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July 28, 2014 28 mins

"Black Wall Street" was a nickname for Greenwood, a vibrant suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was destroyed in a race riot in 1921. And while Greenwood's destruction was definitely the product of racial tensions, the event was much more one-sided.

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Stuff you missed in History Class from dot Com. Hello,
and welcome to the podcast I'm Crazy B. Wilson and
I'm and Today we have another frequently frequently requested episode.

(00:21):
Lots and lots of people have asked us to talk
about the destruction of black Wall Street. Black Wall Street
was a nickname for Greenwood, which was essentially a suburb
of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was destroyed in a race riot
in n So the name black Wall Street makes it
sound kind of like it was a business district, but

(00:43):
Greenwood was really a vibrant neighborhood of businesses and homes
and schools that even had its own hospital. And race
riot also makes it sound as though it was a
fight instigated by people of more than one race. But
while Greenwood's destruy action was definitely the product of racial tensions,
the actual event was a whole lot more one sided

(01:06):
than that. This all happened during a period of extreme
racial tension in the United States. Race riots and lynchings
and vigilante justice were really widespread, and the Tulsa race
riot was one of the deadliest and most shocking events
from this era. And yet a lot of people knew
nothing about it until maybe twenty or thirty years ago.

(01:30):
It got brushed under the rug for a long time.
And to set the scene, the economy of Tulsa, Oklahoma,
really boomed during the nineteen teens thanks to the discovery
of oil in the area, and the population in this
area of Oklahoma grew very quickly, including an influx of
African Americans, many of whom were leaving the Deep South

(01:51):
in the hope that they could build a life in
a less pressive environment, and so Tulsa's population actually grew
tenfold in the span of ten years. Also growing during
this time in Tulsa were crime and lawlessness. A federal
agent actually conducted an undercover investigation in April of ninety
one and found quote gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution very much

(02:15):
in evidence at the leading hotels and rooming houses. The
bellhops and porters are pimping for women and also selling booze.
Regarding violations of the law, these prostitutes and pimps solicit
without any fear of the police, as they will invariably
remind you that you are safe in these houses. And
that's where the quote ends. And in addition to that,

(02:36):
automobile theft was so common that insurance companies started just
canceling all their policies in Tulsa, and at the same time,
the suburb of Greenwood was really flourishing. By one there
were about ten thousand African Americans living in the Tulsa area,
and the vast majority of them were living in Greenwood.
They fell all along the economic spectrum, so you had

(02:58):
everyone from doctors and invest worth hundreds of thousands of
dollars to families that were living in extremely modest homes
along dirt roads. Greenwood itself was simultaneously the product of
segregation and of black entrepreneurship. O. W. Gurley and JAV
Stratford were two prominent African American investors who really get

(03:19):
a lot of credit for making the town what it was.
In the early nineteen hundreds, Gurley, who was a real
real estate developer, bought some land, plotted it out, and
then sold it to other African Americans. Stratford built a
fifty four room hotel that was also home to a restaurant,
a banquet hall, and other amenities, and Stratford's hotel was

(03:40):
one of the largest black owned businesses in Oklahoma at
that time, These and other businesses became the seeds of
a really robust community that was also deeply segregated from
the rest of Tulsa uh. It, in a way and
a lot of ways, was really self sufficient. It had
two newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oaklah Home a Son.

