1921 Tulsa Massacre

People have wondered where the name Greenwood District Studios came from and what the significance of the numerical portion of the studio’s address of 921 has in the greater picture of what GDS sets out to be. This page will serve as a small introduction to the events and to their subsequent cover-up for generations.

To provide as accurate of a historical recount of these events as possible, links to other websites and videos have been included below.

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

It all started innocently enough. On Monday, May 30th, 1921 a 19-year old black man named Dick Rowland was entering an elevator operated by Sarah Page. Variations of the events exist, but when Dick entered the elevator he allegedly tripped and either touched Sarah’s arm or perhaps stepped on her foot. She screamed. Dick subsequently fled the elevator and the building.

Yes, it could have ended here. But, it didn’t.

A clerk at a clothing store on the first floor of the Drexel building summoned the authorities.

On Tuesday, May 31st, 1921, the morning after the elevator incident, Rowland was detained by a White Detective by the name of Henry C. Park, and a Black patrolman (one of only two Black officers on the city’s police force).

That afternoon, the Tulsa Tribune broke a story in the afternoon edition of the paper with the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator.” This same edition of the paper included an editorial warning of a potential lynching of Dick Rowland, titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

The afternoon edition of the Tribune began circulating around 3 p.m., and news started to spread of a potential lynching. An hour later (4 p.m.), the authorities were on alert. By sunset (around 7:30 p.m.) there were several hundred White residents assembled outside the courthouse, with the makings of a lynch mob.

Around 8:20 p.m., a small group of white men entered the courthouse and demanded the Sheriff release Rowland to them. Even though Sheriff McCollough was outnumbered by the crowd on the street, he turned the men away.

Somewhere in the vicinity of 9:30 p.m., approximately 50-60 Black men, armed with rifles and shotguns, arrived at the jail to support the sheriff and deputies to keep Rowland safe from the mob.

Upon seeing the armed Black men, most of whom were WWI veterans, some of the more than 1,000 Whites who had been at the courthouse left to retrieve their own guns.

In the Greenwood district, rumors of Whites storming the courthouse began to circulate. Shortly after 10 p.m., around 75 armed Black men decided to go to the courthouse. During this time, a White man is alleged to have told one of the armed Black men to surrender his pistol. When the man refused, a shot was fired. This first shot, whether intentional or not set the stage for what was to come.

Approaching 11 p.m., members of the National Guard began to assemble at the armory. Several groups were deployed downtown to guard the courthouse, police station, and other public facilities. Even the American Legion joined in on street patrols. The National Guard started rounding up Black people and taking them to the Convention Hall for detention.

The early morning hours of Wednesday, June 1st were filled with gunfights between groups of Black and White men. This fighting was concentrated along the Frisco tracks, which were a dividing line between the White and Black business districts. Rumors circulated of an influx of more Blacks coming by train to help with the invasion of Tulsa.

With the clock ticking closer to 1 a.m., the White mob began setting fires, mainly in businesses at the southern edge of the Greenwood district. With news traveling fast amongst Greenwood residents, some began to take up arms to defend their neighborhood, while others began a mass exodus from the city.

The Tulsa Fire Department was dispatched to put out fires, but they were turned away at gunpoint, according to Scott Elsworth.

When sunrise rolled in, around 5 a.m., a train whistle sounded. Some of the rioters took this as a signal to launch an all-out assault on Greenwood.

The Black residents were soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of White attackers, and retreated north on Greenwood Avenue to the edge of town. Terrified residents fled as chaos ensued. Rioters began breaking into houses and buildings, looting. Even occupied homes were broken into according to later testimony by residents.

A rumor began to circulate among rioters that the new Mount Zion Baptist Church was acting a a fortress and armory, and claiming that twenty caskets full of rifles had been delivered to the church. No evidence to support this rumor was ever found.

Numerous eyewitnesses talked about planes carrying White assailants, who fired rifles and firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. These aircraft had come from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field outside Tulsa.

Just after 9 a.m. 109 troops from the Oklahoma National Guard arrived by train, led by Adjutant General Charles Barrett. Although ordered in by the governor, they could not legally act until all the appropriate local authorities were contacted. While this was happening, the troops paused to eat breakfast.

Thousands of Black residents fled the city. Another 4,000 had been taken to various detention centers. Under martial law, identification cards were a requirement for the detainees.

What happened to Dick Rowland and Sarah Page after the massacre?

Sarah Page declined to press charges against Dick Rowland. This fact fueled additional rumors that the pair knew each other. One rumor even alleges that they may have been lovers.

Both individuals left town.

Page disappeared on June 1st. According to various articles, she is alleged to have lived until the 1950’s. Where she spent the rest of her life seems to be a matter of speculation.

Dick Rowland allegedly died in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960’s.

Putting the Pieces together

Many survivors of the massacre told stories in hushed voices for years about one or multiple mass graves in the cemetery where victims had been quickly buried in the aftermath.

In 2020, 99 years after the events, the City of Tulsa began the process of trying to locate this mass grave and treat anything found as evidence in a murder investigation.

According to an article by National Geographic, at least 12 wooden coffins have been found. Further tests will need to be done to determine whether the remains contained in these 12 coffins are in fact victims of the 1921 massacre.

Over the years, there have been various attempts to record the events as told by the survivors. Much of this was not recorded on video until 1999, after many of the survivors had already passed away.