Taking Back Our Stolen History
Tulsa Race Riots of 1921: 26 Blacks, 10 Whites Killed, Greenwood Commercial District Destroyed
Tulsa Race Riots of 1921: 26 Blacks, 10 Whites Killed, Greenwood Commercial District Destroyed

Tulsa Race Riots of 1921: 26 Blacks, 10 Whites Killed, Greenwood Commercial District Destroyed

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In what some historians have called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” residents and businesses of Tulsa’s predominantly Black Greenwood District were attacked on the ground and from the air by mobs of Whites angered by the financial prosperity of the residents of what was then known as the “Black Wall Street.” In less than 18 hours, at least 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, with hundreds of people killed.

Short Description: Little-known riot that resulted in one of the most deadly and destructive acts of racially motivated violence in US history.

Key Players: Dick Rowland, 19-year-old Black man; Sarah Page, 17-year-old White female elevator operator; Willard M. McCullough, Tulsa County sheriff; Charles Barrett, Oklahoma National Guard General

Event Start Date: May 31, 1921

Event End Date: June 1, 1921

Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA

Tulsa in 1921

As in much of the United States in the years following World War I, racial and social tensions in Oklahoma were running high. During the great land rushes of the 1890s, Oklahoma had become home to many settlers from the South who had owned slaves before the Civil War. With the Civil War still a sore spot, the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan had resurfaced. Since being granted statehood in 1907, Oklahoma had been the scene of the lynchings of at least 26 Black men and boys. Segregation was the rule throughout the state, with many of its old apartheid-like Jim Crow laws still enforced.
By 1921, the Sunbelt region oil boom had turned Tulsa into a growing city of nearly 75,000 people, including a disproportionally large number of employed and affluent Black citizens. Despite the oil boom, Tulsa suffered from a stalling economy that had resulted in widespread unemployment, especially among the White population. As returning war veterans struggled to find jobs, Tulsa’s unemployed White residents grew to resent the working Black residents. The city’s high crime rate was spiked by acts of racial violence, many in the form of White-inspired vigilante “justice.”

The ‘Black Wall Street’

In 1916, Tulsa had enacted a local segregation ordinance that virtually prevented Black persons from living or working in White neighborhoods. Although the United States Supreme Court declared the ordinance unconstitutional in 1917, Tulsa’s all-White city government, supported by a majority of the White population, continued to enforce both de jure and de facto segregation. As a result, most of Tulsa’s 10,000 Black residents had congregated in the Greenwood district, a thriving business district that had become so prosperous it was referred to as “Black Wall Street.”
Very much functioning as a separate city, the Greenwood district was home to many profitable Black-owned grocery stores, theaters, newspapers, and nightclubs. Black doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, and clergy served the district’s residents. Even more aggravating to Tulsa’s White population, Greenwood’s residents elected their leaders who used their personal wealth to promote even greater economic growth within the district.
It was in this supercharged atmosphere of racial animosity in which the events that ignited the Tulsa Race Massacre took place.

Events of the Tulsa Race Massacre

At about 4 p.m. on Monday, May 30, 1921—Memorial Day—a 19-year-old Black shoeshine shop worker named Dick Rowland allegedly entered the only elevator in the Drexel Building on South Main Street to use the “Coloreds-only” restroom located on the top floor. Minutes later, a White female clerk at a nearby store heard the 17-year-old White elevator operator, Sarah Page, scream and saw a young Black man running from the building. Finding Page in what she described as a “distraught state,” the clerk called the police. Dick Rowland was arrested the next morning.

