The Horrifying History Of America’s Worst Race Riot

The Tulsa race riot lasted just 24 hours but caused over $1.5 million in damages to the city and "Black Wall Street."

Tulsa Race Riot

Wikimedia CommonsSmoke over “Black Wall Street” during the Tulsa race riot.

Almost 100 years ago, in a small town office building, a man named Dick Rowland tripped on his way into an elevator. The car hadn’t stopped properly, and Rowland hadn’t noticed, catching his foot on the uneven ledge. As he fell, he reached out, looking for something to stop him. That something was Sarah Page, the young elevator operator, who naturally screamed, as a man was falling on top of her.

In any other place, at any other time, between anybody else, the incident may have gone unnoticed. But the place was Greenwood, Okla. — known as “Black Wall Street” — the time was 1921, and Dick Rowland was a black man. To make matters worse, Sarah Page was a white woman.

Onlookers who witnessed the mishap immediately cried “rape,” upon seeing a 19-year-old black male shoeshiner grasping a 17-year-old white female elevator attendant. The police were called, and despite Rowland’s insistence that he had simply tripped on his way to use the segregated restroom, he was arrested.

An article, published astonishingly fast in the town’s newspaper, called for Rowland’s lynching.

Black Wall Street

Wikimedia CommonsSmoke filled the skies above the black residential areas of Tulsa.

In response, hundreds of people showed up to the courthouse. A small number of them were black residents showing up to protect Rowland. A much larger number were a white mob, anxious to fulfill the newspaper’s request. Before long, the black residents were forced to stand down, as the most brutal and destructive race riot in history unfolded, in one of the most prominent black neighborhoods.

The neighborhood, called Greenwood, was known as “Black Wall Street,” so named due to the prominent businessmen that resided there, and the successful businesses they owned. The neighborhood had begun to thrive on black customers and black salespeople alone, a first for a town at the time — making the riots all the more destructive.

Over the course of 12 hours the white mob, joined by more rioters, collectively burned down almost all of Black Wall Street. They looted businesses, shot and attacked black residents, and left the town in ruins.

Before long, Oklahoma’s governor had declared martial law, bringing in the National Guard to end the violence. Some say the police and the Guard joined the fights, dropping sticks of dynamite from planes and firing machine guns into swarms of black residents. One eyewitness account claimed to see a dozen planes, dispatched by the National Guard, dropping balls of burning turpentine onto rooftops.

Twenty-four hours later, it was over, but the damage had already been done.

National Guard

Wikimedia CommonsThe National Guard tending to the wounded.

According to initial reports, more than 800 people were injured, and roughly 35 had died. More recently, in 2001, an investigation by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission claimed the death toll was closer to 300.

Over 35 blocks of city street had been burned, resulting in more than $1.5 million in property damage. Today, that would be roughly $30 million.

10,000 black residents had been left homeless, and over 6,000 were held by the National Guard, some for as long as eight days.

Despite being the worst riot in Oklahoma’s history (some say the world), the Tulsa race riots were all but erased from national memory. Now, however, members of the Tulsa community are pushing for them to be covered in school’s curriculum, arguing that it’s as important an event as any other.

In 2016, a long-lost manuscript was discovered that contained typewritten eyewitness accounts and new information about the Tulsa race riot.

Local Tulsa residents hope the discovery will bring to light the tragic history of their city, a history which has been forgotten for long enough.


Now that you’ve read about the Tulsa race riot and Black Wall Street Next, read about more of history’s worst riots. Then, check out the strangest ones.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a writing fellow at All That Is Interesting.
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