sexually assaulting a young white girl in an elevator. The girl, Sarah Page, didn’t press charges, but the community was livid. People start talking about revenge — and even the newspapers got in on it. One paper ran the story with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator,” directly calling on the white people of Oklahoma to kill a teenager.

A mob gathered in an attempt to lynch Rowland, but the men of Greenwood wouldn’t let it happen. Armed with shotguns and rifles, 30 male Greenwood residents set up a barricade outside the police station where Rowland was held.

Shots were fired, and the Tulsa riots began. The white men of Tulsa unleashed every inch of fury they had on Black Wall Street. On June 1, 1921, thousands of rioters went through Greenwood, shooting black men in the streets, destroying their property and burning down their homes in an event that would cost around $30 million in present-day dollars.

As black attorney Buck Colbert Franklin wrote as he witnessed the event, “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.

“The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top,” he continues. “I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’"

By morning, Greenwood was nothing more than ashes on the ground. An estimated 300 people had been murdered and thousands more injured. 6,000 black men had been arrested and detained by the National Guard, and were only released if a white employer or white citizen would vouch for them. The white men of Tulsa had burned down homes and killed people like dogs in the street – and not a single one was prosecuted.

Among Greenwood residents who survived, nearly all — around 9,000 people — were left homeless. Overnight, the wealthiest black families in America went from living in a thriving, well-educated suburb to huddling for warmth in crude Red Cross tents.

As described in a 1921 New York Times article, days after the Tulsa riots, a city judge ordered the "complete restitution and rehabilitation of the destroyed black belt.

"The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny,” the judge added.

And yet, that never happened. Insurers at the time denied Greenwood resident claims for payouts, and courts blocked or denied any lawsuits they filed. At the turn of the 21st century — 80 years after the event — the Tulsa Race Riot Commission would issue a report and demand that survivors receive reparations. Still, both a district court and the U.S. Supreme Court would deny that request — saying that the statute of limitations had worn out.

Some survivors, like Olivia Hooker, keep holding out for justice. “We thought we might live long enough to see something happen, but even though I’ve lived 99 years, nothing of that sort has actually happened,” Hooker, who was six years old at the time, told Al-Jazeera. "You keep hoping, you keep hope alive, so to speak.”

Others, including Damario Solomon-Simmons, an African-American attorney in Tulsa, aren't as optimistic. Of people like Hooker, he said, “It’s sad to know that they’re probably all going to die without receiving anything. Unfortunately, black life in America is still not worth that much.”

After this look at the Tulsa riots, check out these images of 1943's Zoot Suit Riots and 1992's riots in LA. Then, see the most devastating riots in American history.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.