Top of page

Excerpt from a newspaper showing a large bold headline reading: Tulsa's Terrible Tale is Told. Below the headline are three small photographs showing damage to Tulsa and nurses who volunteered to help.
“Tulsa’s Terrible Tale Is Told,” The Chicago Whip (Chicago, IL), June 11, 1921, p. 1.

Tulsa Race Massacre: Newspaper Complicity and Coverage

Share this post:

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.

Expert of newspaper showing the text of an article.
“Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator,” Tulsa Tribune (Tulsa, OK), June 1, 1921, State Edition.

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.

Excerpt of a newspaper showing text of an article.
“More Than Two Hundred White and Colored Men, Women and Children Were Killed in the Bloody or Horrible Race Riots at Tulsa, Okla.” The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, UT), June 18, 1921.

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.

A yellowed newspaper clipping from the Tulsa Tribune showing article text.
“Restore Order,” Tulsa Tribune (Tulsa, OK), June 1, 1921, Second Extra State Edition. From National Archives Collection Records of the American National Red Cross, DR-6.08 Oklahoma, Tulsa Co. Riot Reports and Statistics, p. 105.

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:

Excerpt from newspaper article reads as follows: We are not going to censure any law-abiding citizen who would go to the sheriff of his county and offer his services in the protection of a prisoner. There is not a white man in America who believes that the Negroes who congregated at the jail in Tulsa county, Tuesday night, went there for any other purpose other than this.
“A White Man’s Country,” The Black Dispatch (Oklahoma City, OK), June 3, 1921. The Gateway to Oklahoma History; provided by Oklahoma Historical Society.

Walter White also challenged the accusations against Black Tulsans:

Excerpt of newspaper article reads as follows: Some of the white citizens of Tulsa are attempting to blame the riot on Negro ‘radicalism.’ When I questioned them regarding the nature of this radicalism I found invariably that it consisted of demands by Negroes that the federal Constitution be enforced and that lynching, peonage, disfranchisement and Jim Crowism be abolished.
“More Than Two Hundred White and Colored Men, Women and Children Were Killed in the Bloody or Horrible Race Riots at Tulsa, Okla.” (cont.). The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, UT), June 18, 1921.

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.

Thumbnail images of four front pages of the Tulsa World from June 1, 1921.
Tulsa World (Tulsa, OK), June 1, 1921, Final (second from left) and three later Extra Editions.

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.”

Headlines and start of a newspaper article.
“Riot Averted by Race Men in Okmulgee,” (except), The Tulsa Star (Tulsa, OK), October 16, 1920.

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…”

Excerpt of newspaper article.
“Grand Jury Blames Negroes for Inciting Race Rioting; Whites Clearly Exonerated,” Tulsa World, June 26, 1921, Final Edition, Section A.

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.

Excerpt of newspaper article.
“Dick Rowland is Freed of All Charges,” The Chicago Whip, Oct. 15, 1921.

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.

Discover more:

* Chronicling America is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Comments (9)

  1. Great discussion of events! Interesting, too, about the missing issues and articles.

  2. Awesome Arlene! We have been following some of the TV specials related to this incident. What an awful stain on our country. Lets hope there are some reparations for the descendants of those lost.

  3. Thank you for this post. My great-grandfather Lewis Daniel Stewart owned the black barbershop in Okmulgee when the massacre occurred. We need to keep this history alive.


    Why reparations? Who does it benefit? Does it change the minds or behavior of a greater number of people?

    Reparations to those families that were impacted by this great injustice only momentarily satisfies their condition, or somehow soothes the guilt of those who feel their ancestors inflicted this injustice through their actions or silence. Perhaps there is a better solution to this for both parties.

    One alternative would seem to be to rebuild the neighborhood destroyed by the mobs; however, the construction that has occur since then makes them seem somewhat impossible: an interstate highway divides the neighborhood, a ballpark has been built over part of the area, and a college covers another large area of the neighborhood. It is conceivable that facades of some of the major buildings like the Dreamland Theater, the Baptist Church, or the large hotel next to the AME Church could be constructed as reminders for those now living of what this neighborhood contributed to the Tulsa community. Would this be enough to impact the lives of those who did not know or understand the injustice done to these people? Perhaps not!

    Another possibility would be to use the grassy mound near the interstate highway as a virtual cemetery with crosses and headstones to represent those who lost their lives in the massacre. I believe this memorial would be glaring evidence that such behavior as that that caused this neighborhood to be destroyed should never be repeated.

    Use the money wisely that was being considered for reparations. Influence as many individuals as you can.

  5. “Why reparations?”

    It’s the right thing to do.

    “Who does it benefit?”

    The appropriate people.

    “Does it change the minds or behavior of a greater number of people?”

    Of course not. Racist/bigoted individuals will not be satisfied in any measure by any progress or prosperity to those they feel are beneath them. But none of that matters really.

    The illogical argument against reparations is only there because many white people have chosen to champion the concept that Black people would only do frivolous things with the $$$ that would be coming to them, when in fact it’s no one’s business what someone were to do with any sort of financial payout. No one tells you “what to do with your salary”, so why concern yourself with what *might* others to do with their money?

    Whites have always given themselves financial gifts and benefits since the inception of this country all the while pretending that it’s through ingenuity, hard work, and the sweat off one’s brow to “get a leg up”. Yet these same opportunities were denied (home owners’ loans, G.I. Bill for examples) to people of color at the same time because of segregation in order to maintain the order in which Whites prefer to live.

    Whatever Black people were to do with any well deserved reparations, whether it were to rebuild a community, to create memorials, or to splurge on new wardrobes if desired is THEIR RIGHT, THEIR BUSINESS.

    There need not be a reason to show cause, as to be deemed responsibly worthy by White people to receive reparations brought by the terrible treatment of Whites for centuries of racial terrorism.

    That’s just an excuse to do nothing, to pretend that you care.

  6. Another thought – When avoiding the genuine discussion of reparations, the focus is always on the assumption of difficulty of “who should receive” the benefits of such financial windfalls? It’s always about the difficulty to determine “who is still alive” that truly would be related to any said incidents.

    Those are merely sad deflections to keep from doing the right thing, or from doing anything at all.

    An easy remedy – There are obviously still federal, city, records to determine who received the land that was stolen from the owners after the Tulsa Race Massacre, because the land didn’t evaporate into thin air after the hundreds of Black people had their homes and businesses destroyed. It was purchased, distributed by and for White people. There are surely records of this and that could easily be a way to restore neighborhoods and communities.

    But that’s an extremely inconvenient truth that no one white (especially anyone in politics) wants to consider.

  7. Great information. Thank you for your effort and expertise.

  8. Oddly this account like so many others omits to mention the most pertinent fact – that the whole episode began when 75 blacks armed with rifles opened fire on a largely un-armed white crowd in front of the court house. They killed ten people and no doubt wounded many more. It was this first massacre which precipitated the second.

    • This post is not a new account of the massacre but a review of the newspaper coverage of the time, which included accounts of the armed Black crowd at the courthouse. I would encourage everyone to consult the resources that are cited.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.