The Race Riot That Destroyed Black Wall Street

Jul 22 2015

The Race Riot That Destroyed Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

June 1st, 1921 will forever be remembered as a day of great loss and devastation. It was on this day that America experienced the deadliest race riot in the small town of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ninety-four years later, that neighborhood is still recognized as one of the most prosperous African American towns to date. With hundreds of successful black-owned businesses lining Greenwood Avenue, it became a standard that African Americans are still trying to rebuild. The attack that took place in 1921 tore the community apart, claiming hundreds of lives and sending the once prosperous neighborhood up in smoke.

In the early 1900s, Tulsa, Oklahoma experienced a major oil boom, attracting thousands. Many African Americans migrated from southern states hoping to escape the harsh racial tensions while profiting off of the oil industry. Yet even in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jim Crow laws were at large, causing the town to be vastly segregated with most African Americans settling in the northern section of the town. From that segregation grew a black entrepreneurial mecca that would affectionately be called “Black Wall Street”. The town was established in 1906 by entrepreneur O.W. Gurley, and by 1921 there were over 11,000 residents and hundreds of prosperous businesses, all owned and operated by black Tulsans and patronized by both whites and blacks.

One of the most prominent entrepreneurs was Lola T. Williams who owned The Dreamland Theatre and a small chain across Oklahoma. The theater seated close to 1,000 people for live musicals, films and more. This was only one of four theaters in the area. Not too far from Mrs. Williams’ theater was the Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue. Owned by J.B. Stradford, it was one of the largest and most successful black-owned hotels at the time. Prior to opening the hotel, Stratford bought large tracts of land in Tulsa and sold them exclusively to blacks, subscribing to the belief that they had the best chance at economic success by pooling their resources and supporting one another’s businesses.


Greenwood flourished and became a symbol of black wealth, pride, and unity. At its height, the business center boasted of various grocery stores, nightclubs, drug stores, churches, funeral homes, restaurants, banks, hotels, and the likes. The community was completely self-sufficient and became the home of many black multimillionaire entrepreneurs. With this growth and success came envy from white Tulsans. Many of the businesses in Greenwood (which they referred to as “Little Africa”) were more prosperous than those in the white community. Racial and economic tensions soon came to a boil in May of 1921.

On May 30th, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoe shiner at a Main Street parlor took the elevator at nearby building to use the restroom. At the time, the white elevator operator on duty was 17-year-old Sarah Page.

What happened while the two were in the elevator remains unclear, yet it resulted in Page accusing Rowland of sexual assault. Although she never pressed charges, the damage was done. The story made the front page of the Tulsa Tribune with the headline “Nab Negro for attacking girl in elevator”, while rumors began circulating that a white lynch mob was searching for Rowland.

The incident further divided the town with one side believing Rowland raped Page and the other holding on to the belief that he simply tripped as he got onto the elevator and grabbed onto Page’s arm as he tried to catch his balance. Hundreds began to gather outside of the county jail that held Rowland. First, a group of armed whites, followed by a group of armed black men fearful of Rowland’s safety and determined to protect him.

What ensued was one of the most devastating riots in American history. An event that can only be characterized as terrorism.

Before dawn, a mob of angry white men stormed into Greenwood armed with guns, some provided by local officers who also participated in the riot. Hundreds of businesses and homes were ransacked and set afire. Black men, some who served in World War I, rallied together and armed themselves, ready to fight for their families and community. Whites indiscriminately shot and killed men, women, and children on foot and by car. As the number of casualties on both sides escalated, airplanes used in World War I were dispatched, firing rifles at residents and dropping fire bombs on the black community.

Tulsa Race Riot1

Outnumbered and outgunned, the riot grew worse for black Tulsans. Countless families began to flee after being trapped between rampant flames and gunfire. By the end of the attack, close to 300 blacks were murdered, while many others were left injured, homeless and held in internment camps by local law enforcement. By 1942, remaining black Tulsans rebuilt Greenwood without any assistance from the state and saw a resurgence of over 240 businesses.

The story of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street remains one of the most inspirational and devastating parts of our history, yet it is still unknown by many. If you would like to learn more about the Tulsa race riots, you can check out:

Riot and Remembrance: America’s Worst Race Riot and Its Legacy by James Hirsch

The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan

Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District by Hannibal Johnson

Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth & John Hope Franklin

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  • Corinda Marsh 09/06/2019 at 9:12 pm

    Please add my book to your list. Tim Story and Mark Holder are making a movie of it. The book is Holocaust in the Homeland. It is historical fiction, but the history is as close to reality as research could make it. All the characters are depicted as nearly as I could. One descendant of one of the main characters told me that I got his grandfather down just right even down to the gestures I described. The book is being taught at Oklahoma State in Tulsa this semester. The book is available on Amazon.

  • DRush76 08/02/2019 at 2:33 pm

    I compliment you on most of this article, but Tulsa, Oklahoma is not a small town.

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  • Scout Dominic 12/17/2018 at 7:17 pm

    Where is “White Wall Street”? I am offended by this reverse discrimination……Is it in the Brady District? Oh that’s right…..someone was offended by that name. Change the name to…….Tulsa Wall Street maybe. Everybody wants to be equal but keeps putting fuel in the fire. How do you expect this to get better when we keep things separated.

    • WANDA L LYMON ROACH 01/25/2019 at 3:54 pm

      Go to hell Scott Dominic, its never going to get better if you and other whites done own the fact that these things happened and they are still happening, how childish of you to whine about being offended. reverse discrimination, you are an idiot and nothing changes because people like you dont want it too.

