The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

A century after the horrific events of May 31-June 1, 1921, author Tim Madigan talks about his critically acclaimed and best-selling book, The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

A century after the horrific events of May 31-June 1, 1921, author Tim Madigan joins me to talk about his critically acclaimed and best-selling book, The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: Well, this is an important topic. It's obviously the 100th anniversary of this horrific massacre, it's the 20th anniversary of the publication of your book, and obviously we'll get into what happened in Tulsa, but why don't you tell us how you ended up writing this book?

Tim: I was born and raised in the upper Midwest in a small town in northern Minnesota where there were no black people. And, then I gradually made my way down to Texas in the newspaper business. And one day in the 2000, my editor comes up to me and handed me this wire story about something called the Tulsa Race Massacre. And I read it, and it said like 300 people had been killed, and this prosperous, affluent African American community was destroyed. And I looked at her, and I said, “This can't be right. You know, if something like this would have happened, surely we would have known about it.” And she said, “That was exactly my reaction to it.” So she sent me to Tulsa, and it did indeed happen. And I did a piece for the Fort Worth Star Telegram. It ran under the headline “Tulsa's Terrible Secret,” and then after that, I had an opportunity to write the book. So that's how it came to be. But look, as a white person from the north, learning this history for the first time had a profound effect on me that continues to this day, and it really changed the way I looked at a lot of these issues.

Matt: I just learned about it a few years ago, which is pretty shameful. I'm guessing that your book really made it much more widely known than it had been before, but this is not an accident, right? Like this wasn't just us being ignorant, this was covered up, wasn't it?

Tim: Well, it was one of the really remarkable things in American history, the extent to which they were successful in covering this up. You could have moved to Tulsa two or three years after it happened, and never known it had occurred. I think that whites and blacks kind of unwittingly entered into this conspiracy of silence for very different reasons. On the black side of town, it was fear that this could happen again, as one guy said in the 1950s, he said, “We're still afraid because the people who did this are still running Tulsa.” And on the white side of town, I think the city leaders learned that this was a huge public relations problem, and that they were going to do their best to try to not talk about it—sweep it under the carpet. And then another real important aspect of this is that white Tulsans, who participated in it, were afraid that eventually they'd be prosecuted. So anyway, it was just this extraordinary thing, and it really didn't start to surface at all until 1971, when I think a black magazine in Tulsa published a fairly lengthy account of what had happened. But until then, it had completely disappeared from history.

Matt: So the story begins, as you mentioned, with a prosperous African American community across the tracks from Tulsa. How is it that we ended up having a place that was so prosperous for African Americans?

Tim: It was a symbiotic relationship between white and black and Tulsa. In 1905, they discovered oil within a few miles of what, until that time, had been a kind of a sleepy little cattle town. And almost overnight, it was transformed into this oil metropolis, and the skyscrapers sprouted, and people were flush with cash. African Americans came in knowing that they could be part of this too, in the sense that the white people needed domestics, gardeners, chauffeurs, carpenters, bricklayers, shoeshine boys, and so they would come across the tracks every day, go to work, be paid relatively well, and then come back across the tracks into Greenwood with some money in their pockets. As a result, this professional class that sprung up—doctors, lawyers, newspaper men, entrepreneurs, hoteliers… a lot of them very highly educated and very accomplished people—basically to serve the people who are making money on the white side of town. And by the by 1915, or so, it was known as the place to be if you're African American in the country. I think it was Booker T. Washington who first labeled it the “Negro Wall Street of America.” And black people held it out as kind of a metaphor for what was possible for their race after the Civil War. That is why what eventually ended up happening was just crushing and so disillusioning to a lot of people.

Matt: So I guess there was a young African American man who was working as a shoeshine boy in Tulsa, and he was pretty successful, and he had an interaction with a young white lady who was an elevator operator, and it's a little bit fuzzy as to what the details were what actually happened, but talk about that.

Tim: Yeah, his name was Dick Rowland. He was kind of a flashy, kind of a ne’er-do-well type character who who would go and shine shoes under the skyscrapers in downtown Tulsa, and come back to Greenwood wearing diamond jewelry with his pockets full of cash. And in fact, his nickname was “Diamond” Dick Rowland. So the restroom was on the fourth floor of a building downtown, and as he gets in this elevator with a teenage girl named Sarah Page, who is the operator. It has been speculated the two of them knew each other previously, maybe even had some sort of relationship. Something happened in that elevator that day, and the best speculation is that the elevator lurched, he stumbled into her by accident, touched her back and—and no one really knows for sure, other than the fact that she got off the elevator screaming that she had been assaulted, which is not a good thing for young black male at that time. He was arrested, and very quickly, the Tulsa detectives determined there probably wasn't much to these allegations. He was being held more for his own protection than anything, and the the thing would have probably petered out, were it not for a front page headline in the Tulsa Tribune, which read, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” And within a few hours of that hitting the streets, hundreds of people had gathered outside the Tulsa courthouse where Rowland is being held, either to participate in the lynching, or to observe it, because in those days, lynching had become a spectator sport in a lot of places in America, particularly in the south. And so then, as things kept building and building and building over the afternoon and early evening of May 31, this newspaper made its way across the tracks into Greenwood. And by this time, in addition to their affluence, there were a large number of young [African-American] men who had fought for the United States in World War I, under the assumption that, by virtue of their service, they would come back to the United States and would be treated as equal citizens, when in reality, they came back to as a country where their people were being treated even worse. And so, there was this resolve that grew up in many places, including Tulsa, that said, “The whites can try to do what they want to do, but we're no longer just going to sit back and take it.” So a couple of times over the course of that night, a group of armed blacks went to the courthouse to try to assist the sheriff in protecting the Dick Rowland, and the sheriff assured them that he had this under control. But during one of these visits, a shot was fired, probably accidentally. And both sides were very heavily armed at the time, so all hell broke loose. And a dozen people fell dead, both black and white. And then, the blacks retreated across the railroad tracks into Greenwood.

Matt: I don't want to drag you into some modern political debate, but one thing I think of when I heard this story is, “believe all women,” which is a bad idea, sometimes.

Tim: It was so common in those days, that white women accusing black men of something, you know, and I think that in some cases maybe that there was substance to the allegations, and in some cases, there wasn't, but in too many cases that never got to the courtroom. I mean, these people were taken out of jails and strung up. And the bottom line is that after the shots were fired—this altercation occurred out in front of the courthouse about 10:30 on the night of May 31—Dick Rowland was an afterthought. White Tulsa forgot about Dick Rowland. They quickly turned their attention in their passions toward the African American men who had had the temerity to come to downtown Tulsa, and engage in this sort of thing. And so, from 10:30, at night until five o'clock the next morning, literally thousands of people going to marshal themselves at strategic points along Greenwood. And one of the questions everyone has is Who is running this, who is organizing this?” And I don't think we will never know for sure, but the circumstantial evidence is such that someone had to be organizing it. Someone at the very highest levels of Tulsa’s society. So, you know, and then at 5:08 am the attack began.

Matt: Right, and there was a whistle that blew, which suggests that this was organized and planned?

Tim: Right, yes.

Matt: Do we know what happened to the couple in the elevator?

Tim: Well, Rowland was snuck out of town after you know when everything else started to happen, and he left town as did Sarah Page. There is speculation, rumor, talk about the fact that the two of them might have been reunited someplace in the north. That is, you know, I don't think that's ever been proven. But Dick Rowland survived, as did Sarah Page, and it's at least possible that they had some sort of relationship years afterward in Kansas City.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.