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Explainer: The Tulsa Race Massacre and Baptists’ Divided Response

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By Dr. Brent Aucoin

Later this month America will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the deadliest and most destructive incidence of racial violence in the country’s history: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. In the course of 18 hours, from the evening of May 31 to the afternoon of June 1, a mob of white men virtually destroyed the entire black section of Tulsa (known as Greenwood) and killed at least 75 (and maybe as many as 300) African Americans.

What Happened During the Tulsa Race Massacre

The Tulsa Race Massacre was sparked by an incident shrouded in mystery. All that we really know is that on Memorial Day, 1921, a Tulsa clothing store clerk heard a white woman scream from an elevator and upon arriving at the scene saw an African American named Dick Rowland leaving rather hurriedly. We do not know what happened, if anything, in the elevator; only that the clerk alerted the police. The next morning, Tuesday May 31, Tulsa police arrested Rowland and placed him in a cell on the top floor of the city courthouse. That day the Tulsa Tribune, an afternoon paper, published a sensational story on Rowland’s arrest and allegedly ran an editorial proclaiming that a lynching would take place that night. Though this allegation is based on credible sources, it cannot be confirmed as there are no extant copies of the editorial page of the Tribune for that day.

Early Tuesday evening, hundreds of people began to surround the courthouse, demanding that the police surrender Rowland to them so that he might be lynched. Although the Rev. Charles W. Kerr of the First Presbyterian Church pleaded with the mob to disperse, its size had grown to nearly 2,000 people by 10pm. When news of the growing mob reached Greenwood, about 75 African Americans convoyed to the area, and then marched single file to the courthouse, where they offered to help the police protect Rowland and the courthouse. When the police declined their offer, they began walking back to their cars.

Although the Tulsa Race Massacre received coverage in the nation’s newspapers, the episode was all but forgotten except by those who survived it.

As they did so, one member of the mob demanded that one of the African Americans give him the pistol he was holding. When the African American refused, the mob member attempted to take it from him. In the tussle that ensued, the gun discharged. Almost immediately, others in the mob, and allegedly some in the police force, also fired their weapons. Some of the armed African Americans returned fire. After this initial volley, the African Americans began to quickly retreat towards Greenwood. Members of the mob pursued them, shooting and receiving gun fire in the process. In the meantime, about 500 members of the mob walked to the nearby police headquarters, offering to help subdue the “Negro uprising.” They were quickly sworn in as “Special Deputies.” To equip those without arms, the mob broke into a sporting goods shop directly across the street from the police headquarters, where a police officer helped to distribute weapons and ammunition to the newly deputized members of the mob.

For the next few hours whites and blacks exchanged gun fire across the railroad tracks that separated Greenwood from the rest of Tulsa. In the meantime, a local all-white unit of the National Guard was called into action, and they promptly began to apprehend and even fire at African Americans. Throughout the night, while some African Americans defended Greenwood with weapons, others, particularly women, children and the elderly, fled into the surrounding countryside. By about 3am there was a lull in the fighting, but a little after 5am, whites began to pour into Greenwood in a coordinated attack and initially fired upon any African Americans they encountered. This attack was supported by a machine gun located on a grain elevator overlooking Greenwood. If that was not enough, eyewitnesses said that shots were fired from low flying planes and that in at least one instance, sticks of dynamite were dropped from a plane. As some African Americans began to surrender, members of the mob, along with the police and national guardsmen began to apprehend blacks who were then housed in several make-shift internment sites. As whites made their way further into Greenwood they pillaged houses and businesses and then set them on fire. In addition, they killed those who resisted, and in some instances, killed some who offered no resistance, most notably a renowned black surgeon. It was not until 11:30am that martial law was declared in Tulsa.

The 35-square blocks that made up Greenwood lay in smoldering ruins. More than 1,000 homes, numerous businesses, a US Post office, a hospital, and several churches, including the newly constructed Mount Zion Baptist Church, were completely destroyed. The commander of the Tulsa Citadel of the Salvation Army testified that the grave diggers he employed and fed dug 120 graves that Friday and Saturday, burying an African American (without either a coffin or a headstone) in each one. Funeral home records indicate that mass graves were dug in Oaklawn cemetery and an untold number of African American victims of the massacre were buried in them. No whites were ever sent to prison for what happened during those 18 hours.  

