Saturday, May 8, 2021

How Did Iowans Receive News of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?

Although many details remain unclear, the basic events of May 31-June 1, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma are well known. When a teenage black shoeshine, Dick Rowland, was arrested, accused of having assaulted a white woman—a standard trope in post-Civil War lynchings—a group of white men assembled at the jail with the announced intention of lynching the accused. In response, several black men obtained guns and rushed to the jail to save Rowland. Once a shot was fired—who fired it remains unclear—all hell broke loose, igniting long-standing hostilities between whites and blacks in oil-rich Tulsa where African Americans had established a "Black Wall Street" in the Greenwood section of town. Soon police and white volunteers took up arms, and headed toward Greenwood where Blacks tried to blockade the doors and defend themselves. As many as six airplanes flew over Greenwood, dropping explosives and shooting people on the streets. Arson accompanied this battle, burning Greenwood to the ground. Even today in Tulsa, the exact number of fatalities from the riot remains uncertain. The most conscientious calculation estimates a total of around 300 deaths, the great majority of which were Black.

Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa after the 1921 riot
(Library of Congress, LC-A6197-RC-10374 [P&P])

The arrival of the national guard and the imposition of martial law finally put a stop to the fighting, but it was mostly Blacks who suffered arrest (for their protection, authorities said), large numbers being detained in the convention hall and in a nearby stadium. Meanwhile, with their homes and businesses burnt down and insurers reluctant to recompense owners for what they called a riot, many Blacks who survived the disaster left Tulsa where still today the struggle over the land that had been Black Wall Street remains heated.

As we approach the centennial of what is now called the Tulsa Race Massacre, I wondered how the events in Tulsa had been received here in Grinnell and across the rest of Iowa. Today's post examines Iowa press coverage to see how news from burnt-out Tulsa reached the heartland.


Iowa's major African American newspaper, The Bystander, did not publish on June 2, 1921—the day following the Tulsa explosion. Why it did not publish I do not know; June 2nd was a Thursday, and The Bystander published every Thursday, so perhaps skipping publication one day after the disaster in Tulsa was a silent recognition of the victims. If so, the paper did not say. 

But the next week's issue (June 9, 1921) of The Bystander did comment upon events in Tulsa, lamenting the fact that "Members of a superior race...permitted themselves to degenerate into murderers and vandals." "It is true," the newspaper continued, 

that the pride of race as well as its prejudices is a consuming fire in the veins of every nationality. On this ground one would condone or excuse the hysteria of Tuesday evening and night, when the streets of the city were suddenly transformed into a raging torrent of hat[e]-impelled men.... But nothing that the mind is capable of conceiving permits a word of defense or excuse for the murderous vandalism which set in at daylight.... Hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of property—the homes of women and children, black in color, to be sure, but guilty of no other offense—went up in smoke. Semi-organized bands of white men systematically applied the torch while others shot on sight men of color (The Bystander, June 9, 1921)

Headline from June 9, 1921 Bystander

Bystander editors did not omit mention of the allegation of inter-racial contact said to have been the match that ignited the conflagration. But the deeper cause of the violence, the newspaper maintained, was the jealousy of whites, envious of the financial success of Tulsa's Black population (ibid., p. 1). Pursuing details of the aftermath, The Bystander maintained that Tulsa's whites continued to indulge their bias, preventing Black riot victims from being reimbursed by insurance and also impeding reconstruction "on the ground where once stood the proud achievements of great business success and racial progress" (ibid., September 8, 1921).

The great majority of The Bystander's readers were Black. How did the rest of Iowa learn about Tulsa?


Headline from Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 1, 1921

The Cedar Rapids Gazette (June 1, 1921) adopted a less argumentative stance, borrowing bulletins from the Associated Press to publish an amalgam of stories. Reporting the declaration of martial law, the newspaper also told readers that "The entire Negro section of Tulsa was in flames as a result of the twenty hours of race rioting." The paper admitted that many more Blacks than whites had died, but could not help noting that the burning Greenwood district also threatened "to wipe out a white residence section" of Tulsa. In a much smaller font, the Gazette described the "long lines of Negroes"—"their sunken eyes told of a sleepless night and their ashen faces bespoke gripping fear"—headed toward Tulsa's convention hall without explaining why or who was forcing them to confinement. More details of the fires emphasized the risks from Blacks' gunfire that firemen took when attempting to douse the fires in Greenwood. The fine print acknowledged, however, that "sixty or seventy motor cars filled with armed white men...formed a circle completely around the Negro section." The Gazette also reported "half a dozen airplanes" over the city without explaining what they were doing and against whom they were flying.

