The Deadliest Race Riot You Never Heard of: Greenwood Oklahoma.
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.
- Dexter Rogers: Death in Mississippi: Lynching or Suicide? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Was it Suicide Or Murder? Frederick Jermaine Carter Hanging (nowpublic.com)
- Leaders’ power struggle roils ‘most livable’ Tulsa (sfgate.com)
- ‘Black Gotham’ sheds light on 19th century African-American experience (thegrio.com)