Cold Open - Dick Rowland accused of assault
It’s the morning of May 30th, 1921 at the Drexel Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Dick Rowland, a Black 19-year-old shoeshiner, smiles as he waits for the elevator on the third floor. Dick loves riding the elevator at work because it gives him a chance to spend time with Sarah Page, the white 17-year-old elevator operator.
The elevator stops, and the door opens. Dick grins even wider as Sarah comes into view. But Dick misses a step and stumbles across the threshold. As the door closes and the elevator starts moving, Dick lands on Sarah’s foot and braces himself against her. Sarah screams. Dick apologizes, but Sarah is livid.
Sarah raises her purse and swings wildly at Dick. He shields his face and then grabs Sarah’s arms to make her stop.
The elevator reaches the ground floor, and the door opens. Sarah pushes past Dick and shouts, “I’ve been assaulted!” Dick knows that the white man rushing toward him has no interest in hearing his side of the story.
So Dick darts out of the elevator, runs for the closest door… and exits out onto a Tulsa street. Dick runs through the city as fast as he can. Nearly out of breath, he crosses a set of train tracks and enters the neighborhood, Greenwood, the Black district within Tulsa. Dick immediately heads to a nearby house of people he knows.
He bangs on the door and is quickly pulled inside.
But Dick can’t hide from the trouble that’s coming. The following day, Dick is picked up by the police, charged with assault, and taken to the county courthouse.
In 1921, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma is home to one of the most prosperous Black communities in the United States. This “city within a city” is known as “Black Wall Street,” and it's filled with thriving businesses, banks, and arts venues. Black people who live in Greenwood are often told they “have it better” than other Black people in the country.
But residents of Greenwood still face segregation and rampant racism on a daily basis. And many white people across the tracks in Tulsa have come to resent Greenwood's standing as a symbol of Black prosperity. Soon, some of Tulsa’s white citizens will use the assault charge against Dick Rowland as an excuse to set off what will come to be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre on May 31st, 1921.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 31: The Tulsa Race Massacre.
Act One: Rumors of a lynching spread
It’s the morning of May 31st, 1921 at the county courthouse in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Damie Rowland, the woman who found Dick Rowland as a young orphan and raised him as her own, sits across from Sheriff William McCullough in William’s office. Damie is at her wit’s end. She knows Dick is in custody, and she knows how bad things can go when a young Black man is accused of assaulting a white woman.
Sheriff William listens patiently. His warm smile under his wide mustache has a way of putting even the most distraught people at ease. And when William interjects, Damie starts to feel a little better about the situation. William says he thinks Sarah Page is nothing but trouble, and he finds her claims dubious. He also suggests that Sarah and Dick might be more than just elevator acquaintances, and this situation could be the result of a lovers’ quarrel. Damie replies she doesn’t know that for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise her.
Before Damie leaves, William promises that Dick will get a fair day in court. Damie breathes a sigh of relief. But she doesn’t know that some in the local media are already trying to poison the white public against Dick Rowland.
On the morning of May 31, 1921, Richard Lloyd Jones, publisher of the Tulsa Tribune, is putting the finishing touches on a story about the assault of Sarah Page. One of his reporters caught wind of the events at the Drexel Building and landed an interview with Sarah. Richard reads over that interview, in which Sarah says Dick waited for the perfect moment when no one was around to attack her.
In the past, Richard has used his daily rag as free press for the Tulsa Ku Klux Klan, and he rarely misses a chance to go after the Black community in Greenwood. The one-sided Sarah Page story is definitely on brand for the Tribune.But Richard still feels like he's missing something. So, he decides to add his own editorial comment.
Among other personal attacks, Richard writes that Dick Rowland is “one of the lowest things walking on two legs.” And Richard then runs with a headline that seems to be a call to action, reading “Nab Negro For Attacking The Girl In Elevator.”
By 3:00 PM that day, paperboys around Tulsa are hawking the Tribune. Many of them are heard shouting to would-be buyers, “Extra! Extra! To lynch negro tonight! Read all about it!” The paperboys’ shouts, the article’s headline, and Richard’s editorial diatribe quickly spark rumors that Dick Rowland is going to be lynched.
And soon, an angry white mob forms to make sure the young Black man behind bars pays dearly for his alleged crimes.
That afternoon of May 31st, Sheriff William McCullough hears about the growing mob and begins to panic. He doesn’t believe Dick is guilty of anything other than tripping in an elevator or maybe arguing with a young woman he’s possibly involved with. But William knows an angry mob doesn’t care about facts, nor do they care about the promises he made to Damie.
William also fears that the small jail in his courthouse isn’t equipped to protect Dick Rowland from the mob. So William tries to transfer Dick to a safer facility. But that’s easier said than done. In order to move Dick, William believes he’ll need to form an armed escort squad. But before William can set the transfer in motion, a white mob descends on the courthouse.
As William ventures outside, he’s nervous, but he tries not to show it. He speaks calmly and assures the people gathered there that the law is handling the matter of Dick Rowland fairly and properly. He tries to get the mob to disperse, but it’s no use. Voices ring out, calling for William to hand over Dick to the mob.
Instead, William heads back inside the courthouse. He tells his small group of deputies to be ready for anything, and he says he regrets not moving Dick Rowland somewhere safer when he had the chance.
The angry mob gathered outside the courthouse will continue to grow, and news of the escalating situation will make its way across the train tracks into Greenwood. Soon, members of the Black community there will rally together to try to protect Dick Rowland, but this will only lead the two groups to clash, provoking the white mob to set out on a night of unspeakable violence.
