On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old Black shoeshiner, apparently tripped while exiting an elevator and grabbed the arm of the white elevator operator, seventeen-year-old Sarah Page. Page screamed, which alerted a store clerk who called the police and reported the incident as an attempted sexual assault. Rowland maintained he did not attempt to harm Page. There are accounts today that indicate that Rowland and Page had been dating.
The police arrested Rowland the next morning. On the afternoon of May 31, 1921, the major Tulsa newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, ran a front-page story entitled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and an inflammatory editorial, entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” The Tribune’s false and inflammatory reporting endangered Rowland’s life and as news of the alleged assault spread through Tulsa, so did talk of a potential lynching.
By 10:00 p.m. on May 31, the Tulsa police station was filled with a mob of armed, angry White people—overwhelmingly male. The police deputized and armed white-male civilians without regard for the safety and security of the African American residents of Greenwood. They kept no record of which civilians were issued weapons. Instead, the police department ordered deputies and non-deputies alike to “go home, get a gun, and get a nigger.”
The City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, and Chamber officials also sought the assistance of the local State National Guard units. At approximately 10:30 p.m., a local State National Guard commander arrived with two officers and sixteen men. They went to the police station, where they began working in conjunction with the police.
Throughout the night of May 31, 1921 into June 1, 1921, the White mob, including men newly deputized by the City and County, came across the Frisco railroad yard into Greenwood. J.B. Stradford, A.J. Smitherman, and other Greenwood residents attempted to organize an effort to defend themselves against the oncoming mob on Brickyard Hill between Haskell and Jasper Streets. Although outnumbered, the African American residents fought to defend their community, but the Whites forced their way into Greenwood, shooting, wounding, and killing many African Americans, and burning down everything in their path.
Audio Story: Tulsa, OK: Reconciliation Way
A Reckoning in Tulsa | Podcast | Overheard at National Geographic