Celebrating Black History: Riots That Rocked A Nation (1921-1992)

This article is just one in a series celebrating Black individuals, groups & events throughout the month of February in honour of Black History Month. While there are numerous significant riots, protests, and massacres throughout history in North America, this article showcases 5 of the most significant and violent events.

Tulsa Race Massacre 1921

Figure 1 – Destroyed Movie Theatre / Figure 2 – Black Tulsan man being arrested

The Tulsa Race Massacre – also known as the Tulsa Race Riot – occurred over an 18-hour period from May 31 to June 1, 1921, when a white mob attacked residents, homes, and businesses in the predominantly Black Greenwood neighbourhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This event remains to this day to be one of the worst displays of racial violence in American history; yet not widely known. At the time, news reports were largely suppressed, despite the significant toll; hundreds of people were killed and thousands were left homeless.

In the years following World War 1, much of America saw an increase in racial tensions, including the resurgence of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This period was marked by numerous lynchings and other horrific acts of racially-motivated violence. However, in 1921 Tulsa was a growing, and prosperous city with money pouring in from oil, and a populous of over 100,000 people. Even still, crime rates were high and vigilante justice of all kinds was common. At the time, Tulsa was also a highly segregated city, with most of the city’s Black residents living in Greenwood, which was home to a thriving business district that some referred to as Black Wall Street. Greenwood was originally established in 1906, on Native American land, as the vast area had first been allocated as a relocation area for Native American tribes. African Americans who were former slaves of the tribes eventually integrated within these tribal communities, allowing them to acquire allotted land in Greenwood through the Dawes Act – A U.S. law that gave land to individual Natives. As well, many Black sharecroppers relocated to the region as well in an attempt to flee racial oppression. Overall, the largest number of Black townships after the Civil War were located in Oklahoma, and between 1865 and 1920, Black Americans founded more than 50 predominantly Black townships in the state.

Figure 3 – KKK on horseback / Figure 4 – KKK Recruitment

Demands for equal rights continued to be an ongoing mission for Black people in Tulsa, despite the Jim Crow oppression. Greenwood itself had a railway track running through it that not only socially segregated the populations but physically as well. As a consequence, the vision of having a self-contained and self-reliant Black economy came to be; not only from desire but from necessity. Historian Hannibal Johnson comments on the subject, saying “As a practical matter they had no choice as to where to locate their businesses,” said Johnson. “Tulsa was rigidly segregated, and Oklahoma became increasingly racist after statehood.”

On Greenwood Avenue, Black Wall Street housed luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewelry, clothing stores, movie theatres, salons, a library, pool halls, nightclubs, and offices for medical and legal professionals. Greenwood also housed its own schools, post office, banks, emergency care, and transportation services. However, Greenwood was also home to those considered less affluent, like those working jobs such as janitors, dishwashers, and housekeepers; but the money they earned outside of Greenwood was spent within the district. According to Michelle Place, the executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, within Greenwood, every dollar would change hands about 19 times before it would leave the community.

Figure 5 – Black Wall Street / Figure 6 – Store, Workers & Customers Black Wall Street / Figure 7 – Carver’s French Laundry & Tailor

It wasn’t before long that these well-off Black Americans attracted the attention of local white residents, who felt resentful of the better lifestyles of those they deemed their inferiors. “I think the word jealousy is certainly appropriate during this time,” says Place. “If you have particularly poor whites who are looking at this prosperous community who have large homes, fine furniture, crystals, china, linens, etc., the reaction is ‘they don’t deserve that.’” With the return of the KKK, Black residents in Greenwood were fearful of racially-motivated violence and the removal of their right to vote. The community’s voting rights were already infringed upon, as the Oklahoma Supreme Court routinely upheld the state’s restrictions on voting access for Black individuals, subjecting them to a poll tax and literacy testing. Then in 1919 during the Red Summer, anti-Black riots erupted in major cities all across the United States, including Tulsa. In response, The Tulsa Star encouraged residents to take up arms and show up at the courthouse and jail to ensure Black people who were on trial were not taken and lynched by white mobs.