Tuesday, May 31, 1921

Rumors of what had occurred on the Drexel Building’s elevator quickly spread through Tulsa’s White community. Around 3 p.m., a front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune, printed under the glaring headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator,” reported that Rowland had been arrested for sexually assaulting Sarah Page. Within an hour, rumors of a lynching moved newly elected Tulsa County sheriff Willard M. McCullough to place city police on alert.
By late afternoon, several hundred angry White residents had gathered at the courthouse demanding that Rowland be handed over to them. Sheriff McCullough tried to talk the demonstrators into dispersing but was shouted down. Seeing the crowd turning into a lynch mob, McCullough ordered several armed deputies to barricade the top floor of the courthouse, disabled the building’s elevator, and ordered the deputies to shoot any intruders on sight.
At the same time, members of the Black community had gathered at a Greenwood district hotel to discuss the situation at the courthouse. Around 9 p.m., a group of about 25 armed Black men—many of whom were World War I veterans—arrived at the courthouse offering to help Sheriff McCullough protect Rowland. After McCullough convinced them to go home, some members of the White mob unsuccessfully tried to steal rifles from the nearby National Guard armory.
At about 10 p.m., a group of 50 to 75 armed Black men, concerned that Rowland might still be lynched, arrived at the courthouse where they were met by some 1,500 White men, many of whom also carried guns. A witness later testified that a White man told one of the armed Black men to drop his gun. When the Black man refused, a single shot was fired. Whether that shot had been an accident or a warning, it set off a short but deadly first exchange of gunfire that left ten Whites and two Blacks dead in the street.
As the Black men who had come to help protect Rowland retreated toward Greenwood Avenue, the White mob gave chase, setting off a running gun battle. As the battle spread into the Greenwood district, hundreds of Black residents exited local businesses to see what was causing the commotion. Seeing the growing crowd, the police panicked and began firing at any Black person on the street. Police were also seen deputizing members of the lynch mob, instructing them to “get a gun” and start shooting Blacks.
Around 11 p.m., troops from the Oklahoma National Guard, joined by members of the Tulsa chapter of the American Legion, surrounded the courthouse and police station. Other armed members of this group were reportedly sent to protect White-owned homes and businesses adjacent to the Greenwood district. Just before midnight, a smaller White lynch mob attempted to force its way into the courthouse but was turned away by sheriff’s deputies.

Wednesday, June 1, 1921

Just after midnight, sporadic gunfights between Whites and Black residents began breaking out. Cars filled with armed Whites drove through the Greenwood district randomly firing shots into Black-owned homes and businesses. By 4:00 a.m., a larger White mob had set at least a dozen Greenwood district businesses on fire. In many cases, Tulsa Fire Department crews who showed to fight the fires were turned away at gunpoint.
As the sun rose over Tulsa, the sporadic violence had turned into an all-out race war. Chased by an ever-growing mob of armed White attackers, the Black residents retreated deeper into Greenwood. In cars and on foot, the Whites pursued the fleeing Black residents, killing several along the way. Though overwhelmed, the Black residents fought back, killing at least six Whites. Several Black residents later testified that they were driven from their homes by armed Whites and forced to walk at gunpoint to hastily set up detention centers.
Several eyewitnesses reported seeing “a dozen or more” airplanes carrying White attackers firing rifles at fleeing Black families and dropping “burning turpentine balls” bombs on Greenwood district homes and businesses.
At around 9:15 a.m., a special train arrived carrying at least 100 additional Oklahoma National Guard troops who began helping Sheriff McCullough and local police restore order. National Guard General Charles Barrett placed Tulsa under martial law at 11:49 a.m., and by early afternoon, his troops had at last ended most of the violence. By the time peace was restored, as many as 6,000 black Greenwood residents had been interned at three local detention centers, and thousands more had fled the town.

Casualties and Damages

Due to the chaotic nature of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the fact that many victims were buried in unmarked graves, estimates of casualties resulting varied widely. The Tulsa Tribune reported a total of 31 deaths, including 21 Black and nine White victims, while the Los Angeles Express reported 175 deaths. In 2001, the Oklahoma 1921 Race Massacre Commission report concluded that 36 people, 26 Black and 10 White, had died. Today, the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially reports 36 dead. However, based on the verbal and written accounts of survivors and American Red Cross volunteers, some historians estimate as many as 300 may have died. Even by the lowest estimates, the Tulsa Race Massacre remains one of the deadliest racially inspired riots in U.S. history.

Property Losses

The entire 35 blocks of the Greenwood commercial district were destroyed. A total of 191 Black-owned businesses, several churches, a junior high school, and the district’s only hospital were lost. According to the Red Cross, 1,256 homes were burned with another 215 looted and vandalized. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated total real estate and personal property losses at $2.25 million, the equivalent of nearly $30 million in 2020.

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The 1st historical reporting of the massacre published in 1921:


An incipient racial war, the most disastrous in the history of Oklahoma, was initiated in Tulsa on the evening of May 31, 1921, in a most surprising and unexpected manner.

