100 years later: A look back at the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

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CHICAGO — One hundred years ago this month, the largest single incident of racial violence in American history took place. 

Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1920s was on its way to becoming the self-described oil capital of the world. It was a booming cosmopolitan city, especially for African Americans. Former slaves who had been given land after the civil war developed a section of the city called the greenwood district. It would later come to be known as Black Wall Street.

J.B. Stradford was the richest Black man in Tulsa. He owned the Stradford Hotel, the largest Black-owned and operated hotel in Oklahoma and one of the few Black owned hotels in America. Laurel Stradford, his great granddaughter, said it was very popular.

White people living in Tulsa grew jealous of Black Wall Street’s success. That coupled with the feeling of white supremacy and land lust made it a powder keg just waiting to explode.

The match was lit on May 30, 1921 when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe shine boy entered an elevator operated by a young white girl named Sarah Page.

Historian Hannibal B. Johnson said something happened on that elevator — and it may not be possible to ever find out exactly what it was.

“…But it’s likely that Dick Rowland brushed up against or bumped into her stepped on the foot of Sarah Page, she overreacted, she began to scream.”

Page claimed she was raped and Rowland was arrested. The next day, a local newspaper printed a story that added fuel to the fire.

Page later recanted, but it was too late, the white community was up in arms. Hearing talk of lynching, several dozen Black men, some of them World War I veterans marched to the courthouse with weapons in hand to protect Rowland. They were outnumbered by a white mob.

“Words were exchanged between the larger white group in the smaller Black group, a white man tried to take a black man’s gun,” Johnson said. “The gun discharged and, according to some of the survivors, all hell broke loose after that.”

There was looting, burning, witnesses even reported machine gunfire and bombs being dropped from planes.

The violence last 16 hours and was only quelled by the National Guard that was sent in from Oklahoma City. 

When the dust settled, as many as 300 people were dead, mostly black, several hundred were injured and 35 city blocks were destroyed, including more than 1,200 homes and hundreds of businesses. Black Wall Street was in ruin. 

“Property damage conservatively estimated at the time was $1.5 [million] to $2 million in depending on how you translate it to present value it’s well into the double digit millions today,” Johnson said.

The violence was blamed on several Black businessmen, including Stradford. They were arrested and charged with inciting the violence. But his son, Cornelius Stradford, a lawyer who was living in Chicago devised a plan to get him out of Tulsa.

“My grandfather, his son, came from Chicago in a big beautiful car and he had a woman in the back seat with beautiful clothes. So he was pulled out of the jail and he got underneath the woman’s skirt, and he brought him here,” Laurel Stradford said.

Stradford died in 1935, but his legacy of success and entrepreneurship lived on. 

His son Cornelius, known as C. F. Stradford argued the landmark Hansberry v. Lee case before the Supreme Court in 1940. It abolished restrictive covenants in Chicago. He also co-founded the National Bar Association and the Cook County Bar Association.

His granddaughter, Jewel LaFontant is the first woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School, the first female Deputy Solicitor General Of The United States and was considered by former President Richard Nixon as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court.

Her son, John Rogers Jr. Is the founder and CEO of Chicago-based Ariel Capital Management, the first and the largest minority run mutual fund managing assets of more than $15 billion. 

He also sits on several corporate boards. Stradford attributes the success to “Knowing our roots, where we came from strengthen us and give us a course of possibility.”

The Greenwood District was rebuilt hitting its peak in the 1940s. But many still don’t know about the Tulsa Race Massacre, which historians say is by far the largest single incident of racial violence in American history. 

Recently, a centennial commission was created to promote educational awareness and revitalization of the greenwood district. Hannibal Johnson, who has written three books on the subject, is a member.

“History is not simply something that occurred in the past,” he said. “History is part of who and what we are today. So, what are the lessons that we can take from this particular history and confront the challenges that we face in the modern era?”

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