Although the Tulsa Race Massacre received coverage in the nation’s newspapers, the episode was all but forgotten except by those who survived it. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that articles and eventually books began to be published on the massacre. It is astonishing that an episode that Americans would not hesitate to call a pogrom if it occurred in another country could be essentially swept under the rug for so long.

How Did Baptists Respond?

Just as the origins of the massacre are shrouded in mystery, it is unknown how white Baptists in and around Tulsa responded to Rowland’s arrest and the massacre itself. While some whites provided shelter and aid to refugees from Greenwood, it is unclear if any of them were Baptists. The remarks of two Southern Baptist preachers offer insight into the different ways Baptists responded.

Samuel Judson Porter, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, preached a sermon condemning the massacre on the Sunday after it occurred. A transcript of the sermon appeared on the front page of the June 8, 1921 edition of the Baptist Messenger, the official newspaper of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. In his sermon, Porter (a native of North Carolina and a graduate of Wake Forest College) denounced lynching, spoke positively of “Negroes” and their presence in the state, and urged his congregation to “see that justice is done” to the Negro. He concluded his sermon by asserting that the

surest solution [to the animosity that existed between whites and blacks] is to be found in the grace of God who ‘hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth,’ and in the love of our common Lord and Savior…

Unfortunately, another Southern Baptist pastor preached a sermon in the aftermath of the massacre which advocated white supremacy and primarily blamed the riot on African Americans. Dr. J.B. Lawrence, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Shawnee, OK and the president of Oklahoma Baptist University, cited the “Curse of Ham” in his sermon and asserted that “the white race, the descendants of Shem, shall always have supremacy over the black race, the descendants of Ham.” As the God-ordained superior race, he reasoned, whites should mercifully guide the lesser black race towards being virtuous and civilized. However, efforts to help African Americans, he said from the pulpit, should and could not extend to granting them civil and political equality. Lawrence exclaimed that

The worst thing in the world that can ever be done to the negro is to give them race equality. If they were allowed to ride on the train and sit side by side with us in public places, it would only be a short time until there wouldn’t be a live negro in this country.

As for political equality, he said blacks “are not ready for it” because while the white race “evolved over 2000 years” the black race has only “evolved for a few generations.” Lawrence contended that when African Americans exercise political rights “the negro threatens us.” Then, in a haunting conclusion to this line of reasoning, Lawrence proclaimed “The white race will destroy any race that threatens them.”

The surest solution to sin and hatred is the grace of God, who made of one blood all nations of men.

The Tulsa Race Massacre, 100 Years Later

While Lawrence’s take on the Tulsa Race Massacre is disappointing, one can take some solace in the fact that the current president of Oklahoma Baptist University, Dr. Heath Thomas, is actively leading the OBU community in marking the anniversary of the massacre and taking steps to further racial unity. One tangible result of this effort is the fact that OBU is offering two full “1921 Memorial Scholarships” in 2021 and 2022, with the recipients being selected by the members of the Oklahoma Baptist African American Fellowship. Likewise, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma is also actively participating in the events surrounding the anniversary of the massacre and has added a page to its website with information and resources on the event. Finally, it is worth noting that one of the most active and helpful members of the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Committee has been U.S. Senator James Lankford, who before entering politics, earned an M.Div. degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, served on staff of the Falls Creek Baptist Youth Camp, and worked for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

As Americans mark the centennial anniversary of this grievous event, may Great Commission Baptists reflect not only on the massacre itself, but also on Pastor Porter’s charge to simultaneously “see that justice is done” while also proclaiming that the surest solution to sin and hatred is the grace of God, who made of one blood all nations of men.

This essay is based on the following sources:

  • Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (February 2001)
  • Ellsworth, Scott, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1982)
  • “Dr. Lawrence Discussed Race Riots: Their Cause and Cure Elucidated by Shawnee Baptist Pastor” Shawnee Weekly Herald June 9, 1921, p4.
  • The Baptist Messenger June 8, 1921, p. 1.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Brent Aucoin

Dr. Aucoin is a Professor of History at Southeastern Seminary. He also serves as the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the College at Southeastern.

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