The published report of the arrest of a Negro boy charged with an attempted assault on a white woman occasioned little comment among the white people who fully expected the law to take its course in the matter. Unfortunately, a group of Negros from the Negro section of the city, who according to facts developed after an investigation, had been worked upon by a lawless element of white agitators, reds and bolshevists and who had been badly advised by members of their own race, were lead to believe that mob violence threatened the Negro prisoner who was in the custody of the sheriff at the county jail;

Without warning a number of armed Negroes under the lead of obnoxious and dangerous men of their race proceeded through the downtown business section of Tulsa to the courthouse and began a demonstration of defiance and lawlessness. They were advised that no attempt was being made to lynch the Negro prisoner and retired from the scene, only to return later with apparent reinforcements, many of them armed with pistols .and guns and one body of them were marching in columns of fours, showing military, or at least recent organization and drill. Insulting demands were made by these Negroes on the peace officers, a shot or two was fired and a race riot immediately started. The Negroes began firing indiscriminately and before they vacated the business section several white men and several Negroes had been killed.

The local police and sheriff’s officials seemed powerless to control the situation and several hundred white men armed themselves and by 10 o’clock P. M. the city was in the throes of a race riot of unparalleled magnitude and several pitched battles were in progress between the· Negroes and the white citizens. Hardware stores and pawn shops in the business section were broken into, arms and ammunition secured by white men and a lawless element of both Negroes and whites quickly joined in the fray, making a situation acute and dangerous in the extreme.

The Negroes were driven back towards their section of the town and half a block of business structures on North Cincinnati between the Frisco railroad and Archer Street, which section had been occupied by Negro pool halls, and other disreputable lins of business, and by restaurants, broke into flames. The Negroes who had taken refuge in these buildings were in a hot battle with the armed whites and were driven farther north to Greenwood, the principal Negro business street of the city, which was soon in flames.

The battle raged throughout the night and the flames of the burning Negro residences and business houses added to the intense excitement. The local companies of National Guard were mobilized, under the command of Maj. L. J. F. Rooney, and did what could possibly be done to stem the conflict, but with little result. With the coming of morning the situation was found to be so acute and danger to the entire city so apparent that the governor was apprised of the situation and the National Guard, under command of Adjt.-Gen. Charles F. Barrett, was ordered mobilized in Tulsa. General Barrett arrived about 9 A. M. with 150 members of the Oklahoma City companies and companies from Muskogee, Bartlesville and Wagoner were quickly brought to the scene.

All morning the fire raged, completely wiping out the entire business section inhabited by Negroes and 860 stores and homes owned by Negroes were totally destroyed together with all their contents. The fire department was helpless owing to the threats of the infuriated whites to shoot any man who attempted to lay a line of hose, and all morning the fire continued with intermittent shooting and scenes of riotous disorder, now practically confined to the Negro section.

The National Guard got into real action about noon and immediately the.process of rounding up Negro men, women and children began, and by night of June 1st probably 6,000 Negroes had been escorted and driven to Convention Hall, McNulty ball park and the Tulsa County fair grounds. The civic societies of Tulsa immediately got busy with preparations for feeding and caring for the homeless Negroes. The Red Cross, Y. M. C. A. and Y. W. C. A. agencies were put to work, all of the downtown churches were quickly filled with refugees and substantially the entire Negro population was under guard and .under protection by nightfall of the second day of the riot. Families were separated in the confusion and there was much distress for the first thirty-six hours following the outbreak.

Wednesday, June 1, at noon, martial law was proclaimed throughout Tulsa County. The civil officers ceased to function and the military took entire charge of policing the city. Guards were thrown out in the Negro section and whites were ordered to their homes and disarmed, and under the direction of General Barrett the situation was soon taken well in hand.

Asked for a statement of the local situation, President Niles of the Chamber of Commerce furnished to the press associations of the country the following statement, which shows the general sentiment of the best people of this city:

“A minor arrest had been made and publicly announced, the defendant being a Negro boy. Under bad advice and led by a group of Negroes exhibiting a spirit of lawlessness, a group of probably fifty Negroes left the Negro section of the city, came through the business section and marched on the courthouse. There was no occasion for their coming. The member of their race was not in jeopardy at all, but under the inflammatory action of lawless Negro leaders demands were made of the sheriff and insults hurled at the white citizens attracted by the Negro mob. The shooting began and the riot was on.

“A bad psychological condition, occasioned by a spirit of unrest, and some unemployment, dovetailed into the lawlessness which grew like a snowball and rapidly got beyond control of officials. The situation was quickly taken advantage of by some of the lawless element among the whites. Stores were broken open. People with no authority were quickly armed and the situation became desperate in the extreme and wholly out of control.

