The Lesson of Tulsa

The Outlook/June 15, 1921

On the night of June 1 a newspaper dispatch from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said: “The hospitals of Tulsa are filled with wounded and dying men tonight and the morgues are crowded with dead after twenty-four hours of rioting between white men and Negroes.”

On the same day a woman stenographer in a Tulsa office wrote this moving letter to the editors of The Outlook:

Today Tulsa is torn by a civil battle between the white and black races which is sickening to all right-minded people of this city. All of Little Africa is burning; many people, both white and black, lie dead and wounded.

The cause of the trouble is the usual one. A young Negro is accused of attempting to attack a little elevator girl. He claims he intended no wrong, but of course his story has no chance of recognition.

I am a stenographer in a downtown office, and just now a large company of Negroes were marched through the street past my window, under the protection of white soldiers. They are taking them to the ball park, where they will be under protection. They are homeless, most of them, innocent of any wrong-doing or even wrong thinking helpless, dumbly wondering why this thing should be.

The whites here are much more to be blamed than the Negroes. Is is largely an element of hoodlum white boys, craving excitement, and looking for any opportunity to start a race riot.

How long are such outrages going to be allowed? Cannot America find some means of preventing such terrible occurrences? The Negroes are with us here in America, though they did not ask to be brought here. There is wrong on both sides, but in some manner law and order must be maintained.

What caused the rioting, shooting, and burning that left in Tulsa a wake of deaths (at least thirty persons were killed), widespread suffering and destitution, thousands of homeless people, acres of smoldering ruins, a money loss of perhaps a million dollars? Superficially, the answer might be that it was a strange misunderstanding of facts. General Barrett, in command of the State Militia, is quoted in the papers as saying that the riot was caused by “an impudent Negro, a hysterical girl, and a yellow journal reporter.” Again superficially, it may be said that this horror was caused by the misuse of a word; it was reported that a white girl had been “assaulted” by a colored man; the fact was, it now appears, that a bootblack stepped on an elevator girl’s foot, that she slapped him, and he grasped her by the throat.

But the real cause lies deeper. Americans take the observance of law and order for granted. Civilization, they assume, has reached a stage where force is not needed. Then, under some comparatively slight provocation, the wild-beast element in society leaps up, the peace officers are unready, and we have the race riots of Washington, Omaha, East St. Louis, Chicago, and Tulsa. Especially is this true when race feeling is involved. Race aversion (from which few of us are free) easily becomes race prejudice; race prejudice is quickly fanned into race hatred; race hatred among the ignorant and violent elements, black and white, may at any moment blaze into race war.