It’s May thirtieth, 1921 and nineteen-year-old shoeshiner enters large downtown Tulsa building, anxious to use “colored” restroom on top floor. He hurries into elevator, trips, and to avoid falling grasps arm of teenage white girl who screams and kid flees. Following day he’s arrested and jailed atop courthouse. Hundreds of white citizens, enraged by street talk and inflammatory newspaper stories, begin to mass around courthouse, threatening to storm jail and give kid what he deserves. Black citizens, though less numerous, arm themselves and rush to offer protective services to sheriff who promises nothing will happen. Since there’ve been numerous recent lynchings in Oklahoma, blacks are unpersuaded.
Whites fear “negro uprising” and hurry home for guns and get more in local armory. Respective mobs confront each other within hours. Both swear other fires first. Moot point. Someone generally shoots when mobs collide. Whites have more firepower, take offensive, and realize this is cherished opportunity to burn Greenwood, 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 of June first few residents free to protect Greenwood. While whites loot and burn homes, some golden World War One biplanes, cockpits open to wind, hold pilots who hurl incendiaries and pump bullets into houses engulfed by flames. On 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 kid, and he’s hustled out of town.
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. Red Cross offers tents and food for several thousand displaced blacks anxious to rebuild. Whites quickly craft strict building codes designed to preclude recovery. That way they can steal abandoned land. Black attorney counters with legal challenge that succeeds. But there’s no financial compensation. Grand jury declares blacks brought this on themselves, and no white ever goes to prison.
Riot is rarely discussed in Oklahoma schools and later most people don’t know. Some now learn in painting of golden biplane titled: “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” by Curtis James. Somewhere there must also be painting of neighborhood reconstructed in several years.
Sources: “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” by Curtis James, in group exhibit “Promise of Freedom: Selections from the Arthur Primus Collection” at California African American Museum in Los Angeles; “The Night Tulsa Burned,” a documentary film; Wikipedia.