Nearly 79 years ago, on a long-forgotten downtown elevator here, a black shoeshine vendor named Dick Rowland and a white teenager named Sarah Page had an encounter that set off perhaps the deadliest and most destructive race riot in American history.
By the time it was over, one of the nation's more prosperous black communities was in flames at the hands of angry white mobs, countless blacks were dead, and 10,000 others were homeless. Yet for years, this booming oil city largely ignored the horrors of May 31 and June 1, 1921, only recently acknowledging the embarrassing blot on its history.
Now, eight decades later, a commission empowered and funded by the state to finally set the record straight has ignited a heated debate over whether today's taxpayers should have to pay restitution for yesterday's heinous crimes.
After more than two years of intense research, the 11-person Tulsa Race Riot Commission will soon offer the Oklahoma legislature the only official record of the riot, a historical document welcomed by virtually everyone.
Far more controversial, however, will be the commission's effort to affix legal blame, and its preliminary proposal that the state and city pay $33 million in restitution, a suggestion already facing resistance from government officials, the public and even members of the commission itself.
"Compensation for direct loss occasioned by direct state or city action is not inappropriate," said Gov. Frank A. Keating (R), choosing his words carefully. "But it has to be shown that there was real harm to existing, living individuals and that direct action by the city and the state caused the harm. . . . It's going to be a very slippery slope to climb [to support] using current taxpayers' money to compensate for the acts of past taxpayers."
Countered Eddie Faye Gates, a local historian, and an African American member of the commission: "Some people will gripe if it's $5. Someone has to be held responsible; otherwise there is no incentive for people to do the right thing."
The territory now known as Oklahoma was at the turn of the century a major draw for blacks looking for freedom and success. The area was fast becoming one of the nation's largest oil-producing regions and there was no shortage of money and high-paying service jobs to accommodate the influx of high-rollers. Waiters in downtown hotels could earn as much as $100 a day. Within a matter of years, thriving black communities popped up all over the state.
Tulsa's black neighborhood, known as Greenwood, was by 1921 a bustling 34-square-block enclave in the north part of town, complete with two newspapers, 12 grocery stores, hotels, doctors, theaters and restaurants. Tulsa in effect had become two prosperous--and segregated--cities. Greenwood became known as the "Negro Wall Street," and local whites were said to be jealous of the community's self-sufficiency and prosperity.
The trouble started over a never-proven incident between 19-year-old Rowland and 17-year-old Page, who operated the elevator in the downtown Drexel Building, where blacks were permitted to use the bathroom. It is believed today that Rowland, who rode the elevator on May 30 to use the restroom, may have accidentally tripped and bumped into Page, causing her to scream. (There have been rumors that the two might have been romantically involved; the commission was unable to locate them.)
The next day, May 31, Rowland was arrested and charged with assault, although Page refused to press charges.
Later that day, the now defunct Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory article alleging that Rowland had attacked Page and torn her clothes. There was also an editorial the same day that carried the headline, "To Lynch Negro Tonight." (The articles were ripped from the paper's archives long ago, and the commission has offered a reward for any existing copies.)
Within hours of the paper's publication, more than 1,000 agitated whites reportedly congregated outside the downtown courthouse where Rowland was held in a cell. Rumors of a lynching raced through Greenwood, and armed black men showed up at the courthouse, virtually ensuring a confrontation. Shots were fired and the growing white mob eventually raced across the railroad tracks that divided Tulsa, torching and looting homes, driving families into the streets and randomly shooting blacks.
By the early morning hours of June 1, Greenwood had become a landscape of smoldering ashes, the heart and soul of the community destroyed. (Rowland was eventually released from jail, unharmed.)
The riot never received particular attention in Tulsa, and in fact, it was barely spoken about for years. A systematic death count was never even made.
It was not until 1996, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the riot, that Tulsa began to examine its long-neglected past. A group of community leaders, both black and white, raised about $65,000 to build a black granite memorial to the victims. And as the national news media began to focus on the story, the community begin to look inward.
With a major push from Greenwood's longtime Democratic state Rep. Don Ross, the legislature in 1997 appropriated $50,000 to launch this first investigation of the riot. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission's mandate was to establish a historical record by locating survivors, quantifying the death count and assessing property loss. But nearly as important, it was the first public opportunity for blacks and whites to engage in an open dialogue about the riot.
"There had been a conspiracy of silence for 75 years," Ross said recently.
So far, the commission has located about 70 aging survivors of the riot, and interviewed or videotaped all of them; some have passed away since. The commission is still exploring the possibility of mass grave sites at area cemeteries. Scott Ellsworth, the commission's historian and the author of a book on the riot, said the group's research has verified about 70 deaths, but "we're quite confident the count exceeds 100," and may be as many as 300.
In an effort to build a case for restitution, the panel has more recently turned its attention toward establishing culpability on the part of local government, which allegedly failed to respond to fire calls from Greenwood during the riot and which deputized angry white lynch mobs. "If that is not culpability, then I don't know what is," said Currie Ballard, the chairman of the commission's reparations subcommittee.
Proving it unequivocally after so many years, however, could be an uphill battle.
Ballard said he modeled the compensation plan in part after the state of Florida's 1994 agreement with victims of the notorious 1923 "Rosewood Massacre," when a black town was destroyed at the hands of angry whites. In that instance, the state paid the 11 or so survivors each $150,000, and acknowledged that the government failed to protect its citizens. Under Ballard's much costlier plan, $26 million of the $33 million would be allocated for scholarships.
But some of those on both sides of the restitution issue expressed skepticism that the commission can achieve its goal to the satisfaction of the larger community.
"If the commission doesn't document culpability, then we will be dealing with the issue of morality," said Ross, who ardently supports restitution, but who questions whether the commission can make its case at this point. "It has to pass a test by any unbiased jury."
State Sen. Robert Milacek (R), a member of the commission, said he is "very reluctant to single out this one instance and pay reparations."
"What about the other situations where people had losses because of actions by prejudiced people? The chances [of it passing the legislature] are very slim. This was a long time ago."
CAPTION: One of the nation's prosperous black neighborhoods, Greenwood, lies in ruins after the 1921 Tulsa race riot, which was neglected for decades.
CAPTION: The Mount Zion Baptist Church, one of the targets of mob violence in which the toll in lives, injuries and damages has never officially been totaled. Rioting began after an elevator incident between a black teen and a white teen.