Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Collective Violence and Racial Frames

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Collective Violence and Racial Frames

Article excerpt


Interracial and collective violence has a well documented and extensive history in the United States. Researchers have focused on a number of factors associated with collective violence, particularly its causation (Gurr, 1968; Lieberson & Silverman, 1965; Myers, 1997; Smelser, 1962; Spilerman, 1970). However, research has focused far less on how racial and ethnic groups interpret forms of collective violence such as riots.

This research examines the role of divergent frames associated with collective violence. That is, we explain how two racial groups, armed with the same objective facts and conditions, may interpret the causation of collective violence in diametrically opposed ways. We argue that these frames not only legitimate racial violence for particular groups after the fact, but they also help cause racial violence by providing the necessary rationalizations to participate in violence. Our research explores these issues through an examination of a 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The cause and explanation which gained primacy immediately following the violence, according to most black and white accounts, involved black militancy. Despite this apparent consensus, we illustrate how these groups interpreted the appropriateness of militancy in drastically different ways. Most importantly, we show that many whites drew from a master narrative, or a white racial frame (Feagin, 2009), to rationalize mob activity and the subsequent destruction of the black community, while many blacks drew from their own past experiences to form a counter-frame that legitimated violence in the initial stages of the riot. We do not contend that all members of each race were of like mind, but we highlight the most prominent themes and frames that emerged in newspapers, testimonies, official investigations, and narratives offered at the time. We consider how these divergent interpretations were rooted within much larger and more systematic racial frames (Ehrlich, 2009; Feagin 2006). Finally, we argue that a much more hegemonic white racism, which paralleled an official frame of the riot, facilitated the ascendancy of particularly white interpretations of racial violence.

Racial Framing

According to Feagin (2006), a white racial frame originated in the colonial period and has been used throughout United States history to subordinate, oppress, and discriminate against blacks and other racial minority groups. Indeed, the white racial frame has been used as a legitimation device for a hierarchically structured society that privileges whites. Feagin (2006) defines the white racial frame as:

   ... an organized set of racialized ideas, stereotypes,
   emotions, and inclinations to discriminate. This
   white racial frame generates closely associated,
   recurring, and habitual discriminatory actions.
   The frame and associated discriminatory actions
   are consciously and unconsciously expressed in
   the routine operation of racist institutions in this
   society, (p. 25)

This frame has been afforded a hegemonic and patriarchal status and has infiltrated white society's macro- and micro-oriented underpinnings, including its institutions, stereotypes and cognitions.

A critical characteristic of the white racial frame is its fluidity and the ability to adapt to social changes. As American society transitioned from slavery to legal segregation and later to the Civil Rights movement, the hegemonic white racial frame has responded by legitimizing the continual discrimination of blacks, even in the contemporary setting. Feagin (2006) notes that modern white racism "can be seen in persistent white images of blacks as dependent on welfare, as not as work-oriented as whites, as less intelligent than whites, and as an intermarriage threat to white families" (p.30).

Despite the hegemonic status of the white racial frame, Feagin (2009) also points to the existence of black counter-frames, or narratives of resistance that are designed to actively modify and transform the stereotypes, racism, and discrimination that blacks experience. Indeed, blacks have developed their own fluid frames that present their accounts of lived experience. Though Feagin (2009) argues that these frames were developed out of initial needs for survival, he maintains that "many elements have been added that strengthen and enhance strategies of everyday resistance" (p. 159). Such counter-frames allow individuals and groups to actively combat discrimination and racism. We contend that both white racial frames and black narratives are drawn upon in episodes of interracial violence, or "ethnoviolence" (Ehrlich, 2009).

Kuper (2005) notes that ideologies of race comprise frameworks that provide cues and justifications for action. Similarly, racial frames not only serve as interpretive lenses through which whites and blacks understand their social worlds, but they also direct action. Just as the white racial frame leads to action, black counter-frames serve as an apparatus through which they seek to counteract and defend against the exploitative and discriminatory effects of the white racial frame. Our analysis of the black counter-frames as they were deployed before, during, and after the Tulsa Race Riot illustrates how blacks' perceptions of discriminatory law enforcement and due process was directly related to and affected their roles in the riot.

