Viewing page 5 of 10

the negro, but such white organizations were understaffed, underfinanced and hindered by an oppressive "don't rock the boat" philosophy on the part of the rest of the white citizenry. 

Making any productive communication between the races difficult to impossible were the Klansmen and their sympathizers. Such people took out their frustrations, intolerance and assumption of racial superiority on the "coloreds" whenever the situation presented itself. As a self-anointed social "posse," these elements provided the impetus behind maintaining the racial division, ostracized any white citizens who attempted to ease the racial bars and opposed any effective attempt to establish inter-racial communication designed to mediate differences. 

It was within this environment that a riot of monumental proportions developed. 

The spark for the tinder was ignited on Monday, May 30, 1921. 

Dick Rowland, a young negro bootblack entered an elevator in the Drexel Building. The operator of the elevator was Mrs. Sarah Page, a white woman. 

Mrs. Page reported to the police later that "when he grabbed my arm, I screamed and he fled." It was never determined why Rowland grabbed Mrs. Page's arm, if in fact he did.

The police were notified of the elevator incident and conducted an investigation.

The chief of detectives, James Patton, later said, "The police were quietly conducting an investigation of the alleged assault before taking any action. We intended, in case the affair warranted it to have the negro prosecuted upon a state charge."

Then Patton continued, "But when an afternoon paper came out with a colored and untrue account, so far as we have been able to ascertain of the entire affair, we concluded that it would be best for the safety of the negro to place him behind the bars of the county jail."

County sheriff William McCullough later testified that in the late afternoon of Tuesday, May 31, the chief of police John A. Gustafson and J.M. Adkison, Police commissioner for the city of Tulsa reported to him that a white mob was gathering to descent upon the county jail and invite Dick Rowland to be the principal guest at a lynching party.

Sheriff McCullough then lodged Rowland on the fourth floor of the Tulsa county courthouse, surrounded him with eight deputies and shut off the power to the courthouse elevator leading to the upper floors. 

McCullough, in testimony before a Grand Jury after stated, "It would have been impossible for a mob to have gotten the negro because the only entrance to the jail was by means of a narrow stairway up which only one man at a time could go. And at the top was a steel door leading into the jail. One man could have stood at the top and kept down an army, and I have several men up there."

The time was 4:00 PM., Tuesday, May 31, 1921.

Within an hour, a large crowd of unarmed whites congregated around the county courthouse. Rumors ran rampant that the courthouse would soon be stormed to "get and lynch that bad nigger."

Sheriff McCullough upon viewing the growing crowd, left the courthouse and appeared before the white crowd where several white men loudly demanded that the negro prisoner be turned over to them at the south entrance of the courthouse.

Sheriff McCullough denied the demand and was immediately jeered and hooted. He reinforced his denial by "daring any man to make an attempt to storm the jail."

The crowd grew increasingly ugly. Whites continued to arrive to reinforce the original crowd. New arrivals carried firearms openly.

Meanwhile the story of what had happened and was happening at the courthouse made its way to "Little Africa."

Negro men began to collect in groups on Greenwood Avenue with many arming themselves with rifles and pistols. Then they moved downtown toward the courthouse.

The time was 9:00 PM., Tuesday, May 31, 1921.
A band of more than 300 negroes, many of whom were armed, had gathered at the west entrance of the courthouse. Leaders of the crowd demanded of the law enforcement officials to turn Rowland over to them for "protection."

Barney Cleaver, negro deputy sheriff, stepped out of the west entrance door and confronted the black crowd. He said, "Boys, you are not doing right. There isn't anybody going to get that boy tonight. He is perfectly safe here. You shouldn't have done this thing for it only stirs up race trouble. Go on home and behave yourselves."

With that the negro crowd began to disperse reluctantly.

However the white crowd at the south entrance was not so docile. 

The whites refused to disperse and became more aggresive [[aggressive]] in their demands under the goading of mob leaders who harangued them to "action."

[[image]]
WHITE CROWDS BEGIN TO ARRIVE AT COURTHOUSE TO DEMAND RELEASE OF DICK ROWLAND FOR A LYNCHING CEREMONY.

Despite the assurances of Cleaver to the negro crowd which was in the process of leaving, it became apparent to many of them that the whites were still gathered in force at the courthouse and their mood was growing increasingly out of control by the minute.

The blacks, many of whom remembered the lynching of Roy Belton, during the previous autumn of 1920 began to drift back toward the courthouse.

[[image]]
ARMED WHITE RIOTERS AND LOOTERS RIOTING THROUGH THE DOWNTOWN SECTION OF TULSA LOOKING FOR NEGROES ON THE STREETS.

Cars began to arrive in the courthouse area. Most of the cars were filled with both armed blacks and whites.

According to Sheriff McCullough's testimony, made later before a Grand Jury, some of the cars had as many as twenty armed men on each. They "parked in front of the courthouse, circled the block and drove south on Boulder...and east on Sixth."

In many cases according to a Tulsa World reporter's account, "prominent business and professional men remained at the wheel and piloted the armed men about the city."

The tension between the two mobs at the courthouse had reached fever pitch. Armed blacks and whites confronted each other, swore and hooted one another; jeered and ridiculed law enforcement officers and harassed bystanders.

The time was 10:00 P.M., Tuesday, May 31, 1921.

Shots were heard in the downtown area.

When two wounded negroes were brought to the police station their presence seemed to inflame both mobs.

Almost simultaneously the black and white mobs began firing at one another. According to eyewitness accounts, "Hundreds of shots were fired in the small time of three minutes." When Andy Brown, a negro civic leader attempted to stop the firing and talk his fellow blacks into returning home, a black member of the mob walked up to him and shot him at point blank range. 

Shooting duels erupted and firing was heard throughout the entire downtown business section as the mobs divided into the panic that was quickly gripping everyone present.

Part of the armed white mob marched north on Main Street, Boulder Avenue and Boston Avenue driving fleeing negroes before them.

The remainder of the white mob remained at the courthouse and leaders incited the rest to "get the niggers." At the same time a mob of negroes marched south on Boulder Avenue and met the white mob on Boulder in a fusillade of rifle and pistol fire, wounding one white and one negro.

Pawn shops and hardware stores were immediately broken into, looted by both black and white mobs and stripped
Please note that the language and terminology used in this collection reflects the context and culture of the time of its creation, and may include culturally sensitive information. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution, but is available in its original form to facilitate research. For questions or comments regarding sensitive content, access, and use related to this collection, please contact transcribe@si.edu.