Dick Rowland (aka, "Diamond Dick Rowland", born c. 1902- ?) was an African-American teenage shoeshiner whose arrest in May 1921 was the impetus for the Tulsa Race Massacre. When he was arrested for assault, Rowland was 19 years old. The alleged victim of the assault was a white 17-year-old named Sarah Page. Page, who worked as an elevator operator, had eventually declined to prosecute. According to conflicting reports, the arrest was prompted after Rowland tripped in an elevator on his way to a segregated bathroom, and a white store clerk reported the incident as an "assault" or a rape.
Rowland's birth name was "Jimmie Jones". It is not known where he was born, but by 1908 he and two sisters were orphans living in Vinita, Oklahoma. Jones was informally adopted by Damie Ford, an African-American woman. In approximately 1909 Ford and Jones moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to join Ford's family, the Rowlands. Eventually, Jones took Rowland as his last name, and selected his favorite first name, Dick, as his own. Rowland attended the city's segregated schools, including Booker T. Washington High School.
He dropped out of high school to take a job shining shoes in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor on Main Street in downtown Tulsa. As Tulsa was a segregated city where Jim Crow practices were in effect, black people were not allowed to use toilet facilities used by white people. There was no separate facility for blacks at the shine parlor where Rowland worked and the owner had arranged for black employees to use a segregated "Colored" restroom on the top floor of the nearby Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street.
Arrest and violent disturbances
On May 30, 1921, Rowland attempted to enter the Drexel building elevator and, although the exact facts are either unknown or in dispute, according to the most accepted accounts, he tripped and, trying to save himself from falling, grabbed the first thing he could, which happened to be the arm of the elevator operator, Sarah Page, then 17 years old. Startled, the elevator operator screamed and a white clerk in a first-floor store called police to report seeing Rowland flee from the elevator and the building. The white clerk on the first floor reported the incident as an attempted assault.
Rowland was arrested the following day, on May 31, 1921. With the headline "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator" that day's issue of the Tulsa Tribune newspaper claimed Rowland had attacked Page and had torn her clothes. A subsequent gathering of angry local whites outside the courthouse where Rowland was being held, and the spread of rumours he had been lynched, alarmed the local black population, some of whom arrived at the courthouse armed. Shots were fired and twelve people were killed; ten white and two black.
In retaliation a riot by whites was sparked that lasted 16 hours, during which time a white mob started fires and U.S. planes dropped firebombs, the first record of bombs dropped on U.S. soil. The destruction included 35 city blocks burned down and 1,256 residences in Tulsa's prosperous African American neighborhood of Greenwood, resulting in over 800 injuries and 37 confirmed dead – 25 black and 12 white. Later accounts have suggested the number of deaths were under recorded.
The case against Dick Rowland was dismissed at the end of September 1921. The dismissal followed the receipt of a letter by the County Attorney from Sarah Page in which she stated that she did not wish to prosecute the case.
According to Damie Ford, once Rowland was exonerated he immediately left Tulsa, and went to Kansas City. Little else is publicly known about the remainder of his life.
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- Gerkin, Steve (8 May 2013). "Diamond in the rough". This Land.
- "Is this the face of the man at the center of the Tulsa Race Riot?". This Land. 9 May 2013.