Cowards Behind Sheets: 10 of the Worst Crimes Committed by the Ku Klux Klan

Tulsa in flames – Wikimedia Commons

2 – Tulsa Race Riot – 1921

The Tulsa Race Riot in Oklahoma was one of the worst incidents of racial violence in America’s history and was the result of the Klan’s hysterical overreaction to an innocuous incident. On May 30, Dick Rowland, an African-American shoeshine man, walked towards an elevator in the Drexel building to get to the segregated restroom. He tripped and fell into the 17-year old elevator operator, Sarah Page. She screamed, and onlookers panicked and yelled ‘rape.’

Rowland was arrested for his ‘crime’ the next day, and one article in the town’s newspaper called for the lynching of the unfortunate man. A white mob stormed the courthouse with the intention of murdering Rowland but were halted by a small group of black residents. Sheriff William McCullough tried to reason with the mob, but they refused to listen. He was eventually able to turn the crowd away despite their vast numbers and burning sense of injustice. If the sheriff thought he had averted a possible disaster, he was sadly mistaken.

On the evening of May 31, a group of around 30 black men arrived with guns to protect Rowland. The sheriff assured them there would be no lynching and encouraged them to go home. Meanwhile, members of the angry white mob went home to get their weapons, and by the late evening, there were around 2,000 mob members outside the courthouse. Black residents began to come down to the area for reconnaissance and also to show support for Rowland. The mob saw this as a sign of a possible uprising, and there was a frequency of gunshots fired in the air.

After a rumor spread that whites were going to storm the courthouse, 75 armed black men arrived. Apparently, one mob member told a black man to surrender his pistol but instead of acquiescing, there was a struggle, and a shot was fired. To this day, no one knows if it was a warning shot or an accident. It led to the beginning of the Tulsa Riot as white mob members started to fire on the black men. A number of prominent whites in Tulsa were involved, including W. Tate Brady, the founder of the Tulsa KKK chapter.

The riot continued into the next day and lasted for around 24 hours. In the end, the official death toll was 39, but the Red Cross and a Final Report on the Riot in 2001 suggests the real figure is closer to 300. At least 800 people were injured, and an estimated 10,000 black people in the area were left homeless. Property damage was estimated at over $2 million and there are claims that the police helped the mob.

A significant number of survivors left Tulsa and details of the riot were omitted from local, state, and even national histories. Despite the violence and number of fatalities, no white person was ever convicted of any kind of crime that took place during the Tulsa Riot. The silence was finally broken when the state authorized the Oklahoma Commission to investigate the riot after the 75th anniversary of the event in 1996. The Commission made a variety of recommendations including reparations for survivors of the victims although no ever action was taken. By the way, the ‘case’ against Rowland was dropped.