The first time planes bombed a US city: Tulsa, 1921

Submitted by AWL on 8 June, 2021 - 3:45
Greenwood on fire

Second of a series of articles on the Tulsa Massacre of June 1921. Part one here and part three here.

“The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave and that was it.

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see black men being shot, black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day.”

That was Viola Fletcher, 107, the oldest survivor of the May-June 1921 massacre of African Americans by whites in Tulsa, Oklahoma, speaking to the US Congress last month.

Tulsa 1921 was the among the worst violent outrages against black people (and other minorities) in the US’s bloody post-slavery history. Though particularly horrifying, it was not an isolated incident, either in the sweep of American history or in the post-First World War period. As explained in the Solidarity 595 article setting out the background to the massacre, post-war US politics and society were polarised, with the rise of both radical and violently reactionary forces. Racism was at the cutting edge of both state repression and right-wing popular movements.

We will return to these wider struggles in a third article. This one will look at the Tulsa massacre itself.

The non-events which sparked the massacre

The events which led to the dizzying violence of the Tulsa massacre were, in themselves, shockingly minor.

On 30 May 1921 a 19-year-old black man, Dick Rowland, entered the lift of Tulsa’s city-centre Drexel Building, to go and use the “coloured” toilet on the top floor (this was the South at the high point of racial segregation). Rowland worked as a shoe-shiner nearby, and his employer had arranged for black workers to be able to use the Drexel Building toilet. The lift operator was a 17-year-old white woman, Sarah Page.

There has been much speculation about Rowland and Page’s previous relationship and what happened in the lift. She is reported to have cried out. The consensus is that he tripped and stepped on her toe or grabbed her arm as he fell. A white worker heard Page’s shout and saw Rowland rushing from the building. Assuming — with Page’s encouragement or not is not unclear — that she’d been sexually assaulted, he called the authorities.

It seems Page told the police that nothing very serious had happened and she did not want to press charges. They initiated a low-key investigation. However, knowing that the very suggestion of having assaulted a white woman put him at risk of violence, Rowland took refuge at his adopted mother’s house in the black neighbourhood of Greenwood.

The next morning (31 May) he was arrested by two police officers, but things remained low-key; one of the arresting officers was black, one of two black policemen in Tulsa. After an anonymous call to the city’s police commissioner threatening Rowland’s life, he was moved to a more secure jail at the county courthouse.

There is a strange subplot, which is that Rowland’s court-appointed defence lawyer was Wash Hudson, a leading state Democratic politician and active white supremacist who not much later would found and lead the Tulsa branch of Ku Klux Klan. Was someone’s intention to ensure Rowland’s conviction if a trial had gone ahead?

In fact the case against him was dropped later that year, after Page wrote categorically that she did not want to press any charges. By then, however, hundreds of Tulsans had been murdered and Greenwood lay in ruins.

Immediately after Rowland’s arrest, sections of the press launched a racist agitation about the supposed case. The Tulsa Tribune, owned and edited by Richard Lloyd Jones, a virulent racist and KKK-sympathiser who in his old age would aggressively support McCarthyism, broke the “story” with a headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”. His paper had previously called Tulsa’s black community “N-----town” and “a veritable human cesspool that needed to be cleaned up”. Now Jones published a fire-starting editorial about Rowland and Page, apparently under the headline “To Lynch Negro Tonight?” (the editorial does not survive, having been removed from all surviving copies of the paper).

Tulsa’s chief detective at the time commented: “If the facts in the story as told the police had only been printed I do not think there would have been any riot whatsoever.” Recent historian of the massacre Tim Madigan argued that “it was Jones and his editorial —  Jones more than any other single person — whose actions precipitated” what unfolded.

The afternoon edition of the Tribune was out at 3pm. By sunset at 7.30pm on 31 May, several hundred white people had assembled outside the courthouse to demand Rowland was handed over to them for a lynching. The Tulsa sheriff refused; numbers outside the courthouse continued to grow.

