Oklahoma lawmakers planning for 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial


by Jim North
Southeast Campus Editor

“You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge, but don’t kill my baby and my son,” sang legendary folk-song writer, Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie hailed from Okemah, Okla. and penned the title song, “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son,” a portrayal of the lynching of a mother and child in 1911.

Hung by their necks to die, they swayed beneath the Canadien River bridge in Okemah, while whites lined above, posing for a picture.

Guthrie would be haunted all his life that his father may have been directly involved with the killings.

Lynchings were commonplace in racially divided Oklahoma at the time. Race riots were occurring across the country. Dewey, Okla. had been torched to the ground by whites prior to the Tulsa Race Riot.

These set the tone for what would become one of the worst disasters ever to occur on American soil.

Former St. Rep. Don Ross (1982-2000) was a former editor for The Oklahoma Eagle, and one of the first journalists to break the 50-year conspiracy of silence surrounding the tragic event of 1921.

He began telling the story and later would pass legislation to form a Tulsa Race Riot Commission, to study the subject, locate survivors, and request reparations for families who had lost loved ones.

Born in 1941, Ross had no knowledge of the Tulsa Race Riot until age 15. As a student at Booker T. Washington High School, teacher H.D. Williams told of the event, though history books bore no record.

Ross believed his teacher was lying, until Williams produced the proof—actual photographs of demolished and burned-out Greenwood.

Ross considers himself a living memorial to the Tulsa Race Riot, saying there is no ‘statute of limitations’ to morality. He says morality still calls for redemption, historical correctness, repair, and a true denouncing of the 1921 crimes.

The Tulsa Race Riot was an invasion of the Greenwood District of Tulsa. More than 600 businesses and 1,200 homes were destroyed by arson.

The loss of life has never been determined, but could number in the thousands.

Few records were kept as to the deaths of African-American men, women, and children. Deaths, which were recorded, often did not contain the names of victims, nor their ages.

It became impossible for Greenwood to rebuild ‘Black Wall Street,’ due to stringent zoning laws. Structures suddenly were required to be built ‘fire-proof.’

The inciting incident for the 1921 massacre was an alleged crime by African-American shoe shiner, Dick Rowland. Sarah Page was a white elevator operator in downtown Tulsa.

Rowland rode the elevator operated by Page. As the door opened, Page screamed.  Rowland was soon arrested for alleged rape, though never proven.

Hundreds of whites gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse and their numbers swelled to more than 2,000.

After the arrest of shoe-shiner Rowland, The Tulsa Tribune newspaper published an inflammatory article, soon deleted from the archives, “To Lynch a Nigger Tonight.”

Residents of Greenwood rushed the courthouse in defense of Rowland, to prevent a suspected lynching.

A scuffle broke out, shots were fired, and the race riot commenced. African-Americans retreated to their haven of Greenwood, while the white mob descended in force, burning the district to the ground.

During the riot, white citizens were authorized to arrest Greenwood residents and herd them to internment camps located at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds, as well as then McNulty Baseball Field.

More than 6,000 African-American men were held against their will in the camps by whites, as well as the Tulsa Police.

Meanwhile, ‘Black Wall Street’ businesses were looted, ravaged, and utterly destroyed.

African-Americans were shot on the spot, many in their homes, others fleeing by foot. More than 40 city blocks were demolished. Greenwood was a war-zone.

The official Tulsa Race Riot Commission Report paints the picture, “What they found was a blackened landscape of vacant lots and empty streets, charred timbers and melted metal, ashes, and broken dreams.”

Ross says whites had the advantage during the riot of automatic weaponry such as machine guns, while airplanes dropped bombs to fuel the raging fire.

The City of Tulsa turned away offers of money from around the country to rebuild the once thriving district, highlighting the racial hatred flooding the area.

Homeless residents numbered more than 10,000. Whites drove vehicles in the streets, taunting demoralized Greenwood citizens.

Property losses mounted to more than $4 million, translating into billions today. Official city records claimed only $1.5 million in losses.

No insurance claims of Greenwood victims were ever honored, due to the absence of riot clauses in policies.

Forced into servitude, African-Americans victims were not only blamed, but they were required to clean up the mess caused by the massacre.

Crimes were never punished, including arson, murder, looting, false-arrests, false-imprisonment, and the cover-up in the aftermath.

A Tulsa grand jury issued its final report on June 25, 1921: “We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921 … there was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching, and no arms.”

Thus, a dissonant chord was struck for what would become decades of silence and denial.

Senator Kevin Matthews is serving as chair of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission, which is in the early stages of planning activities to recognize the 100-year anniversary of the race riot.

Matthews grew up in north Tulsa and lives in north Tulsa today—just one block from the affected area of Greenwood.

“We want all of Tulsa and as many people in the state and across the country to ultimately get involved,” he says.

Currently, a nucleus of individuals is preparing the 2021 events: some historians, past elected officials, the mayor’s office, the Tulsa County Commissioner, as well as members of the U.S. Senate and Congress.

Those who wish to make a contribution or become involved with the centennial planning, should contact Matthews at his office, (405) 521-5598.

“We are starting five years early, so we can bring the community together over the next five years in an outstanding opportunity to bring economic development, healing, and education to the state of Oklahoma … and all areas that were affected.”

Matthews aims for the 100-year anniversary to culminate in recognition of a tragic past, yet more hopeful future. He says the race riot can only be understood by understanding what it destroyed.

“We talk about terrorism today from people from other countries. That was terrorism here. And to minimize that, you minimize the loss of life,” he says.

“Families decimated, African-American males taken away from females and families, that is how a race, that’s how a family, that’s how a community was destroyed,” he concludes.

Ross and Matthews agree that Tulsa is still a segregated city, pointing to the fact that 80 percent of north Tulsa is still comprised of African-Americans.

St. Rep. Regina Goodwin, who grew up in historic Greenwood, hopes the railroad tracks, which have divided Greenwood from Tulsa, will one day disappear.