Diamond in the Rough

by Steve Gerkin

Diamond Dick Roland disappeared.

Secreted out the door of the Tulsa County Jail into an awaiting car provided by Sheriff McCollough, Diamond Dick Roland took in the smoldering midday air, while 30 square blocks of Tulsa’s Greenwood District burned to the ground. It was June 1, 1921, and Roland was bound for a suspect destination in Kansas City intended to keep him safe from a vigilante lynch mob. He hid in the backseat. Then, he disappeared forever.

In his absence days later, Roland was represented pro bono by court-appointed attorney Wash Hudson, who was a member of Tulsa’s Ku Klux Klan. Roland was formally charged by a grand jury with intent to rape a 17-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. Newspapers, and many following historical accounts, suggest that Roland’s arrest triggered the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The perfumed and dapper Mr. Hudson ventured into the charred remains of Greenwood to advise Dick’s mother, Damie Roland Jones, of the situation.

Damie lived in a tent provided by the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, pitched where her family’s boarding house and Roland’s home once stood at 505 E. Archer in downtown Tulsa, which is a concession stand and centerfield entrance to the Drillers baseball park now. Several months before her death in 1972, the 87-year-old survivor told interviewer Ruth Avery that she saw Dick one more time following his disappearance. There are no certifiable accounts of him returning to Tulsa. Damie claimed he had gained weight from the jail food, and had the stench of a man who had hitched a ride in a train car. She said he cried to her, “Look what I have done,” and left before dawn to avoid detection by angry survivors.

Roland was rumored to have moved north. Possibly working at Unity Bindery and living in an industrial neighborhood just east of downtown, a “Richard Roland” vanished from the Kansas City, Missouri, public records in 1926. Damie stated Dick wrote that Page was still “bumming around Kansas City,” suggesting that Roland not only knew Sarah Page, but that they were familiar. There is no census or directory information that Page actually lived in the metropolis. The Great Depression was on the horizon and work was drying up. Damie says that Roland wrote of an interest to see the shores of Oregon, seeking employment in the shipyards.

A “Richard Rowland” appeared in the Portland directory in that time period, working in a mattress factory. Living in the black community of Albina, a segregated community on the outskirts of downtown, Rowland would have felt the full force of the Jim Crow environment so prevalent in Oregon. Sundown laws made it illegal for blacks to be in Portland after sundown, so they formed their own community, now known as the Albina District of Portland. Later census data proved this Richard Rowland was a white man. Yet thousands of nameless blacks lived along the Columbia River supporting the shipbuilding industry.

The media gave him the derogatory name of Diamond Dick, stemming from the small diamond ring he wore.

Shipbuilding outside Portland was a huge industry in the ‘20s and ‘30s. The Henry Kaiser Shipyards expanded in anticipation of WWII needs and conducted nationwide advertisements for jobs. A hundred thousand people flocked to Oregon—many of them blacks. Kaiser built an entire community including a housing development, schools, and a hospital for 6,000 of his black workers who were not wanted in Portland. This settlement became Vanport. On Memorial Day, 1948, the Columbia River swelled 15 feet above flood level, wiping out the complex. Lives were lost, swallowed up by the torrents. Maybe that Rowland was among the nameless swept towards the Pacific.

The only Richard Rowland on the Oregon death rolls turned out to be a six-year-old boy, who lived his life in the Fairview Home (formerly known as the Oregon State Institute for Feeble Minded) and after his tragic death was buried in a state cemetery in Marion County south of Portland. Evidence has since surfaced that places another Richard Rowland closer to Tulsa.

He may be resting in an all-black cemetery in Topeka, Kansas. Enforced segregation caused the creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery that also was the burial ground for impoverished whites. Black veterans from seven different wars lie in proximity to a Richard Rowland. The records of Hall-Diffenderfer Funeral Home show him to be in the Crittenton lot. Born Richard Dean Rowland in the black Florence Crittenton Home, this child died at birth on June 3, 1936. The Dick Roland of Tulsa remained missing without a trace.

Although history books often refer to him as “Dick Rowland,” the man at the center of the Riot had several names. He was first called “Jimmie Jones” and, per census records, became “John Roland” when he and Damie moved in with her parents, Dave and Ollie Roland, after 1910. Their name is misspelled as “Rolland” and “Rowland” in various census and Tulsa Directories. In most news reports following the riot, Dick’s last name was spelled “Rowland.” According to Damie, when Jimmie entered Booker T. Washington High School he changed his first name to Dick because he liked the name. Roland was a classmate of well-known educator W.D. Williams, who told legislator Don Ross in his publication Impact, June 1971, that Roland’s friends called him Johnny. Yet, the 1921 Booker T. Washington yearbook shows him as “James Jones” and “J. W. Jones.”

Dick Roland may be close by. In Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery at 11th and Peoria, the Roland family plot has headstones for everyone but Dick: his uncle Clarence, Clarence’s daughter Earlene Roland Morris, and his grandparents Dave and Ollie, along with Damie Roland Ford and her husband Clifford Ford. According to Shadows of the Past: Tombstone Inscriptions, in an adjacent section is a small headstone cryptically inscribed “James Jones (18 years old), 1921,” curiously matching Jimmy’s age and year he vanished and the year of the Riot. That James Jones, however, died in March of 1921—two months before Roland would’ve been arrested. According to the headstone located a mere ten yards from the Roland plot, James Jones was “Gone But Not Forgotten”

Post riot, the media gave him the derogatory name of Diamond Dick, stemming from the small diamond ring he wore—a birthday present given to himself from tips earned at his bootblack job near the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. The Drexel had a jerky elevator, where Roland once tripped, nearly fell, and grabbed the arm of the operator, Sarah Page, who was by then a good and intimate friend, according to Tulsa Race Riot historian Eddie Faye Gates. The discomfort from Dick’s hand, reportedly caused the feisty dishwater blonde to shriek and yell at Roland, which alarmed a Renberg’s clothing store salesman. The salesman fabricated a wrongful tale passed onto authorities and yellow journalists.

When the Riot started, Roland was no longer on Tulsa’s mind.

The charge against Roland was thrown out due to County Attorney William Seaver’s wrongful inclusion of assault in the charge and an alleged victim who never considered herself to be one. The demurer of his charges in September 1921 and its signature, spelled “Dick Roland,” was signed either in absentia or by the real man—no way to tell; there is no record of him being in Tulsa. Maybe he was already dead.

Perhaps Roland was in a “safe” jail at an undocumented location or became just another dead black man floating in the Arkansas River. Or perhaps he was placed on a flatbed truck alongside other Riot corpses, or he may have been disposed in a rural setting towards Kansas City. Maybe he was hung in the gallows on his county jail cell floor and was carried out the alley door to his final resting place. Whatever happened to the man, when the Riot started, Roland was no longer on Tulsa’s mind. Maybe his mother’s dementia-like ramblings to interviewer Ruth Avery were just a mother’s fantasy that kept her son alive, creating a peaceful memory in her last days.

“I have lost my only boy,” lamented Damie.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4, Issue 9. May 1, 2013.

EXCLUSIVE: Is This the Face of the Man at the Center of the Tulsa Race Riot?

A wealth of clues suggest that newly discovered images may reveal the young man whose arrest sparked the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. See more images from the 1921 Booker T. Washington yearbook.