(04:01):
It also had its own library, branch, schools, a hospital, theaters,
and lots of small businesses that were owned and operated
by the black community. There were also many many churches,
but most of its residents, while they were living and
conducting almost all their business in Greenwood, worked for white
employers elsewhere in the city, and this was the case

(04:22):
for a man important to our story by the name
of Dick Rowland. Dick Roland was a young black man
who worked in a downtown building shining shoes. Restrooms at
this point were segregated, and his workplace didn't have a
bathroom for black people, so his employer had arranged for
him to use one that was on the top floor

(04:42):
of the nearby Drexel building. Sarah Page was a young
white woman who ran the Drexel Buildings elevator. An incident
passed between Roland and Page on May exactly what happened
is completely unclear. Her story changed at various points, and
there seems to be no testimony on record of Dick Rowland. However,

(05:06):
a clerk at a clothing store in the Drexel Building
thought he heard a scream and he saw Dick Roland
hurrying out of the building, and he called the police.
The story that spread through Tulsa was that Dick Roland
had either raped or tried to rape Sarah Page in
broad daylight in the elevator. Roland was arrested the next

(05:27):
morning and held on the top floor of the Tulsa Courthouse.
The Tulsa Tribune, which was an afternoon paper, covered his
arrest on the thirty first, and reported his crime as
a physical attack, quote scratching her hands and face and
tearing her clothes. The paper also reportedly published an editorial
calling for Roland to be lynched. However, no original copies

(05:49):
of these articles exist. There are pieces torn out of
the bound copies of the paper that were kept on record.
The text of the story reporting Roland's arrest is reprinted
from ninety six Masters thesis. Yeah, there are multiple eyewitness
testimonies of people who who saw these articles in the newspaper,
but the actual copies of the note of the newspaper

(06:12):
no longer exist. Before we talk about how this turned
the scene at the courthouse to one of a mob scene,
let's take a brief moment for a word from a sponsor.
By about seven thirty in the evening on May the
thirty one, a lynch mob had started to gather outside
the Tulsa Courthouse and the mob was demanding that Roland

(06:32):
be turned over to them. The sheriff refused to do this,
and we'd spread to the Greenwood district about what was
going on. People were positive that Roland was going to
be lynched. There had been thirty three recorded lynchings in
Oklahoma between the time it had been declared as a
state in nineteen o seven and nineteen and seven. Of
the victims of those lynchings had been black. They also

(06:55):
had ample reason to doubt that the courthouse was a
secure place to keep Roland safe. There had been a
couple of really dramatic jail breaks from the courthouse and
the months leading up to this event, and the black
community was quite positive that if they did not protect Roland,
no one would, and that he was going to be lynched. So,
with all of that in mind, about twenty five African

(07:16):
American residents, many of whom were veterans of World War One,
armed themselves and went from Greenwood to the courthouse to
offer their assistance in defending him. The sheriff refused and
insisted that Roland was safe, and so the men went
back to Greenwood. However, the arrival of twenty five armed
black men on the scene really stirred up a lot

(07:38):
of fear and anger among the white mob outside the courthouse.
Word got to Major James A. Bell of the National
Guard that things were starting to look really ugly, and
even though the sheriff told him things were okay, he
quietly sent word to the other National guardsmen in the
area to come down to the armory. This was fortunate
because some of them ib from the courthouse then went

(07:59):
to the armory to try to get rifles and ammunition
for themselves, and they were stopped by the National Guard
members that Major Bell had summoned. Tensions continued to grow
for another couple of hours. The crowd at the courthouse
got bigger and bigger. Small groups of Greenwood residents started
patrolling the streets, armed both as recon and to try

(08:21):
to show that Greenwood was not entirely defenseless, and the
white community began to fear that an uprising was imminent.
Soon rumor reared its head again. At about ten PM,
word got back to Greenwood that a lynch mob was
breaking into the courthouse, and so this time it was
about seventy five armed African American men who made their

(08:42):
way there to once again offer their aid in keeping
Roland safe. So again the sheriff refused their help, and
as they turned to go back to Greenwood, one of
the white men tried to disarm one of the black men,
and in the ensuing scuffle, a shot was fired. It
was this spark that started the riot in Earnest. More

(09:03):
shots were fired in front of the courthouse, with as
many as a dozen people being killed there, and as
the dust settled, the black men, who were vastly outnumbered,
began falling back to Greenwood in a fighting retreat, with
the white mob in pursuit. Once the men were back
in Greenwood, things continued to get worse. Car loads of

