The following is a guest post by Arlene Balkansky. Arlene recently retired from being a librarian in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room, and was a regular writer for Headlines and Heroes.
One hundred years ago, Greenwood, a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, described as Black Wall Street, was destroyed by white mobs in one of the worst episodes of racial violence in American history. The number of dead remains unknown, but could be as many as 300, with millions of dollars in property damage.
Local newspaper coverage has been linked to an ominous role in the massacre. The Tulsa Tribune, an afternoon paper, published an inflammatory front-page article in its May 31 city edition entitled, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” It stated that Dick Rowland, who was a 19-year-old Black man, had been arrested that morning and “charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl in the Drexel building early yesterday.” This article had been torn out of the Tribune’s existing archived May 31 edition sometime before microfilming. Its content is confirmed, however, by a duplicate article published in the paper’s June 1 state edition, which was mailed and known to repeat the previous day’s city edition content.
Walter F. White, at the time Assistant Secretary of the NAACP and later its head as Executive Secretary for 25 years, arrived on the scene quickly to investigate the loss of life, the massive destruction, and why the attacks occurred. His findings were soon published, mainly in Black newspapers.
In repeated newspaper coverage, “Mr. White declared that the riot was largely due to a misuse of the word ‘attack’ and ‘assault.’ The impression being given that a colored man had attempted rape upon a white girl, whereas he had merely stumbled in an elevator and in attempting to recover his balance stepped upon her foot.” In a more extensive article published in The Nation, June 29, 1921, White explicitly identified the Tulsa Tribune as the newspaper that published the article.
There have long been assertions that the Tribune published an even more incendiary article or editorial with the title, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” This article has not been found, but the May 31 surviving newspaper had additional portions missing, allowing for the possibility. The June 1 state edition did not carry any such headline, including on its back page containing editorials. In addition, Walter White and others only focused on the front-page article at the time. Past, as well as current, historians agree that the front-page Tulsa Tribune article was unfortunately within the usual realm to provoke a lynching, whether the second May 31 article with its direct call to lynch Rowland existed or not.
It is possible that a May 31 edition, no longer existing, could have carried such an article. For example, a June 1 second extra state edition is known to exist because its front page is in Red Cross records held by the National Archives. For all the Tribune’s racism, the content of this extra edition undercuts a pro-lynching stance because it contains an editorial condemning lynching.
This editorial also contains the general press coverage that became the norm: the presence of armed Black men who arrived at the courthouse to prevent the lynching of Dick Rowland were to blame for setting off the white crowd and leading to the enraged destruction of Greenwood.
The Black Dispatch, Oklahoma City’s major Black newspaper countered:
Walter White also challenged the accusations against Black Tulsans:
The Tulsa World, the Tribune’s rival, did not cover Rowland’s arrest on May 31 so was not blamed for inciting the white mobs and subsequently printed criticism of the Tribune for doing so. The World published four editions on June 1 that have been digitized in Chronicling America. These include a final edition and three extras, each with banner headlines, including two focused on white casualties. Each edition carried an article about Rowland’s arrest with the statement, “There was a movement afoot, it was reported, among white people to go to the county courthouse Tuesday night and lynch the bootblack.” Beyond that article, there is coverage of the “battle” as it progressed.
Within a few days, both the World and the Tribune published virulently racist editorials (column 1, partly illegible copy) blaming Tulsa’s activist Black population for the destruction the white mobs had wrought.
Tulsa’s two Black newspapers, the prominent Tulsa Star and the new Oklahoma Sun, could not report immediately on the massacre. Their offices in Greenwood had been destroyed. Few issues of the Sun survive, but one of its early editorials was reprinted in the June 9, 1921 Tulsa World and asked, “Will Tulsa be fair to us? Will she recompense us for our loss?” and encouraged rebuilding and avoiding “loan sharks.” The Sun’s publisher, Theo. Baughman, had been managing editor of the Star before beginning his own venture in 1920.
The Star’s publisher, A.J. (Andrew Jackson) Smitherman, fled north with his family. Smitherman believed that having armed Black men going to the courthouse to prevent the lynching of Rowland was crucial. This matched the views expressed frequently in his newspaper, such as in October 1920 when the Star reported about Black self-defense in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. After a white mob’s plans to lynch a Black prisoner were thwarted because the prisoner had been moved, the “mob planned to march on the colored business section of the city and forthwith a defense movement was organized.”
While the Okmulgee incident had a favorable ending, this Star article prophesied, “The attempt to lynch a colored man in Okmulgee has served to intimate what will actually happen here if mob violence is allowed to prevail.”
Beginning on June 26, 1921, the Tulsa grand jury findings were published in newspapers. There were indictments of a few white officials, including Police Chief John Gustafson, and several Black Tulsans, among them publisher A.J. Smitherman and his brother John, a deputy sheriff. The grand jury’s report was reprinted in the Tulsa World and included the finding:
“While we find the presence of the armed negroes was the direct cause of the riot, we further find that there existed indirect causes more vital to the public interest than the direct cause. Among these were agitation among the negroes of social equality, and the laxity of law enforcement…”
A.J. Smitherman and his family eventually settled in Buffalo where he returned to newspaper publishing with The Buffalo Star and the later Empire Star. He died in 1961. His indictment was finally dismissed in 2007 and he was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, 2020-2021.
And what about the two teenagers involved in the initial incident–Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, the elevator operator? Page left shortly after the massacre and Rowland in mid-October after he was released from prison with no charges filed.
Little is known about their lives after they left Tulsa.
Many more newspaper articles related to the Tulsa Race Massacre are freely available in the Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection. To start your own searching, check out Tulsa Race Massacre: Topics in Chronicling America. While the coverage is voluminous in the second half of 1921, it tapers off by 1923, a pattern that follows the lack of wide public knowledge about the massacre that only began to change in the 1970s.
One Tulsa newspaper did not go along with the silence. The Black-owned Oklahoma Eagle, began publishing in 1922, initially using the salvaged printing press of the Star. It was published by Theo. Baughman, out of the ashes of The Oklahoma Sun. In the late 1930s, Edward L. Goodwin, Sr., the son of the Star’s business manager, invested in the Eagle and became its sole owner in 1937. The Goodwin family continues to publish the Eagle and to include frequent articles and annual features about the massacre.
- Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019)
- Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Collection
- Mary E. Jones Parrish, Events of the Tulsa Disaster, 1921.
- Victor Luckerson, Run It Back
- I. Marc Carlson, The Tulsa Race Massacre
- Oklahoma Digital Prairie: Tulsa Race Massacre
- Tulsa City-County Library Digital Collection: 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
- Hearing on Centennial of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
- Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission
- Tulsa Race Massacre Graves Investigation