By Michael Casson
Only twice in our history has the government used aircraft to bomb American civilians: the Utado uprising in Puerto Rico in 1950 and when law enforcement officials commandeered privately owned planes to firebomb the African-American section of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.
The destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” was the finale of the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919 that launched two years of race riots across America. The story is simultaneously inspiring and horrifying, with an ironic connection to today’s Delaware.
In 1907 Oklahoma achieved statehood. By 1912, 25% of all domestically produced oil was pumped from Oklahoma wells, driving an economic boom that included even the state’s several dozen all-black towns.
When teenager Sarah Proctor from Taft, Oklahoma, became heir to land producing $15,000 per month in oil lease revenue in 1914, the Tulsa Star editorialized that “WHITE MEN WOULD WED RICH COLORED GIRL.”
Tulsa in 1910 was a city of 18,000, including about 2,000 African-Americans living in a segregated enclave around Greenwood Street, so prosperous that it earned the nickname Black Wall Street.
John Williams, his wife Loula and their son Bill epitomized that prosperity. John quit his job with Thompson Ice Cream Co. to open the East End Garage on Greenwood Avenue, capitalizing on the wealth that made many black Tulsans into automobile owners.
In 1912 he purchased 101 North Greenwood, where Loula managed the Williams Confectionary, a candy, ice cream and soda shop with seating for 50. The family lived on the second floor, renting the third to Black attorneys, dentists, doctors and accountants.
Two years later the Williams bought a second building, and Loula opened the Williams Dreamland Theater, soon followed by movie theaters in Muskogee and Oklmulgee. The Black Dispatch lauded her as “perhaps the best businesswoman of the race” in Oklahoma.
By 1921 over 11,000 African-Americans lived in Greenwood. Despite “Jim Crow” restrictions, the community boasted 13 churches, a public library, two highly-rated public schools, two newspapers, six real estate agencies, five building contractors, 15 physicians and a host of small businesses.
Also by 1921, however, white Tulsa had an estimated 3,500 KKK members who derisively characterized Greenwood as “Little Africa.”
That May, a young white woman named Sarah Page accused Dick Rowland, a black shoe-shiner, of raping her in an elevator. Despite the complete absence of evidence that she had been attacked, white-owned Oklahoma newspapers carried inflammatory headlines like “LYNCH NEGRO TONIGHT.”
When several hundred whites attempted to break into the jail to seize Rowland, an equally large group of armed black men repulsed them with fatalities on both sides. Vigilantes broke into black-owned businesses, seizing firearms and other merchandise before setting the buildings on fire.
Thousands of whites surrounded the Greenwood area as police stood back to let them begin the destruction of the community. Oklahoma law enforcement even chartered planes at a nearby airfield to drop firebombs made of flaming jars of turpentine to quell “the Negro uprising.”
By June 30, Black Wall Street had ceased to exist. Most of the buildings had been destroyed; thousands of African-Americans were dead; thousands more had fled.
Bill Williams escaped from a threatened attack on his high school as he was decorating the gym for prom night. Williams Confectionary and Dreamland Theater both burned to the ground; among surviving records is a damage claim for $100,000 filed by Loula Williams after the massacre.
Tulsa and the other riots and massacres of the “Red Summer” teach us how quickly fear and hatred, fanned by ideological passion and false news reporting, can lead to death and disaster.
Yet Tulsa also teaches us about redemption. Greenwood has become a federally recognized Historic District, and a state commission has recommended reparations for descendants of those who lost lives and property in the massacre, although those have yet to occur.
Tulsa connects through the decades to Little Rock, Watts and Ferguson, reminding us — in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words — that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Tulsa also reaches out through the years to Delaware.
John and Loula Williams’ granddaughter, Dr. Jan Christopher, is a professor of economics at Delaware State University, where family history and tradition informs her teaching about urban public policy.
— Dr. Michael Casson is dean of the Delaware State University College of Business and director of its Center for Economic Development and International Trade.