    • Argh 05/17/2019 at 8:20 am

      This article isn’t accurate. The initial massacre occurred when a group of armed Greenwood residents opened fire on the unarmed crowd in front of the courthouse, killing ten of them, all white men. After THIS occurred the rioting began with shooting from both sides. 300 dead is 10 times the death toll reported at the time.

      • Akeem 06/20/2019 at 11:53 am

        That’s a fucking lie shut up you can’t even put your real name just fucking stop.

      • Sankofa 08/05/2019 at 6:58 pm

        @argh Inaccurate. The KKK was going around the entire US looting and destroying affluent black communities. Prior to the Tulsa massacre, there was the Red Summer of 1919, Massacres in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Chicago, East St. Louis, Arkansas, to name a few. What happened in Tulsa, The newspaper claimed they were going to lynch a negro and those blood thirsty white folks went downtown in an attempt to lynch Rowland, the young man accused of assaulting a white girl. A white man asked a black man what he was going to do with his gun. The black man responded by saying, “I’ll use it if I have to.” The white man proceeded to take the gun from him and a shot was fired. That is what started the massacre.

    • Akeem 06/20/2019 at 11:52 am

      You’re a fucking loser. You here a story about actual racism and this is what you comment shut the fuck up you racist piece of shit.

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  • Mary Thompson 09/23/2018 at 9:44 pm

    Remember these people have not changed..

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  • Jmason 06/01/2018 at 11:01 am

    What happened in 1921 May 30th on Black Wall Street was terrible God forbid that we never have another race riot however we should learn and honor those who paid the price

  • Jmason 06/01/2018 at 10:59 am

    This was a terrible thing that happened however for the sake of History we should learn from the people who built Black Wall Street and the fact that we today can do the same thing

  • Ward 02/25/2018 at 7:54 am

    My husband and I recently toured Black Wall Street. I must say I had to quickly repent: Truly (we) Black People can be unified and come together for a common cause. I thank my church for introducing this moment in our history on one of our 4th Sundays in 2017 which was my first time hearing about Black Wall Street. I thank God because of the vision God gave our Pastor, L. D. Scott, to dedicate every 4th Sunday as Our History. We do not just do it in the month of February but we do it every month. Just based on this time in history about our people we need to do Black History everyday and pass it on to our children and their children. Black Wall Street is a must see for every African American/Black person in America! I truly thank my God, JESUS, for being born black!

    • Giovannk 04/15/2018 at 8:58 am

      So then the military assisted in the massacre?

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  • Jay Z 02/03/2018 at 11:01 pm

    Excellent article exposes the facade behind which the “leading upholder of human rights” hides while using the same stick to lecture other nations. Request a darker font makes it easier to read. Thank you.

    • Patricia Canon 10/11/2018 at 1:01 pm

      Jay Z — Things like this go on in other countries, too, This is about the nature of the human mind and the human capacity for evil. The US has moved far from this time. Arab Muslims enslaved 110 million African people over a millennia (and still enslave Africans) — but Democrats do not care about that. Instead, they insist US is the worst nation in the world and want it destroyed. They prevent us from understanding the true nature of evil. They want to destroy the US, but they fail to see that all of human history has involved war, conquest and slavery — everywhere on earth. Europeans were attacked and enslaved by Muslims for centuries. Native American tribes warred against and enslaved each other. In the Old Testament God tells Moses how to treat slaves properly. This is human history. As flawed as our nation is, it is still more just than most places on earth. We need to understand that injustice — and terrible injustice — is the state of the world. Our job is to appreciate what we are given and to work to improve what we can. The US was among the first places on earth to abolish slavery. Decades of racial terror following slavery have passed. Some criminals in our country want to resurrect that — but with new and different victims. The Democrat perspective (Democrats were responsible for all the pain in our history) is that the US is uniquely evil. It is not. They now want to destroy the US as a way of destroying all of us. We must be careful about buying into their narrative.

  • Brenan 12/26/2017 at 8:40 am

    Thus historical fact must be taught in our schools.

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  • Theresa Oblie 03/02/2017 at 8:28 am

    It is a pity God created us all but “put” a thin line between black and white, therefore, love and hate. If the bible is God’s teaching and commanded us not to kill – Exodus 20 and go to say in Deuteronomy 28 that, I will slain anyone who kill, and yet all these atrocities were committed by these people and they are still at it and they go scot-free, then I am beginning to believe what other people have been saying all these years.. That, ” the bible is written by the whites to suit their purpose”.. Also reading Leviticus 26 gave me a clearer picture. Somebody should correct me, maybe I am ignorant.

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  • Winnie Ford 02/11/2017 at 6:48 pm

    Thank you for the story I never heard this story before yet again this is not the black history they wanted us to know about in school. How ever this story sounds like Rosewood the same thing happened a white woman lied and the rest is history the town of prosperous black people were destroyed and the jealousy of the race took it down

  • Khali The Great 03/16/2016 at 4:05 pm

    How many whites were killed in this so called “riot”? This article is a manipulation of the truth. That it was white men who ransacked, burned, killed, and destroyed everything in that town. There was no war! Just an attack and thats all! I hope no one is dumb enough to believe the nonsense in your article.

    • Khalidumbass 06/21/2016 at 9:12 pm

      Apparently you are not smart enough to know that is exactly what happened!!!

    • S. Hicks-Bartlett 08/22/2018 at 6:29 pm

      @Khali The Great,

      Educate yourself! Black Wall Street wasn’t the only prosperous Black town that was attacked without provocation by armed, angry whites upset about Black prosperity.. Look up the Rosewood Massacre. Good news: being dumb is not a permanent condition. Read history and you can overcome ignorance.

  • Sarah 07/23/2015 at 7:58 pm

    Wow never knew the story of how it began. Im sure it was a made up story. White women have lusted after black men and then turned themselves into the victim plenty of times so that couldve happened too.


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