This is going to be heavy, but they are stories that need to be told and more importantly, they are stories that need to be heard.
Halfway between Tampa and Tallahassee, 100 yards off state route 24 and 10 miles from the next town, stands a handsome pale yellow house with decorative white trim on the two-story porch. The house was the only survivor of an episode of such extraordinary violence that it boggles the mind how quickly and completely it was swept under the rug. An entire community was burned to the ground in an incident of racist asymmetrical warfare and most people have never even heard of it.
The community had been –well, still technically is– Rosewood, Florida. It was settled by both black and white people twenty years before the civil war, but the Jim Crow segregation in the postbellum decades meant there was now a clear divide in the community. The town was incorporated in 1870, after it got a post office and train depot, and was named Rosewood for the pink cedars that were also the base of its economy. Residents worked in lumber yards, mills, and even a pencil factory, until the cedars had been overharvested and the factories closed. Most of the white residents moved to nearby town of Sumner, all but one couple, John and Mary Wright, who ran the general store. They were kind to their neighbors and were known to slip candy to the black kids who hung out at the store, possibly because their three children had died young.
The white flight continued until the 20’s, when Rosewood’s population of about 200 was entirely made up of black citizens, and the Wrights. The little hamlet got by fine, until New Year’s day 1923. Over in Sumner, a woman named Fannie Taylor woke her neighbors, saying a black man had broken into her house and attacked her. Rather than alert the sheriff, her husband immediately gathered a group of men –including Klansmen who were in the area for a rally– and a tracking dog. The dog led them to the railroad tracks, which led to Rosewood.
The mob, which would grow to 300 strong, got it in their head that they were looking for a black man named Jesse Hunter who had escaped from a chain gang. The hound ran through the open door of a house, then back out to a set of wagon tracks. When the homeowner swore no one had been in his house, the mob tied him to a Model T and dragged him down the dirt road. They then tracked down the owner of the wagon whose tracks the dog had sniffed at. When he also claimed ignorance and innocence, the mob mutilated and killed him.
The mob came to the house of Sarah Carrier, the Taylor’s laundress. Two dozen people, most of them children, were hiding inside, already driven out of their own homes. For some reason, the mob was sure Carrier was hiding Jesse Hunter. They fired on the house and Carrier’s sons returned fire. When it was over, both Sarah and Sylvester Carrier had been fatally shot, though Sylvester had managed to kill two of their assailants. Had anyone bothered to ask Sarah Carrier about Fannie Taylor, she would have been able to tell them about Taylor’s lover, her white lover, who she had been with before the “attack.” As the mob kicked in the front door of the Carrier house, the people hiding inside fled through the back door to the relative safety of the nearby swampy woods. Not all were able to get away. Carrier’s other son James was found by the mob, who reportedly made him dig his own grave before killing him.
The newspapers of the nearby towns caught wind of what was happening. They ran exaggerated retellings of the siege of the Carrier house and blatantly false reports of roving bands of armed black citizens. Seeing that, even more white men poured into the Rosewood, believing that a race war had broken out. Apparently, it’s only a race war with the race you’re targeting fights back.
The manhunt and terror campaign wasn’t confined to a single night, but stretched on for nearly a week. The longer the mob failed to find Hunter, the more agitated and angry they became. They weren’t about to go home empty handed, not when the honor of a white woman was on the line. So they began to put Rosewood to the torch, starting with the church. The mob set fire to homes and shot the people who fled the flames. One woman, Lexie Gordon, sent her children into the woods to hide as the mob approached, but she was sick with typhoid fever and couldn’t run with them. The mob shot her as she tried to hide under her burning house.
So it went for days. Florida Governor offered to send in the National Guard to help, but the sheriff declined, saying he had the situation under control. The sheriff did help some black residents flee, but he definitely did not have the situation under control, not even by the most generous interpretation of the phrase. The terror almost subsided, but gained momentum again again on January 7, when more men joined the mob to finish off the town. They burned every building still standing, every building except one, the home of Rosewood’s only white family.
