This column first ran in February 2002.
On the morning of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland accidentally stepped on the toe of Sarah Page, an elevator operator at the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. She screamed, the elevator door opened and people saw Rowland running out. He was Black. She was white.
One thing led to another.
The next night, about 400 whites gathered at the county jail where Rowland, 19, was being held. Fearing the worst, about 75 Blacks went there, too.
One thing led to another.
Shots rang out, and both sides started firing wildly. The outnumbered Blacks retreated toward the Greenwood section of town — called "Negro Wall Street" by its residents, something more insulting by the local newspaper. It was a large and bustling district of Black-owned businesses, Black churches and Black professionals in the booming oil town of Tulsa.
The state guard was called out. White mobs surged through the streets all night. More than 10,000 strong, they looted, burned and murdered their way through Greenwood in an orgy of hatred, greed and resentment. Machine guns and airplanes were used, so it's clear that at least some of the guardsmen were on the wrong side.
Accurate numbers are impossible to come by, but by the time it was over, 300 or more people (mostly Black) were dead; 1,500 or more homes had been burned, making thousands more people homeless; and 21 churches, two movie theaters, a hospital, a bank and a post office were gone. Upwards of $1.5 million worth of Black-owned property had gone up in smoke.
In September, the case against Rowland was dismissed.
"The rest of the United States must know that the real citizenship of Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good the damage, so far as it can be done, to the last penny," Judge Loyal J. Martin declared after the riot.
Fat chance. What the good burghers did instead was to bury the whole episode so completely that generations of Tulsans (and other white Americans) never heard about it. It took a state commission to set the record straight, 78 years later.
What lessons can we learn from the Greenwood riot? That white people are dangerous pyromaniacs, prone to mass hysteria and eager to kill Black people? Well, just look at what happened. Just look at the evidence …
But, as sickening as this event was, there may also be a positive lesson or two.
First, this isn't just a different country from what it was in 1921; it's a whole nother planet. Despite all the killings in the news of Black people by police, justice does sometimes come down on the wrongdoers, as never before.
Second, the fact that Black Americans were able to build up communities like Greenwood in Tulsa and elsewhere during those dark ages — with the Klan riding high, with 50 to 60 lynchings every year and without any of the civil-rights protections enacted during the Fifties and Sixties — wasn't just remarkable, it was heroic. To suggest that a people who accomplished that cannot participate in middle-class America today, or shouldn't try until every last molecule of racism has been cleansed from every last heart, flies in the face of history.
That’s why we can’t afford to deny that history.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.