Tulsa wasn’t just a tragedy. It was our 300. Our Alamo. And when we talk about it, that is how we have to phrase it. It is the finest example of Black men and women standing up and fighting to defend themselves and their families.
This is what we know about Tulsa.
It erupted May 31, 1921 with an encounter between a Black man and a White woman in a downtown elevator. He would say that he tripped and innocently caught himself by grabbing her arm. She claimed that he had tried to grab her. While rumors spread that an attempted rape had just taken place, many whispered quietly that they were actually lovers embroiled in an argument. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Threats of lynchings were met with action. Thirty Black men, many of whom were well trained and well armed veterans of WWI, went to protect the young “assailant”, who was now in custody at the local courthouse. Soon, a counter force of 1,000 White men arrived at the courthouse while another contingent went to the National Guard Armory for more firearms. They were repelled by the hastily mobilized Guardsmen. They then descended on the courthouse, their numbers now nearing 2,000.
When a second armed contingent of 75 Black men went to the courthouse as reinforcements, the situation exploded. One of the White men demanded that a Black man surrender his pistol. When he refused, the White man shot him down. That was the first shot of a gunfight that would consume the city.
- The First Wave: Those shots cascaded through the mob. The White men opened fire, and were met with return fire by the Black men who had gone to protect the courthouse. Several men on both sides lay dead or dying in the street.
- As the Black contingent began to fight their way back to Greenwood they were pursued by the mob. Bystanders leaving local businesses were panicked as the mob shot them down indiscriminately.
- Late that night, National Guard units were deployed to quell the riots. They stationed themselves to protect the White areas adjacent to Greenwood. They also began picking up Black people who hadn’t returned to Greenwood, and detaining them at a local convention hall.
- Early the next morning groups of armed Whites and Blacks battled along Frisco tracks, the dividing line between the Black and White commercial districts. Whites made wild forays into Greenwood, taking shots when they could and setting fires along the way. They were met with return fire. When a rumor got around that Black reinforcements would be arriving by train, the White mob littered it with gunfire as it pulled into the station.
- The mob set fires along the commercial corridor of Archer Street. When the firemen came, they were repelled at gunpoint. Within hours, dozens of Black businesses were burning to the ground.
- Daybreak. The mob made an all out assault on Greenwood. While the residents fought back, they were simply outnumbered. They were herded into the street where they were either rounded up or marched at gunpoint to the detention center. Their houses were looted, and the mob shot them down indiscriminately.
- It should be noted that there were numerous reports of WWI biplanes flying overhead, leading to the claim that Tulsa marked the first time the government dropped bombs on its own soil. Residents of Greenwood said that they witnessed men dropping firebombs onto their homes and businesses, and taking shots with rifles. Local law enforcement countered that the planes were conducting reconnaissance over the “negro uprising”.
- Whites were attacked too. Those who employed Blacks found themselves confronted by the White mob, who demanded that they turn their employees over to the detention centers. Those that didn’t were attacked and their property was vandalized.
Troops from the Oklahoma National Guard arrived later that morning, and had suppressed the violence by noon. By then the damage had been done. It’s hard to say how many Black people lost their lives. Estimations run from about 30 to 300, but there was no way to account for those whose bodies were consumed by the fires that destroyed Greenwood.
Greenwood was made rich, in part, as an unintended consequence of segregation. The money made there stayed there, circulating 19 times according to some estimations. It was a bastion of Black lawyers, doctors and business men who were able to find freedom that was unavailable in the South. All of that ended in the span of less than 24 hours.
We talk about the tragedy. What we don’t talk about is the heroism. The 125 brave men who went to the Courthouse to ensure that a young man wasn’t lynched that night. The men who confronted the armed mob at every step, and defended their lives and their homes. Tulsa wasn’t just a tragedy. It was our 300. Our Alamo. And when we talk about it, that is how we have to phrase it. It is the finest example of Black men and women standing up and fighting to defend themselves and their families.
The self-confidence of Tulsa’s Negroes soared, their businesses prospered, their institutions flourished and they simply had no fear of whites… Such an attitude had a great deal to do with eradicating the fear that a Negro boy growing up in Tulsa might have felt, in the years following the riots.
John Hope Franklin, Historian and witness to the Tulsa Race Riots.