However, it wasn’t until 1921 that the heightened racial tensions in Tulsa finally erupted. This happened when 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoe shiner, was accused of the attempted assault of a 17-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. When an angry white mob marched into the courthouse and demanded the sheriff hand, Rowland, over to them. Thankfully the sheriff refused, and that’s when a group of about 25 armed Black men, including many World War 1 veterans, showed up at the courthouse, offering to help guard Rowland. As word spread, a group of about 75 armed Black men returned to the courthouse, where they were met by about 1,500 white men. After the first clash between the 2 groups, the Black men retreated to Greenwood. Mobs of armed white men then descended on Greenwood – some of whom were deputized and armed by city officials. As dawn approached on June 1, thousands of white residents poured into the area, looting homes, burning down businesses, and shooting Black community members where they stood – all within a 35-block radius. Later on, the firefighters who helped put out the fires testified that rioters had threatened them with guns and forced them to leave the area. According to Red Cross, approximately 1,256 houses were burned, and another 215 were looted but not torched; 2 newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores and countless other Black-owned businesses were among the infrastructure destroyed or impacted by the fires.

By the time the National Guard arrived and Governor Robertson declared martial law, the riot had effectively ended. While the guardsmen did help put out the fires, they also imprisoned numerous Black Tulsans, and by June 2nd about 6,000 of them were under armed guard at the local fairgrounds. In the hours following the massacre, all charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. The police stated Rowland had “most likely stumbled into Page or stepped on her foot”. Rowland was successfully kept safe during the riot, and he left Tulsa the following morning, never to return. According to the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics, 36 deaths were officially reported – 26 of whom were Black and 10 of which were white – however, historians estimate the true death toll may be as high as 300. Even by low estimates, the Tulsa Race Massacre is one of the deadliest riots in American history. An interesting addition to this story is how the event was largely ignored by historians and residents of Tulsa for decades, with it only being in 2001 that the State of Oklahoma recognized the role the government played. It took 75 years for this cover-up to be challenged.

Figure 8 – Black Wall Street Plaque / Figure 9 – Greenwood Today

With millions in property damage and no assistance from the city, the rebuilding of Greenwood began almost immediately following the massacre, thanks to the assistance of the NAACP, other Black townships in Oklahoma, donations from Black churches, and a resilient Greenwood community. Unfortunately, though, some businesses, like the Tulsa Star newspaper never reopened. The Greenwood area still exists today, but after decades of gentrification and change, the area’s demographics and businesses no longer represented its past. That is, until recently. With the racial tensions that grew again over the past 4 years – largely due to the Trump administration and their divisive rhetoric – the Greenwood community began adding community displays of art and symbols to remember and honour those impacted by the history of the community and the events that took place there (see figure 9).

Detroit Riots 1943

Figure 10 – Men pulling Black man from bus / Figure 11 – White man chasing Black man / Figure 12 – Burning car

The 1943 Detroit Riots occurred over a 3-day period, where 34 people were killed; 9 white, and 25 Black. In the early years of World War 2, the City of Detroit welcomed about 100,000 people from all over the world in the 41 months prior to the riots. An estimated 50,000 of which were Southern and Black, migrating to an already overcrowded and rigidly segregated city. At the time, Detroit was viewed as a recruiting ground for the KKK and a group called the Black Legion – which only added to the violence and tensions across the city before the outbreak of the riots. These elements, in conjunction with socio-economic and housing conflicts, further contributed to what occurred. The Detroit Race Riot of 1943 was deeply entrenched in racism, poor living conditions, and a clear inequity in the access to goods and services. The simultaneous industrial growth in Detroit – coined the “Arsenal of Democracy” – hid the deeper social tensions that boiled over in the summer of 1943. The KKK was active in the region and riots had already broken out in a number of other cities.

Both before and after World War 2, workers migrated north to find factory work in such large numbers that the city was unable to provide for them. As Black Detroiters were still treated like second-class citizens, they suffered more severely from wartime rationing and other strains on the city and its people. Factories that did offer employment did not offer housing, and because the caucasian residents were known to violently defend the borders of their segregated neighbourhoods, Black residents were forced to suffer in poor conditions. Detroit’s 200,000 Black residents were segregated into small, subdivided apartments that often housed multiple families. The units were squished into 60 blocks, in an area known as Paradise Valley. As there was no more space to expand upon already existing Black neighbourhoods, the city attempted to build a Black housing project in a predominantly white neighbourhood. This caused a mob of over 1000 white residents, some of which were armed, to light a cross on fire and angrily protest the arrival of their new Black neighbours.

