The Roaring 20’s are fondly remembered in American History classes as a period in which the United States, fresh off of helping the Allies defeat Germany and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I, was experiencing a typical post war economic boom. While much of the US remained segregated, many blacks who had migrated from the south to the midwest to obtain jobs in factories that produced war materials as well as the then ever-expanding automobile industry, enjoyed good wages in many areas.
By 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma was a boom town spurred on by the vast amount of oil discovered earlier in the 20th Century.
While Tulsa’s oil, gas and refinery businesses employed few blacks, many of the newly rich white citizens provided well-paying jobs for black domestic workers. Tulsa was also home to 15 black physicians, several prominent black lawyers, two black newspapers and dozens of churches that catered to the thousands of blacks who migrated to Tulsa to work in the construction, railroad and land excavation fields. The black business district, known as Greenwood, sported several three and five-story buildings that housed black restaurants, beauty and barber shops as well as upholstery and garment businesses and grocery stores. Further, Booker T. Washington High School became the hub of Greenwood education and social activity for its black citizens.
On May 31, 1921 in Tulsa, Dick Rowland, who was black, was arrested on suspicion of raping a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page. The arrest was instantly polarizing as some blacks believed that the pair had been involved in a lover’s quarrel, while several prominent white businessman doubted the allegation of rape based, in part, upon their affinity for Rowland, who was a highly regarded shoe shiner.
By nightfall on May 31st, nearly a thousand white citizens–some armed–stood near the local jail demanding vigilante justice on behalf of Ms. Page. Black citizens from Greenwood, including a number of World War I vets, armed themselves and proceeded to the jail to offer their services to the sheriff to protect Rowland from a lynching that had all but been called for by one local white newspaper. That night, when a white citizen demanded that one of the black veterans hand his pistol over, the ensuing struggle led to a shot being fired and soon, the city was engulfed in all out violence that left 120 blacks confirmed dead. Several hundred black homes were burned down as were most of the commercial buildings. Hundreds of black survivors were rounded up and placed into interment camps.
Among the black dead was prominent local surgeon Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was shot near his front porch after seeking to quell the furor among his white neighbors. Dr. Jackson’s murder was eerily similar to the death of the late actress Esther Rolle’s character in John Singleton’s fictionalized version of Florida’s 1923 Rosewood Massacre.
The black death toll in Greenwood included a number of elderly citizens, women and children. No whites were charged in any of the murders and legal battles over property loss inured few benefits to black citizens.
Adding further insult, a Grand Jury investigating the incident later concluded that: “We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland…There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms…The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.”
While Tulsa’s destruction was horrific, similar scenes played out on varying levels across the south including in Rosewood, Florida near Gainesville where in 1923, dozens of black homes and businesses were razed and while the precise numbers are sketchy, by some estimates, scores of black men, women and children were lynched following an alleged rape of a local white woman. For these and other atrocities, whenever some individual asks “why didn’t blacks fight back more during Jim Crow,” the simple answer remains that when black men and women did fight back, the full fury of white mobs, white local police, and a justice system that was separate and unequal to its core, were reasons enough to cause fear in those simply desiring to stay alive.