We argue that the concept of racial framing is more suitable to understanding racial violence than other concepts such as collective memory and intergenerational transmission because racial framing highlights the centrality of race in producing divergent worldviews and interpretations of past and present action. Also, the concept of racial framing addresses notions of inequality by focusing on the ideological supremacy traditionally afforded to white definitions of the situation. Finally, the concept of racial framing emphasizes the fluid, contextual nature of interpreting events and processes such as race riots.

While increased attention has been given to the role of racial frames in producing differential worldviews, researchers have given short shrift to the ways by which racial frames direct and orient action. Thus, racial frames are not merely outcomes of past experiences, but they also help shape future action. More specifically, we apply and extend the concept of racial framing to argue that divergent interpretive frameworks contribute to the actual onset of riots. Much research concerned with the causative factors of race riots has focused on structural characteristics, such as population and employment distributions, that cause rioting (Olzak, Shanahan, & McEneaney, 1996; Spilerman, 1970) or the processes through which participants adopt "emergent norms" to rationalize action (Turner & Killian, 1987). The concept of racial framing brings culture back in and illustrates how racialized shared beliefs, interpretations and common experiences mediate between the underlying structures and immediate social psychological processes that directly lead to rioting.

This research focuses on the process of diagnostic framing, an interpretive task in which actors establish blame or causality for some particular problem (Snow & Benford, 1988). Thus, diagnostic frames identify the root of the problem, which then serve to guide subsequent action. When applied to interracial violence, we suggest that the event has been dominated by frames which have situated blame on a particular group, or groups. In addition, despite the frequent presence of contested diagnostic frames, we propose that a white racial frame shapes and molds the interpretations which ultimately gain ideological supremacy, and in turn, affect individual and organizational responses to interracial violence.


Our research includes a triangulation of historical data, including narratives from black survivors of the Tulsa riot, black- and white-owned newspapers, court records, and National Guard documents. These sources were used to identify the deployment of racial frames by white and black participants of the riot and local city leaders. Among black newspapers, we analyzed The Black Dispatch (1914-1919) and The Tulsa Star (1921). We also examined The Tulsa Tribune (1920-1921) and The Tulsa World (1920-1921), which were both white-operated. Additionally, survivor narratives previously offered by Parrish (1998 [1923]), who conducted interviews shortly after the event, were analyzed. Gates (1997, 2003) also conducted interviews with survivors. These narratives provided perceptions among blacks related to underlying conditions of the riot. To further understand how officials framed the riot, we also analyzed National Guard documents that were prepared during a state investigation of the riot. Finally, we analyzed a significant court case in which a white defendant sued his insurance company for failure to provide coverage for losses incurred during the riot (Redfearn v. American Central Insurance Company, 1926). Numerous testimonies from both racial groups were analyzed. This case presents another unique opportunity to better understand both white and black participant and official perceptions of the riot.

The data were examined for themes related to framing strategies among whites and blacks. Independent coding was performed on cases in which individuals, groups, or larger processes were perceived to be the cause(s) of the riot. Our analysis highlights the perceived role of militancy in producing the riot. This refers to accounts which attributed the riot to armed blacks gathered at the courthouse to protect the black man accused of assault. In addition to blacks' accounts, both white officials and participants agreed that militancy directly or indirectly influenced the onset of the riot in Tulsa. However, the same groups offered contested interpretations of how these issues led to the riot. We argue that the use of racial frames by these actors help explain not only why the riot was interpreted differentially, but how action just before and during the riot was oriented and directed.

A Description of the Tulsa Riot

According to most accounts, the racial violence in Tulsa 1921 began after threats of lynching a black man (Dick Rowland), accused of assaulting a white woman, permeated the city (Brophy, 2002; Ellsworth, 1982; Johnson, 1998). Following the suspect's arrest on 31 May, a newspaper article included coverage of the alleged assault. Despite the eventual dismissal of all charges against the suspect, documentation of the alleged offense and rumors of lynching led to the assemblage of white citizens at the local courthouse where he was held on charges (Ellsworth, 1982).