Figure 13 – Men take photo with beaten man/ Figure 14 – Trolley fire / Figure 15 – Police

On June 20, 1943, more than 200 Black and white people engaged in a racially-motivated brawl in Belle Isle. While the police suppressed the violence by midnight, tensions soared again later that night, when 2 rumours led to action being taken by both sides. Apparently, Black residents at the Forest Social Club in Paradise Valley were told that white residents had thrown a Black woman and her baby over the Belle Isle Bridge. This infuriated them, resulting in the formation of a mob that went through the streets, breaking windows, looting white businesses, and attacking white individuals. In a nearby area, angry white residents gathered after being told a Black man had raped a white woman near the same bridge. At approximately 4 am, a mob of white men formed outside the local movie theatre, and when the movie let out, Black men exiting the movie were surrounded and beaten. As word of both events spread, the violence only worsened.

Figure 16 – Overturned car / Figure 17 – Argument with soldier

White mobs overturned cars and set them on fire, beating Black men while white policemen looked on. A white doctor making a house call in a Black neighbourhood was beaten to death. Black community leaders begged Major Edward J. Jeffries to call in help from the national guard, but it wasn’t until massive white mobs entered Paradise Valley that the Mayor responded by seeking aid from President Roosevelt. The violence was suppressed by the arrival of 6,000 troops in tanks armed with automatic weapons. Neighbourhood streets were vacant by midnight, with most residents too terrified to leave their homes.

Figure 18 – Civil rights protest / Figure 19 – NAACP office

Overall, 9 white and 25 Black residents were killed in the Detroit Race Riots of 1943. 17 of these Black deaths were reportedly due to police violence. As well, 700 people were injured, with damages exceeding $2M. In the aftermath of the riots, the governor, attorney general, and police commissioner blamed the NAACP for militarizing Black Detroiters, who they deemed responsible for the violence and damage that occurred. This got Detroit labelled as a hub for the civil rights movement, well before many other American cities. The NAACP quickly grew to be one of the largest chapters in the U.S., eventually attracting the attention of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to work on its behalf. Sadly, the end of the 1943 Detroit Race Riots wasn’t really the end; in the summer of 1967, the city would once again be up in flames and in arms due to racially-motivated violence.

Watts Rebellion 1965

Figure 20 – Police surround man/ Figure 21 – Soldier on street / Figure 22 – Armed man defending store

The Watts Rebellion was a series of large riots that broke out on August 11, 1965, in the predominantly Black neighbourhood of Watts in Los Angeles. The Rebellion lasted for 6 days, resulting in a total of 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and 4,000 arrests and involved about 34,000 people. It all started when a Californian Highway Patrol Officer pulled over brothers Marquette and Ronald Frye while driving their mother’s car in Watts at 7 pm. Marquette was administered a sobriety test, which he failed, and was arrested. As he was getting arrested, he panicked and a scuffle began between Marquette and the officer.

Ronald tried to protest the arrest, and protect his brother; meanwhile, more officers arrived as a crowd began to form. One officer got in a fight with an onlooker, and another hit Ronald in the stomach with his baton before intervening in the fight between Marquette and that officer. Marquette was knocked down by the baton, handcuffed, and taken to the police car. That’s when the boy’s mother Rena showed up and believing the police were abusing her son, rushed to pull the officers off of him – resulting in another fight. Rena was arrested and forced into a car as well, followed by Ronald, who was handcuffed after making a peaceful attempt to intervene in his mother’s arrest.

Figure 23 – Rena, Ronald, & Marquette Frye

Meanwhile, the crowd got bigger and grew more restless as they witnessed what happened, and eventually, more highway patrol officers arrived and used both batons and shotguns to keep the crowd back from the police car. This caused hundreds of more people to flock to the scene to see what was going on. As 2 motorcycle police attempted to leave, one was spat on. The police officers then stopped and tried to pursue the woman, when the crowd converged on them, causing more officers to run into the crowd, and more police cars being called to the scene. The 2 police officers found Joyce Ann Gaines and arrested her for spitting at them; she resisted her arrest and was dragged from the crowd – angering them further.

By 7:45 pm, the riot was in full swing, with rocks, bottles, and other objects being hurled at buses and cars stalled in traffic due to the incident. The following morning, there was a community meeting organized by Watts leaders including representatives from churches, local government, and the NAACP, with police in attendance, with the hope that the situation could be de-escalated. Rena, Marquette and Ronald had all been released on bail that morning, and Rena attended the meeting, pleading with the crowds to calm down. The meeting eventually broke down and became hurling of complaints about the police and government’s treatment of Black citizens in recent history.