Unknown photographer, "Captured Negroes On Way to Convention Hall"
(Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa; published in Tulsa Race Riot 1921 [Tulsa, 2001], p. 85)


The Des Moines Register began coverage by headlining what it called a "War of Races," emphasizing the "Negro assault of a white girl." But the beginning of actual conflict the newspaper attributed to a white man who tried "to take a gun away from a black" who had come to the jail to protect Howland. On the other hand, the Register's report claimed that both white and Black residents of Tulsa suffered from the battle.

The lapping flame does not recognize the color line. It does not discriminate between the white man's  modern house and the black man's rude shack (Des Moines Register, June 2, 1921). 

An editorial in the Des Moines Tribune (June 2, 1921) bemoaned the awakened race consciousness that followed the violence. Predicting a future dominated by racial hatred, the Tribune allowed that no longer will an "alleged assault"—or even an actual assault—be necessary to provoke conflict, "for there is enough villainy in all the races to afford provocation." Referencing similar outbreaks elsewhere, the Des Moines newspaper encouraged readers to view the Tulsa events with less emphasis upon race.

Only two days later, however, the same newspaper published what it called "The First Pictures of Tulsa Race Riots," the caption pointing out that "3,000 Negroes were herded into Convention hall by armed citizens, and a close guard of the hall kept while the rioting was in progress to prevent Negroes from escaping to come to the aid of their comrades" (Des Moines Tribune, June 4, 1921). Clearly race remained the primary lens through which the Des Moines newspaper viewed events in Tulsa. 

Des Moines Tribune, June 4, 1921

It is impossible to know how the paper's readers absorbed this news, but at least one local insurance agency deduced that Des Moines itself was liable to a destiny similar to Tulsa's. Some months after the flames had died down in Tulsa a Des Moines insurance agency reminded newspaper readers about the Oklahoma violence, warning that "the hell that hit Tulsa may some day hit you!" The ad anticipated future racial violence by recommending that readers take out a "riot and civil commotion policy" (Des Moines Tribune, November 23, 1921).

Full-page advertisement from the Des Moines Tribune, November 23, 1921

Today's Waterloo, although predominantly white, includes a substantial African American population (about fifteen percent). But at the time of the Tulsa violence, Waterloo was whiter than it is today. Unsurprisingly, the local newspaper saw the world for the most part from a white perspective. News of the Tulsa riot, therefore, emerged in bold headlines that emphasized racial conflict, exaggerating the numbers of Blacks who were said to have taken part in the "race war."

Headline of Waterloo Evening Courier, June 1, 1921

The rather limited follow-up coverage included a report on indictments that accused African Americans of having incited "race riots" (Waterloo Courier, June 17, 1921).  Nothing reported here defended the Black men and women who suffered through the shootings and arson.


The Iowa City Press-Citizen, which provided perhaps the most extensive coverage of Tulsa among Iowa newspapers, used a bold headline to warn readers: "Race Riots Terrorize Tulsa, OKLA" (June 1, 1921). A sub-heading placed blame directly on Tulsa's Blacks, 200 of whom the newspaper accused of trying to free Dick Howland from jail: "The first negro was killed by a policeman when [the negro] resisted arrest." 

Subheading to front-page article, Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 1, 1921

The news did not try to explain why, immediately thereafter, "Whites swarmed to the black belt early this morning, vowing to burn the homes of the blacks" (ibid.), but did describe how hundreds of Blacks had been "marched down the main street with white civilians carrying Winchester [rifles] and revolvers."
Men, women and children carried bundles of clothing on their heads and backs...Here were women clinging to a Bible, there a girl with disheveled hair carrying a white dog under her arm, and behind trotted a little darky [sic] girl with a big wax doll. In another place an aged negro woman was leading an old man wrapped about with quilts and blankets, apparently very sick (ibid.).
Unknown photographer, "Running the Negro Out of Tulsa" 
(Oklahoma Historical Society, published in The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 [Tulsa, 2001), p. 18)

The following day's write-up called the event a "race clash" and "race riot," attributing the violence to "the race hatred" in Tulsa. According to the newspaper, "practically the entire negro population [of Tulsa] was under guard." The news said nothing about identifying whites who participated in the battle, but pointed out that negroes sponsored by their employers were issued a "police protection tag" before being released from white guards; "it is hoped that in this manner the negroes who participated in the rioting can be identified" (Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 2, 1921). Even so, "Officials realizing that some hasty measures must be taken for the relief of the [10,000] homeless negroes set at work to devise a scheme for providing shelter." The Red Cross was said to be fully organized, distributing food and clothing; contributions from outside Oklahoma had begun to arrive 
(ibid., June 2, 1921).

