Believed to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, the bloody 1921 outbreak in Tulsa has continued to haunt Oklahomans. During the course of eighteen terrible hours on May 31 and June 1, 1921, more than one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed, while credible estimates of deaths range from fifty to three hundred. By the time the violence ended, the city had been placed under martial law, thousands of Tulsans were being held under armed guard, and the state's second-largest African American community had been burned to the ground.
One of a number of similar episodes nationwide, the outbreak occurred during an era of acute racial tensions, characterized by the birth and rapid growth of the so-called second Ku Klux Klan and by the determined efforts of African Americans to resist attacks upon their communities, particularly in the matter of lynching. Such trends were mirrored both statewide and in Tulsa.
By early 1921 Tulsa was a modern city with a population of more than one hundred thousand. Most of the city's ten thousand African American residents lived in the Greenwood District, a vibrant neighborhood that was home to two newspapers, several churches, a library branch, and scores of black-owned businesses.
However, Tulsa was also a deeply troubled town. Crime rates were extremely high, and the city had been plagued by vigilantism, including the August 1920 lynching, by a white mob, of a white teenager accused of murder. Newspaper reports confirmed that the Tulsa police had done little to protect the lynching victim, who had been taken from his jail cell at the county courthouse.
Eight months later an incident involving Dick Rowland, an African American shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, would set the stage for tragedy. While it is still uncertain as to precisely what happened in the Drexel Building on May 30, 1921, the most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page's foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream.
The next day, however, the Tulsa Tribune, the city's afternoon daily newspaper, reported that Rowland, who had been picked up by police, had attempted to rape Page. Moreover, according to eyewitnesses, the Tribune also published a now-lost editorial about the incident, titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight." By early evening there was, once again, lynch talk on the streets of Tulsa. Continue reading from Oklahoma Historical Society