Figure 24 – Crowd around police cars / Figure 25 – Watts burning

Local leaders requested the police dispatch more Black police, but this was dismissed by LAPD Chief William H. Parker, who was ready to call in the National Guard. Word of this decision again, caused tensions and the riots to escalate. Overnight, the violence overran the streets as mobs fought with police, set buildings and vehicles on fire, and looting stores. Crowds attacked firefighters and kept them from putting out fires. By the end of the 3rd day, the rioting covered 50 square miles of LA and 14,000 troops from the National Guard were brought into the city, erecting barricades, resulting in Watts resembling a war zone; and the violence didn’t stop there – it continued for an additional 3 days. The Police Commissioner only made matters worse by labelling rioters as ‘monkey’s in a zoo’, and implied Muslims were to blame. This resulted in the police surrounding a mosque, riddling the building with gunfire and arresting that inside on the morning of the final day of the riots. Police offer ransacked the building next door, releasing tear gas into the sewers to prevent anyone from escaping, and 2 fires broke out, destroying the mosque. Eventually, charges were dropped against those arrested, but the Muslim community accused police of using the riots as an excuse to persecute them and destroy their place of worship.

After the conclusion of the riots, a commission was established to study the causes of the riot. From this commission came several community improvement suggestions that would improve local schools, employment, housing, healthcare, and the relationship locals had with the police department. Afterwards, there was a little follow-up, but like Detroit, Watts became a new hub for civil rights. This was different though, as it included the reformation of street gangs to join the Black Panther Party in an effort to rebuild and monitor police brutality and overreach. However, in the 2 years leading up to the Rebellion, 65 Black residents were shot by police, 27 of them were shot in the back, and 25 of them were unarmed at the time. During that same period, there were a reported 250 demonstrations protesting the poor living conditions there. By the conclusion of the riots, 1,000 buildings were destroyed, totalling $40M in damages to the area.

Detroit Riot 1967

Figure 26 – Police search against car/ Figure 27 – Police search against the wall

Unfortunately for the City of Detroit, the 1943 race riots weren’t the last, or even the most destructive. The 1967 Detroit Riots were so violent and destructive that by the time the bloodshed and burning abated after a 5-day period, 43 people were dead, more than 320 were injured, nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned and destroyed, and around 7,000 National Guard and U.S. troops had been brought in.

During a particularly hot summer in 1967, Detroit’s predominantly Black neighbourhood of Virginia Park was buzzing with racial tension. Approximately 60,000 low-income residents were forced into the neighbourhood’s 40 acres, which was made up of mostly small, sub-divided apartments. The Detroit Police Department only had about 50 Black officers at the time and was largely viewed as a white occupying army. That summer, accusations of racial profiling and police brutality were constantly being thrown around by Detroit’s Black residents. The only white people in the neighbourhood consisted of business owners who would commute regularly from the suburbs to run their businesses on 12th Street. The entire city was battling serious economic and social issues as the Motor City’s automobile industry shed jobs and relocated outside of the city’s centre, and as freeways and suburban amenities drew middle-class residents away, Detroit’s prosperity and well-being were severely impacted. The result? Vacant storefronts, widespread unemployment, and impoverished anguish.

At nighttime, 12th Street was considered a hotspot for city nightlife, both legal and illegal. One popular spot was an illegal after-hours club based out of the United Community League for Civic Action, operated by local William Scott. The police’s vice squad often raided establishments like Scott’s, and on July 23, 1967, at 3:35 am, they moved against Scott’s club. On that incredibly humid night, the club was hosting a party for several veterans, including 2 men who had recently returned from the Vietnam War. As the bar was air-conditioned, patrons weren’t in a hurry to leave. Outside, on the street, a crowd began to gather as police began taking away the 85 patrons. Over an hour passed before the last patron was taken away, and by then over 200 onlookers began to surround the scene. First, a bottle was tossed into the street, and the remaining police officers ignored it; however, as more bottles began being hurled toward the officers and their patrol cars, they fled. Within another hour, thousands of people had gathered from nearby buildings onto the street.

Figure 28 – Firemen & Soldiers / Figure 29 – Tank in the street / Figure 30 – Armed man

The looting began on 12th street, and closed shops and businesses were destroyed. Around 6:30 am, the first fire was set, and before long, most of the street was in flames. By mid-morning, every policeman and fireman in Detroit was called to duty, where officers fought to control the mob, and firemen were attacked as they tried to fight the flames. Eventually, Detroit’s Mayor, Jerome P. Cavanaugh asked Michigan’s Governor, George Romney, to send in the state police. However, even the additional 300 officers sent could not prevent the spreading of the riot to a 100-black radius circling Virginia Park. The National Guard ended up being called in shortly after but didn’t arrive until later that evening. By the end of the day, more than 1,000 people were arrested and 5 people had died, but the rioting persisted and continued to spread.

