Rumors & Riots: An Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Riots
Rumors and Riots: An Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Riot In 1921, a race riot ripped Tulsa, Oklahoma, apart. And it all began with a rumor (Gates 2004). Up to this time, Tulsa’s black community had been vibrant and prosperous. Many blacks owned their own businesses and competed successfully with whites. Then on May 31, everything changed after a black man was accused of assaulting a white girl. Buck Colbert Franklin (Franklin and Franklin 1997), a black attorney in Tulsa at the time, was there. Here is what he says: Hundreds of men with drawn guns were approaching from every direction, as far I could see as I stood at the steps of my office, and I was immediately arrested and taken to one of the many detention camps. Even then, airplanes were circling overhead dropping explosives upon the buildings that had been looted, and big trucks were hauling all sorts of furniture and household goods away. Unlike more recent U.S. riots, these were white looters who were breaking in and burning the homes and businesses of blacks. Franklin continues: Soon I was back upon the streets, but the buildings where I had my office was a smoldering ruin, and all my lawbooks and office fixtures had been consumed by flames. I went to where my roominghouse had stood a few short hours before, but it was in ashes, with all my clothes and the money to be used in moving my family. As far as one could see, not a Negro dwellinghouse or place of business stood…Negroes who yesterday were wealthy, living in beautiful homes in ease and comfort, were now beggars, public charges, living off alms. The rioters burned all black churches; including the imposing Zion Baptist church, which had just been completed. When they finished destroying homes and businesses, block after block lay in ruins, as though a tornado had swept through the area. And what about the young man who had been accused of assault, the event that precipitate the riot? Franklin say that the police investigated and found that there had been no assault. All the man had done was accidentally step on a lady’s foot in a crowded elevator, and, as Franklin says, “She became angry and slapped him, a fresh, cub newspaper reporter, without any experiences and no doubt anxious for a byline, gave out an erroneous report through his paper that a Negro had assaulted a white girl.” For Your Consideration It is difficult to place ourselves in such a historical mindset to imagine that stepping on someone’s foot could lead to such destruction, but it did. 1. Can you apply the sociological findings on both rumors and riots to explain the riot at Tulsa? 2. Why do you think that so many whites believed this rumor, and why were some of them so intent on destroying this thriving black community? 3. If “seething rage” underlies riots, it should apply to this one too. What “seething rage” (or resentments or feelings of injustice) do you think were involved?