An armed group of black males, possibly members of the African Blood Brotherhood, arrived at the courthouse later that afternoon to offer protection for Rowland (Commander, Tulsa Post, African Blood Brotherhood, 1921). The Black Nationalist organization had a local chapter in Tulsa and later stated it would neither deny nor confirm an active role in the riot. Nevertheless, an altercation broke out that resulted in a gunshot. After several skirmishes, the riot moved into the Greenwood area, the business and residential district of black Tulsans. The white mob obtained guns and ammunition along the way through a variety of means, including the willingness of police officers to arm a developing mob. In addition, much of the mob was temporarily deputized by law enforcement (Brophy, 2002).

Violence intensified as whites entered Greenwood in increasing numbers. Throughout the early morning hours of 1 June, all thirty-five city blocks of the homes and businesses which comprised the economically successful black district were completely destroyed and razed to the ground after valuables were looted from private residences and businesses. Firefighters were threatened by white mobs and warned to abstain from putting out fires. Property loss rose to at least $ 1.8 million (in 1921 dollars) with an official death toll placed at thirty-six persons. However, this number has been highly contested due to reports, including reports from National Guardsmen who responded to the riot, that many bodies were not given systematic burials ("5000 negro refugees," 1921).

To further subordinate the black community, survivors were placed into detention camps held at the local fairgrounds and ballpark. Here, they were placed into forced labor and were not permitted to leave the premises without producing an identification card, which had to be signed by a white citizen as a type of voucher (Brophy, 2002; Ellsworth, 1982; Gates, 1997; Parrish, 1998 [1923]). We contend that, in order to better understand such episodes of racial violence, the role of racial frames must be more closely examined.


Despite its interpretation by survivors and their representatives as an injustice, we show that the riot was ultimately and officially framed in 1921 as an uprising of a dangerous black mob. We further contend that the Tulsa case is not an isolated example. Episodes of racial violence are subject to interpretation and experience a process of framing whereby individual and collective participation becomes rationalized and legitimated. At the same time, we contend that prevailing frames - those that most deeply affect the responses to and outcomes of riots--are embedded within a hegemonic white frame which seeks to legitimize and perpetuate the oppression and subordination of blacks. We illustrate this notion through an examination of divergent interpretations relating to the primary factor perceived by both blacks and whites to have caused the Tulsa riot of 1921: militancy. We refer to the events as a "riot", like many sources did in 1921. Moreover, most contemporary research references a "riot." However, some white officials and media outlets referred to the same events as an "uprising" to reflect their perception that a militant black mob was responsible. As we illustrate, the use of the term "uprising" was an active attempt to extend a racialized, white frame that would shed whites of any guilt.

The Official Frame of an 'Uprising'

Local official accounts portrayed the riot as an "uprising," not only because a white racial frame operated to cast the events in such a light, but also to legitimate further subordination and discrimination. In a formal report prepared by the Adjutant General of the Oklahoma National Guard, the event was labeled as such with the following rationalization: "The word uprising is used everywhere instead of riot because the colored element seemed to have prepared for some time an effort of this kind to maintain and assert their alleged rights" (Col. Charles F. Bates, 1921, para. 1). This brief statement is quite illustrative of the white racial frame. By referencing "alleged rights" the Adjutant General suggested that black Tulsans demanded more than they deserved. Also, he would later state that these demands took place at the local courthouse, as blacks arrived armed. This white racial frame, which is fluid and adaptive to social change, was extended during a historical context where segregation was the manifestation of a more blatant form of racism and perception of racial superiority. Armed blacks arriving at the courthouse violated multiple "rules" whites had created.

