On this dayJun 01, 1921

White Rioters in Tulsa Destroy Black Community, Kill Dozens

Image | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Video | Vox

On June 1, 1921, the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was left nearly destroyed following several days of violent attacks by white mobs outraged that black residents had organized to protect a black man from lynching.

Tulsa's Greenwood District, known as "Negro Wall Street," was considered one of the wealthiest black communities in the nation in 1921. Many residents worked and did business in central Tulsa, coming into contact with white men and women -- some of whom resented their prosperity.

On May 30th, while working in a building in downtown Tulsa, nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland boarded an elevator operated by Sarah Page, a seventeen-year-old white girl. When a store clerk heard a scream, he ran to the elevator to find Ms. Page. The clerk assumed that the young black man in the elevator had tried to attack Ms. Page, and quickly called police to arrest Dick Rowland.

Ms. Page told police that Mr. Rowland had startled her by touching her arm but insisted she did not want to press charges. Rumors soon spread, however, and turned into a sensationalized allegation that Dick Rowland had attempted rape. Police arrested Mr. Rowland at his Greenwood home and jailed him at the courthouse. The next night, a mob of white men gathered at the jail seeking to lynch him, but thirty armed black men from Greenwood were there to ensure that the sheriff and deputies were able to protect Dick Rowland from that fate.

Enraged, members of the mob returned with firearms, and several white people were killed or wounded in the ensuing gunfight. When the black men returned to Greenwood, white rioters followed and attacked the community, burning forty city blocks, killing at least several dozen black residents, and displacing many more.

"In all of my experience I have never witnessed such scenes as prevailed in this city when I arrived at the height of the rioting," a military official recalled days later in a New York Times news article. "Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were raging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor cars, bristling with guns swept through your city, their occupants firing at will."  Some researchers estimate that as many as 300 black people were killed in the violence.

None of the white rioters were convicted of any crime for their violent attack, and survivors of the violence received no compensation for lost property. In 2001, eighty years after the massacre, Oklahoma approved funds to redevelop the area and build a memorial.

Today, the Greenwood Cultural Center stands in the same community where the massacre took place, committed to preserving and sharing the proud and tragic history of "Black Wall Street."

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