By Michael Coard
Apoplectic. Ballistic. Enraged. Furious. Incensed. Infuriated. Irate. Livid. Outraged. Seething.
Those aforementioned 10 words don’t come close to how I feel every single second I think about what happened exactly 100 years ago during an 18-hour period from May 31 through June 1, 1921, when devils fired murderous hell down on the prosperous, self-sufficient and completely innocent “Black Wall Street” community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., a Black community that was the wealthiest in the country.
The words I really want to use are profane, violent and threatening. However, I will not use them here in the Tribune because I have too much respect for the civility and professionalism of this prestigious historic Black newspaper. But catch me on the street and privately ask me what I really think. And I’ll tell you in no uncertain terms.
And don’t even think about asking me to forgive and turn the other cheek. Black folks have done so much cheek-turning since 1619 that we’ve lost most of our face and most of our behinds. Malcolm was right in his 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech when he wisely said, “Stop singing and start swinging.”
I use the word “devils” to describe the slaughterers of Black men, women and children and to describe the arsonists of homes and buildings not because of the race of these perverted sociopaths but because of their deeds. After all, a devil is what a devil does. If you do devilment, you’re a devil. Period.
The best way for me to describe what those devils did is to provide you with a powerful reenactment from historical records. That reenactment is, believe it or not, from a culturally enlightening, historically thought-provoking, and cinematically dramatic HBO series called “Watchmen,” starring Regina King as the superhero protagonist “Sister Night.”
You can watch the riveting, frightening and disturbing 74-second video clip here.
The second-best way is for me to tell you. So here we go: On May 30, 1921, in a downtown department store inside the Drexel Building, Dick Rowland, a Black man, stumbled as he was entering the elevator being operated by Sarah Page, a white woman, and slightly stepped on her foot as a result. She then screamed and went running while claiming she had been assaulted (but later recanted).
Rowland was arrested shortly afterward. As soon as the local newspaper, a racist rag called the Tulsa Tribune, learned of the arrest, it published a false story alleging he had raped Page.
Not only did it lie in the body of the article, it also included that lie in the headline captioned, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” That set the local racists into a violent frenzy. They quickly formed lynch mobs and quickly pulled together their massive arsenal of massive weaponry before rushing to the Tulsa County Courthouse jail demanding that Rowland be turned over to them.
By that time, word had spread to Greenwood that mobs of armed white men were about to lynch a Black man and then turn their rage upon the Greenwood community.
As a result, about 25 Black men, many of whom were World War I veterans, decided to legally arm themselves in self-defense and in defense of Rowland in the courthouse lock-up.
When they arrived to offer much-needed support to the county sheriff, he rejected it, so they all returned home. Approximately two-and-a-half hours later, rumors had spread that the white mob had stormed the courthouse. Consequently, another group of Black men from Greenwood, totaling around 75, went back to the courthouse to protect the sheriff and Rowland. Again, the sheriff rejected it.
While the Black men were leaving to return to their Greenwood homes after midnight on May 31, a white man tried to illegally take one of the Black veteran’s lawfully possessed guns from him after which, as documented by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS), “The riot began.”
But it wasn’t a riot. It was a massacre against Blacks who were outgunned, outmanned and outnumbered without any law enforcement protection whatsoever. In fact, many of the racist attackers were so-called law enforcement officers themselves.
Thousands of rabidly racist white men with machine guns, pistols, bombs and airplanes — who had been arbitrarily deputized by white city officials — started screaming in unison “Get a gun and get a n—–” before rushing to Greenwood and immediately began murdering approximately 300 Black men, women and children with gunfire and flame-fire and hospitalizing over 800.
They also looted and incinerated more than 35 Black streets filled with 1,250 beautiful Black homes and 200 prosperous Black businesses and facilities including, but not limited to, 30 grocery stores, 21 churches, 20 restaurants, several law offices, six single-plane transport airlines, two newspaper publications, two movie theaters, a bank, school, library, hospital, bus system and post office.
But not one white vandal, looter, assaulter, arsonist or murderer was ever arrested.
However, 6,000 Black men, women and children were arrested and detained in makeshift concentration camps, many for over a week.
By the way, Rowland was later acquitted of all charges involving Page.
The decimation of “Black Wall Street” was the type of mass murderous destruction of a neighborhood by land and air that had never occurred before in American history and has never occurred since — although the City of Philadelphia tried in 1985.
In fact, OHS wrote, “(It is) believed to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.”
But like a Black phoenix literally rising from the ashes, Black folks courageously pushed onward and upward.
Among the many examples of such heroic resiliency was a preeminent and wealthy Black attorney named Buck Colbert Franklin whose successful career, which began when he passed the bar exam in 1907, stemmed from providing skillful legal representation to the Black community.
Following the massacre and widespread property destruction, Tulsa’s white city council created a new law to re-zone the firebombed area for “white commercial use only,” thereby making it illegal for Blacks to rebuild “Black Wall Street” there.
Despite his law office building having been burned to the ground, Buck fought back by setting up a new law office in a tent — yes, a tent! — for Black survivors where, with his Black law partner, Black secretary, about a dozen law books, a desk, a typewriter and a telephone, he drafted a major lawsuit against the ordinance and the case eventually went all the way up to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
And he won!
As a result, during the next five years, Black folks were able to create a mutual fund and reconstruct many — but, sadly, not most — of the businesses and homes,
By the way, Franklin didn’t simply defeat white supremacy/savagery by litigating. He also defeated it in 1915 by becoming the father of John Hope Franklin who himself would later become one of America’s greatest historians and civil rights activists.
Although the massacre was obviously about racial animus, it was actually about more than that. It was also about financial jealously.
During my “Radio Courtroom” show recently on WURD96.1FM, I had the genuine pleasure of interviewing Hannibal B. Johnson, Esq., arguably the nation’s foremost “Black Wall Street” scholar.
During that interview, which can be seen and heard by logging on to WURDradio.com, he told me the mass murderous destruction was motivated in large by whites who were envious of the local Black wealth. And it wasn’t just poor whites. It was also wealthy white industrialists fixated with what he called “land lust” in Greenwood and throughout Tulsa, which was known as “The Oil Capital of the World.”
A resident of Tulsa and a Harvard Law School-trained attorney, Johnson has taught at the University of Tulsa College of Law and the University of Oklahoma covering numerous courses and topics, including The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Johnson is the author of 10 books, including ”Black Wall Street 100,” “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance,” “Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District,” and “Up from the Ashes.” For more information about Johnson, log on to his website at hannibalbjohnson.com.
Remember to check out my interview with Johnson. And more important, remember this: “Never forget. Always avenge.”
Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host. is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this column first appeared.