Home > History, Human Rights, Our Wonderful Legal System. > The Deadliest Race Riot You Never Heard of: Greenwood Oklahoma.

The Deadliest Race Riot You Never Heard of: Greenwood Oklahoma.

Little Africa on fire. Tulsa Race Riot, June 1...

Image via Wikipedia

 As a third year history major, one of my greatest delights is to come across little known accounts of events that have happened in our past. Generally many of these past occurrences detail the ugly side of the American way. They are stories of violence and oppression that are not included in the history books that are read in our schools. The story of Greenwood Oklahoma is such a story. It was not until 1996, when a Greenwood business leader named J.B. Stradford was cleared of the 75 year old charges of inciting a riot in that Tulsa suburb, that the story came to light. 

During the early 20th century, Stradford, the son of a freed Kentucky slave, moved to Tulsa Oklahoma with the same hopes and dreams that many southern African Americans had; to cash in on the oil boom in Oklahoma, and to escape from the Jim Crow south. However, along with the thousands of African Americans who migrated to Tulsa, so came thousands of whites from the south to the city, and with them came old Jim Crow.

Tulsa was split in two; the whites would segregate into southern neighborhoods around the downtown area, while the blacks would settle in to the northern section of town. The northern section would be named after Greenwood Avenue, the heart of the neighborhood because of the mile long stretch of prospering African American businesses located there. Stradford, a businessman and lawyer, was a key contributor to this dynamic neighborhood. 

Along Greenwood Avenue could be found restaurants, stores, doctors and lawyers, in addition to not one but two newspapers. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of what Booker T Washington would call “The Black Wall Street” was Stradford’s 65 room hotel. Greenwood was thriving and Stradford was prospering from the booming business his hotel was doing in the heart of the neighborhood. On May 31, 1921, that all changed. 

While Greenwood was thriving, racial tensions were rising in Tulsa. The cause would very well have been the white’s jealousy of the bustling African American neighborhood, or it could have been fear of the African American community growing so large that the white community would be overshadowed, in addition to the possibility of  losing work in the oil fields to African American laborers. Whatever the cause, racism would rear its ugly head on that spring day in 1921, and Greenwood, or Liitle Africa as the whites called it, would never be the same. 

It started when Dick Rowland, a 19 year old shoe shiner went to use the only bathroom for blacks in downtown Tulsa. The bathroom was located at the top of an office building, which meant that Rowland would have to take the elevator that was run by a 17 year old white operator named Sarah Page. Supposedly the sounds of her screaming drew others to the elevator and Rowland was observed running from the building. Rowland was arrested but never charged with anything. However, the incident made it to the Tulsa Tribune and many whites were outraged. To some, this was an opportunity to wreak havoc on the enclave of Greenwood, and wreak havoc they did. 

Over 10,000 white men conducted an all out assault on the African American community. While some dropped firebombs and shot at blacks from World War I airplanes, the rest stormed the prospering neighborhood and burned it to the ground, killing 300 blacks and displacing another 10,000 in the process. In the aftermath, Stradford along with 69 other black businessmen were charged with inciting the riot. As a result, Stradford fled Tulsa back to his home state of Kentucky. He would never return to the once burgeoning neighborhood that he had helped to build. 

In the meantime, the residents of Greenwood who were left behind reacted in the only way that they could; they rebuilt. By 1942, the neighborhood of Greenwood was restored without any help from the state, and over 200 businesses had returned. What happenend to Stradford? He went on to become a successful lawyer in Chicago, where he died in 1935. It would be 60 years until an investigation by the Oklahoma State Commission would clear Stradford and the other 69 blacks accused of any wrong doing. Meanwhile, what happened that fateful day in 1921 quietly disappeared until the same commission opened an investigation into the massacre. The result of that investigation? A token attempt at reparations was made by offering approximately 300 college scholarships to the descendants of the victims who lived in Greenwood. During that time desegregation of Tulsa and construction of a highway would accomplish what over 10,000 racially motivated terrorists in 1921 could not; the evisceration and disposal of the once proud community of Greenwood Oklahoma. 

What’s the lesson here? For starters, it is yet another tale of the unconquerable American spirit. The African American community not only overcame the onslaught of violence perpetrated against them, they persevered and rebuilt. What’s more important is the fact that Greenwood is  another lesson in what happens when zealousness and hatred are allowed to become the prevailing voice in any society. 

We see it today in the increasing numbers of hate groups who are making their presence felt through their words and their actions. We can see the remnants of Greenwood in the right to lifers who threaten and kill those who would dare practice abortion. We see it in the Tea Party terrorists who routinely spew hate rhetoric against those who oppose them. We see it in the Republican Party, who is desperately trying to make our country a closed society where the only political opinion that counts is theirs. We see it in other fringe hate groups, who physically attack those who are different from them in skin, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. 

Many believe that terrorism is a relatively new threat to America; it isn’t. It’s been here ever since our ancestors set foot on this shore over 400 years ago. Our greatest threat isn’t terrorism from abroad, it’s terrorism from within. Greenwood Oklahoma was living proof of that.