Some of the residents who didn’t escape to the swamp ran to the Wright’s house. John and Mary hid people in their attic, in their closets, even in their well, anywhere they could put a person to try to keep them safe. John even persuaded the white conductors of a freight train that came through town to take people with them. They agreed, but only women and children. The conductors didn’t want to risk drawing the attention or ire of the mob by helping black men escape.
Then it was over, after more than a week of murder, arson, and terror. “Official” reports said only eight people had been killed, two white and six black. Survivors counted at least 27 dead. Minnie Lee Langley recalled stepping over several bodies on the porch of Sarah Carriers house after the mob left. While claims that as many as 150 were killed have been refuted, the number was almost certainly higher than reported. In the years before the massacre at Rosewood, Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state. Several eyewitnesses claim to have seen a mass grave filled with black people; one remembers a plow brought from Cedar Key that covered 26 bodies. By the time anyone took a serious interest in finding out the truth, most of the witnesses were dead. Those who remained were often too elderly and infirm to be of much help.
Whether it was six dead or sixty, there were zero arrests for the violence in Rosewood. No one returned to their homes to rebuild. Even John Wright, who had saved so many of his neighbors, met a miserable end. The white people in the surrounding towns knew that he helped black people during the siege and he was ostracized by the only other people in the area. He turned to the bottle and died of exposure after passing out outside one night. A historic marker stands on the side of the road near the house. Some people stop to shoot pictures of it. Others just stop to shoot it. The current owner put the house up for sale when it became too much for her to keep up in her old age. Her realtor daughter and son-in-law are careful where and how they advertise the house. The Rosewood Heritage Foundation started a campaign to purchase the home, but was unable to secure the $500K asking price. The house sold earlier this year for $300K, though the new owners haven’t made their intentions for the property public.
In contrast to the little whistle-stop town of Rosewood, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa was prosperous and bustling, but that didn’t save them from Rosewood’s fate. In fact, it was the catalyst.
Oklahoma had a considerable history for the African American population. In the 1830s, it was settled by the Seminoles and Cherokees who had been forced off their lands in the Southeast, the infamous Trail of Tears. The region was called the Indian Territory, until it was halved after the Civil War, creating Oklahoma, which was rapidly settled in 1889, when 50,000 settlers raced to claim 2 million acres in a single day. Yes, the thing from the movie Far and Away. Many of the homesteaders, cowboys, ranchers, and farmers were black. In the next decade, the black population in the region rose from 3,000 to 55,000. More people of all races came to the territory in 1905 when oil was discovered. No sooner had Oklahoma become an according-to-Hoyle state in 1907, the first bill in its legislature established racial segregation. The wealth from the oil boom stayed within the white community in the south side of Tulsa, with only a small portion trickling down to the black community in the north side of the city.
There were needs in northern Tulsa, and young black entrepreneurs filled them. The first business started within the community was a grocery store. Before long, there were 108 black-owned businesses, including theaters, black schools, and 15 doctors’ offices to serve the underserved community. Greenwood was a place where a black person could make a name for themselves. It became so prestigious and well-renown through the country that Booker T. Washington coined the term “Negro Wall Street of America” and many have since called it the “Black Wall Street.” Therein lay the “problem” — those 50 blocks of economic independence and even black prosperity were a threat to white supremacy.
On May 31, 1921, 19 year old Dick Rowland was working as a shoe shiner in white downtown Tulsa when he needed a bathroom break. Because of segregation laws, the only restroom open to blacks was on the upper floor of the Drexel building. The operator of the elevator Rowland got into was a young white woman named Sarah Page. Something happened. No one is sure what. Rowland might have stepped on Page’s foot or tripped stepping into the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm to steady himself. But we’ll never know. Most accounts say Page screamed. Rowland, understandably alarmed, fled the elevator, but he had been seen by a white store clerk who reported the incident to police as an assault. The story of assault was quickly twisted into a rumor of attempted rape. Rowland was arrested and jailed. The Tulsa Tribune published a story with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator” and an editorial titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” It didn’t take much to encourage the white citizens of Tulsa to lynch someone. Not long before this incident, they lynched a white teenager accused of theft. They liked lynching and they’d have plenty of practice.
