THE RIOT ERUPTS
AMERICA'S WORST RACE RIOT BEGINS
By half past nine o'clock on Tuesday evening, the white mob outside the County Courthouse had swollen to nearly two-thousand persons. They blocked the sidewalks and the streets and spilled over onto the front yards of nearby residences. There were women as well as men, children as well as adults. And with each passing minute, there were more and more guns.
Willard M. McCullough, Tulsa County's new sheriff, tried to talk the would-be lynchers into going home, but the mob hooted him down. McCullough had, however, organized his handful of deputies into a defensive ring around Dick Rowland, who was being held in the jail on the top floor of the Courthouse. The Sheriff positioned six men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the building. He also disabled the elevator and ordered his men at the top of the stairs to shoot any intruders on sight.
Tulsa police Chief John A. Gustafson later claimed that he, too, tried to talk the lynch mob into going home. But, at no time on the afternoon or evening of May 31st did he order a substantial number of his sixty-four-man police force to appear, fully armed, in front of the Courthouse. Indeed, by 10 p.m., when the drama at the Courthouse was nearing its climax, Gustafson was no longer at the scene, but had returned to his office at Police Headquarters.
In the city's African American neighborhoods, meanwhile, tensions continued to mount over the deteriorating situation at the Courthouse. Outside of the offices of the Tulsa Star, the city's leading black newspaper, a large group of men and women had gathered, debating on what to do, and waiting on word of the latest developments downtown. Smaller groups of armed black men also began making brief forays downtown by car, both to try and determine what was happening at the Courthouse, as well as to demonstrate to whites their determination that Dick Rowland would not be lynched.
A little after 10 p.m., when a rumor began to circulate that the white mob was storming the Courthouse, a second contingent of armed African American men, perhaps seventy-five in number, set out for downtown by automobile. Near Sixth and Main, the men got out of their cars and marched, single file to the Courthouse.
As before, they offered their services to the authorities to help protect Dick Rowland. Once again, their offer was refused. And then it happened. As the black men were leaving, a white man attempted to forcibly disarm a tall, African American World War I veteran. A struggle ensued, and a shot rang out. America's worst race riot had begun.