One of the worst race massacres in the nation’s history occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma over a 14-hour period May 31-June 1, 1921. And although most of the remembrance is focused the incrediable loss of life, property and wealth, the heroism of the Black men in the defense of Greenwood is a story we can all be proud of. Before there was a massacre it was a story of Black men standing fearlessly against racism and oppression in defense of their community and one of its members. Most of the men were World War 1 veterans who found themselves – after returning home from defending this country from the enemy without – having to fight insurmountable bigotry and racism from the enemy within.
A young Black man named Dick Rowland went into an elevator that was operated by a White woman named Sarah Page. It is believed that Rowland mistakenly stepped on Page’s foot or stumbled into her causing her to scream. Someone heard Page scream and called the police. A local newspaper – the Tusa Tribune – ran a false, incendiary article claiming Rowland sexually assaulted her. Rowland was taken to jail . A White lynch mob showed up to the jail demanding Rowland be handed over to them. Enter the brothers.
According to accounts a contingent of of upwards of 75 African American men came to the courthouse and offered their services to the authorities to stop any lynching attempt (26 Black men had been lynched in Oklahoma in the previous two decades). As they were leaving, a white man tried to disarm one of the Black veterans, and a shot was fired. Several people were killed. All hell broke loose.
Over the next six hours Tulsa was plunged into chaos as angry Whites, frustrated over the failed lynching, began to vent their rage at African Americans in general. Furious fighting erupted along the Frisco railroad tracks, where Black defenders were able to hold off members of the White mob. An unarmed African American man was murdered inside a downtown movie theater, while carloads of armed Whites began making “drive-by” shootings in Black residential neighborhoods. By midnight fires had been set along the edge of the African American commercial district. In some of the city’s all-night cafes, whites began to organize for a dawn invasion of Greenwood.
During the early hours of the conflict local authorities did little to stem the growing crisis. Indeed, shortly after the outbreak of gunfire at the courthouse, Tulsa police officers deputized former members of the lynch mob and, according to an eyewitness, instructed them to “get a gun and get a nigger.” Tulsa police were also involved in the mayhem. More than one witness identified officers, usually out of uniform, among the arsonists.
Shortly before dawn on June 1, thousands of armed whites had gathered along the fringes of Greenwood. When daybreak came, they poured into the African American district, looting homes and businesses and setting them on fire. Numerous atrocities occurred, including the murder of A. C. Jackson, a renowned black surgeon, who was shot after he surrendered to a group of whites.
At least one machine gun was utilized by the invading Whites, and some airplanes were also used in the attack to drop “bombs” on the Greenwood district. Black Tulsans fought hard to protect their homes and businesses, with particularly sharp fighting occurring off of Standpipe Hill.
The National Guard reported engaging in several short skirmishes as it moved down from Standpipe Hill – the hill just west of the present Oklahoma State University- Tulsa campus – and one longer battle in which upwards of 50 Blacks “fought like tigers.” The last organized resistance came from gunmen in the Mount Zion Baptist Church tower. When they refused to come out, the new church, valued at $80,000 was set on fire.
In the end, those who stayed behind to fight were simply outgunned and outnumbered. By the time that additional National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa at approximately 9:15 a.m. on the morning of June 1, most of Greenwood had already been put to the torch.
Fire soon consumed Greenwood’s main business district and more than 1,100 homes.
Only a few houses, one or two churches on the perimeter of the community and Booker T. Washington High School survived.
The Tulsa Race Riot and Massacre By A.J. Smitherman
Whence those sounds in all directions
Firearms cracking everywhere;
Men and women all excited,
Cries of rioting fill the air.
Men with guns and ammunition,
Rushing madly to the fray,
Shooting, cursing, laughing, crying,
“Come on, boys, come on this way!”
“They are trying to lynch our comrade,
Without cause in law defi;
Get your guns and help defend him;
Let’s protect him, win or die.
‘Twas the cry of Negro manhood,
Rallying to the cause of right,
Readying to suppress the lawless,
Anxious for a chance to fight.
So they marched against the mobbists
Gathered now about the jail,
While the sheriff stood there pleading,
Law and order to prevail.
Thus responding to their duty,
Like true soldiers that they were,
Black men face the lawless White men
Under duty’s urgent spur.
Cries of “Let us have the nigger”
“Lynch him, kill him” came the shout,
And at once there came an answer
When a sharp report rang out
“Stand back men, there’ll be no lynching”
Black men cried, and not in fun
Bang! Bang! Bang! three quick shots followed,
And the battle had begun.
In the fusillade that followed,
Four white lynchers kissed the dust,
Many more fell badly wounded,
Victims of their hellish lust.
Quick they fled in all directions,
Panic stricken, filled with fear,
Leaving their intended victim,
As the news spread far and near.
Scattered now in great confusion
Filled with vengeance all anew
Leaders of the lynching party
Planned for something else to do.
“Blacks prevent a Negro’s lynching”
Read a bold newspaper head,
In an extra night edition,
“Fifty Whites reported dead.”
Rallied now with reinforcements
Brave (?) white men five thousand strong
Marched upon the Black defenders
With their usual battle song:
“Get the niggers” was their slogan,
“Kill them, burn them, set the pace.
Let them know that we are White men,
Teach them how to keep their place.
“Forward! March! command was given,
And the tread of feet was heard,
Marching on the Colored district,
In protest there came no word.
In the meantime rabid hoodlums
Now turned loose without restraint
Helped themselves to things of value
More than useless to complain.
Guns were taken by the hundreds,
Ammunition all in sight
Reign of murder, theft and plunder
Was the order of the night.
But our boys who learned the lesson
On the blood-stained soil of France,
How to fight on the defensive
Purposed not to take a chance.
Like a flash they came together,
Word was passed along the line:
“No White man must cross the border;
Shoot to kill and shoot in time!”
“Ready, Fire!” and then a volley
From the mob whose skins were White
“Give ’em hell, boys,” cried the leader,
“Soon we’ll put ’em all to flight.”
But they got a warm reception
From Black men who had no fear,
Who while fighting they were singing:
“Come on Boys, the Gang’s all here.”
Rapid firing guns were shooting,
Men were falling by the score,
‘Till the white men quite defeated
Sent the word “We want no more.”
Nine p.m. the trouble started,
Two a.m. the thing was done.
And the victory for the black men
Counted almost four to one.
Then the white went into council,
Hoping to reprise their loss,
Planned the massacre that followed,
Dared to win at any cost.
June the First, at five a.m.
Three long whistle blasts were heard,
Giving sign for concert action
To that cold blood-thirsty herd.
At the signal from the whistle
Aeroplanes were seen to fly,
Dropping bombs and high explosives,
Hell was falling from the sky.
On all sides the mob had gathered
Talking in excited tones
With machine guns, ready. mounted,
Trained upon a thousand homes.
Hark! The sounds of roaring battle
As they charged without relent.
Shooting Women, men and children,
Plying torches as they went.
Here and there the fight was waging
Never ceasing, not a pause,
Black men, like the ancient Trojans,
Fought and died to save a cause.
All night long a mother waited
For her husband to return.
Every minute filled with horror,
Lest the worst she soon would learn.
A.J. Smitherman was a press pioneer and freedom fighter. On the night of the massacre, he, along with countless others, fought to defend Greenwood. His plant , valued at more than $40,000 was burned to the ground. He and his wife and five children narrowly escaped with their lives. They eventually ended up in Buffalo where he founded and published the Empire Star until his death in 1961.