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  1. William Fairman
    March 16, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    A closed society? Asking people, what ever their color or religion, who are capable, to be accountable for there own well being in this country rather than enabling them with government giveaways. There are many prevalent African American’s who believe this also because they are tired of seeing young people decay with the disinterest & distrust that still exists even with a black president. Holding institutions accountable for keeping there budgets balanced & for rewarding the best performer’s for their hard work may just move some of these discontented children to better themselves. Enabling for the sake of “sameness” just alienates them more from the main stream & makes things worse for them. Could have Capitalism been more on display for minorities then it was in the Greenwood, OK neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century? This happened in a time of extreme racism (as they experienced in ’21) and before the Left’s strategy of enabling began. Do you hale the success of the Greenwood population, even after the riot, because it correlated with success found in the white communities at that time? If so, you are talking about the so called “closed society” that existed within Greenwood. The hardest working & most capable individuals made that community a success as other achievers did in several other African-American communities during that time of extremism. This type of community rarely if ever exists anymore because the Left has gone over the top to perpetuate there position in politics so they can stay in office. And there position is to “stick up for the little guy” (save the “little guy” experiencing too much personal success, thus ends the perpetuation). Socialism & American principles don’t mix if we want to hold on to all of those things that are unique to everyone’s culture in this country that most every American in this day & age appreciates. If anything, the Left causes racial tension by such enabling. Why can’t we celebrate each others differences & appreciate each others success as human beings realizing that everyone benefits in the end. This can happen in a free society! “The man is always bad”; could this be because the private sector of this country doesn’t just give away jobs (or $$) to anyone with a pulse like the government does? I used to understand where you were coming from on your generalizations until I tried to get off of disability (which I have finally done). The government has it set up where they would rather continue to give away tax payer’s dollars (gathered form the achievers) than to have someone, who has gotten themselves well, get off of disability. It’s as though they welcome individuals to milk the system…forever! I dealt with some of the worst service I have ever dealt with when I simply was trying to get off of disability because I was ready to go back to work & be productive. So, do you don’t think this is wasteful? Do you think our institutions both private & public should follow a model such as this? You seem to want to give everything to the capable, non-achiever’s who milk the system that the achiever’s have & somehow think that the American Dream can be had without them experiencing any alienation. What is our primary instinct? It is survival, not being enabled. More people of all kinds in this country will realize the American Dream that everyone worldwide covets if the enabling stops. A “closed society”? The Left is doing all the closing!

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  2. March 16, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Wow,I’m not sure how you made the jump from an accounting of racially hate driven act of violence to an attack on the wealthy of this country, as well proposing that socialism and enabling welfare fraud is the way to fix our economy. It must be because I tied the racial oppression of the times to the Tea Baggers and Republicans who are openly declaring class and gender warfare with their hate rhetoric and legislative attacks on a two party system.

    The bottom line is that we are indeed becoming a closed society. The far right conservatives in this country are doing everything they possibly can to eliminate the democratic party and maintain power for decades to come. They are attacking unions, new voters, women, the poor and middle class, in addition to those who are of same sex orientation. That is the hallmark of a closed society.

    I do not favor enabling for those who do not want to work. I do favor giving those who want to make their way in the world every opportunity to do so. the way the system is set up now does not allow that. Far right conservatives are making sure of that.

    I’m glad you managed to overcome your disability, and are working again. You certainly have my respect. Thanks for stopping by!

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    • March 17, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      By the way, if you’re going to write a manifesto sized comment on one of my posts, could you at least break it into paragraphs? Your comments might be a little easier to decipher if they didn’t look like they were written by a 6th grade English student.

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    • William Fairman
      March 19, 2011 at 6:33 am