In fact, each official response to the riot issued by representatives of the National Guard deemed the event as an uprising. More importantly, the assembly of armed blacks at the courthouse demanding legitimate rights was interpreted as militancy and shaped officials' action in the response period. As one official reported, "The most visible point from which enemy shots came was the tower of the new brick negro church" (Lt. Col. L.J.F Rooney, 1921, para. 1). The official's report offers keen insight into how blacks' participation in the riot was interpreted by whites. No rationale was provided as to why blacks were labeled the "enemy," which suggests that a larger, more systemic white racial frame was at force. It also illustrates the idea that official action during the riot was aimed solely at controlling black behavior.

The local mayor also contributed to the official frame. His assessment of the riot is emblematic of the white racial frame in operation at the time of the riot,

   Let the blame for this negro uprising lie right
   where it belongs - on those armed negroes and
   their followers who started this trouble and who
   instigated it and any persons who seek to put half
   the blame on the white people are wrong and
   should be told so in no uncertain language ... It is
   the judgment of many wise heads in Tulsa, based
   upon observation of a number of years, that this
   uprising was inevitable. If that be true and this
   judgment had to come upon us, then I say it was
   good generalship to let the destruction come to
   that section where the trouble was hatched up, put
   in motion and where it had its inception. ("Riot
   statement made," 1921, p. 1)

The mayor of Tulsa not only described the violence as an uprising, but maintained that the destruction rightfully took place in Greenwood because that was where the trouble was perceived to exist. This proffered frame considers the white reaction to such "militancy" as natural and necessary. The black community was considered the "enemy" by all official accounts.

The gathering of whites at the local courthouse was perceived by white Tulsans as natural, whereas the arrival of blacks with arms was perceived by whites as rebellious. This idea is evident in the transcription of a white resident's testimony during the Redfearn case.

That on the evening of May 31, 1921 he was at the Court House about nine o' clock; that when he came there, there was a great number of white people around the Court House, and after he got there a few minutes he noticed one or two truck loads of negroes, who drove around the Court House two or three times and they were yelling and had their guns in the cars and in the trucks and some of the white people were making a good deal of complaint about it. And that some officers came out and requested the negroes to leave. (Redfearn v. American Central Insurance Company, 1921, p. 851)

In fact, it was evident from white testimonies and other official documents that law enforcement officials made no attempt to disperse the white crowd. Instead, officials directed their efforts at controlling the black response to threats of lynching. As one official testified, "I was instructed to protect the lives of white citizens and to make every effort to restore law and order" ("Sheriff tells of plans," 1921, p. 1). Finally, a particularly damaging diagnosis emerged from the jury gathered to study the causes of the riot. Their verdict offered,

We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland. ("Grand jury blames," 1921, p. 1)

The actions of the armed blacks were thus interpreted by law enforcement, city officials and the grand jury as an "uprising," and many formed these interpretations not after the riot, but rather during its initial stages.

These characterizations of the riot were part of a more complex, more systemic white racial frame that portrayed blacks as a threat, particularly during the Jim Crow Era. Despite the elimination of slavery, blacks endured legal segregation, which, for whites, was employed to maintain racial purity and superiority (Feagin, 2006). The emergence of Black Nationalist groups can be explained as a response to the goals of a white supremacist agenda. These groups, in turn, were viewed as a threat to such goals. Thus, blacks were socially controlled through violent mechanisms such as segregation, lynchings, and one-sided riots with officials supporting the efforts of white civilians. Indeed, white Tulsans embodied core facets of the white racial frame. The violence that began on 31 May, 1921 was not merely about a potential lynching, but about perceptions of "agitation" and the subsequent social control thereof. The grand jury emphasized the demands for equality among blacks,

We find that certain propaganda and more or less agitation had been going on among the colored population for some time. This agitation resulted in the accumulation of firearms among the people and the storage of ammunition, all of which was accumulative in the minds of the negro which led them as a people to believe in equal rights, social equality and their ability to demand the same. ("Grand jury blames," 1921, p. 1)

