On May 31 and June 1, 1921, the worse race riot in US history took place in Greenwood, the wealthiest African American community in the United States. In the course of two days the community was destroyed ( including by aerial bombardment), and 10,000 African Americans were left homeless. The total number of those killed is not known to this day, and estimates range from 100 to 300.
Oklahoma which had received statehood only in 1907 was highly segregated. African Americans had created their own very successful neighborhood in Tulsa called Greenwood. It was so successful that the commercial district along Greenwood Avenue was nicknamed the “Black Wall Street” (at the time a different word was used). It was considered the wealthiest African American neighborhood in the United States
On May 30. 1921 which was Memorial Day, Dick Rowland a Black shoeshine boy used an elevator in the Drexel Building which was next door to where he worked to use the Black only restroom on the top floor. A few minuted later heard what he thought was a scream and Rowland was seen running away and white Sarah Page an elevator operator seemed to be distraught. The eyewitness called the police. They investigated. Rowland who feared for his life went to his mother's house in Greenwood. The next day he was detained for questioning by a black police officer. The Tulsa Tribune in the afternoon edition is said to have led with a headline "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator.”
A white crowd quickly gathered at the jail. However, the sheriff Willard M. McCullough was determined to make sure that nothing was going to happen to his prisoner. He stationed his me around the jail and made it clear despite the calls “Let us have the nigger” being heard from the crowd told his deputies to shoot anyone who tried to enter the jail. World of the mob reached Greenwood. African Americans in Greenwood feared the Rowland would be lynched. They had good reason to be concerned. Since 1907 there had been 33 lynchings in Oklahoma of which 27 of the victims had been Black. Agroup of residents many of whom were World War I vets headed armed to the Tulsa jail to protect him. When the sheriff promised that Rowland was safe and nobody would be lynched they returned home. However, the site of armed blacks galvanized whites to come to the jail armed. They attempted to get arms from the National Guard Armory but failed, when the commander of the armory confronted those trying to break in and steal arms. However, with plenty of guns around there was soon a heavily armed crowd surrounding the jail. A group of 75 African Americans decided once again to go to the jail and offer their services to help protect it. Their help was declined and as they were leaving a white man approached a tall African American World War I veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver. “Nigger,” the white man said, “What are you doing with that pistol?” “I’m going to use it if I need to,” replied the black veteran. “No, you give it to me.” Like hell, I will." The man tried to take the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out. For the next few seconds, a firefight broke out as the whites started firing on the Blacks and the Black returned fire. Within moment 12 were dead. Mostly white men. The African Americans outnumber 20 to one began a fighting retreat towards Greenwood. Blacks anywhere in Tulsa soon became targets. Over the next 24 hours, the Greenwood neighborhood was attacked and even bombed from the air. Most of its residents arrested. All of the details of what went on during the 24 hours have been lost, but the following are the conclusion by the Oklahoma Commission which examined the events in 2001 concluded:
• Black Tulsans had every reason to believe that Dick Rowland would be lynched after his arrest on charges later dismissed and highly suspect from the start.
• They had cause to believe that his personal safety, like the defense of themselves and their community, depended on them alone.
• As hostile groups gathered and their confrontation worsened, municipal and county authorities failed to take actions to calm or contain the situation.
• At the eruption of violence, civil officials selected many men, all of them white and some of them participants in that violence, and made those men their agents as deputies.
• In that capacity, deputies did not stem the violence but added to it, often through overt acts themselves illegal.
• Public officials provided firearms and ammunition to individuals, again all of them white.
• Units of the Oklahoma National Guard participated in the mass arrests of all or nearly all of Greenwood’s residents, removed them to other parts of the city, and detained them in holding centers.
• Entering the Greenwood district, people stole, damaged or destroyed personal property left behind in homes and businesses.
• People, some of them agents of government, also deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed homes credibly estimated to have numbered 1,256, along with virtually every other structure — including churches, schools, businesses, even a hospital and library in the Greenwood district.
• Despite duties to preserve order and to pro- tect property, no government at any level offered adequate resistance, if any at all, to what amounted to the destruction of the neighborhood referred to commonly as “Little Africa” and politely as the “Negro quarter.”
Although the exact total can never be deter- mined, credibleevidence makes it probable that many people, likely numbering between one and three hundred, were killed during the riot.
• Not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level, municipal, county, state, or federal.
• Even after the restoration of order it was official policy to release a black detainee only upon the application of a white person, and then only if that white person agreed to accept responsibility for that detainee’s subsequent behavior.
• As private citizens, many whites in Tulsa and neighboring communities did extend invaluable assistance to the riot’s victims, and the re- lief efforts of the American Red Cross in particular provided a model of human behavior at its best.
• Although city and county government bore much of the cost for Red Cross relief, neither contributed substantially to Greenwood’s rebuilding; in fact, municipal authorities acted initially to impede rebuilding.
• In the end, the restoration of Greenwood after its systematic destruction was left to the victims of that destruction.