Black self-defence

In Greenwood, members of Tulsa’s black community gathered to discuss the situation. There was agreement on taking action to prevent the lynching of Dick Rowland, but disagreement about tactics. As elsewhere in America in that period, many young black First World War veterans advocated armed action to stop the racists. At the same time, Greenwood had an extremely prosperous commercial centre, famous throughout the US as the “black Wall Street”. Many of its leading figures were much more negative or nervous about confrontation and urged caution.

Such arguments were made by OW Gurley, a wealthy landowner and businessman who owned the hotel where the discussion took place. Gurley, until these events worth about $3 million in today’s money, had been made a sheriff’s deputy, to protect or police the people of Greenwood, depending on how you looked at it. His role would do them no good in what was about to take place.

On the other hand, the town had a strong tradition of black self-defence and self-assertion. Andrew J Smitherman, editor of leading Greenwood newspaper the Tulsa Star, was famous not only for denouncing racism and injustice in print but for personally leading actions to stop racist attacks and lynchings elsewhere in the state. The Star’s philosophy was summed up by an early front page headline: “You Push Me And I’ll Push You!”

Sixty armed black men went to the courthouse to defend Rowland from the white mob. It is widely stated that, for whatever reason, the sheriff had asked them to come, though he later denied this.

By this point more than 1,000 white racists were outside, and more and more were getting armed. Hundreds tried to invade a National Guard armoury to seize the weapons there, though this plan failed. It was not long before the courthouse crowd grew to 2,000, mostly with guns.

Then even more than now, such people think it is their God- and constitution-given right to bear arms — but not black people’s. One of the white men at the courthouse tried to force one of the black men to surrender his pistol. The man refused and an exchange of gunfire between the two sides resulted.

The invasion of Greenwood

The black men retreated toward Greenwood, with a rolling gunfight now taking place. As the much larger number of whites followed, they looted shops for additional weapons and ammunition and fired at many black bystanders they encountered.

As events unfolded, many of the whites were deputised by the police and provided with weapons.

From about 1am on 1 June, groups of whites began to enter Greenwood, indiscriminately shooting into businesses and homes and in some cases throwing lighted oil-rags into buildings, setting them on fire. By 4am about two dozen black-owned businesses had been torched. As crew from Tulsa Fire Department arrived to put out fires, they were turned away at gunpoint.

With sunrise, about 5am, an all-out assault began. Greenwood’s black defenders were overwhelmed by the sheer number of white invaders and had to fall back to the edge of the area. The “rioters” broke into and looted houses and premises, killing many people and driving the rest to detention centres that had been set up.

Multiple eyewitnesses described planes carrying white attackers, who gunned people down from above and dropped firebombs. We now know that these aircraft were privately-owned, but authorised by law enforcement; some of them carried law enforcement personnel. This seems to have been the first aerial attack on a US city.

State National Guard troops arrived about at about 9am, but paused for breakfast while their commander contacted various local authorities — many of whom were complicit in what was taking place. Although the violence was brought to an end, it was not at all the case that the National Guard defended black Tulsans against the white killers. Instead they helped arrest and detain over 6,000 black people.

In the final “battle” of the massacre, the National Guard used a heavy machine gun to demolish Mount Zion Baptist Church, which the white rioters claimed had been turned into a fortress and armoury.

Black people were also attacked elsewhere in Tulsa. Many middle-class white families turned over their employees to be taken to detention centres; those who refused were subjected to vandalism and violence in turn. At least a few white Tulsans did provide refuge to black people during the massacre.

The results

Soon afterwards, Oklahoma’s Department of Vital Statistics claimed that 36 people had been killed, 26 black and ten white. The Red Cross and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, a little later, and an official commission, in 2001, estimated about 2-300. Very few of the deaths resulted from the fires that raged in Greenwood during the massacre; they were direct murders. 800-1,000 were injured.

Forty square blocks of 1,265 African American homes and businesses, worth many tens of millions in today’s money — not to mention hospitals, schools and churches — were burned down or otherwise demolished. Many thousands of black people were detained and only released upon being vouched for by a white citizen, usually an employer.

9,000 were left homeless and lived in tents into the winter of 1921-2. The rebuilding of Greenwood was painfully slow, with white capitalists and politicians intervening to gain control of land and real estate and prevent the area from being rebuilt in anything like its old form.