White religious leaders also drew from the systemic white racial frame by blaming black demands for equality. For example. Bishop Mouzon of Boston Avenue Church in Tulsa stated, "This is something that the negroes should be told very plainly. Steps toward social equality are the worst possible thing for the negro man and the white thing" ("Causes of riots," 1921, p. 1). The bishop later singled out W.E.B. Du Bois, a symbolic figure during the time for black rights,

I knew at the time that Dubois was here ... And I very keenly regret now, in view of the events of the past week, that I did not take advantage of that knowledge, and inquire into the purpose of his visit. ("Causes of riots," 1921, p. 1)

Another religious leader stated, "We must not make a martyr of the negro, even though many hundreds of them have suffered innocently. There are too many so-called leaders of the negro race who habitually discredit the white race" ("Black agitators blamed," 1921, p. 1). Finally, another attributed the riot to national black publications for enhancing blacks' frustrations,

There has been newspapers and literature circulated and sold in that part of the city pertaining to supposed outrages committed in other states upon negroes by the whites, which only had the tendency to fan the flame of race hatred already existing in that part of the city. Such papers as the "The Freeman" published in Indianapolis, Indiana; "Chicago Defender" published in Chicago and another pamphlet called "The Crisis." (Redfearn v. American Central Insurance Company, 1926, p.851)

White media frames after the riot also provided ideological leverage to official frames of the riot. The media focused on underlying conditions in Greenwood. For instance, one journalist described the community as crime-ridden and unenforced,

It was in this sordid and neglected "Niggertown" that the crooks found their hiding place. It was a cesspool of crime. There low brothels where the low whites mixed with the low blacks. There were the dope venders and the dope consumers. There crimes were plotted and loot hidden. One city administration after another looked after the "uptown" traffic regulations, saw to it that you did not park your auto where you should not, but let "Niggertown" pretty much alone. (Comstock, 1921, p.460)

The diagnostic assessments of white officials and other leaders heavily influence individual and organizational responses to episodes of interracial violence (Messer & Bell, 2010). The "official frames," are often entrenched in an overarching white racial frame that rationalizes the subjugation of minority groups. For instance, following the riot, an interracial committee was formed to quell the conflict. However, the committee was clearly an establishment oriented and organized to legitimate the continued discrimination against blacks. This is vividly illustrated in its mission statement.

To recognize and by its conduct, exemplify, a superior dominant white citizenship in government, and in all the social relations of life, and while observing with gratification the remarkable progress of the American negro since slavery, to recognize also his immaturity as a race and the hopeful possibilities and opportunities for development. ("Good may come," 1921, p.7)

Consistent with the patriarchal nature of the white racial frame discussed by Feagin (2006), Tulsa whites portrayed blacks as children in need of caretakers, or a race too 'immature' to expect equality. Moreover, this committee represented only one organizational response among many that reflected a level of stereotyping and racism characteristic of the white racial frame.

Additionally, city officials quickly made plans to turn the devastated area into an industrial zone rather than permit, or help, blacks to rebuild. Such leaders justified their intents by framing their suggestions as both an economic and social benefit to white Tulsans and visitors,

We do this for the reason that the area is accessible to all railroads at a small cost ...We believe by converting this area into property for the purposes suggested, that it would add much to our city both from a business and a civic standpoint. You must realize that the first impression of men entering our city is lasting. ("Plan to move," 1921, p. 1)

This statement reveals that the black community was perceived by whites as an unwanted threat to be disposed of in the city of Tulsa. Presumably, the "first impression" that visitors to Tulsa formed involved images of blacks and social problems. Eventually, these industrial plans were deemed illegal, but the lack of white empathy in Tulsa is clearly illustrated by the refusal of the city of Tulsa to provide financial assistance for rebuilding what it had destroyed. Property damage was estimated to be at least $1.8 million in 1921 dollars. The city ultimately offered less than $100,000 of the cost (Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots, 2001). Additionally, insurance companies declined to offer assistance, citing a riot clause. Perhaps even more important, the city refused offers of financial assistance from other cities. The justification for this decision was that "... this is strictly a Tulsa affair and that the work of restoration and charity would be taken care of by Tulsa people" ("Dallas offers assistance," 1921, p. 5). Clearly, though, Tulsa officials placed the financial burden of rebuilding on black residents as opposed to all Tulsans. A frame had prevailed in which blacks caused the riot, and were therefore responsible for their own fate.

