The Tulsa Race Riot by Scott Ellsworth
....."two previously unheralded Tulsans, named Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, walked out of the shadows, and onto the stage of history.
Although they played a key role in the events which directly led to Tulsa's race riot, very little is known for certain about either Dick Rowland or Sarah Page. Rumors, theories, and unsubstantiated claims have been plentiful throughout the years, but hard evidence has been much more difficult to come by.
Dick Rowland, who was black, was said to have been nineteen-years-old at the time of the riot. At the time of his birth, he was given the name Jimmie Jones. While it is not known where he was born, by 1908 he and his two sisters had evidently been orphaned, and were living "on the streets of Vinita, sleeping wherever they could, and begging for food." An African American woman named Damie Ford, who ran a tiny one-room-grocery store, took pity on young Jimmie and took him in. "That's how I became Jimmie's 'Mama,"' she told an interviewer decades afterwards.
Approximately one year later, Damie and her adopted son moved to Tulsa, where they were reunited with Damie's family, the Rowlands. Eventually, little Jimmie took Rowland as his own last name, and selected his favorite first name, Dick, as his own. Growing up in Tulsa, Dick attended the city's separate all-black schools, including Booker T. Washington High School, where he played football.78
Dick Rowland dropped out of high school to take a job shining shoes in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor located downtown on Main Street. Shoe shines usually cost a dime in those days, but the shoe shiners -- or bootblacks, as they were sometimes called -- were often tipped a nickel for each shine, and sometimes considerably more. Over the course of a busy working day, a shoe shiner could pocket a fair amount of money -- especially if he was a teenaged African American youth with few other job prospects.
There were no toilet facilities, however, for blacks at the shine parlor where Dick Rowland worked. The owner had arranged for his African American employees to be able to use a "Colored" restroom that was located, nearby, in the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street. In order to gain access to the washroom, located on the top floor, Rowland and the other shoe shiners would ride in the building's sole elevator. Elevators were not automatic, requiring an operator. A job that was usually reserved for women.79
In late May 1921, the elevator operator at the Drexel Building was a seventeen-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. Thought to have come to Tulsa from Missouri, she apparently lived in a rented room on North Boston Avenue. It also has been reported that Page was attending a local business school, a good career move at the time. Although, Tulsa was still riding upon its construction boom, some building owners were evidently hiring African American women to replace their white elevator operators.80
Whether - and to what extent -- Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly rode in Page's elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers -- a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility. Damie Ford later suggested that this might have been the case, as did Samuel M. Jackson, who operated a funeral parlor in Greenwood at the time of the riot. "I'm going to tell you the truth," Jackson told riot historian Ruth Avery a half century later, "He could have been going with the girl. You go through life and you find that somebody likes you. That's all there is to it." However, Robert Fairchild, who shined shoes with Rowland, disagreed. "At that time," Fairchild later recalled, "the Negro had so much fear that he didn't bother with integrated relationship[s]."81
Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 30, 1921 -- although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most -- but not all -- stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day. A large Memorial Day parade passed along Main Street that morning, and perhaps Sarah Page had been required to work in order to transport Drexel Building employees and their families to choice parade viewing spots on the building's upper floors. As for Dick Rowland, perhaps the shine parlor he worked at may have been open, if nothing else, to draw in some of the parade traffic. One post-riot account suggests another alternative, namely, that Rowland was making deliveries of shined shoes that day. What is certain, however, is that at some point on Monday, May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland entered the elevator operated by Sarah Page that was situated at the rear of the Drexel Building.82
What happened next is anyone's guess. After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. It also has been suggested that Rowland and Page had a lover's quarrel. However, it simply is unclear what happened. Yet, in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape.83
A clerk from Renberg's, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel Building, however, reached the opposite conclusion. Hearing what he thought was a woman's scream, and apparently seeing Dick Rowland hurriedly flee the building, the clerk rushed to the elevator, where he found a distraught Sarah Page. Evidently deciding that the young elevator operator had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault, the clerk then summoned the police.
While it appears that the clerk stuck to his interpretation that there had been an attempted rape -- and of a particularly incendiary kind -- no record exists as to what Sarah Page actually told the police when they initially interviewed her. Whatever she said at the time, however, it does not appear that the police officers who interviewed her necessarily reached the same potentially explosive conclusion as that made by the Renberg's clerk, namely, that a black male had attempted to rape a white female in a downtown office building. Rather than issue any sort of an all-points bulletin for the alleged assailant, it appears that the police launched a rather low-key investigation into the affair.84
Whatever had or had not happened in the Drexel Building elevator, Dick Rowland had become a justly terrified young man. For of all the crimes that African American men would be accused of in early twentieth century America, none seemed to bring a white lynch mob together faster than an accusation of the rape, or attempted rape, of a white woman. Frightened and agitated, Rowland hastened to his adopted mother's home, where he stayed inside with blinds drawn.85
The next morning, Tuesday, May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland was arrested on Greenwood Avenue by two Tulsa police officers, Detective Henry Carmichael, who was white, and by Patrolman Henry C. Pack, who was one of a handful of African Americans on the city's approximately seventy-five man police force. Rowland was booked at police headquarters, and then taken to the jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Informed that her adopted son was in custody, Damie Ford seems to have lost no time in hiring a prominent white attorney to defend him.86