(09:24):
white men started driving through black neighborhoods, just shooting and
discriminately into houses and at people On the street. White
vigilantes also broke into downtown Tulsa sporting goods stores to
steal guns and ammunition. Others went to some of the
white neighborhoods, all lent cafes, and started a plan to
invade Greenwood the next morning. The law enforcement's action at

(09:46):
this point and Telsa was to begin deputizing people, including
members of the original lynch mob. Soon the National Guard
was ordered to aid local authorities. They did this by
setting up a perim it are around the northern edge
of Tulsa's white neighborhood to defend it against a counter attack,
a counter attack which never actually happened. People started setting

(10:10):
fires in Greenwood at about one am, and then the
mob prevented the fire department from trying to put the
fires out, so the fires spread really rapidly throughout the night.
Both the National Guard and local law enforcement wound up
responding to false reports of shots fired by black people
in white neighborhoods all over Tulsa, and they were doing

(10:31):
this rather than responding to the real reports of violence
and arson that we're going on in Greenwood. At one
thirty six am, the Chief of Police and a telegram
to the state capitol, which read race riot developed here
several killed, unable handle situation, request that National Guard forces
to be sent by special train. Situation serious. This telegram

(10:53):
was signed by the Chief of Police, the sheriff, and
a district judge. A train was scheduled to leave Oklahoma
City bound for Toll at five am that morning, carrying
about one hundred additional National Guard troops. During the night,
a lot of Greenwood residents stayed behind to try to
defend their homes and businesses, but many others fled. They

(11:13):
took cards, taxis, and other transportation north out of the city.
Greenwood was on the northern side of Tulsa, so the
smith that they didn't have to go back through Tulsa
to try to get away. Some people were able to
take refuge with their employers or other compassionate citizens on
the Tulsa side of town, but a lot of people
were really left, mostly defenseless. Before the sun came up

(11:37):
on June one, an armed mob had gathered around the
fringes of Greenwood. Some of them were carrying weapons that
had been provided to them by public officials. In addition
to the deputized members of the Lynch mob. Some of
this crowd were uniformed police officers and members of the
National Guard. There are also multiple eyewitness reports of airplanes

(11:57):
in the skies over Greenwood as their ryotlae on, although
exactly what was done from the airplanes is a little
harder to substantiate. There are reports that bombs are dropped
that there's not clear evidence to support that. It's pretty
likely that there were definitely people firing their guns from
the airplanes. Though. The train carrying the additional National Guard
troops got to Tulsa around nine fifteen am. These out

(12:21):
of town troops became known as the State troops, and
this helps differentiate them from the local National Guard that
were part of the rioting. But by that point most
of Greenwood had already been burned to the ground. Martial
law was declared at eleven nine am on June one,
although by then the riot had really mostly run its course.

(12:41):
Once martial law was declared, the State troops moved through Greenwood,
putting out fires, disarming the rioters who were still there,
and forcing them to go back to Tulsa. Order was
restored around eight pm on June one. The State troops
also took custody of African Americans who had been imprisoned
by vigilantes during the riot. But this was not exactly

(13:03):
a rescue. The state troops took every black person they
could find into custody in a mass arrest. People who
had fled the city were detained when they returned. It
was supposedly for people's own protection, but a clear part
of the motivation was the white community's ongoing fear of
a black uprising. In the end, about six thousand African

(13:23):
Americans were held at the convention Hall, and when they
ran out of room there at the fair grounds in
the ball field. Some black citizens were held for more
than a week. No one was released until a white
person could vouch for them and also take responsibility for
their future behavior. So before we talk about the aftermath
of this riot, let's take another brief moment for a

(13:46):
word from a sponsor. So, in this riot, Greenwood was
virtually destroyed. Thirty five city blocks were burned to the ground,
and at least eight hundred people sustained injuries that had
to be treated. One thousand, two hundred fifty six homes
were destroyed, plus the hospital, the library, some of the schools,