A crowd of angry white men gathered outside the courthouse where Rowland was held, demanding that he be turned over to them, but the sheriff refused. At about 9 p.m.,word of what was happening at the courthouse reached Greenwood and two dozen or so black men, many of them World War I veterans, went down to the courthouse and offered to help protect Rowland. The sheriff refused them too, and the men returned to Greenwood. The white mob didn’t like seeing a gathering of black men near their target, so they tried to break into the National Guard armory to steal weapons, but were repelled by the guards. Word on the street in Greenwood became that the white mob were storming the courthouse, so another group of black men, three times larger than the first, went back to the courthouse and offered their services again and were again declined. As they were leaving, a white man tried to take the weapon from the hands of a black veteran, and a shot was fired. It was the starter pistol on the race to end Greenwood.
The black men, outnumbered, retreated to Greenwood and the white mob followed. There were gun battles in the streets. The police finally got involved…by joining in the white mob. Some city officials even deputized and armed white men and sent them into the fray. As the number of white attackers grew, so did rumors of black reinforcements, which escalated the violence. No one was safe. As dawn broke, thousands of white men were looting and burning Greenwood, even threatening to kill firefighters who showed up to contain the blazes. It has even been reported, recently, that private airplanes were used to drop kerosene bombs on houses. White men in places, performing “Negro reconnaissance” missions, were seen shooting at blacks on the ground. Martial law was declared. The National Guard arrived before noon. While they did help put out fires, they also imprisoned many black Tulsans. By the following day, 6,000 black people were under armed guard at the local fairgrounds, which had been converted into an internment camp, and not the only one in the city either. The worse the white mob faced was having their weapons confiscated.
According to a later Red Cross estimate, some 1,256 houses were burned; 215 others were looted but left standing. Stores, hotels, two newspapers, a school, a library, churches, and a hospital were severely damaged or destroyed outright. According to estimates, at least 300 people died in the Tulsa that night. 10,000 were left homeless. By the end of the chaos, 50 square blocks were completely decimated. Black Wall Street was destroyed. Next time you’re downtown, walk 5 blocks in one direction, turn and walk 10 blocks, then 5, then 10 again until you’re back where you started. That is how large an area the mob destroyed.
Dick Rowland, whose arrest had been at the center of ignition, was cleared of all charges, surprisingly, the following morning and immediately fled the city, less surprisingly. Even when the fires were out, it wasn’t over. After being released from prisons and internment camps, blacks were required to wear green tags wherever they went, analogous to the yellow star of David in WWII. Many of those left homeless, which was the majority of Greenwood’s population, were forced to live in tent cities, for as long as a year, straight through the winter.
Some politicians and businessmen expressed shame over the massacre and established a reconstruction committee. Don’t get your hopes up, this just let them seize more black lands for industrial purposes. Even as Greenwood tried to rebuild, a fire ordinance was passed that made new construction prohibitively expensive. A black lawyer named BC Franklin set up a law office in one of the tents and proceeded to challenge the ordinance in court. The Oklahoma Supreme Court declared in his favor, allowing Greenwood residents to begin to rebuild.
To the surprise of absolutely no one listening to this, there were no arrests. A state grand jury placed the blame for the conflict on “black agitators”. No white person involved in the Greenwood massacre ever saw the inside of a prison. Much of Greenwood has been rebuilt over time, but the glory of Black Wall Street never returned. Ironically, desegregation was part of the reason: black citizens were now allowed in white-owned businesses and it was easier to spend money in a place that was up and running, rather than wait for something to open in Greenwood.
