Ninety-two years ago this weekend, racial tension exploded in a section of Tulsa, Okla., and when the two days of rage was over, the community known as the “Black Wall Street” was reduced to rubble.
At least 33 blacks died, around 800 people were taken to hospitals and more than 6,000 blacks were arrested and held in three detention centers, where an uncounted number died.
In the riot of May 31-June 1, 1921, 191 black owned businesses, a junior high school, churches and the only hospital in the area were burnt down, along with 1,256 homes. Property losses in 1921 dollars were estimated at
$1.5 million and personal property lost totaled $750,000. The spark for what became known as the worst case of racial violence in America was an allegation that Dick Rowland, a black shoe-shiner, tried to rape a white elevator operator, Sarah Page.
Some published accounts say Rowland was in the elevator with Page and accidentally stepped on her foot and she screamed. But Joe Goodwin, a writer with the family-owned Oklahoma Eagle newspaper, said Rowland and Page had a secret six-month affair and they were caught kissing when the elevator opened and three white women saw them.
According to Goodwin, Rowland went home and when he arrived for work the next day, he was arrested and charged with assaulting Page.
As word spread about the arrest, white mobs demanded that Rowland be handed over to them to be lynched. The authorities refused. Some reports said groups of armed black men showed up and offered to help officials protect Rowland but were turned away.
Dereliction of Duty
The upshot was thousands of armed whites descended on Greenwood, then the most successful black community in the nation, burning, looting and killing.
By the time National Guard reinforcement arrived, most of Greenwood was on fire.
Rowland was found not guilty of the attempted rape charge and an all-white jury blamed blacks for the riot. A grand jury held Police Chief John Gustafson responsible because of dereliction of duty and he was removed from office and put on trial. He was found guilty but did not serve jail time. No other white official was charged.
South Floridians had an opportunity to learn of the tragedy in March when a documentary The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921 was shown at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, as part of the African-American Film Festival.
In April another documentary, Before They Die, by Reggie Turner, describing the search for justice by the last survivors of the riot, was shown at Miami Jackson High School in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood, courtesy of the Dade County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. It was screened also in Palm Beach County.
The “Tulsa Race Riot” happened two years before whites destroyed the black town of Rosewood in Florida – also after allegations that a black man had assaulted a white woman.
But while the state of Florida has compensated survivors of Rosewood, neither the city of Tulsa nor the state of Oklahoma has taken steps to pay reparations for the devastation that was visited on Greenwood, even though a commission created to look into the riot recommended it.
The Rosewood atrocity was allowed to fade into history for dozens of years until a media blitz called attention to it. That has not happened with Greenwood but efforts to keep the tragedy in the front of American consciousness have persisted and in 1996, the 75th anniversary of the riot, they forced the Oklahoma Legislature to establish the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. The commission handed in a report on Feb. 21, 2001, backing, among other things, paying restitution.
The Legislature responded by passing the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act” which watered down the commission’s recommendations, providing for 300 scholarships, building a memorial and pushing economic development for Greenwood.
Dissatisfied with that move, a Tulsa Reparations Coalition had its first meeting in April 2001, the same year five survivors sued the city and the state. A judge lamented “the terrible devastation” caused by the riot but dismissed the lawsuit the statute of limitations had expired.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs were the late Johnnie Cochran and Harvard professor Charles Ogletree. They appealed to Congress in 2007 to extend the time limitation.
Michigan Democrat John Conyers has been almost a lone voice pushing Congress to do just that. Conyers also introduced a bill seeking to create a blanket “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” filed in 1989 and again in 2007. In his bill to waive the statute of limitations in the Greenwood destruction, Conyers argued that such a step was justifiable because government officials had deputized and armed the mob which attacked the neighborhood and also that the National Guard joined in the destruction.
Some efforts have been made towards reconciliation, as well. The Oklahoma Eagle reported that astronaut Edward Dwight, the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, and a well-known sculptor, unveiled two monuments for a proposed museum on the riot, with one showing photographs from the destruction and the other a “Tower of Reconciliation.”
Goodwin of the Oklahoma Eagle dismisses such efforts, saying very little has changed – or will change – in Greenwood and Tulsa generally.
Goodwin, 40, sees Greenwood as part of a deliberate campaign to keep blacks in a depressed condition and to take away their land.
He said he has studied the black condition in Oklahoma since he was 5, going back to even the pre-land rush period. By 1907, blacks owned more than 50 percent of the state’s 1.5 million acres. By 1930, that number was down to one-tenth of what it had been, he said.
“No one wants to talk about Greenwood,” Goodwin said. “No one wants to talk about this darkest period in American history.”
While some reports have pointed to efforts to rebuild Greenwood and establish memorials to the riot, Goodwin dismisses such initiatives as meaningless. “Tulsa today is no different than what it was in 1921,” he said. “The institutions that exist today still have remnants from those days. It is a new day but the same old stuff. They have used the law to ensure that there will never be another Greenwood.”