      I think that, as you look down the scope of the path to Socialism that we are taking (whether you want to believe it or not), you will see a quickened deterioration of what we treasure. That is, the differences Americans in this country have from person to person, culture to culture. This is a privilege that can only be shared by those of us who are legal Americans. I know I may be speaking to some other agenda, as you will probably respond. But I don’t think that the true conservative “man”, as we are labeled by the Left, is into the Tea Party rhetoric that is perpetuated by those extremist goons. The truth is, if you’re brave enough to admit it, is that both parties have their unrealistic, disconnected idiots who think they are representing us when in fact they are (in both parties) representing the money that they receive from the minority lobbyists to express the same old agendas that we all end up buying into without question. I mean, you have to take a side, right? There is no in-between where we can be free of any labeling? Some Americans relish in being labeled without comprehending the gravity of these ideals. The problem is that all of the people with common sense, who’ve been out there living in the real world & have felt the pain of oppression coming from both sides of the aisle, don’t unite…then we would have a perfect world, right? Look at all of the attempts of Socialism that have been made both successfully & unsuccessfully and you will see, like all Dictatorships, the squashing of everyone’s human rights (not to mention the arts, which I covet) with no hope of ever coming out of it without blood shed. I guess if your into the “less is better” idea of what you may think our society should be which, believe it or not, is what the Left is trying to achieve for the sake of “sameness” & control amongst all peoples, then we have lost all hope. We will no longer trust in the pure human instinct of survival which can lead to thriving amongst all achievers who come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, & handicaps. This human instinct doesn’t rise to the top if everything is GIVEN to us by our government whether we want it or not. We just end up following the tune of all past & current Dictatorships where no one, not even you, has a say in anything unless you want to get fined or arrested. Tell me where, in the conservative side of thinking, is there actual legislation to take over the thoughts, choices, & lifestyle of others. Really. I’m not saying that it’s the perfect or always the realistic way but it truly does work for every free loving person. Trust in the human instinct to do the right thing…we all HAVE learned from our mistakes! I know the so called rebels in this country don’t want to trust in “the man” under any circumstances but, in reality, “the man” does accept all people who have a desire to achieve to theit best abilities. It’s in their best interest to do so. For instance, I am in a position of some limited power where I can hire. I do not care of someone is striped & has worms coming out of their ears, I will hire or decline them based on their track record. I am colorblind (which most of “us” are) & there is no conspiracy in private companies that tell us to not hire (or reward) capable people. I look for staying power. There is also no conspiracy in the education of our children. With the laws & lessons we have realized in our country’s short existence we have, in the last 30 years, come to first accept and ultimately( & thankfully) value our differences (save a rare, bad example). Now, everyone truly, if anything in the eyes of the law, can pursue their dream. But without holding parents first, and teachers second, accountable nothing will be accomplished no matter how much legislation you throw at it. We (and I use this as a generalization for both Left & Right) just want people to be accountable for themselves. I mean, a government that ignores the Constitution (Obama Care) and one that could potentially make a law out of what kind of toilet paper we use, for instance (the manufacturer of which would be chosen by the powers that be)? Does this represent a free society or a closed society? You may think utopia is possible for everyone in America but you can’t have utopia without having a “Truman Show” ideal of government in place. Your “man” is the same as our “man” as you view it. They don’t care about us, ever! The problem lies within us, the real grunts who just try to make the best out of what we have without worrying about others who allegedly have “more”…we just want to follow the laws, be left alone, & be allowed to live freely in the pursuit of happiness. We Americans are too cozy in our society where our rights are still pretty much secure & we can say or believe anything we want. If we were pressed into true oppression (like Libyans) we would be in the streets, clashing with “the man” of which could be your “man”! Too much control, look in your newspaper, is the worst alternative. Trust the laws that are in place in this country, many created by the Left (most of which I applaud) and then just have trust for once in basic human instincts that most of us are in touch with and that is to do the right thing by others. We don’t need to go anymore one way or the other to have a fulfilling life. I do take up the cause for the “little man” as much as anyone on the Left because I am the “little man” based on my handicap. But I want my children’s individuality to shine through and to meld with other’s (most likely of a different culture) to make a better, more “colorful”(Beautiful), compatible world. Do you see a whole lot of diversity of culture in China? No! We should all take responsibility when we chose what level of control we want to have put over us, & our children, in this country. Sameness is not our way.

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      • March 19, 2011 at 12:05 pm

        Quite frankly, I’m not a tremendous fan of most politicians, including our president. You are correct, there is corruption in both parties, and there are indeed extreme nut jobs in both parties.

        Government in my opinion, is one massive welfare recipient looking to get rich off the poor and middle classes, while enabling the massively wealthy. It would be wonderful to think that we are all on the same playing field when it comes to opportunity, but we are not.
        Our political and economic system sees to that.

        The point of my post about Greenwood is that in spite of the violent actions of a hate driven faction, the people there overcame the tragedy and rebuilt. That’s the American spirit that I value so much.

        I drew a parallel between that occurrence and what is going on in current society because I see history soon to repeat itself. The hate rhetoric and attack on our liberties by the extreme right who seem to be at the forefront of American politics is inciting a slew of violence.

        It won’t be long before another full scale riot breaks out, and possibly even a class war. When that happens, many will be left to wonder why, because they simply can not seem to learn from our past.

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  3. William Fairman
    March 19, 2011 at 7:07 am

    By the way, thanks for the insult. I thought you were an educated person who would be interested in a lively debate. You are a disappointing blogger and are too extreme to reason with. You shouldn’t put your opinions out there unless you really know what it means to rebut. Good luck in your cause.

    PS Obama will support military action in Libya…sound familiar?

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    • March 19, 2011 at 11:48 am

      My apologies Mr. Fairman, I didn’t mean to insult you. I was merely asking of you that in the future, if you are going to make comments that are as long and convoluted as the health care bill, to simply break them down into paragraphs. How can we feeble minded, radical libtards benefit from your vast wealth of knowledge if we have a hard time reading such a complicated response with no paragraph breaks?

      I am truly saddened that you find my blog disappointing; when I set out to do this blog, it was with the hope that I would not let you down Mr. Fairman. I hope that you will find another blog out there that will live up to your standards.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to flagellate myself because I did indeed, let you down Mr. Fairman.

      Like

  1. March 7, 2011 at 2:10 am

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