On the Tulsa Race Riot Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On June 1, 1921, beginning shortly after midnight, white rioters attacked the Greenwood Avenue district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Around 10,000 African Americans lived in the Greenwood area, the second-largest African American community in the state and one of the wealthiest in the nation. Eighteen hours later, Greenwood lay in smoldering ruins, with over 1,200 homes and numerous businesses destroyed and, experts believe, nearly 300 people dead. (The official count of thirty-six dead has since been discredited.) More than 6,000 African Americans were detained, many for their own protection, and 10,000 people were left homeless.

Summary Overview

On June 1, 1921, beginning shortly after midnight, white rioters attacked the Greenwood Avenue district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Around 10,000 African Americans lived in the Greenwood area, the second-largest African American community in the state and one of the wealthiest in the nation. Eighteen hours later, Greenwood lay in smoldering ruins, with over 1,200 homes and numerous businesses destroyed and, experts believe, nearly 300 people dead. (The official count of thirty-six dead has since been discredited.) More than 6,000 African Americans were detained, many for their own protection, and 10,000 people were left homeless.

In this article, which was published in the June 2, 1921, issue of Survey magazine, Amy Comstock, then a personal assistant to the editor of the Tulsa Tribune and, later, an associate editor at the same paper, explains the riot as the result of a crime-riddled African American neighborhood exploding from within, not the actions of a white mob. She argues that with better law enforcement and the elimination of the brothels and bars that she claims fostered the criminal element, Tulsa would be improved in the wake of the riot.

Defining Moment

In 1921, racial tensions were extremely high. At the end of World War I, returning veterans found themselves competing in a sluggish labor market, and African American veterans struggled to find employment and to have their service recognized in the form of increased civil rights. During the so-called Red Summer of 1919, race riots broke out in industrial cities across the United States. In some cities, African Americans, many of them veterans, fought back, prompting fierce retaliation. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly, especially in urban areas. In Oklahoma, twenty-six black men were lynched between 1907 and 1921.

When the Tulsa riot began, Oklahoma had only been a state for thirteen years. It had been settled by many former slaveholders from the southern states, and one of its first acts as a new state was to legislate and enforce racial segregation and establish discriminatory practices, such as literacy tests, intended to strip African Americans of their voting rights. In Tulsa, due to segregation laws, African Americans settled mainly in the Greenwood Avenue neighborhood, where they built a vibrant, successful community, complete with newspapers, theaters, banks, and a hospital.

On Monday, May 30, 1921, which happened to be Memorial Day, a nineteen-year-old African American shoe shiner named Dick Rowland was riding in an elevator operated by a seventeen-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. While accounts differ, most agree that Rowland probably stumbled while entering the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm, causing her to scream. A white clerk working in the building saw Rowland leave the elevator, assumed that Page had been assaulted, and called the police. Word of the incident spread throughout Tulsa, and Rowland was arrested the following day and taken to the Tulsa County Courthouse.

The Tulsa Tribune, where Amy Comstock worked as a personal assistant to editor Richard Lloyd Jones, was the first of Tulsa’s two daily newspapers to report the incident, as the Tulsa World was printed in the morning, prior to Rowland’s arrest, while the Tribune came out in the afternoon. Accordingly, on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 31, a front-page article in the Tribune described the previous day’s encounter as a full-blown attack, claiming that Rowland scratched Page’s hands and face and tore her clothing. The same edition also contained an editorial stating that Rowland would be lynched that evening. No complete physical copies of the May 31, 1921, edition of the Tulsa Tribune remain, and both the front-page article and the editorial were excised from the edition before it was preserved on microfilm. Some copies of the front-page article have survived despite this, but no extant copies of the editorial, generally attributed to Jones, have been found. Nevertheless, numerous reports from Tulsa residents at the time have attested to the editorial’s contents.

As an angry mob gathered at the courthouse, a determined group of African American men armed themselves and went to defend Rowland from the promised lynching. Although the sheriff assured these men that Rowland was being protected and convinced them to return home, the white crowd, estimated at a thousand people, was not so easily dispersed. They decided to arm themselves as well, and some even attempted to break into the National Guard Armory, without success. As the courthouse mob continued to increase in number, reaching an estimated 2,000 people by 10:00 p.m., news of the attack on the armory began to circulate. Around seventy-five armed black men returned to the courthouse in their cars, followed by others on foot. In the ensuing altercation, one of the men fired what appeared to be either a warning shot or an accidental discharge, resulting in an exchange of gunfire that left several people dead. The black men fled to Greenwood, and the mob followed. At daybreak on June 1, 1921, despite armed resistance, the mob attacked and burned the district, looted homes and businesses, and killed men, women, and children as they fled. The attacks continued throughout the morning, until the Oklahoma National Guard was able to suppress most of the violence. By noon, most of Tulsa’s African American population was in custody, and more than one thousand homes and businesses had been destroyed.