(14:08):
and both of the newspaper's offices. A couple of weeks
after the riot, the Nation reported that the damages totalled
one point five million dollars, although more recent estimates are
multiple times higher than that, and from the Tulsa Daily
World the next day is this quote. Personal belongings in
household goods had been removed from many homes impiled in

(14:30):
the streets. On the steps of a few houses that
remained sat feeble and gray negro men and women, and
occasionally a small child. The look in their eyes was
one of dejection and supplication. Judging from their attitude, it
was not of material consequence to them whether they lived
or died harmless themselves. They apparently could not conceive the
brutality and fiendishness of men who would deliberately set fire

(14:54):
to the homes of their friends and neighbors, and just
as deliberately shoot them in their tracks. Doctor Robert Bridgewater
and his wife Maddie were two of the fortunate few
to have had their homes spared by the fire, but
they got to it to find that their possessions had
all been destroyed. Doctor Bridgewater wrote quote, I saw my

(15:14):
piano and all of my elegant furniture piled in the street.
My safe had been broken open, all of my money stolen,
also my silverware, cut glass, all of the family clothes
and everything of value had been removed, even my family bible,
my electric life pictures were broken. All of the window
lights and glass, and the doors were broken. The floors

(15:35):
were covered literally speaking with glass. Even the phone was
torn from the wall. And there's actually a photo that's
part of the historical record of this event, and it
shows massive columns of smoke rising from the Greenwood District.
Written across it and misspelled is running the Negro out
of Tulsa. A photo of the charred body of one

(15:57):
of the victims was also used as a postcard. At
the time, official estimates put the death toll at nine
white people and twenty six black people, but pretty much
immediately everyone knew that those numbers were way too low.
We'll never really know the official number because birth records
at the time are incomplete and many of the African

(16:18):
Americans who were killed were buried in unmarked mass graves
or thrown into the Arkansas River. Funeral Home records report
burials of many people identified only as quote unknown Negro
in the days after the riot. More recent investigations suggest
that more like three hundred people were killed, with the
overwhelming majority of them being African American, and the riot

(16:42):
forced most of Tulsa's African American population into homelessness. The
city and its residents made things hard on those who
had lost their homes in the hopes of forcing people
to resettle elsewhere. They even passed a fire ordinance specifically
designed to keep people from rebuilding, although it was overturned
as unco institutional about four years later. Even so, Tulsa's

(17:03):
black community set to work rebuilding Greenwood, but it was
a slow process, so many of them spent the following
winter living in tents. With the exception of the Red
Cross and white residents of surrounding communities, the black community
got very little help in its rebuilding efforts. The city
of Tulsa, as we mentioned, actively discouraged the rebuilding effort.

(17:26):
On the legal end of things, UH, Dick Roland's charges
were ultimately dismissed. A grand jury convened to investigate what
had happened UH, and they found Tulsa's black population responsible
for the riot. About seventy black men were charged with
inciting the riot, although none of them were ultimately convicted. J. B.
Stratford was one. He fled Oklahoma for Illinois, eventually building

(17:50):
a law practice in Chicago. He died in ninety five,
and in ninety six, following his family's fight to clear
his name, he was finally cleared of all charges. No
white person was ever tried for any of the murders
or arsons that took place, or with any other criminal
act associated with the riot. Immediately after the riot, the

(18:11):
event was international news, and in the weeks that followed,
papers across the US published skating editorials condemning what had happened.
Journalists called it both a disgrace and a horror. But
then it really fell from view for pretty much everyone
who did not directly live through it. History books that
were published in Oklahoma made no mention of it for

(18:33):
more than twenty years, and even then it was very
brief and glossed over. People began to investigate and write
about this riot following the Civil rights movement, although the
first people to blaze this trail were really met with
threats of violence. Eventually, in the state of Oklahoma formed
a commission that was meant to investigate what had happened