To tell us more about the aftermath and why the story is so poorly known, please welcome The Conspirator podcast.
Younger listeners may be thinking, “Yeah, but that was 100 years ago, so what?” For you, it seems like another world. For others, it’s an indelible part of their life. Here is a clip from
[clip of woman from news]
1919 was a volatile year for race relations in the US. At least 25 race riots broke out in the summer alone, leaving it to be called the “Red Summer.” It was the time of mass migration of black Americans to the North, many of whom had served in WWI, and were now competing with one another for limited jobs and already-overcrowded and often substandard housing. White men returning from the war feared they would not get their good-paying jobs back. The black men who had moved from the South to fill those vacancies feared they’d lose those jobs. Resources were further stretched by an influx of white European immigrants and refugees from the war, which only added to the tension and resentment. In Europe, the black soldiers had been treated well by the foreign commanders, fellow soldiers, and civilians of the countries their units were pawned off on, only to come home from risking their lives to the same or worse treatment than they’d left. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan was gaining strength. There had been 64 documented lynchings in 1918 and 83 in 1919. As happened in Greenwood, the black population of Chicago grew rapidly, from 44,000 in 1910 to 110,000 in 1920. Many white residents viewed this more as an invasion. By the time the hottest weekend of the season came around, Chicago had already seen two dozen bombings of black residents, and zero convictions.
Unlike 1871, with the great Chicago fire and the legend of Mrs O’leary’s cow, we know how Chicago erupted in 1919. There were no signs segregating the beach on lake Michigan, but everyone knew what side they were supposed to be on. There was an invisible line that extended from 29th St to the water; one side was for white only. On the afternoon of July 27, a black teenager named Eugene Williams was swimming with his friends when his homemade raft drifted over the invisible line. A white man in his 20’s, George Stauber, began throwing rocks at the boys, hitting Williams in the head. He slipped off his raft into the water and drowned. The official response to the incident was lackluster, but not surprising. They didn’t arrest Stauber, but they did arrest a black man on some minor offense a white man complained about. The black side of the beach became angry when it was clear no one would be arrested for a callous murder in broad daylight surrounded by witnesses. One man drew a gun on the police and was immediately shot dead.
News of what was happening spread quickly in both white and black neighborhoods. According to one historian, that night, an Irish-American gang went to the south side of Chicago and began attacking. These gangs called themselves athletic clubs. One member of the Hamburg Athletic Club, 17 year old Richrd Daley, would go on to be mayor of Chicago from 1955-76, though he always claimed he hadn’t participated in the violence. For the next week, battles raged in Chicago. Having learned from the recent East St. Louis Riot, Chicago quickly stopped the street cars to try to contain the violence. There were beatings and firebombings. You were not safe at home or on the street. A black Stockyards worker was riding home when a mob stopped his streetcar and beat him to death. White police arrested black rioters, but left white rioters alone. This wasn’t sporadic or subtle; even the state’s attorney noticed. As the violence wore on, the Illinois Reserve Militia was called in to ease the riots. Their presence, plus heavy summer rains, finally brought the violence under control.
38 people were killed. More than 500, mostly black, were injured and over a thousand were left homeless. The militia remained in Chicago until August 8 to guard against flare-ups. The riots were a major factor in the expansion and the hardening of racial segregation in Chicago, which is now the second most segregated city in the United States, after Detroit. The city used a legal tool called a restrictive covenant, which prohibited blacks from owning or renting certain properties. By the time the Supreme Court declared such covenants unconstitutional in 1948, millions of homes were already restricted, making it effectively impossible to move outside of their segregated neighborhoods.
And that’s… I’ll let poet and author Carl Sandburg finish up for us today: “So on the one hands we have blind, lawless government, failing to function through policemen ignorant of Lincoln, the civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a theory sanctioned and baptized in a storm of red blood. And on the other hand, we have a gaunt involuntary poverty from which issues the hoodlum.” Definitely check out his poem Hoodlum as well. Remember. Thanks.