It’s May thirtieth, 1921 and I’m a teenage shoeshiner entering a large downtown Tulsa building, anxious to use the “colored” restroom on the top floor. I hurry into the elevator, trip, and to avoid falling grasp the arm of a teenage white girl whose screams send me running out. Next day I’m arrested and jailed atop the courthouse and hundreds of white citizens, enraged by street talk and inflammatory newspaper stories, mass outside and threaten to storm the jail and serve justice. Black citizens, though less numerous, arm themselves and rush to support a sheriff who promises nothing will happen. Since there’ve been numerous recent lynchings in Oklahoma, most blacks are skeptical.
Fearing a “negro uprising” whites hurry home for guns and get more in the local armory, and respective mobs confront each other within hours. Both swear others fire first. Moot point. Someone generally shoots when mobs collide. Whites have more firepower, take the offensive, and realize this is their cherished opportunity to burn Greenwood, the Black Wall Street, one of most affluent African American neighborhoods in America. Many homes and businesses soon glow. Police abandon civic duty and either shoot or detain blacks.
By morning on June first few residents are free to protect Greenwood. While whites loot and burn homes, some golden World War One biplanes, cockpits open to the wind, hold pilots who hurl incendiaries and pump bullets into houses engulfed by flames. On the ground more fire is applied. Twelve hundred houses and thirty-five blocks burn. Under embers most victims are black, perhaps three hundred. National Guard units race in from Oklahoma City, disarm whites, send them home, and herd blacks into internment centers. No charges are filed against me, and I’m hustled out of town and never go near Tulsa again.
The local economy soon tanks so white employers sign papers for release of workers who must wear green tags, like stars later borne by European Jews. The Red Cross offers tents and food for several thousand displaced blacks anxious to rebuild. Whites quickly craft strict building codes designed to preclude recovery and steal abandoned land. A black attorney counters with a legal challenge that succeeds. But there’s no financial compensation. The grand jury declares blacks brought this on themselves, and no white ever goes to prison.
The riot is rarely discussed in Oklahoma schools and later most people don’t know. Some now learn in a painting of a golden biplane titled: “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” by Curtis James. Somewhere there must also be a painting of a neighborhood reconstructed several years later.