The riot began, as the battles in America's race wars often seem to, with an allegation of sexual assault. On the warm afternoon of Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, in the Drexel Building that still stands downtown, a 19-year-old black shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland had gone to the "coloured" men's toilets on the top floor. Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl - an orphan, Tulsans were soon told, working her way through college - ran the elevator. What transpired between the two remains a mystery, but whether Rowland tripped, or grabbed Page's hand, or never even touched her, the girl screamed. It was enough. By the following afternoon, a front- page headline in the Tulsa Tribune, trusted daily of the town's white citizens, exhorted: "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator". Rowland, the Tribune cried, had attacked Page. The spectre of rape raised, the lynching calls ensued.
At the courthouse downtown where Rowland was being held, a white mob squared off against armed black men. Veterans of the first world war, they had come from Greenwood to stave off a lynching. Shots broke out and mayhem ensued. Officers of the Tulsa police and county sheriff's department sided with the whites, hastily deputising hundreds and handing out weapons. National Guard troops were called in from neighbouring towns, arriving in trucks mounted with machine-guns. The guardsmen not only abetted the violence, but disarmed and rounded up hundreds of black defenders of Greenwood. As the whites fired at will, local biplanes circled above, scouting for blacks and - according to some reports - dropping incendiary explosives.
When martial law finally brought quiet, 35 blocks of Tulsa's north side - with 1,256 houses and 23 churches - had burned to the ground. Hundreds of homes and shops had been looted. Black men had been shot, burned and dragged through the streets.
Years later, white witnesses would be haunted by what they had seen as young boys: a black corpse hanging from a telephone pole and others stacked like cordwood on railroad flatcars. The true death toll will never be known. The confirmed count stopped at 39, but a Red Cross tally at the time ran as high as 300 dead - most of them black. Rumours still persist that the dead were buried in unmarked graves or dumped in the Arkansas River that runs across the city's west side.
In the riot's aftermath, an all-white grand jury affirmed that "there was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms". No participant in the riot was ever tried for a felony crime.
I had heard of the Tulsa massacre before. A story I had not heard is recounted in a book by Texas Monthly's Patricia Bernstein, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP, which is reviewed in today's Chronicle.
Among the scores of lynching photographs, one, taken in Waco on May 15, 1916, around noon, is remarkable. First, the photographer snapped it while the lynching was in progress and not after the fact. Second, it shows not a small mob but a huge crowd. Contemporaries estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people witnessed the death of Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black teenager accused of raping and killing a white woman.
The particulars of the Washington case are these: On May 8 Lucy Fryer, a farmer's wife in her mid-50s, was found outside her house, her skull crushed and her clothes disheveled. Jesse Washington, whose family worked on the Fryer farm, was taken into custody later that evening after blood was found on his clothing. Washington claimed he'd had a nosebleed.
Taken into Waco he confessed, according to authorities, and told police where to find the apparent murder weapon, a hammer. There's some indication Washington was retarded — after committing the murder, if he did, he went back to plowing a field 250 yards from the crime scene, and after his arrest he curled up and fell asleep in the back seat of a car.
On May 15, after a trial that lasted a little over an hour in a jammed courtroom, Washington was found guilty and sentenced to death. The crowd in the courtroom surged forward and seized the teenager, dragging him down the back stairs and into the town square, where he was alternately burned and hanged over a period of about two hours. Authorities made no attempt to stop the lynching — the mayor and police chief observed the proceedings from the second floor of City Hall, which is also where photographer Fred Gildersleeve set up his equipment.