Dick Rowland survived the Tulsa riot and never returned to the city. Civic leaders tried to relocate Tulsa’s African American population to the outskirts of town, but they were unsuccessful, and the community was rebuilt.

Author Biography

Amy Comstock was born on November 26, 1886, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1909 and began working for the Wisconsin State Journal as a proofreader in 1911. Comstock was an active suffrage campaigner during World War I and served as the state chair of the Wisconsin Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, where she was also in charge of publicity.

Comstock moved to Tulsa in 1919 as the personal assistant of Tulsa Tribune editor Richard Lloyd Jones, having previously worked for him at the Wisconsin State Journal. Comstock later became the associate editor of the Tribune. She was the state president of the American Association of University Women for Wisconsin from 1926 until 1928 and was one of two women in the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Comstock never married and remained at the Tulsa Tribune until her death in 1944. She is buried in Wisconsin.

Document Analysis

Comstock’s article for Survey magazine takes great pains to describe the Greenwood neighborhood in sympathetic, but extremely negative terms. Tulsa has grown so fast, she claims, that the city was not able to develop the proper infrastructure for its citizens, and “that section which was known as ‘Niggertown’ was pretty much neglected.” She describes a dirty and unsanitary area with open latrines, an inadequate water supply, and “improvised shanties”–a far cry from the prosperous suburb that was popularly known as the “Black Wall Street.” Comstock claims that “the conditions under which [Greenwood residents] lived were a constant menace to the health of the city.” Is it any wonder, she asks, that the residents of this dirty and depraved place were unable to be good citizens? Is it any wonder they turned to lives of crime and depravity in such a “thoroughly bad and sordid environment”? The city failed to either improve this neighborhood or “school the Negro how to use and appreciate and better his living conditions,” allowing disrespect for the law to take over.

Comstock does not excuse the rest of Tulsa entirely, however. She acknowledges that there was a general disregard for the law in the city, born of the quick money to be made in the area: “Everybody has been busy, so to speak, with his own pick and pan, and the civic sense of the city has slumbered.” The criminal element that was attracted to Tulsa found its natural home in “the sordid and neglected” African American section of town. With city officials turning a blind eye to the criminals gathering in Greenwood, Comstock claims that its residents, “the silk-shirted parasites of society,” were arming themselves and preparing to riot, while the rest of Tulsa’s citizens “were all too busy panning gold to care.” Comstock lays no blame on the white rioters who poured into Greenwood and set it on fire. Instead, she holds the government accountable for allowing such a place to exist. The implication of Comstock’s argument is that African Americans, with their “childlike” minds and “foolish day-dreams” of equality, cannot be expected to maintain adequate living conditions or refrain from criminal activity; rather, it is the responsibility of the government and the white community to teach them and keep them in check, and it is in this respect that she believes the city failed.

Comstock sums up her argument with the assertion that “the cause of the Tulsa race riot was… a city too busy building to give thought or care to the spawning pools of crime.” Ultimately, while she lays responsibility at the feet of the city, she blames the actual violence on the supposedly crime-riddled slum that was Greenwood, not on the thousands of white rioters who attacked and killed men, women, and children. Once the city has cleaned up its black section, she claims, Tulsa will “be as proud of her decency and deportment as in the past she has been of her sky line.”

Essential Themes

In this article, Amy Comstock blames the Tulsa race riot on the African American residents of Greenwood, but in an indirect way. She describes the neighborhood as a filthy slum inhabited by criminals and prostitutes, but she faults the city for allowing the neighborhood to exist and for not making needed civic improvements. Her seemingly sympathetic tone is not borne out by her description of the people of Greenwood, which she refers to repeatedly as “Niggertown.” She believes, or claims to believe, that a dangerous criminal element was arming itself in preparation for a conflict, and she absolves the white rioters of any responsibility.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ellsworth, Scott. Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1982. Print.
  • Madigan, Tim. The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. New York: St Martin’s, 2001. Print.
  • Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Oklahoma Historical Society, 2001. Web. 26 May 2014.
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