From Rags to Riches - Part II

02/12/2016 11:24

by Chris Campbell


It all started with Dick Rowland, a nineteen year old black shoeshiner.

On May 30, 1921, Rowland walked into an elevator in Tulsa, lost his footing, and accidentally stepped on the foot of a white girl named Sarah Page. The girl, enraged by his clumsiness, beat him over the head with her purse. Rowland instinctively, to protect himself, grabbed her arms -- and at that moment, the elevator doors opened up.

Sarah, to Rowland’s horror, screamed she was being attacked. Rowland fled.

The men outside of the elevator were familiar faces. They all knew who Dick Rowland was. And Dick Rowland, as he ran home, knew he was in trouble.

As predicted, the Tulsa Tribune caught hold of the story and reported that Rowland tore off Sarah’s clothes and scratched her in an attempt to rape her. When she was questioned, so the story goes, she refused to press charges and didn’t confirm the story written in the paper. Instead of calming the white men of Tulsa, this infuriated them further.

Rowland was detained by the sheriff for questioning and kept in a holding cell. At 7:30 p.m., on May 31, the small mob of white men tried to storm the courthouse with the intentions of lynching Rowland.

“Upon hearing that a white mob was attempting to drag Rowland out of jail, where he had been detained during the investigation,” says Kennon, “a group of black World War I veterans armed themselves and went to the sheriff to offer their services in protecting the courthouse.”

The sheriff turned them away. He wouldn’t need their protection, he told them. Those men wouldn’t come back.

But a rumor traveled to Greenwood that the men were planning to take Rowland by force, so the vets returned. This time, the small mob had already arrived. An argument ensued and one of the white men tried to grab a gun from one of the black men.


“Someone,” Kennon writes, “somewhere, fired a shot -- whether it was purposeful or accidental, no one knows -- and all hell broke loose.

“The white residents of Tulsa took to their cars, creating ad hoc lynch mobs. They shot blacks they came across on sight in drive-by murders. The sheriff’s department named “special deputies” to enforce law, reportedly encouraging them to “grab a gun and get a n_____,” providing what amounted to effective carte blanche license to murder whomever they wanted, without consequence, provided the victim was black.

“In an instant, the whites set their sight on the economic miracle that had provided upward mobility for these black families and made their way toward Greenwood, determined to destroy Black Wall Street.

“They were held off at the railroad tracks by a group of black men who tried to protect their property but managed to buy time for others to escape. When the final line of defense was broken, the white mob descended in rage, torching, destroying, and bombing everything they could find of value.

“Roughly 10,000 black men, women, and children were left homeless,” Kennon says. “One of the best surgeons in the United States was shot in front of his home. Hospitals were razed. Schools, factories, an estimated 191 businesses, and banks were wiped off the face of the Earth. Old bomber planes from World War I took off from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field, patrolling the skies and shooting blacks on sight while simultaneously dropping explosives on any buildings that remained. It was all-out, unrestrained, brutal, demonic warfare.

Old Photos of the Tulsa Race Riot, 1921

“The white lynch mobs went from home to home, looting like animals, killing and terrorizing those who remained to fight or were unable to flee. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, one elderly black couple was executed at point-blank range as they knelt in their home, praying. White families were targeted, too, if they employed blacks or were thought to be sympathetic to their cause. Many lives were spared thanks to the bravery of other white business owners like the Zarrow family, who risked total ruination and death by deciding to hide black citizens in their grocery store during those sixteen hours of hell.

“Martial law was declared and Tulsa became militarized as the Oklahoma National Guard secured the area, mass arresting blacks and detaining them in a handful of locations across the city. By the time it was all over, less than a day later, Black Wall Street was no more. Greenwood was destroyed, scores laid dead, entire self-made fortunes gone, never to be rebuilt, unjustly taken in one of the worst events in U.S. history.”

More than 300 blacks died. And the mob looted and burned over 1,265 homes -- on top of all the businesses. The National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans. And ten thousand blacks were left homeless. They lived in tents through the winter of 1921.

If you’ve heard this story before, this is the part where most people end it -- tragically.

But the story doesn’t really end there. Greenwood residents refused to let that be the end of it. Despite the city’s opposition to them rebuilding their once-grand slice of paradise, they did it anyway.

“After the riot,” Michael Bates writes on his blog Batesline, “there was an attempt by the city’s white leaders to keep Greenwood from being rebuilt. The City Commission passed an ordinance extending the fire limits to include Greenwood, prohibiting frame houses from being rebuilt. The idea was to designate the district for industrial use and resettle blacks to a new place further away from downtown, outside the city limits.

“African American attorneys won an injunction against the new fire ordinance; the court decreed that it constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment, a taking of property without due process. The injunction opened the door for Greenwood residents to rebuild. They did it themselves, without insurance funds (most policies had a riot exclusion) or any other significant outside aid…

And, Bates said, “The Greenwood district flourished well into the 1950s.”

“They were not going to be kept down,” one resident, Eunice Jackson said. “They were determined not to give up. So they rebuilt Greenwood and it was just as wonderful. It became known as The Black Wall Street of America.”

What happened in Greenwood goes against absolutely everything we stand for in our virtual pages.

Everyone has the right to prosperity when lifted with the sweat of his or her brow. And it’s supposed to be the bedrock of the American way. The core of “the dream.”  And that dream, against many odds, came to fruition. Greenwood stands as one of the most inspiring rags-to-riches stories in U.S. history. Until, of course, through no fault of its own, it wasn’t.

And then, some of the most resilient and determined beings that have ever walked this Earth rebuilt it again from scratch. That’s the triumph. The tragedy, though, is that, along with hundreds of other uncomfortable truths, what happened was swept under the rug -- to be dealt with another day.


My only hope for Baltimore is we don’t simply sweep what happened there under the rug too.

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