Unknown photographer, "Charred Corpse Killed in Tulsa Riot"
(Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa; published in Tulsa Race Riot 1921, p. 18)

By June 3, the Iowa City newspaper had demoted Tulsa to one-third of a column on the front page, reporting that "Pillage, preying on burned and blood-stained Tulsa gave authorities a new problem to cope with today." The brief account also reported revised estimates of death; the total number of white and Black dead were thought to be "thirty killed and about 300 injured" (ibid., June 3, 1921). In Iowa City as in many other American newspapers, the flood in Pueblo, Colorado soon captured journalists' attention, pushing coverage of Tulsa off the page. The Press-Citizen on the 6th did include front-page photographs of Tulsa's "riot ruins," but the headline and lead story focused on Pueblo. By the end of the month, Tulsa was no longer part of the news; only on the 25th did the Press-Citizen report that the Tulsa Chief of Police had been indicted for "failure to enforce the anti-gun carrying law and [for] dereliction of duty on the night of the riot" (ibid., June 25, 1921).


The Sioux City Journal borrowed editorial comment from the Chicago Tribune, presumably reflecting access to a wire service as well as a shared opinion. "The trouble at Tulsa," the newspaper observed, "was not the black man nor the white man. The trouble at Tulsa, the trouble in Chicago, and Springfield, and wherever else race riots have broken forth, is nothing more than corrupt politics." Rejecting the explanation that racial hate explained the deadly outbreak in Tulsa, the Tribune observed that, despite racial animus, "Day by day white man and colored man live in the same community in peace." Any "colored man," the newspaper continued, who prospers from thrift and intelligence earns respect, despite the discrimination under which the Black man labors. Consequently, it is not racial antagonism that accounts for the Tulsa explosion, the paper allowed, but rather "criminal men and women" who "prey upon decent white and decent colored people." Because politicians frequently collude with criminal elements, "Corrupt politics is directly responsible for race riots," the newspaper concluded (Sioux City Journal, June 7, 1921). As if to confirm this explanation, a July story in the same newspaper reported that the Tulsa Chief of Police had in fact been convicted of failure to stem the violence and murders (Sioux City Journal, July 23, 1921).


Elsewhere in Iowa the events in Tulsa drew less attention. The Pella Chronicle, for example, published a short note in its June 9th edition, reporting that Tulsa, Oklahoma had been "disgraced by a race riot." Blaming the outbreak on the "lawless act of one individual" whom the paper did not identify, the newspaper condemned "other irresponsible individuals" who took the "administration of justice into their own hands," resulting in the "loss of one hundred lives" and lost property worth about $1.5 million. In the same edition an editorial comment complained that "the feeling between the white and black races in this country appears to be growing worse," no longer confined to southern states. "Antipathy between the races," the newspaper continued, "is not confined to any section" of the country. "We cannot continue as a nation and hold the respect of the world unless we find a solution to our race problems," the paper concluded (Pella Chronicle, June 9, 1921).

The headline in the June 10th edition of the Tama Northern announced that "30 Are Killed In Tulsa Race Riot," and reported that the first victim was a Black man shot dead by a policeman. The account did not specifically lay blame on Tulsa's whites, but did emphasize that most victims were Black, and that the arriving national guard "found practically the entire negro districts, seven blocks wide and twelve blocks long, ashes" (Tama Northern, June 10, 1921). Little explanation accompanied this description of desolation.

Many Iowa newspapers, however, made no mention whatsoever of the Tulsa troubles. Here in Grinnell, for instance, the violence in Tulsa passed almost without notice. True, the Grinnell Register of June 2 used the riot as the headline for its front page, claiming as many as 175 dead in the carnage. Oddly, however, there was no accompanying story to explain what had happened or why, nor was there any subsequent follow-up. Grinnell readers of the Register had to learn the details elsewhere.

Grinnell Register, June 2, 1921

Around the corner at the Grinnell Herald, the racial explosion in Tulsa attracted no reportage at all. National news did not often feature in the Herald, although the paper had kept readers up to date on World War I. The tragedy in Tulsa evidently did not rise to that level of interest. A brief piece in the June 17th paper did summarize the recently-published article on the Underground Railroad published in Palimpsest, the journal of the State Historical Society. In its review, the Herald could not resist mentioning the "liberty room" of Josiah B. Grinnell's home, a hint, perhaps, at the progressive racial views of Grinnell. Those journeying along the Iowa road to liberty, the newspaper concluded, "received a hearty welcome at every station and every assistance possible" (Grinnell Herald, June 17, 1921), whatever terrible things might have happened elsewhere. 

The following week's Herald printed a brief piece about "a negro named Lewis," who had been arrested in Des Moines, accused of murder in Valley Junction. According to the paper, Des Moines police had beaten the man severely in an effort to secure a confession; when Lewis refused to confess, police declined to release him even though they admitted that they no evidence with which to prosecute Lewis. "If he had been white he would have been out of jail long ago," the Herald opined. But because the accused was Black, "the police hope to cover up their own notable incompetence by forcing a confession of guilt, even tho' he may be innocent" (Grinnell Herald, June 21, 1921). Of the much worse events in Tulsa, however, the Herald had not a word to say.