One of the most flourishing black communities in the US had been physically destroyed and economically and psychologically traumatised, with consequences that continue today.

Historican of the massacre Tim Madigan, quoted above, noted that “in the immediate months and years afterward, postcards depicting burning Negro homes and businesses and charred Negro corpses were bought and sold on Tulsa’s downtown streets, and white participants openly boasted about notches on their guns, earned during Greenwood’s obliteration, which initially was a widespread source of civic pride.”

There were some charges — against black people as well as white — but no convictions for anything relating to the killings, injuries and destruction of property. An all-white Grand Jury criticised the role of law enforcement but blamed black people for what had occurred.

Fairly quickly gloating turned to silence. By the 1930s discussion of the massacre had largely been suppressed. As late as 2017, a report on the history of the Tulsa Fire Department from 1897 made no mention of the 1921 events!

In my final article I will discuss the struggle of black Tulsans and their allies to break decades of silence surrounding the massacre and win measures of reparation and justice. However it is also important to understand, historically, how these insane horrors could take place.

How could this happen?

As explained in Solidarity 595, the US-wide context was a national surge of white supremacist violence, intertwined with violent repression against the left and labour movement.

1919 saw a great wave of pogroms, with “race riots” in at least two dozen cities. Fuelled by deep-rooted white supremacist ideas and sentiments — which grew stronger decade by decade as the revolutionary anti-racist movement which followed the Civil War and the abolition of slavery was defeated — a kind of ongoing hysteria gripped millions of white Americans.

Black people migrating and “taking jobs” by joining industry, black men in relationships with white women, black people despite everything making a success of life and prospering — all these things were seen as intolerable… Even “worse” was the spirit of self-assertion which began to inspire many African Americans in the post-war years, particularly when it involved black men in uniform and with guns. This period was in many ways the high-point of white supremacy, but it saw the first stirrings of movements which would eventually slash it down.

In the heavy pressure of this racist atmosphere, the smallest things could set off an apocalypse — even a non-event like Sarah Page and Dick Rowland in a lift (particularly since it involved a white woman and a black man).

Greenwood was an ideal target for the mob because it so vividly symbolised black success, which as historian James Hirsch puts it:

“… was an intolerable affront to the social order of white supremacy, so taking their possessions not only stripped Blacks of their material status, but also tipped the social scales back to their proper alignment. This reassertion of authority, expressed through ransacked homes, was a cause for celebration.”

The other context — also discussed in 595 — is the counter-revolution which swept Oklahoma in the years immediately preceding the massacre. From 1917 the strongest socialist left in the US, one which generally fought racism and united black and white workers and farmers in struggle, was virtually wiped out.

TD Evans, Tulsa’s (Republican) mayor during the massacre, was clear where he stood: “Let the blame for this Negro uprising lie right where it belongs, on those armed Negroes and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it.”

Evans had been the judge who in the famous “Tulsa Outrage” trial of 1917 convicted twelve members of the Industrial Workers of the World — and five non-IWW defence witnesses! — before having them handed over to the “Knights of Liberty”, a forerunner of the local KKK, who beat, tarred and feathered them. It was an important event in the suppression of Oklahoma’s left.

In the 1914 election for state governor, the Socialist Party, a multi-racial party supported disproportionately by black Oklahomans, which had taken the lead in fighting segregation, won 21%. In 1918, after a year of brutal repression against the labour movement, it won 3.8%; in 1922, 0.7%. The party all but disappeared from the scene.

As the KKK surged, Oklahoma’s governor shortly after the massacre, Jack Walton, made some attempt to stop its terrorist activities. As a result he was impeached by the state legislature, after only eight months in office. By 1930 William Murray, longstanding and aggressive opponent of black rights in the state and architect of its first anti-black laws, was elected governor in a landslide after campaigning against “the Three Cs — Corporations, Carpetbaggers [Northerners, with the implication of liberals or progressives] and Coons [black people]”. Murray would become an admirer of Hitler. As Governor during the social crisis of the early 1930s he continued to attack black rights, as well as setting records for the number of times he deployed the National Guard and declared martial law.

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