“The deplorable event is the greatest wound Tulsa’s civic pride has ever received and every right thinking man and woman in the city, white and black, is now doing everything possible to heal the wound as quickly as may be. Leading business men are in hourly conference and a movement is now being organized, not only for the succor, protection and alleviation of the sufferings of the Negroes, but to formulate a plan of reparation in order that homes may be rebuilt and families as nearly as possible rehabilitated. The sympathy of the citizenship of Tulsa in a great wave has gone out to the unfortunate law-abiding Negroes who became victims of the action and bad advice of some of the lawless leaders, and as quickly as possible rehabilitation will take place and reparation be made.

“Tulsa feels intensely humiliated and standing in the shadow of this great tragedy pledges its every effort to wiping out the stain at the earliest possible moment and punishing those guilty of bringing the disgrace and disaster to this city.

“A city which put three military units in the field with more than seven thousand men in the service, which contributed in excess of $33,000,000 for war purposes and which established its reputation as a patriotic city during the recent war second to none on the American continent, can be depended upon to make proper restitution and to bring order out of chaos at the earliest possible moment.”

In the absence of competent authority to take charge of· the relief situation a meeting was called by President Niles of the Chamber of Commerce at 11 a. m., Thursday, June 2d, and after  addresses by General Barrett, Judge L. J. Martin and others the meeting, on the advice of. General Barrett and on his recommendation, selected an executive committee known as the Tulsa Executive Welfare Committee, consisting of seven men, to take immediate control of all civic and civilian operations. The meeting selected as members of this committee L. J. Martin, chairman, and the following named: H. C. Tyrrell, C. F. Hopkins, C. S. Avery, G. R. McCullough, S. G. Kennedy, H. L. Standeven, and this committee immediately went into session in the Chamber· of Commerce rooms and proceeded with the organization of the various civic bodies, the work of the Y. M. C. A. and the Y.. W. C. A., the Red Cross and other associations.

This committee appointed a committee on legal matters to assist in the apprehension and conviction of those responsible for the great outrage and for the arrest of looters and the lawless generally; appointed a financial committee to secure funds for the rehabilitation of the Negro homes; committees to have charge of policing the city and seeing to it that not less than one hundred American Legion men were sworn in as special officers to assist in preserving the peace, and through the action and operations of this committee a semblance of order was soon restored.

Martial law was revoked at 3 p. m., Friday, June 3d, by order of General Barrett and the troops returned tO their respective homes. Members of the American Legion were sworn in as peace officers. Col. P. J. Hurley, cooperating with the sheriff’s office under the direction of the executive committee, organized a force of 100 emergency minute men to act in conjunction with the sheriff’s office, and the civil authorities resumed general jurisdiction over the local situation.

The Red Cross work under the direction of Clark Fields, the Women’s Relief Corps under control of Mrs. A. W. Roth, the Y. W. C. A. under Mrs. J. A. Hull and other patriotic women began a systematic campaign for the relief of the sufferers; and an identification bureau was established at the Y. M. C. A. for the purpose of reuniting and locating families, and under the direction of

Maj. C. F. Hopkins and C. A. Border the construction of tents for the homeless was begun in the Negro settlement. N. R. Graham was in charge of the detention camp at the fairgrounds where probably 3,500 Negroes had been mobilized. J. Burr Gibbons was active in the work at Convention Hall, which was packed with sweltering humanity, and the local ministers of the city and patriotic business men took charge of the work in the churches ·and at the ball park, and the Negroes were fed and provided with bedding during Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights.

The wildest rumors were given general circulation and as usual were believed in preference to the real facts and the statement was made even by officials that 25,000 white lawless men were running rampant through the city armed and pillaging, which was of course not true, and the statement was also made that machine gun fire had mowed down the Negroes by the score. A checking up of the fatalities brings the number of white dead to ten and the number of Negro dead is placed at twenty-four. The burned district included a portion of blocks 43, 44, 45 and 46, practically all of block 47, a portion of blocks 54, 55, 56, 57 and 58, between the Frisco railroad and the M. K. & T. railroad; also a portion of blocks 23 and 50 and half of blocks 15 and 17, in the original plat of Tulsa; also substantially all of blocks 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 in Washington Addition, and blocks 2, 3, 4 and 5 in Gurley Hill Addition; also blocks 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Skidmore Addition and portions of blocks 1, and 9 in Fairview Addition, and some residences in Liberty and Rose additions, with the occasional loss of a house in Greenwood Addition. The greatest loss was in the Negro business section on Greenwood Street for a distance of four blocks, which was totally destroyed on each side of ‘the street.