Should we be surprised by the incomplete, sometimes superficial, or even missing coverage of the Tulsa riot in Iowa newspapers? I am not sure. For one thing, far from all Iowa newspapers from this era have been digitized, and I had to limit my search to digital issues available on-line. It seems likely, therefore, that some newspapers I could not consult did report on the Tulsa violence.

Moreover, most small-town newspapers, like Grinnell's Herald  and Register, did not have the resources to dispatch their own correspondents to Tulsa, nor could they all subscribe to the national news services from which larger newspapers in Des Moines or Cedar Rapids drew coverage. Small-town newspapers survived on local reporting, and consequently, we cannot expect them to have provided thorough coverage of events in distant Tulsa.

At the same time, a total absence of coverage does warrant inquiry. As the Pella Chronicle and Tama Northern prove, even editors of small-town newspapers will have known about the violence and arson in Tulsa, if only from having read a big-city newspaper themselves. It follows, therefore, that at least some small-town newspapers could have published—should have published—something about Tulsa. Why didn't they?

No doubt numerous factors—some personal, some financial—were at work. But we should not overlook the fact that at exactly this same time the Ku Klux Klan experienced a vigorous revival throughout mid-America. In Tulsa itself a huge new klavern arose in downtown Tulsa soon after the 1921 riot, a statement of the widespread financial and political support that the Klan had in 1920s Tulsa. It follows that inevitably the Klan played a part—even if only through participation of its members—in the vicious war against Greenwood's Blacks.

Article from Imperial Night-Hawk, Vol. 1, no. 9 (May 30, 1923)
(University of Oklahoma Libraries, Western History Collection, Carter Blue Clark Collection, Box 2b)

In Iowa, too, the Ku Klux Klan prospered in these years. Only two months after the flames were extinguished in Tulsa the Des Moines Register devoted special attention in its Sunday magazine to the Klan's revival in Iowa. As public reporting proved, by 1925 the KKK had become a very visible and potent force across much of Iowa.

Des Moines Register, August 21, 1921

Evidence for the Klan's resurgence in Grinnell first appears only in 1922, but soon thereafter the Klan was openly recruiting in Grinnell, visiting Klansmen flaunting their robes in Grinnell's business district. Clearly the Klan revival found an interested and sympathetic audience throughout Iowa, including in small towns like Grinnell. Did local newspaper editors, sensing this attitude among their readers, adjust coverage accordingly?

As several commentators at the time pointed out, Tulsa was not the only American city where racial hatred fed violence aimed at African Americans. In 1917 East St. Louis had gone through a similar orgy of violence and hatred, and in late September 1919 Omaha, Nebraska had exploded when a thousand whites set fire to the county courthouse, lynched a black man, and then burned his body, the gloating white crowd gathering round the grisly fire to pose for a photograph.

Unknown Photographer, "Charred Corpse of Will Brown, After Being Killed, Mutilated and Burned" (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Some Iowa newspapers paid attention to both these earlier riots. For instance, the Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican (whose 1921 issues are not available on the Library of Congress digital newspaper site) gave headline attention and sustained coverage to both the East St. Louis and Omaha carnage. Perhaps it did the same for Tulsa.

Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, July 3, 1917

Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, September 29, 1919

But even if we admit wider coverage of the Tulsa outrage than presently digitized newspapers represent, the occasional silence and often biased perspective of Iowa's known press coverage requires study. 

The approaching centennial anniversary will give today's Iowans numerous opportunities to improve their understanding of Tulsa's disaster. The Public Broadcast System, for instance, will on May 31 (check local listings) show the newly-completed documentary on the Tulsa massacre, The Fire and the Forgotten. The PBS series "American Experience" has already examined Tulsa's "Black Wall Street" and its history subsequent to the 1921 incineration; this study is now available on-line. The final report of the 2001 commission established to examine the riot and evaluate its consequences is also available on-line. Many other websites document and study the riots: the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission; the History Channel's investigation of the Tulsa riot; and the website of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. New discoveries, like the previously unknown eyewitness account, appear periodically, broadening our understanding of this dreadful moment in American history.

Iowans today, therefore, have an excellent opportunity to learn about Tulsa and what the 1921 killings and arson meant. Our Iowa predecessors seem not to have been so fortunate.


PS. Many thanks to Cheryl Neubert who, when I was far from Grinnell and finishing this story, reviewed for me the June 1921 microfilmed issues of the Grinnell Herald and the Grinnell Register that I had earlier perused.