||A hysterical white girl
related that a nineteen-year-old colored boy attempted to assault her
in the public elevator of a public office building of a thriving town
of 100,000 in open daylight. Without pausing to find out whether or
not the story was true, without bothering with the slight detail of
investigating the character of the woman who made the outcry (as a matter
of fact, she was of exceedingly doubtful reputation), a mob of 100-per-cent
Americans set forth on a wild rampage that cost the lives of fifty white
men; of between 150 and 200 colored men, women and children; the destruction
by fire of $1,500,000 worth of property; the looting of many homes;
and everlasting damage to the reputation of the city of Tulsa and the
State of Oklahoma. -- Walter F. White, "The Eruption of Tulsa,"
The Nation, June 29, 1921
the Sacco-Vanzetti Case was "the never-ending wrong," as writer
Katherine Anne Porter put it, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was seldom even
remembered until recently. Its hundreds of victims were not commemorated in
poems or novels or operas. Indeed it is only within the last decade that historians
have begun to examine what happened and why. The state of Oklahoma appointed
a Commission whose Report
goes a long way toward rescuing the riot from oblivion. To read the report
you will need Adobe® Acrobat Reader, which you can download here.
The heart of the report is Scott Ellsworth's essay, pp. 37-102. It is a carefully
researched and judiciously phrased account. Future president of the National
Association of Colored Peoples Walter F. White's contemporary account
in The Nation is also a highly useful source. Department of Special
Collection, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa has put nearly 100 photographs
of the riot online.
At right is a photo of a handful of the thousands of white Tulsans who invaded
the Greenwood section of the city, drove out the black residents, and burned
the entire area to the ground. Most of the white invaders were on foot, but
some drove through the neighborhood shooting at passersby and into houses.
Still others used private planes to fire from the air. Blacks resisted as
best they could. There were several "fire fights" in which about
fifty whites died. Perhaps as many as 200 African Americans died. Many hundreds
more were arrested and placed in "protective custody."
can use the Tulsa Riot as a jumping-off place to study the explosion of racial
violence in the years surrounding World War I.
- Lynchings: Because the Tulsa Riot began in an
effort by the city's black community to prevent a lynching, it points back
to decades of racial violence following the Civil War and to the ongoing use
of lynching by white mobs to keep blacks in "their place." There
is a very powerful, and very disturbing site, Without
Sanctuary, which collects photographic evidence, often in the form of
postcards, of lynchings. The combination of the grisly images and the banal
messages written on the cards can be overwhelming. Journalist Ida B. Wells
led a lifelong crusade against lynching. You can find her The
Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition
(1893) at the Women and Social Movements site at the State University of New
York at Binghamton. Go to chapter IV. Her 1899 pamphlet, Lynch
Law in Georgia, based upon reports in white newspapers, is available at
the African-American History site as is her 1900 article, "Lynch
Law in America." The Women and Social Movements site at Binghamton
also also a very useful collection of materials on "How
Did Black and White Southern Women Campaign to End Lynching, 1890-1942?"
There is a thorough account of a lynching, in 1920, in Duluth
Minnesota at a site maintained by the Duluth Police Department. As in
so many lynchings, this one arose out of charges that black men raped a white
woman. As in so many lynchings too, the charges were demonstrably false. Not
all lynching victims were black, although the vast majority were. In 1913
Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia, the hometown of the girl he allegedly
murdered, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan. A photograph of Frank's body hanging
from a tree became a popular postcard. The lynching persuaded American Jews
of the necessity of creating an Anti-Defamation League. In 1915 the case helped
launch a very different sort of organization, the second Ku Klux Klan. Its
initial cross-burning was at the gravesite of Mary Phagan. There is a brief
but thorough account of the Frank case at a site
maintained by the American Jewish Historical Society. There is a somewhat
fuller account at
- Race riots: The Tulsa Riot leads us to others
in which whites stormed into black neighborhoods and burned and looted and
killed whomever they found. Unlike the riot in Tulsa, most took place in northern
cities. World War I enormously accelerated the movement of African Americans
from the rural South to the urban North. This was because wartime labor shortages
provided them with the opportunity to find factory jobs which paid far more
than they had been able to earn in sharecropping and other forms of agricultural
labor. In these cities they competed for scarce housing with working-class
whites, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants. They competed
with these same groups for jobs, for "turf" in parks, street corners,
and beaches. One of the most violent of these riots took place in East St.
Louis, Illinois, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis, Missouri. Racial
tensions heightened with labor troubles in the city. Unions had no black members,
and employers hired blacks in part because they knew that they would not go
out on strike. Rumors swept white neighborhoods that blacks were arming themselves.
On July 2, 1917 a protest meeting at the Labor Temple turned into a mob which
marched on the black neighborhoods. Several days of shootings followed in
which somewhere between 100 and 200 people died, most of them African American.