The Associated Press and the United Press sent special men to Tulsa and many of the large newspapers of the Middle West were represented by special writers. Numerous telegrams were received by the executive committee from various cities in the Union offering aid, but the policy was quickly adopted that this was strictly a Tulsa affair and that the work of restoration and charity would be taken care of by Tulsa people. ·

There are reasons to believe that previous to the outbreak, perhaps for the past year, a vicious white influence has been at work among the Negroes aided and abetted by vicious members of the Negro race; that meetings were held, incendiary speeches made and that preparations for racial trouble had been made by the assembling of a large amount of high powered ammunition and modem weapons of offense. The consensus of opinion is, on the part of those who have made the most careful investigation, that through such meetings and through such bad advice a number of the Negroes were led into committing this great crime and that as a result of those teachings, as must inevitably happen, the Negro race was in the final analysis the greatest sufferers and in every way the losers in the conflict.

It is thought that out of Tulsa’s greatest tragedy will come a better understanding between the races and that in the future the lawless white element or the lawless Negro element which preaches race equality and racial hatred and incites the Negroes to revolt, rebellion, lawlessness and disorder will be promptly dealt with by the best citizenship of both white and black and that a recurrence of this deplorable event is practically impossible.


Under date of June 7th, the executive committee of ·the Board of Public Welfare issued the following statement:

To the Citizens of Tulsa:

The undersigned members of the Welfare Executive Committee of Tulsa desire to make the following statement:

On Thursday,  June 2d, while martial Jaw was in effect in Tulsa, following the race riot a meeting was called by President Niles of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce at II o’clock A. M. for a conference with Adjt.-Gen. Charles F. Barrett in command of the troops in this city. General Barrett addressed that meeting and recommended that the citizens of Tulsa organize an effective piece of machinery to immediately take charge of the situation and bring order out of chaos and assist in restoring the local situation to a normal condition. That meeting elected the undersigned members of Tulsa’s Executive Welfare Committee to take immediate control and get into action.

The committee went into session on the afternoon of that date and has been in practically continuous session ttp to the present time. Systematic organization of relief forces was perfected through the Red Cross, the churches and by and with the co-operation of hundreds of patriotic citizens, control was assumed of the burned area, provisions made for properly policing and protecting the city against sporadic outbreaks, conferences were held with judicial officials relative to the immediate· calling of special grand jury to investigate the causes of the riot and to initiate the punishment of those guilty, the work of the charitably inclined was systematized, headquarters established for the Red Cross and the working forces in the schoolhouse and in tents in the burned district, tents were secured and an erecting organization perfected, a grocery store was opened in the burned district where supplies could be secured, a medical corps perfected and a sanitary detachment organized, labor was furnished to those seeking work, at living wages, the removal of the debris from the burned area begun, a strong legal committee appointed to handle the cases which might be presented to the Police Court and for their fuller prosecution in the higher courts, the Real Estate Exchange was organized to list and appraise the value of properties in the burned area and to work out a plan of possible purchase and the conversion of the burned area into art industrial and wholesale district, and a detention and sustenance camp established at the fairgrounds, dozens of automobiles assigned to Red Cross service, identification bureaus for the search and identification of separated families were established, thousands of articles of wearing apparel and household utensils were assembled and distributed to the needy, a Negro publication resumed to quiet the Negroes, a dominant and effective emergency police organization was perfected, the avenues leading to the city were patrolled, properly guarded and protected and a strong finance committee organized to take charge of the necessary financial requirements.

The committee has selected a public safety committee of minute men of Tulsa, consisting of 250 leading and representative business men and taxpayers to respond to call to meet any emergency that might arise and to serve for an indefinite period, and all of those things apparently necessary to be done have been taken charge of and performed by this committee to the best of their ability.

The civic organizations of Tulsa and the various church congregations of the city have given their unqualified approval of the work of this organization and have tendered their earnest support in carrying out such further duties as may arise and this committee now asks and has a right to expect the earnest and active co-operation of every good citizen of Tulsa, white or black, when called upon to act in any emergency.

The headquarters of the committee are in the executive offices of the Chamber of Commerce where its membership may be reached at any time during the present crisis, and it will continue to function as long as may be thought necessary in restoring Tulsa to normalcy. The committee feels that with the assistance of the other forces co-operating splendid results have been secured to date and accepts the authority to act in this great emergency conferred on it by the citizenship of this city and pledges the continued performance of its manifold duties to the extent of the ability of its individual membership.



L. J. MARTIN, chairman.

PDF of Final Report of the Tulsa Commission to Study the 1921 Race Riot

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