Act Two: The first gunshots and attacks
It’s the evening of May 31st, 1921 in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
O.B. Mann, a young World War I veteran who’s built like a tank, strides down the street toward a movie theater. O.B. isn’t afraid of anything. He’s heard about the white mob gathering in front of the courthouse, and he's heading to the theater to recruit people to go stand up to them.
O.B.’s time fighting against the Germans in World War I changed him; it made him angry. Like so many black soldiers, when O.B. returned home from Europe as a war hero, he hoped things would finally get better for Black Americans. But the white mob gathering to lynch a young Black man is just further proof to O.B. that nothing will ever change.
O.B. throws the doors of the movie theater open and walks down the aisle. He yells for the lights to be turned on, and calls out that the “Movie’s over!” The crowd, many who know O.B., don’t protest. They sit and listen as O.B. fills them in on the situation. He tells those in the theater that it’s time for them to stand up and protect an innocent young man from an angry mob. Most in the crowd agree, and they follow O.B. out into the street.
Soon, O.B. and the rest unite with other black residents of Greenwood who make their way to the county courthouse. When the white mob spots them coming, many hurl racial insults at them and tell them to get back across the tracks. But no one on either side budges.
Inside the courthouse, Sheriff William McCullough fears the worst is about to happen. He grabs one of his men, Deputy Barney Cleaver. Barney is a Black law enforcement officer, and William believes most people from Greenwood trust Barney more than they trust him.
So William and Barney head outside and try to de-escalate the situation. Barney urges the group from Greenwood to go home. O.B. says they won’t move though until they know Dick Rowland is safe. Barney assures them that Dick is being protected.
O.B. doesn’t want to go, but he also doesn’t want violence, so eventually, he acquiesces. But as O.B. and the other Black residents leave the courthouse, the white mob stays. So O.B. and others decide that over the next several hours, small groups from Greenwood should drive by to monitor the situation.
As the evening progresses, the white mob continues to grow from the hundreds to the thousands, and many of them are now armed. They shout for the Sheriff to bring out Dick Rowland or face the consequences.
Soon, word gets back to Greenwood that the armed mob is growing and getting out of hand. Hearing this, O.B. Mann has had enough. He grabs his gun, gathers several fellow World War I vets and others who are willing to fight, and heads back to the courthouse.
With tensions rising, William and Barney try again to talk the crowd down. And for a moment, it looks like their pleading might work. But then, an old white man turns to O.B. and tells him to hand over his weapon. O.B. says there’s no way that’s going to happen. The old man lunges for O.B.’s gun, and in the tussle, it goes off.
Gunfire from all directions rings out. People run for cover as the shots keep coming, killing members of both groups. William and Barney flee inside the courthouse to call for help, and to protect Dick Rowland.
But outside, the mob seems to have forgotten what brought them to the courthouse in the first place. Instead of rushing in to grab the prisoner they said they wanted to lynch, armed members of the mob start chasing Black people through the streets of Tulsa.
Firefights break out on street corners and in alleys. O.B. and others fight their way back to Greenwood, but not everyone makes a clean escape, and they look for cover wherever they can find it.
As the white mob rampages through the streets, other members of Tulsa’s white community pour out of their houses, weapons in hand, and rush to join the violence.
The Tulsa Race Massacre has begun. But later that evening, the already volatile situation will take a turn for the worse. The white mob will turn its sights to Greenwood and set out to reduce Black Wall Street to rubble.
Act Three: Tulsa Massacre and Aftermath
It’s the night of May 31st, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A young Black man runs down the street, clutching a gun. But he knows his weapon is no match against the large group of armed white men chasing him. The young man hears multiple shots. A bullet strikes him. Pain rushes through his body, and blood spills from his side.
He tumbles into an alley and then falls to the ground. A white doctor, who happens to be nearby, heads down the alley to offer help. But then members of the screaming mob appear. They push the doctor out of the way and crouch over the wounded young man. Then, several members of the mob take out pocket knives and stab him until he sputters out his final breath.
As violence continues across the city, Black residents in Greenwood gather together in meeting places or head to their homes. But soon, nowhere in Greenwood will be safe.
As the night of May 31st turns into the early morning of June 1st, the mob launches a new offensive. They march on Greenwood and shoot indiscriminately in the streets. They set fire to businesses, churches, and homes throughout the area. Much of the district burns to the ground, and Black families are forced to flee.
Later that day, Oklahoma Governor James Robertson declares martial law. The National Guard is called in to impose order, and law enforcement from Oklahoma City is sent in to help. But under the guise of trying to restore peace, authorities start rounding up members of the Black community and placing them in impromptu internment camps.
By the time martial law is lifted on June 3rd, close to 10,000 Black people in Greenwood have been left homeless. Many of them have already fled the city, but more than 5,000 are temporarily held in a makeshift camp set up by national guardsmen on the local fairgrounds. And their thriving district of Greenwood has been virtually destroyed. It’s believed the area suffered $1.5 million worth of property damage at a time when the average house in the area cost less than $1,000.
Soon after the events, 37 deaths are officially recorded, but some studies will suggest the death toll was closer to 300. Most historians believe the true number of deaths will never be known, and to this day, experts grapple with the full effects of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
In its aftermath, one writer for a local paper tried to understand the events. He wrote, “Nothing that the mind is capable of perceiving permits a word of excuse for the murderous vandalism…” Over one hundred years later, there is still little way to comprehend the event except as a city gone mad with hate and bloodlust, because nothing else can explain the horrors inflicted on Greenwood and its residents starting on the night of May 31st, 1921.
Next on History Daily. June 1st, 1967. The Beatles release their eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, which tops the chart, and forever changes the world of music and pop culture.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.