The white racial frame, a larger master narrative that casts blacks as inferior and a threat to the majority, was used to legitimate the subordination of black Tulsans. This could be seen in the process leading up to the riot, the events during the riot, and the immediate aftermaths of the riot. Before the riot, armed black men that arrived at the courthouse were viewed as a danger. No attempts were made to disband the larger white mob, but the very presence of blacks resulted in counteraction. During the riot, law enforcement and the National Guard viewed blacks as the "enemy" which oriented a one-sided battle as they sided with whites rather than taking a more neutral stance aimed at quelling the riot. After the riot, this white racial frame was used to rationalize the detention of blacks and to minimize the potential for rebuilding the Greenwood area.

Black Counter-Frames: A Response of Self-Protection and Upholding of Law

Readers of local white journalistic accounts were offered only perspectives from blacks that satisfied adherents to the white racial frame. For instance, The Tulsa World included a quote from William Cherry, a black resident who blamed the riot on Rowland, "That fellow.. .should have been taken out to the edge of town and horsewhipped, tarred and feathered. He is one of the same bunch that started this awful thing" ("When riot stalked," 1921, p. 1). Another woman stated, "We'll all come clear in the judgment day. That niggah that done wrong, he cain't come clear" ("Negroes gladly accept," 1921, p. 1). Likewise, another black resident was quoted: "I am going to do everything I can to bring the Negroes responsible for the outrage to the bars of justice. They caused me to lose everything that I have been years in accumulating and I intend to get them" ("Negro deputy sheriff," 1921, p. 1).

As these media accounts suggest, only black narratives which extended arguments more closely aligned with the white racial frame were advanced. However, quotes from black survivors that appeared in the white newspapers were few and far between. A review of other blacks' accounts from other first-hand sources illustrates divergent interpretations of the riot and its preceding stages. The accounts are emblematic of a larger set of black counter-narratives that are organized around resistance to racism, stereotyping, and discrimination. These narratives are verbal accounts collected from black survivors and sympathizers immediately afterward.

Blacks were much less likely to perceive the events as a "Negro uprising." In fact, Parrish's (1998 [1923]) interviews with black survivors reveal their consistent use of the word "riot" to describe the situation that transpired. Also, blacks' narratives focused much more heavily on the role of law enforcement. For instance, the Commander of Tulsa's African Blood Brotherhood chapter stated, "The Tulsa police now took a hand, siding openly with the white mob, and directing all of their attacks on the Negro lines. Deputies were sworn in, drawn exclusively from the ranks of the whites" (Commander, Tulsa Post, African Blood Brotherhood 1921, p. 5). Blacks asserted that rather than fulfilling their duty to assure law and order, law enforcement fueled the violence in and the devastation to Greenwood. According to a survivor,

If we had complete cooperation from the officers of Tulsa, they could have prevented all this disaster and not use the occasion to demoralize our business industries and our nice homes. But, instead of protection, it was seemingly a matter of destroy and abolish all Negro businesses and nice residences. (Parrish, 1998 [1923], p.54)

Additionally, a barber shop owner in Greenwood stated, "I feel that corrupt politics is the cause of the whole affair, for if the authorities had taken the proper steps in time the whole matter could have been prevented" (Parrish, 1998 [1923], p. 57). According to black narratives, the law enforcement response systematically privileged whites through deputizing them, providing arms and battling alongside of them; efforts were not directed merely to quell the riot itself, but to control blacks in general.

