The discovery of oil at the turn of the twentieth century in Oklahoma turned the quiet little hamlet of Tulsa into a thriving boom town overnight. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the city from around the country, soon overwhelming the Native Americans who made up the majority of the original population. Would be entrepreneurs from the major urban centers of the Midwest and East Coast, many of them immigrants, mixed with poverty stricken whites and blacks from the South, making Tulsa one of the most diverse cities in the region. For the arriving African-American population, Tulsa represented not only an opportunity for economic success, but also a chance to escape from the violence of the Jim Crow south. Unfortunately, the old racist ideas of segregation followed them to their new home. However, despite being forced to live separately from the rest of the community in the neighborhood of Greenwood, the black population of Tulsa still managed to find the economic success they had hoped for. By 1920, Greenwood was the most affluent African-American neighborhood in the country.
In 1921, a young black shoeshiner went across the street to use a segregated wash room on the top floor of a downtown office building. On his return, he tripped while exiting the elevator and fell into the young woman working as the elevator operator. Some of the local shop owners heard the woman scream and called the police, claiming that an attempted rape had taken place. The police, not being total idiots, took this claim with a grain of salt. However, since the woman was saying little about the incident and the shop keepers were pretty insistent about their version of events, the police decided that it would probably be best to take the shoeshiner into protective custody.
It’s probably worth mentioning that at the time racial tensions were seen to be at a rather high level. Barred from serving in the military, African-Americans had been one of the primary sources of alternative working class labor during World War I, taking over many of the jobs that had been held by the 4 million or so young men who were drafted into the military, many of whom were the children of poor immigrants. On the one hand, this created new opportunities for the nation’s black population, who prior to the war had almost entirely worked as sharecroppers in the South. On the other, it caused issues for the returning soldiers, who came home to find a new source of competition for the jobs they had left behind. Matters were only worsened by a post-war recession and many big companies bringing in black labor to break up worker strikes. As a result, a series of race riots broke out across the country in the summer of 1919, with mainly immigrants attacking black neighborhoods. Though Tulsa largely remained peaceful, there was an undercurrent of violence both actual and threatened. Thousands of whites in Tulsa joined the newly formed Ku Klux Klan after the war, and six black men were lynched during this period.
The afternoon after the shoeshiner was taken into protective custody, one of Tulsa’s more sensationalist newspapers published a story about the incident, of course being careful to only state the facts. No wait, that’s not right, they actually made it sound like the shoeshiner raped the elevator operator and threw in an editorial stating that the shoeshiner was most definitely going to get lynched. You can probably guess what happened next. Within a few hours of the paper being published, a lynch mob of several hundred people showed up at the courthouse. This did not sit well with the black population of the Greenwood neighborhood, and after some debate, some 30 young men armed themselves and went to the courthouse to support the besieged police. Tensions rose on both sides, with several people firing guns in the air to show how serious they were, which quickly shifted into firing guns into each other. When the smoke cleared, ten white men and two black men were dead. The shock of the sudden violence quickly gave way to a full on riot, with armed whites chasing blacks in a running gun battle through the streets.
Rumors quickly began circulating throughout Tulsa that a full on race revolution was occurring. Thousands of white people armed themselves and surrounded the Greenwood neighborhood, where the local black populace prepared to defend their homes and businesses. Both sides took pot shots at each other throughout the night. The Oklahoma National Guard was quickly deployed, but they did little to stop the violence, instead setting themselves up in defensive positions around the edge of the Greenwood neighborhood. Seeing no chance of protection from the authorities, many black people began to flee the city. The following morning, the white rioters, many of whom had military training, launched a full on assault on Greenwood. Masses of white men marched up the streets, shooting indiscriminately, lighting buildings on fire, and even hanging some black residents. Several of the rioters, some of them possibly police officers, commandeered biplanes from the local airport, which they used to drop home made firebombs on the neighborhood. Attempts by the fire department to fight the fires were stopped by the rioters. The Oklahoma National Guard troops, bolstered by reinforcements, finally took action to end the riot by midday. By that time, some 300 people had been killed (around 250 black and 50 white), 800 wounded, and 35 city blocks had been burned, leaving 10,000 African-Americans homeless. Some 6,000 members of the black community who had not fled, were rounded up and held en masse at three internment centers for several days.
Most of the residents of Greenwood spent close to a year in tents as they tried to rebuild their neighborhood, a process greatly lengthened by attempts by city leaders to halt construction via new stringent building codes and re-zoning efforts. Though Greenwood was eventually rebuilt, it never reclaimed its former glory, becoming a slum during the Great Depression and eventually being mostly torn down for a new freeway during the 1970’s. Though some 85 people were indicted for their participation in the riot, none were ever convicted. The incident was collectively forgotten and scrubbed from the city’s historical record. City officials didn’t formally apologize until the 1990’s.