(18:54):
and to create clear documentation of the riot. The commission
was also to make a recommendation of whether reparations should
be paid to the survivors and their descendants. Calls for
reparations had actually started almost immediately after the riot was over.
In one, Judge Loyal J. Martin, who had been the mayor, said, quote,

(19:16):
Tulsa can only redeem herself from the countrywide shame and
humiliation into which she is today plunged by complete restitution
and rehabilitation of the destroyed black Belt. The rest of
the United States must know that the real citizenship of
Tulsa weeps at this unspeakable crime and will make good
the damage so far as it can be done to
the last penny. The report of the Oklahoma Commission to

(19:40):
study the Tulsa Race Riot of one called the event
quote late to be acknowledged and still to be repaired,
and the commission's report argued really strongly in favor of reparations,
including direct reparations paid to the survivors who were still
living in their descendants. At this point, so many of
the people who had lived through the riot had died.

(20:03):
When the Commission put out its final report. The riot
was almost eighty years in the past, but still alive
were the children and grandchildren of the people who had
survived the riot and of some people who had been killed.
The state legislature established scholarships, a memorial, and an economic
development initiative for Greenwood, but it declined to make actual
reparations to survivors and their descendants. As sort of a

(20:27):
side note, a lot of articles about the Tulsa race
riot and about the destruction of what was known as
Blackwall Street say that the riot was a result of
clan activity, and while the Ku Klux Klan had been
re established in Atlanta in nineteen fifteen and it was
definitely growing all around the United States, there's not really

(20:48):
evidence to suggest that the Ku Klux Klan specifically was
active in Tulsa or was part of the riot. However,
one of the consequences or the ramifications after the riot
was that the clan really started to flourish in Oklahoma
once the riot was over. We've had so many people

(21:08):
request this particular subject, and it's one that, unsurprisingly, based
on having learned that it was so conscientiously not discussed
for so many years, is one that I was not
really familiar with before doing research on it. You and
I have had several episodes where we had to stop
recording because the material was upsetting and we needed to

(21:29):
take a minute. And this is one where I had
to stop researching because the material was upsetting and I
needed to take like a step away from it. Yeah,
it's it's hard. I mean I had to stop earlier
while we were recording. I know you and I had
been talking about it while you were researching, and you
messaged me at one point where like, I can't handle

(21:51):
this right now. It's a lot to take in, and
it's hard to think about sort of the the mob
mentality and how hurtful, uh, and sort of dispassionate these
situations become where people stop thinking about other people as
people and they just get in that mode of like violence. Well,

(22:12):
and there's also a lot of ongoing controversy about the
idea of reparations and when a government should pay reparations
and how long is too long, And this seems like
a case where there was a really clear case for
reparations argued really strongly in the Commission's report, because it
wasn't just this happened. People's homes were destroyed. There's also

(22:35):
the part where the people who were meant to be
protecting the population were instead taking part in this violent activity. Uh.
People's insurance claims were not able to be paid out
because most insurance claims don't or most insurance companies don't
offer coverage in the case of civil unrest, which this
counted as so UH. I think the thing that shocked

(22:59):
me most about it was in the face of all
that evidence, the final decision was still that that direct
reparations would not be paid to the survivors and their descendants.
In Peppier News, do you have mail for us to
kind of end on a more upbeat note? I do, uh,
and this in a way it's it is in a
way it's not. This is from Francy, and Francy says.