Many blacks not only attributed the riot to the immediate tactics of the police, but they also deployed a set of black counter-frames that resulted in their legitimatization of self-protection due to a history of lived discrimination. The editor of the Chicago Defender argued that although due process was a legal right for all Americans, it was not actual practice,

The color of one's skin will determine the manner in which the case is to be handled. Clubs are used instead of justice in the courts. This practice has reached such a state that members of the Race here decided to protect prisoners thrown in jail on "assault charges." It was when the police department failed to grant ample protection to Dick Rowland Tuesday than an armed band of citizens surrounded the jail. ("Bombs hurled from," 1921, p. 1)

Another editor stated vehemently that Greenwood's experience was not unlike other black communities across the country,

As at Washington, D.C., so at Tulsa, Okla. The entire power of the State, all of the forces of capitalist 'law and order,' were turned upon the Negro in the process of 'putting down' race riots that were started and most actively prosecuted by white mobs. All the deputies sworn in by the Tulsa authorities were white. All the prisoners taken up and sent into concentration camps by these deputies, the Tulsa city police and the Oklahoma State militia were colored. That is the kind of justice the Negro gets in capitalist America. ("The Tulsa outrage," 1921, p. 8)

Finally, the editor of Black Dispatch argued the initial actions of armed black men were justifiable and necessary because no other action would ensure the safety of Rowland,

Fair courts! What sort of a court would have done Rowland any good the next morning with his body swinging from a limb? Somebody might say well, the sheriff would not have permitted the mob to take him, but what are the facts on this point? The sheriff of Tulsa County has permitted men to be lynched by the same gang that was at his jail door Tuesday night. ("A white man's," 1921, p. 4)

These editors believed that the discrimination blacks experienced in the legal system helped to mold and direct the efforts of those who arrived armed to protect the prisoner. Narratives of black survivors offered very similar insights. For example, referring initially to the article which detailed the arrest of the black accused of assault, a survivor offered,

White men reading this report gathered at the jail to take part in the lynching, and the Negroes, seeing this gathering, rightly concluded that lynching was the object of the white people and consequently armed themselves and came on the scene and offered their support and assistance to the sheriff. (Parrish, 1998 [1923], p.43)

Another black resident, aware of the prevailing white frame, stated, "We do not wish to be radical, as a large number of white dailies and pulpits have been in placing the blame.. .Racial equality only means equal manhood and womanhood" (Parrish, 1998 [1923], p. 59).

Blacks drew upon their own systemic set of counter-frames which contended that the group of armed "militants" only responded accordingly due to a history of skepticism blacks had in the distribution of just legal protection. As one black narrative stated succinctly, "The Tulsa disaster was really caused by a threatened "lynching bee" and because the men of color rose up in defense of the law and to protect a fellow man from the hands of the lawless horde that had gathered around the jail" (Parrish, 1998 [1923], p.12). Another narrative summarized the sentiments of many Greenwood residents,

This lack of confidence in law enforcement causes the Negro to feel that it is necessary to protect himself in most cases of threatened lynching. If the party is a member of our group, he is most generally lynched, even though promised the assurance of protection by law. (Parrish, 1998 [1923], p. 45)

Importantly, these narratives used the Rowland case as a microcosm of a much larger issue. The problem wasn't just Rowland; indeed, these counter-frames pointed to a larger set of perceived injustices regarding equal law and equal protection. An editorial printed in 1914 in The Tulsa Sun, a black periodical published in Tulsa, poignantly explained why blacks would respond accordingly. The statement highlights the pre-existence of counter-frames operating among black Tulsans. In fact, the editorial would prove prophetic:

We believe in upholding the law at all times even if to do so means death ... These lynchings are getting to be far too common in Oklahoma, and something must be done to stop it. There is no hope of protection from the State authorities, and the federal government is silent on the question. Women and children have been lynched in Oklahoma, to say nothing of the scores of negro men who have been murdered, and not a single man of these infernal mobs has been punished--nor have the officers of the law made any effort to suppress the crime or punish the criminals. Negro men, it's up to us to act. We must have justice! ... Let us respect the law and enforce it at the point of guns ... If bloodshed must come, let us welcome it, and die if need be in defense of the law and justice. ("Another man lynched," 1914, p. 1)

Thus, blacks drew from their own racial frame which not only served to organize their interpretations of the violence in 1921 Tulsa, but also resulted in action. Black Tulsans refused to serve as spectators to the violence; indeed, many actively attempted to offer protection to Rowland in the belief that no other measures would result in his life being spared, despite due process laws which required it. This racial counter-frame, which results from both experience and socialization, was constructed by blacks generations ago and awarded little faith in officials' willingness to provide equal treatment. It not only resulted in the immediate perception and interpretation that Rowland's life would be in danger, but this frame also led to action when black Tulsans arrived at the courthouse armed.


