The Tulsa Race Riots

The Independent/June 18, 1921

THIRTY persons known to be killed, a property loss of over $1,500,000, the complete destruction of the negro quarters of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the memory of the worst race riot in the history of the state was the result.

The cause of it all, as stated by Adjutant General Barrett, was “an impudent negro, a hysterical girl and a yellow journal reporter.”

No riot ever struck a city with less warning or found the local authorities less ready to cope with it. It was a spontaneous flare-up based on old prejudices, new suspicions and wild rumors. A negro was arrested on the charge of attacking a white elevator girl in an office building. Although he was held safely in prison awaiting trial the rumor spread that there would be a lynching. The negroes thought the report probable enough, and, without waiting to investigate the truth, they assembled an armed band of several hundred men around the court house to protect the prisoner. The police attempted in vain to disperse the mob of blacks, and a number of shots were fired.

Then another mob assembled—a white mob. Whether it had originally planned a lynching or not, it was not bent on mischief. The whites were inadequately provided with arms, so they broke into hardware and sporting goods stores and took what rifles, shotguns, revolvers and ammunition they could lay hands on. Many of them made up automobile parties and rode unchallenged through the streets with arms in hand.

After a considerable amount of sniping the negroes around the courthouse were beaten back. By dawn of June 1 the whites were in command of the situation. Neither the police department nor the sheriff took any effective steps to put a stop to the activities of the two rival mobs. At day break the troubles took on a new and more sinister phase. No longer content with the negative victory of having driven the blacks into the negro quarter, the white rioters decided to carry the way “into the enemy’s country.” They invaded the square mile of buildings which made up the black belt of the town and systematically wiped it out. Most of the buildings were mere cottages, but among the structures given to the flames was a fine church, a new schoolhouse, two newspaper offices and several three-story buildings. The raiders were more intent on arson than on murder, although in some instances they fired into the crowds of fleeing negroes.

Order was restored by action of the state authorities. Governor Robertson came to the city in person. Adjutant General Barrett policed the streets with men of the National Guard.

Martial law was proclaimed and permits to private citizens to carry arms were revoked. The negroes, rendered homeless by the conflagration, were given quarters in church buildings and in public parks and protected by guards of police and soldiers. Within a few hours from the time when Tulsa was a battleground of thousands of frenzied men it was as quiet as a graveyard.

The law-abiding element in Tulsa, though taken by surprise and unable to prevent the riot, came to the fore as soon as the National Guard had dispersed the armed bands. A grand jury was called to investigate the circumstances of the uprising, to bring indictments against persons guilty of riotous conduct, and to make inquiry as to the conduct of the police and of the sheriff’s office. The Governor promised every aid which the state could give in discovering and punishing the guilty.

A committee of business men was chosen to rebuild the devastated portion of the city. Ex-Mayor Martin declared that “Tulsa can only redeem herself from the country-wide shame and humiliation in which she is today plunged by complete restitution of the destroyed black belt. The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny.” On the initiative of many good citizens generous aid was brought to the negroes who had lost their homes in the fire.