Oklahoma · Racially Motivated

The ending of the Tulsa Race Riot

June 1, 1921
Tulsa, Oklahoma
The Tulsa Race Riot ends with the wealthiest black community in Tulsa being burned to the ground

The riot began after an alleged assault of a black 19-year-old male shoeshiner on a white 17-year-old female elevator operator on May 30. A witness heard the girl scream and a black man running from the building. The victim’s statement has not endured time, but it is recorded she declined to press charges and it’s widely believed something “less than assault” occurred, anywhere from the man accidentally falling as he exited the elevator, grabbing her arm to steady himself, to a lover’s quarrel.

On May 31, newspapers called for justice on this perceived attack. The white community immediately seized their weapons and threats of lynching were prevalent. Through late night on the 31st until the early morning of the 1st, small firefights broke out with a dividing line between the black and white areas of town. At one point, as a train running between the two districts traveled through the crossfire, its passengers were required to lay upon the floor to avoid being hit by the bullets high struck both sides of the train cars.

Some of the white rioters flew biplanes over the town, shooting rifles and dropping incendiary devices below. The middle class white families who employed black cooks and maids were told to deliver their employees to a detention center. Some complied. Those who refused were subjected to vandalism and attacks.

The Oklahoma National Guard arrived at the scene at 9:15 am and by 11:49 am had declared martial law. The official death count was 39, though estimates range between 55 to 300 with over 800 injured. Police Chief John Gustafson was found responsible for the riot for neglecting his duty and was removed from office. He was also found guilty for not protecting life and property, and for general corruption, but he never served time.

The shoeshiner who inadvertently sparked the riot was released of all charges and escorted secretly out of the city; he never returned to Tulsa.

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