In May 1921, 19-year-old Black shoeshiner Dick Rowland entered the Drexel building at 319 South Main Street to use the Blacks-only restroom which was on the top floor. The building had only one elevator, which was being operated by White teen Sarah Page. According to reports, Rowland accidentally slipped and fell on Page causing her to scream out of panic. A White clerk who witnessed the incident called the police, who later on arrested Rowland and charged him with assault even though Page refused to press any charges.
The incident was reported by a white-owned local newspaper calling for Rowland’s lynching. Rowland was processed and taken to court on May 31, 1921, however, tensions between the White mob who went to the courthouse to lynch Rowland and the Black residents who were also around to ensure his safety escalated into a 24-hour-long armed confrontation.
A White mob eventually attacked and destroyed the properties of the Black inhabitants living in Greenwood, which was at that time the most affluent African-American community in the United States. It was even known as the “Black Wall Street” as it was home to highly successful and profitable Black-owned businesses. Reports on the aftermath of the incident — which became known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — are varied. However, a recent investigation by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission revealed that almost 300 lives were lost. More than 1,200 homes were destroyed.
Black attorney Buck Colbert Franklin was among those who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And though he lost everything after the riots, he went on to help other victims who had suffered losses while successfully challenging discriminatory ordinances that were aimed at stopping Greenwood residents from rebuilding after the massacre, History reported.
Here’s his story.
Franklin, who was the father of the late historian John Hope Franklin, was born on May 6, 1879, near the town of Homer in Pickens County, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). He practiced law as a young man in the town of Ardmore, Oklahoma, which was mostly White. Thus, he faced racism in the judicial system and was at some point “literally silenced in a Louisiana courtroom because of his race”, according to one account.
Franklin was compelled to center his law career within African American communities. He moved to the all-Black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma. There, he married Mollie Parker Franklin and started his own family in 1915 before leaving with his family to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.
A few months after settling in Tulsa, the race riots considered one of the most horrible and racially motivated attacks on African Americans occurred. Franklin was in his law office on Greenwood Avenue when the attacks began. In an eyewitness account of the May 31 massacre that destroyed Tulsa, Franklin wrote: “I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top.”
He wrote in his ten-page manuscript that he left his law office, locked the door, and went down to the foot of the steps. “The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top,” the attorney wrote in the manuscript which is currently among the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
Having managed to survive the riots, Franklin, who had lost it all, set up his law office in a tent. From there, he helped defend Black victims after the Tulsa City Council passed an ordinance that prevented Black people from rebuilding their community. The city had plans of rezoning the area from a residential to a commercial district. Leading the legal battle against this ordinance, Franklin sued the city of Tulsa before the Oklahoma Supreme Court and won. Thanks to him, Black residents of Tulsa started rebuilding their burnt-down community.
Years after the race riots, Franklin wrote his own autobiography but didn’t see its final publication as he died on September 24, 1960, in Oklahoma. His famous son, John Hope Franklin, who would play an instrumental role in the Brown v. Board of Education case before participating in the 1965 march for voting rights in Selma, helped finalize his autobiography “My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin”.