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“Defending Greenwood”: A Survivor Recalls the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

by W. D. Williams/Scott Ellsworth

The post-World War I period in the United States saw devastating race riots around the nation: in small cities and in larger ones. But the Tulsa race riot in 1921 was perhaps the worst. Sparked by the supposed sexual assault of a white woman by a young black man, white Tulsa residents went on a twenty-four-hour rampage which resulted in the death of anywhere from 75 to 250 people and the burning of more than 1,000 black homes and businesses. Yet the African-Americans of Tulsa were not passive victims: when armed whites congregated at the Tulsa courthouse planning to lynch the young black imprisoned for the rape they were met by a crowd of equally angry blacks determined to prevent the lynching. In this interview with historian Scott Ellsworth, W. D. Williams proudly remembered the self-assertiveness of local black citizens, including his father, who took up arms to defend home and community.

Listen to Audio:

W.D. Williams: I was in school that day, and I was a junior, and we rented a hall down here on Archer [Street] to have this junior-senior prom. We were decorating it that night. Early part of the night. So when I came home over here, that’s when I read this article, and people were gathering. And I went down to a theater. The fellow on the stage, one of these rabble-rousers and telling them we’re not to let them lynch him, so close this place down. We’re going to town to stop it. People were filing out and saying, “Get on out of here. Go down and protect this man.” They did. Pretty soon, they were gathering. Right here is the focal point. They gathered down here, and I got to see them with the guns and things. And everyone downtown in cars to stop the riot—I mean stop the lynching.

Scott Ellsworth: Were you scared or excited?

Williams: I really wasn’t afraid. No, I wasn’t afraid. But I know one thing. My mother was there. She wouldn’t let me go. I wanted to go around and see what was going on.

Ellsworth: Sure.

Williams: “Oh, no. You stay right here.”

Ellsworth: Did your dad go down, do you know?

Williams: Yeah, he went. He went because he came back that night after the shooting started. That next morning, he was up in his window, up in the window of that building “defending Greenwood”as he called it.

Source: Oral History courtesy of Scott A. Ellsworth, University of Tulsa.