African Americans

Tulsa History

African-American Settlement (1836-1945)

The arrival of African-Americans in the Tulsa area coincided with the Indian Removal of the 1830s. The Five Civilized Tribes, which were relocated to Indian Territory from the Southeast during this period, included African-Americans among their numbers. Freedmen, former slaves who gained tribal membership through marriage, and slaves owned by tribal members participated in the exodus from traditional Native American homelands to the new territory.

Following the Civil War, African-Americans migrated to the Indian Territories in search of what they perceived as a functional multi-racial society. With the opening of Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory to commercial exploitation by means of land runs and railroads, additional numbers of African-Americans arrived in the region throughout the later part of the nineteenth century.

The oil booms of the early twentieth century provided a boost to African-American migration. The need for laborers in the oil fields and related industries presented employment opportunities eagerly sought by African-Americans in all parts of the United States.

In the years before statehood, the area of Tulsa between Madison and Lansing Avenues comprised the city’s “Negro” section. This section of north Tulsa was confined between the forks of the Midland Valley, Frisco, and Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroads.

By 1908, the commercial area known as Greenwood was established. Merchants in the area were men from such places as Arkansas, Minnesota, and Texas. The Acme Brick Company was located two blocks north of Greenwood. The close proximity of the brick plant resulted in the extensive use of brick in building construction in the Greenwood area.

The Daily Tulsa Star, an “African-American” newspaper, was edited and published by Andrew J. Smitherman, an attorney. He established the Daily Tulsa Star in 1913 and continued to operate the newspaper until 1921, when the newspaper plant was destroyed in the Tulsa Race Riot. In 1921, Smitherman sold everything to Theodore Baughman, who started the Oklahoma Eagle. Baughman ran the newspaper until 1937 when Edward Lawrence Goodwin, Sr., purchased it. The Oklahoma Eagle plant was located at 122 North Greenwood, across the street from the site of the original newspaper, the Daily Tulsa Star. The Oklahoma Eagle is currently located at 624 E. Archer Street.

In 1908, a new City Charter enacted the first set of segregation or “Jim Crow” laws in the State of Oklahoma. The Grandfather Clause, which restricted some of the African-American population from voting and established segregated educational facilities, remained in effect until 1915 when it was declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

On early Sanborn maps, “Negro” dwellings were listed in the 500 block of North Frankfort in the Northside Addition, which had been platted in 1909. Established by a city ordinance, this area, from Lansing Avenue on the east to Boston Avenue on the west, was completely settled by African-Americans. Price Addition, platted in 1911, was also primarily developed and settled by African-Americans.

The Tulsa Race Riot of May 31-June 1, 1921, was the most significant event in the history of the city’s African-American population. The riot, which was preceded by an increased level of violence directed toward African-Americans in the years following World War I, was an example of the racial violence endemic throughout the United States during that period. The Tulsa Race Riot was possibly the most destructive example of this national trend.

The chain of events that triggered the 1921 riot were centered on the arrest of Dick Rowland, a young black man, for the alleged assault of Sarah Page, a white elevator operator in the Drexell Building. Rowland’s arrest on May 31, 1921, alarmed Tulsa’s African-American community. Two years earlier a black prisoner in the Tulsa County Jail had been lynched by a white mob. Fear that the same fate could befall Rowland was fueled by the alleged inflammatory reporting by a local newspaper. Confrontations between African-American Tulsans and white Tulsans at the County Court House, where Rowland was held on the top floor, occurred twice during the evening of May 31. The second confrontation became violent when shots were fired and the outnumbered African-Americans began retreating to the business area centered at Archer Street and Greenwood Avenue. In the early morning hours of June 1, thirty-five square blocks of Tulsa’s African-American community were systematically looted and burned by a white mob. Businesses, schools, residences and churches were all put to the torch. Property losses in the community were estimated at $2.3 million.

Human losses resulting from the riot cannot be calculated. Estimated death tolls ranged from thirty-five to five hundred victims. Over six thousand African-Americans were arrested by white vigilantes and held at the Convention Hall at 105 West Brady, McNulty Baseball Park between Ninth and Tenth Streets on Elgin Avenue, and the oil fairgrounds at Lewis Avenue and Federal (Admiral) Boulevard. Some of these prisoners were held for up to two weeks at these locations. The fire left 4,300 African-Americans homeless and a community, constructed by hard work, in ashes.

The violence ended with the declaration of martial law by Governor Robertson on the morning of June 1, 1921. The National Guardsmen who arrived in Tulsa assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes, and completed the internment of all African-Americans not already held. Ironically, Dick Rowland, the man whose arrest triggered the devastation, was never formally charged with assault. Sarah Page left Tulsa shortly after the riot without pressing charges.

Mayor Evans, the mayor of Tulsa during the riot, required residents of the burned Greenwood area to report to Booker T. Washington Public School for job assignments. The primary rooms (grades 1 through 6) of the school were converted into an emergency hospital. Central High School was used as the Red Cross Headquarters during the riot, while the Methodist Church on Fifth Street was used as an emergency hospital. Reconstruction of the destroyed area was delayed when the city attempted to force the African-American community to rebuild further north rather than in the area that was destroyed. The Tulsa Executive Welfare Committee was established immediately after the riot, with responsibilities for caring for the refugees and reconstructing the destroyed area.

The commercial importance of the Greenwood District was regained shortly after its destruction in the riot. Old businesses rebuilt and new businesses were started. New churches and schools were built on their former sites. Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street maintained a central role as the African-American commercial district until the late 1950s, when the attraction of shopping centers drew customers to suburban locations.

Much of the residential neighborhood which was rebuilt after the Race Riot of 1921 has since been demolished in an effort to revitalize the area. While some of the housing has been replaced, entire blocks remain vacant in some areas.