The following day, the riots continued, with 16 more people being killed at the hand of police or guardsmen, as snipers fired at firemen and their hoses were cut. Governor Romney then asked President Johnson to send in U.S. troops; 2 days into the rioting about 2,000 paratroopers arrived and began patrolling the streets of Detroit in tanks and armoured vehicles. That day 10 more people died, and 12 more on the 3rd day, with a total of 43 people being killed. About 1,700 stores were ransacked and 1,400 were burned; this caused about $50M in property damage and 5,000 people were left homeless.

Figure 31 – Armed man in looted store / Figure 32 – Woman sitting in looted window/ Figure 33 – Aerial view of destruction

In the aftermath of the riots, President Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly referred to as the Kerner Commission, after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner or Illinois. In February of 1968, 7 months after the end of the Detroit Riots, the commission released a 426-page report in which the Commission identified over 150 riots between 1965 and 1968. In 1967 alone, 83 people were killed and 1,800 were injured – the majority being Black Americans – and property damage was valued at approximately $100M.

LA Riots 1992

Figure 34 – Shopping Cart Fire / Figure 35 – Destroyed Street / Figure 36 – Police Officers

On March 3, 1991, paroled felon Rodney King led police around LA County on a high-speed chase, before eventually surrendering. While intoxicated and unwilling to cooperate, King resisted arrest and was beaten brutally by LAPD officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind. At the time, the police were unaware that an onlooker with a camera was filming the arrest, capturing an 89-second video of the violent arrest, and then releasing it to the media. The video sparked outrage across the nation and triggered a national debate regarding police brutality. King was released without charges, and on March 15, 1991, the officers were indicted by a LA grand jury in connection with the beating. They were charged with filing false reports. On April 29, 1992, a 12-person jury issued a verdict of not guilty on all counts, except for one assault charge against officer Powell, which resulted in a hung jury. The acquittals were the set-off point for the LA riots, which grew into the most destructive riot in 20th century U.S. history.

Hours after the verdicts were announced to the public, outraged individuals flooded the streets, and protests turned to violence as the LA Riots began. Protestors blocked freeway traffic, beat drivers, wrecked and looted stores and buildings in the downtown area, and set over 100 fires. LAPD was slow to respond, and the violence spread to areas throughout the city; by morning, hundreds of fires were burning across the city, more than a dozen people had been killed, and hundreds were injured. The rioting and violence continued over the next 24 hours. On May 1, President Bush brought in military troops and riot police to LA, and by the end of the following day, the city was considered to be under control. The 3 days of chaos resulted in over 60 deaths, 2,000 injuries, 7,000 arrests, $1B in property damage, and the destruction of over 3,000 buildings.

Figure 37 – Rodney King / Figure 38 – Photo of Rodney King

Under federal law, the officers could also be prosecuted for violating King’s constitutional rights. On April 17, 1993, a federal jury convicted the officers for violating Rodney King’s rights by their use of unreasonable excessive force. Although 2 of the officers were acquitted, on August 4, 1993, 2 of the officers were sentenced to 2 and a half years in prison. The final verdict definitely left people will mixed feelings. An independent commission was created to investigate the King beating, and its report detailed a culture supported by racism and abuse within the LAPD, where excessive force was not only tolerated but often covered up by fellow officers as a show of brotherhood. “With the Rodney King beating and the riots, that was the beginning of the end of the old imperial LAPD. Because LAPD had a very arrogant, ‘we’re above the law’ attitude,” says U.S. civil rights lawyer, Connie Rice. “It was the first time the Black community’s complaints couldn’t be denied and swept under the rug.” The commission depicted an out-of-control LAPD painted with corruption and violence, where officers would beat suspects and then go around bragging about it to one another, even over their police-issued communication systems. Overall, the report illustrated that Rodney King’s beating was not an isolated incident, but that the LAPD management monitored the messages, but did nothing about the abuse. Though the use of excessive force was not uncommon, what made the Rodney King beating unusual was that it was captured on camera. Now in 2021, such an event has been seen too many times by the public, but back then, cell phone cameras and social media weren’t as easily and readily available.

To read more of our Black History Month spotlights, see here.

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