This research examined the subjective and contested interpretations of interracial violence through a case study of the Tulsa riot in 1921. Our analyses suggest that groups which partake in the violence may develop conflicting assessments regarding its causative factors, despite having the same objective conditions at hand. For instance, white Tulsans and officials believed a black "uprising" caused the riot whereas blacks attributed the riot to unequal protection from the law. These interpretive differences are rooted in divergent experiences, ideologies and location in the social structure. More importantly, these interpretations fuel action, such as that involving violence and provide cues that racial and ethnic groups act on. We suggest that this phenomenon can be explained, in part, by the tendency for each group to draw upon its own systemic racial frame. However, we suggest that only one frame, the white racial frame, gains primacy due to its hegemonic position. This can be seen in numerous historical instances in which the actions taken afterward to respond to these emergent situations systematically privilege whites.

In Tulsa, both blacks and whites perceived the riot to be rooted in militancy. White city officials and representatives argued that the emergence of militancy legitimized the white response which razed and destroyed the black community of Greenwood. In doing so, these white leaders drew upon a systemic white racial frame that portrayed militancy as a threat to the social fabric of white society. However, blacks contended that militant reaction to lynching threats was a rational and necessary response. To justify this response, blacks drew upon their own racial counter-frames which emphasized discriminatory police protection and a lived history of violence resulting from discrimination and prejudice.

Our research has implications for future scholarship on interracial violence. First, we have shown that such episodes do experience the process of framing and that subjective interpretations of such events are heavily influenced by deeply-rooted perceptions of race in society. Most importantly, the hegemonic position afforded to the white racial frame has powerful consequences on shaping the lives of minorities. In Tulsa, the white racial frame resulted in the destruction of an entire community. It also led to individual, community, and institutional efforts to prevent blacks from rebuilding. Furthermore, the white racial frame not only helps direct current action, but it provides a preview into the future. This is evidenced by the recent reparations movement among black Tulsa riot survivors aimed at garnering recompense. In this most recent legal decision, the court dismissed the suit based on its interpretation that white civilians caused the riot, rather than white officials and that a statute of limitations had expired. As Sulzberger (2011) suggests, the decision may have been impacted by a fear that supporting black Tulsa survivors could set a dangerous precedent for reparations cases involving slavery. Future research should elaborate on our findings by more fully considering a generalized role of subjective interpretation, the framing of race riots, and the short- and long-term consequences of a particularly hegemonic white racial frame.

Second, our research provides support for the utility of the white racial frame and counter-frames as a level of analysis. As evidenced in our analysis of the Tulsa riot, analyzing the white racial frame uncovers not only the usual "prejudice" and "stereotyping" concepts, but also the deeper emotions and images in which such behaviors and attitudes are embedded. Our research emphasizes the importance of this frame on individual and organizational responses to interracial violence. Thus, race relations committees, commissions to study riots, and even reparations movements have certain assumptions about the issue of blame embedded in them. That is, these groups draw upon their perceptions of causality to respond to the situation. Future research should further consider the role of systemic racial frames in establishing these responses.


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CHRIS M. MESSER--Colorado State University-Pueblo

KRYSTAL BEAMON--University of Texas at Arlington

PATRICIA A. BELL--Oklahoma State University

Chris M. Messer is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University-Pueblo. His research interests include social movements, organizational deviance, and criminology.

Krystal Beamon is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and faculty Associate in Center of African American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Patricia Bell is a Professor and has been a member of the faculty at Oklahoma State University since 1981; where she now serves as Professor Emeritus.

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