Thousands fled the city. There is a helpful account of the East
St. Louis riot at a site maintained by the East St. Louis Action Research
Project. Two years later there was an even bigger riot in Chicago. It too
grew out of tensions between white working-class communities composed of immigrants
and their children and black newcomers to the city who competed for jobs and
housing space. The incident that triggered the riot happened at a beach on
Lake Michigan. Whites and blacks frequently contested the others' right to
use the space. An unofficial line divided the space blacks could use from
that used by whites. This imaginary boundary extended out into the water.
When a young black man floated across this line, whites on the beach started
throwing rocks at him. Unable to come ashore, he drowned. Blacks charged the
whites with murder, a charge the police ignored. Violence quickly escalated.
There is a very useful account of the Chicago
riot at a site created by the Chicago Public Library. It provides a map and
the complete text of the official Coroner's Report which recounted the riot
in great detail. The Report called attention to the role of white gangs, aka
"sports clubs" of the sort that gave Mayor Richard Daley his start,
in formenting violence. There is a site on gang violence and the riot created
at the University of Illinois, Chicago here.
This site also contains the complete 1922
Report of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations on the riot. For the
summary of the Commission Report at Scott A. Newman's Jazz Age Chicago site,
At almost exactly the same time a riot broke out in Washington, D.C. It is
detailed in a 1999 Washington Post story.
In this instance, the rioters were white sailors and soldiers. Rumors swept
the bars serving the military that a black man had raped a navy man's wife
and had then been released by the police. This is similar to the rumors that
sparked the Tulsa Riot and that served as the justification for countless
- The Second Ku Klux Klan: One of the most striking
features of the early 1920s was the rapid growth of the second Ku
Klux Klan. There is no evidence the Klan played any role in the Tulsa
Riot, but thousands of Tulsans joined the KKK in the two years following.
The Klan is the subject of an extended treatment on this site click
on link above. A briefer but very useful discussion
is at George Mason University. The American Radicalism Archive at Michigan
State University contains a variety of documents
associated with the KKK in the 1920s of which the most important may be "The
Menace of Modern Immigration" and "The Klan's Fight For Americanism," both
by Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans. For an example of Klan humor (sic),
Pope's Last Call."
- The Sweet Case: one of the most celebrated murder
cases of the 1920s, now largely forgotten, culminated in the trials of Dr.
Ossian Sweet, a black physician whose family bought a house in a previously
all-white neighborhood in Detroit, for killing a white man who was part of
a mob threatening to burn his house. Doug Linder's Famous
Trials site provides documentation of the shooting and of the two trials
of Sweet. In the second, an all-white jury acquited Sweet. The defense attorney
was Clarence Darrow.
- Rise in Anti-Semitism: Detroit was home to Henry
Ford whose hiring practices did much to encourage black migration to the city.
Ford began hiring African Americans in large numbers in 1915 and paid them
the same wages as his white employees. Ford became a virulent anti-Semite
(be careful, this link is to a contemporary anti-Semitic site; Ford's 1921
book, The International Jew appears on many anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi
sites) anticipated much of the KKK outcry against the Jews. Ford dealerships
across the country and internationally distributed free copies of the work.
There is a brief introduction to the book, which was based upon the celebrated
forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, courtesy of the Anti-Defamation
The International Jew first appeared as a series of articles in the
Dearborn Independent which Ford purchased in 1919. Like Tulsa, Detroit
became a center of KKK activity in the 1920s.
- Eugenics: This is a major topic on this site.
Eugenics was the scientific expression of the concerns about immigrants, racial
purity, the political influence of Catholics, and the economic and cultural
influence of Jews which fueled the growth of the KKK and Henry Ford's anti-Semitic
campaign. We have put together a discussion
of eugenics with links to resources and an analysis of how eugenics ideas
infiltrated the popular culture which uses a Lifebuoy
soap ad campaign as a case study.
- Harlem Renaissance: At the same time that racial
violence, lynchings, and the rise of the second KKK demonstrated how grim
the situation of African Americans was, the 1920s witnessed the emergence
of Harlem as the "Mecca
of the New Negro," as a special issue of Survey Graphic put
it [available online at the University of Virginia], and to the Harlem
Renaissance. This link will take you to a site created for Prentice Hall
by John McClymer, one of the co-directors of this project. Its focus is upon
jazz and its relation to literature and painting. It contains a number of
links to sound files located at the Red
Hot Jazz Archive. There you can find thousands of original recordings
from the 1920s, the great majority by black composers and musicians. "The
American Conversation on Race, 1850s to the 1930s" is a site created
by this project's other co-director, Lucia Knoles. It provides excerpts, with
links to the full texts, from the writings of Frederick Douglass, Booker T.
Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and others. It also
provides a rich collection of annotated links to other resources. The National
Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, created "Le
Tumulte Noir," a collection of paintings by Paul Colin which is available
online. There is another rich set of resources available at Northern Kentucky
University at a site created by Jill
Diesman. The Schomberg Center of the New York Public Library has created
an online exhibition about Harlem,
1900-1940, which is very helpful.