Clio Logo
This is a contributing entry and appears exclusively within that tour.Learn More.

After he was arrested by Tulsa police officers on the morning of May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland was taken to the county jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Spurred on by the inflammatory Tulsa Tribune article that afternoon, word began to spread about the alleged assault of a white woman. Law enforcement officials received anonymous calls with threats to lynch Mr. Rowland, and white residents began to gather on the street outside of the courthouse, eventually rallying for his release to the mob. Tensions grew to a breaking point when a gun was fired into the crowd, and the Tulsa Race Massacre began.

Tulsa County Courthouse

Four- or five-story building in black-and-white photo

The original Tulsa County Courthouse was located at West Sixth Street and South Boulder Avenue. As the evening of May 31, 1921 wore on, the crowd surrounding the courthouse grew into the thousands. Some may have been simply curious, but the mood turned violent as the hours passed by. White residents began to chant racial slurs and violent threats. A few members of the crowd tried to break into the courthouse. Law enforcement officers surrounded the building to fend off the mob. 

Alerted to the events unfolding, a group of several dozen Black World War I veterans and other supporters gathered at the offices of A.J. Smitherman’s newspaper, the Tulsa Star, on North Greenwood Avenue. Carrying revolvers, they arrived at the courthouse with the intent of helping law enforcement defend Dick Rowland from the angry mob. These Black men believed in self-defense and wanted to prevent another lynching. Tensions grew. They were asked to leave by Sheriff Willard McCullough and Barney Cleaver, a well-respected Black deputy--one of only a few on the force. But the presence of armed Black men angered white members of the crowd, who confronted them around 10 pm in the evening of May 31. In the ensuing struggle over a gun carried by one of these men, a shot was fired.

Violence broke out as many in the crowd fled, while others armed themselves with guns, torches, and other weapons. Black residents were driven away from the courthouse and back into the Greenwood neighborhood, which was demolished by the white mob. Historians estimate that over 300 Black people were murdered in the next 14 hours.

Guide to 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Oral History Collection. (2004-2007). National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution.

Krehbiel, R. (n.d.). The Questions That Remain: Timeline. Tulsa World. 

Tulsa Race Massacre: Timeline. (2021). McFarlin Library Special Collections 

Whitney, W. (2021, May 26). How to research the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Library of Congress Blog.