“Our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer”: Remembering the 1921 Tulsa Riots

Onlookers Watching The Destruction Of Mount Zion Baptist ChurchOnlookers Watching the Destruction of Mount Zion Baptist Church. (Photo: Tulsa City-County Library)

As of the morning of May 30th, 1921, the oil boomtown of Tulsa, Oklahoma featured, in the Greenwood Avenue district, one of the nation’s most successful African American commercial and residential neighborhoods. By the evening of June 1st, Greenwood Avenue had been entirely destroyed: 35 city blocks burned to the ground, hundreds of residents dead and hundreds more critically injured, an entire community wiped off by the map by rampaging white rioters.

The 1921 Tulsa Riots began, as race riots so often have in our history, with a single, hazy incident that played into the worst forms of racist stereotyping and fears. A young African American man, Dick Rowland, boarded an elevator in the city’s Drexel Building; the elevator operator was an even younger white woman, Sarah Page. Every other detail of the incident will forever remain uncertain: whether he physically assaulted her, as Page claimed; whether he also sexually assaulted her, as the story that began to circulate in the city’s white community put it; whether Rowland and Page had been in an existing or prior romantic relationship, as African American sources would later posit. Whatever the facts, of course, those communal narratives echoed the broader histories of the lynching epidemic of that era quite closely.

While such a lynch mob did indeed descend on the courthouse where Rowland was held after his arrest early on May 31st, events in Tulsa were destined to take an even more violent and destructive turn. Perhaps they did so because of an inflammatory front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune, headlined “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” and tying the incident to a supposed epidemic of African American crime in the city (on which the Tribune had been fixated for months). Perhaps elements in the white community had grown frustrated with Greenwood Avenue’s success and seized this opportunity to destroy the neighborhood. Or perhaps the widespread burning, destruction, and murder that Tulsa’s mob brought to its African American citizens was different only in degree, not kind, from the orgies of communal violence that characterized nearly all lynchings.

Scene From The Tulsa Race Riot

Scene from the Tulsa Race Riot. (Photo: Tulsa City-County Library)

However we analyze the riot’s causes, it spread so quickly and thoroughly that on the morning of June 1st Oklahoma Governor James B. A. Robertson declared martial law in the city and brought in the National Guard. The Guardsmen did help fight the fires and likely prevented additional lynchings, but at another high price to the African American community. Deciding that imprisonment was the only way to safeguard that community, the Guard took every African American they could find into custody. More than 6000 citizens were held at the city’s Convention Hall and Fairgrounds, many of them for longer than a week. It’s no wonder that when the smoke finally cleared, few black Tulsa residents were willing or able to rebuild Greenwood Avenue, and the city’s African American community remained drastically reduced for many years.

In a culminating moment in his magisterial historical novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901), which offers a fictionalized but very accurate depiction of the November 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina political coup and massacre, Charles Chesnutt wrote of another such destructive fire: Wilmington’s rampaging white mob burned the city’s pioneering African American hospital to the ground. “The flames soon completed their work,” he writes, “and this handsome structure, …a promise of good things for the future of the city, lay smoldering in ruins, a melancholy witness to the fact that our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.”

Time and again, the veneer of American society has given way to primal passions like those which sparked Tulsa’s fires – and these events demand that we pay melancholy but meaningful witness to their histories and legacies.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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