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Thursday, May 31, 2012

When Whites Went Crazy In Tulsa ► May 31, 1921 ► A Day In History

Otis G. Clark died last week at the ripe old age of 109. Mr. Clark was the last survivor of the terrible Tulsa Race Riot on May 31, 1921, ninety one years ago today.

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is considered one of the worst race riots in U.S. history, and yet barely anyone knows about it. This history was whitewashed, pun intended, and for decades it wasn't taught in any Oklahoma history classes. Many people are unaware that during the riot Whites took up in planes left over from World War One. They dropped bombs on and shot at Blacks on the ground.

Otis Clark was just a young man of 18 when the Whites in Tulsa went crazy 91 years ago. According to his obituary at WashPo:

For years, few people dared to speak about what happened on the night of May 31, 1921, during one of the most deadly and devastating race riots in the nation’s history. Otis G. Clark, who was 18 at the time, had grown up in Greenwood, a thriving African American section of Tulsa.

During a night that history almost forgot, Mr. Clark dodged bullets, raced through alleys to escape armed mobs and saw his family’s home burned to the ground. He fled Tulsa on a freight train headed north.

He would eventually move to Los Angeles, where he was the butler in the home of movie star Joan Crawford. He later turned to preaching and was known as the “world’s oldest evangelist.”

Here’s a news report on Mr. Clark when he was just a young pup of 106:

The Tulsa riot of 1921 began as so many of these other disturbances did: A White person took offense at something a Black person is alleged to have done and Whites went crazy.

The Oklahoma Historical Society has more:
Believed to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history, the bloody 1921 Tulsa race riot has continued to haunt Oklahomans to the present day. During the course of eighteen terrible hours on May 31 and June 1, 1921, more than one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed, while credible estimates of riot deaths range from fifty to three hundred. By the time the violence ended, the city had been placed under martial law, thousands of Tulsans were being held under armed guard, and the state's second-largest African American community had been burned to the ground.

Tulsa was also a deeply troubled town. Crime rates were sky high, while the city had been plagued by vigilantism, including the August 1920 lynching, by a white mob, of a white teenager accused of murder. Newspaper reports confirmed that the Tulsa police had done little to protect the lynching victim, who had been taken from his jail cell at the county courthouse.

Eight months later an incident involving Dick Rowland, an African American shoe shiner, and Sarah Page, a white elevator operator, would set the stage for tragedy. While it is still uncertain as to precisely what happened in the Drexel Building on May 30, 1921, the most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page's foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream.

The next day, however, the Tulsa Tribune, the city's afternoon daily newspaper, reported that Rowland, who had been picked up by police, had attempted to rape Page. Moreover, according to eyewitnesses, the Tribune also published a now-lost editorial about the incident, titled "To Lynch Negro Tonight." By early evening there was, once again, lynch talk on the streets of Tulsa.
The riot was on. Read more at:

Watch these spaces for an upcoming post about the several Detroit Riots in an upcoming episode of "Unpacking My Detroit." Or read Part One and Part Two.