(23:22):
I'm not sure I can adequately describe how much I
am truly enjoy your podcast. It's just my favorite and
makes my grueling commute actually quite enjoyable. I'm writing today
because I recently listened to your episode about the Grove
park in and immediately perked up when hearing Tracy mentioned
her grandmother had spent time at a tuberculosis asylum in
Black Mountain, North Carolina. Well, I'm fairly certain that there

(23:43):
was only one TV asylum in Black Mountain. The town's
not that big, and if so, then that former asylum
would eventually be converted into the grounds of a girl's
summer camp, Camp Merrimack, where I spent nearly every summer
of my childhood. The Big House, as we called the
camp's main building, was once the asylum's mary facility. In
my day, it housed the dining hall, the infirmary, and

(24:03):
the camp's offices. Besides being a creepy name for a
building in the South, merri Max Big House still had
some features of a former medical facility, making it all
the more eerie. I particularly remember the buzzers aisle along
the walls, as well as one night that I spent
in the infirmary with a nasty cold. I felt the
whole time like I was in some old war movie,
with the long hospital ward room lined by old fashioned

(24:25):
metal framed beds. Merrimax Obligatory Camp ghost story is rooted
in its history as a tuberculosis asylum. As I remember,
the story is about a young woman named Myrtle who
was in love with a young man, but either her
family or his or both were against the match, and
so although she wasn't six, some ill intentioned family member
had her interned at the Tuberculosis Asylum. Eventually she was

(24:47):
able to get word to her beloved and they plan
to meet on the grounds of the asylum late one
night and then a loope together. As the story goes,
he waited for at the bottom of a stone staircase
that was built into the side of the mountain. That
staircase no idea when it was actually built. This still
part of the summer camp, or was when I was there,
and was called the Myrtle Stairs. So he was at
the bottom of the staircase and she was at the top,

(25:08):
or maybe it was other way the other way around.
Either way, as Myrtle was running down or up the
stairs to greet her beloved, she tripped on the thirteenth
step and fell the rest of the way, breaking her
neck and dying. Of course, Myrtle is said to haunt
the steps to this day. Furthermore, for some reason, maybe
it's the supposed anniversary for death, July three was known
to be Myrtle Day among the campers, and uh sort

(25:29):
of a Halloween type day when Myrtle's spirit was most powerful.
Lots of pranks and mischief would go on during the
night of July three, as I remembered. So that's the
story of Myrtle's ghost and of my random connection to
the hosts of my favorite podcast. A side note, all
of this makes me think that the history of American
summer camps would be an interesting episode to do one
day now. Personally, I'm curious to know the history behind

(25:50):
summer camps, appropriating the names of American Indian tribes, and
incorporating pseudo Indian rituals and tradition into camp life. It's
weird and creepy and also fascinating to me. Thanks for
your time, ladies, and keep up the good work. Francy.
I wanted to read Fancy France's email for two reasons. One,
I love the whole story about how the Tuberculosis Asylum

(26:10):
was turned into a summer camp, in part because where
I grew up, the Science Museum used to be an
insane asylum, which made it a very weird place for
them to have a haunted house at Halloween time. Yeah,
the most the main part of the Science Museum was

(26:31):
actually like a newly built building that all the old
asylum buildings were still there. Um. The other is that
Holly and I did an episode in our previous podcast
that was called pop Stuff called Let's Go to Camp,
in which we talk about the history of summer camps
in the United States, and we do talk a little
bit about, uh, the appropriative names that happened um in

(26:52):
a lot of summer camps around the United States. Yes,
that the story that she tells that letter makes me
feel like it's the setup for a Western Orsan film.
It does kind of sound like that, because I feel
that way about a lot of fun stories. If you
would like to write to us about this or any
other subject, you can write to us at History Podcast
at how stuff works dot com. We're also on Facebook

(27:13):
at facebook dot com slash miss in history and on
Twitter at miss in History. Our tumbler is missing History
dot tumbler dot com, and we are also on Pinterest
at pinterest dot com slash miss in History. If you
would like to learn a little more about what we
talked about today, you can come to our parent website,
which is how stuff Works dot com. You can put
the word riots into the search bar and you will

(27:34):
find how riots work. And if you want to come
find show notes and all of our episodes in one
giant archive. You can come to our website, which is
missed in history dot com. For more on this and
thousands of other topics, is how stuff works dot com

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