The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. It began after Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old African American shoe shiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a young white elevator operator, in the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa on May 30, 1921. Spurred on by sensational newspaper coverage, a white lynch mob gathered the next afternoon outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse, where Rowland was being held, but black Tulsans, many of whom were military veterans, were equally determinded to prevent the lynching. When a contingent of armed African American men arrived at the courthouse, a shot was fired and the city was thrown into chaos.
Throughout the long night and day that followed, gangs of whites attacked African Americans on the streets of Tulsa, and lit the first fires along the edges of Greenwood, the city's primary African American community. Black defenders made a concerted effort to protect their homes, their families, and their businesses, but when dawn broke, they were simply overwhelmed by an armed white mob numbering in the thousands. Block by block, house by house, white Tulsans invaded Greenwood, broke into and looted homes and businesses, and then set them on fire. By the end of the day, Greenwood had been destroyed.
The property loss was staggering.
More than 1,256 homes and businesses, covering more than thirty square city blocks, had been burnt to the ground. Although the human loss has never been successfully determined, unofficial estimates suggest that more than three hundred people, both black and white, had been killed during the riot.