The years following World War I in the United States saw devastating race riots around the nation, in cities small and large. But the 1921 Tulsa race riot, a 24-hour rampage by white Tulsans, was one of the most vicious and intense race riots in American history before or since, resulting in the death of anywhere from 75 to 250 people and the burning of more than 1,000 black homes and businesses. Although the city’s white leaders assured the nation’s press that restitution and reconciliation would be forthcoming, other whites denied any responsibility for the carnage. In an article in the magazine Survey, Amy Comstock, personal secretary to the editor of the Tulsa Tribune, attempted to deflect attention from Tulsa’s white citizenry by fixing blame for the 1921 riot on an ostensibly impoverished and licentious black community. Comstock argued that the responsibility for improving conditions, and for enforcing law and order, in this bustling community rested with white officials.
The causes that culminated in the recent race riot in Tulsa are not different from those that prompted similar eruptions in Chicago, Washington, East St. Louis and Springfield, Ill., except that it is possible that Tulsa may have been more indifferent about law enforcement than these older cities. Certainly lack of law enforcement was in no small part a contributing factor.
Tulsa is new. Its newness excuses it to some modified extent for its failures. You cannot build a city of a hundred thousand people in a span of fifteen years without a heavy load of construction cost. Most cities grow slowly. Tulsa grew fast. When pavements and sewers, water and gas mains are all laid in a few years, to say nothing of school and public buildings, the tax rates climb high. In the hurried construction of Tulsa that section which was known as “Niggertown” was pretty much neglected. Before this Negro district was burned you would have seen an offensive sight had you come into Tulsa on the Santa Fe. Improvised shanties abounded with out-houses standing on stilts, and yards in conspicuous disorder. There were water mains through the section for fire prevention purposes, but all inadequate, and of sewers there were none.
Here the colored child had at best a poor start. His outlook on life was anything but bright or aesthetic. He lived a long way from his white neighbors where things were better. He knew another world. The conditions under which he lived were a constant menace to the health of the city. But that was the condition that prevailed in Washington right under the shadow of the capitol of the nation.
It is doubtful if you can make a good citizen in a thoroughly bad and sordid environment. If resentment is not fostered a disregard for law and order is sure to be. It is not so much a matter of “social equality” which the childlike Negro mind at times indulges in with foolish day-dreams. It is a matter of physical fitness to live.
But the city does not meet its problem by merely providing better sanitary conditions, as Tulsa failed to do. It must school the Negro how to use and appreciate and better his living conditions when better agencies and instruments are brought to him for that end. This also, in common with most of our other cities, Tulsa failed to do.
Tulsa is in the heart of a great wheat country. In addition it is an important lead and zinc city; and above all this it is the oil capital of the world. In a decade and a half it has grown from an Indian trading village into a miniature metropolis and has the greatest per capita wealth of any city in the world. It is the heart of an Eldorado. People have not come to Tulsa for climate or for scenery but to be producers of bulk commodities that the world wants. They have come to make money. Tulsa has gone through her argonaut days. Everybody has been busy, so to speak, with his own pick and pan, and the civic sense of the city has slumbered. This disaster has shaken the conscience of the citizens into action.
Through these building years when every man was busy for himself there was a general indifference toward law enforcement. The spasmodic protest at election time, which every city experiences, was often manifest but it seldom got anywhere.
It is a sad truth to admit, but Tulsa has been pretty much the crook’s paradise. He was least molested here. Bootlegging and gambling have been traditional. For years they have been recognized as close to legitimate trades. Hi-Jacking, as the Westerner call bandit practices, was common, and auto stealing so common that many insurance companies would not write auto policies. Real, honest effort to apprehend and arrest the crook was not the practice in Tulsa. The state recently created two new courts to take care of the criminal calendar which was loaded up with over six thousand untried cases.
It was in the sordid and neglected “Niggertown” that the crooks found their best hiding place. It was a cesspool of crime. There were the low brothels where the low whites mixed with the low blacks. There crimes were plotted and loot hidden. One city administration after another looked after the “uptown” traffic regulations, saw to it that you did not park your auto where you should not, but let “Niggertown” pretty much alone. There, for months past, the bad “niggers,” the silk-shirted parasites of society, had been collecting guns and munitions. Tulsa was living on a Vesuvius that was ready to vomit fire at any time. Officials admit they knew of it but hoped it would not come off. And the argonauts were all too busy panning gold to care.
Now Tulsa does care. The city administration is being asked why it permitted such places as the “Niggertown” dives to exist. The city administration has created a special committee of prominent citizens to help it convert the ash-covered acres into a much needed warehouse district which would give the land greater value and with the money from which the Negroes might buy a better residential subdivision which might be carefully plotted and made sanitary and parked.
Tulsa now talks of a social program, of a city plan, of efficient police, of law enforcement, of industrial and commercial education, of teaching head and hand, of decent recreational advantages, of giving attention to delinquency and treating the dope fiend as a sick creature.
The cause of the Tulsa race riot was the cause that is common to all race riots plus a city too busy building to give thought or care to the spawning pools of crime that indifferent citizens thought did not really matter because it was “over there.” Now they know better. Most such disasters bring their resultant good. Tulsa teaches a lesson to other cities. Don’t neglect the “over here.” It is that kind of living that cultivates understanding and levels the rough prejudices into a smoother friendliness.
A new Tulsa is born. An awakened citizenship now administers Tulsa, and the crooks who are not caught have for the most part scampered out of town. Tulsa is no longer going to sweep her dirt under the carpet and fool herself into thinking that it is not there.
Tulsa, the beautiful, busy, prosperous metropolis of the Mid-Continent, is going to be as proud of her decency and deportment as in the past she has been of her sky line that towers above the western horizon like a Fujiyama silhouetted against the setting sun.
Source: Amy Comstock, “Another View of the Tulsa Riots,” Survey, 2 July 1921, 460.