By Marissa Johnson
A popular Facebook repost urges its readers to remind anyone that called #black people violent or blamed them for rioting in Ferguson to remember that prior to the 1960s, whites were responsible for race riots. Usually, whites rioted in response to the great migration to try to expel blacks.
Whites in the North, West, and Midwest, noticed the influx of black people from the Jim Crow South. The black migrators wanted better job opportunities and places to live, while white people were angry over job competition. They also felt their neighborhoods were being taken over.
The same issue is raised today when faced with questions of immigration reform. The major reason opponents of immigration have for making it harder to immigrate to the United States is that they believe the other races (namely Mexicans, Asians, and Middle Easterners) are stealing jobs from Americans.
To be fair, this has become a legitimate issue as Disney was in the news just last week for firing an entire department and replacing them with Indian immigrants. The workers were forced to train their replacements before they could get their severance packages. Former workers said the Indian immigrants had poor English skills and lacked the ability to do the work to the level previous workers had. The work visas these immigrants were on are intended only to fill positions when one cannot find qualified workers within the United States, not as a license to find cheaper foreign replacements for workers.
Just as job competition can be seen in the United States today, the same was most likely the case during the great migration. However, whites responded by congregating into mobs and burning down black neighborhoods to keep black people from their part of town. The Facebook repost lists a myriad of white race riots in America dating back from the 1920’s.
One such riot was The Tulsa Race Riot. It happened on May 31st and June 1st in 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The fuel in this case didn’t seem to be job-related. In 1916, Oklahoma passed a law prohibiting either race from living on a block in which ¾ of the other race or more resided. The United States Supreme Court, of course, declared the ruling unconstitutional, but Oklahoma didn’t comply.
In Tulsa, black World War I veterans felt they deserved more rights, so there was that underlying racial tension, which would erupt when finally provoked.
Dick Rowland, a black shoe shiner, went to take a bathroom break in a blacks only restroom. The elevator operator, Sarah Page, a seventeen-year-old white girl, screams for an unknown reason. White people outside the building heard her screams and saw Rowland bustling out of the building and instantly assumed he’d raped her.
However, modern historians concur that most likely Page had seen Rowland before, and that the screams were probably about something else. Page refused to press charges. Rowland knew that, as a black man, even being accused of raping a black woman could get him lynched, so he fled to his mom’s house in Greenland where he was detained by a black police officer.
White people began to gather near the Courthouse, and by nighttime, they had assembled a lynch mob. The sheriff had just witnessed another lynching and had decided he would not tolerate it. He ordered the men to go home and to shoot intruders into the Courthouse on site. The sheriff was vastly outnumbered but determined.
The black community inn Greenwood knew what was going on and convened to discuss what to do to protect Rowland. A mob of armed black men shows up at the courthouse ready to help the sheriff and his deputies keep Rowland safe, but the sheriff claims he’s got the situation under control and tells the black men to go home. They do, but white protestors saw the armed black men and decided to go arm themselves.
The white men went home for their weapons and the rest went to the National Guard Armory to try to loot weapons. But, Major Bell already predicted this might be an issue and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to loot weapons from the armory. Nevertheless, over 1,000 armed white men were now outside the Courthouse. The crowd grew to 2,000. Prominent men tried to get the mob to disperse including a white reverend, but they didn’t listen.
Matters were made worse when black men in vehicles came and made a show of having guns. The black men were trying to prove they were armed and ready to protect Rowland, but the whites took this as a Negro insurrection. The sheriff told the next group of armed black men to go home. It is unclear exactly what was happen. Perhaps a shot was accidentally discharged. But the fact is that a shot was heard which then prompted violence, chaos and a gun fight. White mobs indiscriminately fired on any black person they saw. They looted at first to get weapons and ammunition but then began to loot black homes and businesses, taking whatever they wanted.
The National Guard detained any black people not in Greenland. White people set the city into an inferno. Some middle class whites who employed negroes were bullied into giving them up to be detained. The Oklahoma National Guard was deployed.
In the end, no white rioters were prosecuted. No white officials, save the police chief, were charged. Rowland was secretly whisked away from the city by police. Quietly, the charges were dropped. But, he never set foot in Tulsa again. White people tried to make it difficult for blacks to rebuild in their old neighborhoods. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange tried such methods and tried to convert that district into an industrial and commercial district rather than a residential one, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared this unconstitutional.
As recently as 2001, Oklahoma tried to atone for the race riots that left 10,000 black families homeless. The Race Riot Commission of 2001 recommended such remedies as reparations paid to survivors and descendants of survivors, a scholarship fund, and a memorial for the remains of victims.
In June 2001, Oklahoma passed the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act.”
The race riot in Oklahoma is just an example of many race riots started by whites.