In 1921, a young black man rode in an elevator with a young white woman. When the elevator doors opened, she screamed and the young man was arrested. In Oklahoma at that time, young black men were sometimes lynched, often soon after their arrests. So, a group of black men congregated at the Tulsa County Jail to protect the young man, whose name was reported as “Dick Rowland.”
His arrest is often referred to as the incident that sparked the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Since the Riot, however, his whereabouts and his identity have largely remained a mystery.
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For many years, one of the most sought-after records pertaining to the Tulsa Race Riot was the 1921 yearbook for Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, because it was rumored to contain a photo of the never-before-seen “Dick Rowland.” The yearbook had been missing for so long that many researchers stopped looking.
Suddenly, about a year ago, two copies appeared, one at Rudisill Library in Tulsa, and the other at Booker T. Washington High School’s media center. Researcher and This Land contributing editor Steve Gerkin scoured the yearbook in search of the young man at the center of the Riot.
Here’s what Gerkin discovered: In the 1921 yearbook for Booker T. Washington High School, a student named James Jones appears twice—once in a basketball team photo, the other in a “Sophomore-A” class photo.
Damie Roland James claims that her adopted son Dick Roland had been named Jimmie Jones, and that at some point during his school years, her son changed his name to Roland, out of respect for his grandparents Dave and Ollie Roland, who helped raise him in their home. Later, he chose Dick because he liked the name.
There’s a Damie Jones, by the way, who appears in the 1920 census records for Bristow Township, Oklahoma, as a daughter of Dave and Ollie Roland. There’s also a John Roland, aged 16, listed in the 1920 census for Tulsa.
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In newspaper articles following the riot, Dick Roland became reported as “Diamond Dick Rowland,” the “Diamond” being a flourish added by Roland himself and the “w” in “Rowland” being added by inaccurate reporters.
Booker T. Washington graduate W.D. Williams recalled attending high school with Roland, and claimed that Roland went by the name “Johnny.” Both Williams and Jones appear in the 1921 yearbook—Williams as a junior and Jones as a sophomore. Williams later made the claim that Roland had dropped out of high school to take a job shining shoes, which suggests that maybe Roland shouldn’t be listed in the 1921 yearbook. But Damie Roland claimed her son dropped out of school and returned to school on several occasions.
James Jones the student shared the same name, age, and school as Dick Roland, and yet, unfortunately, there is no direct evidence that connects Jones to Roland with absolute certainty. We don’t know if James Jones was, in fact, Dick Roland. There’s a grave in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery that reads “James Jones,” and gives a date of birth similar to that of the Booker T. Washington student—but the Jones at Oaklawn died two months before the Riot took place.
Until a new bit of information appears—and a new trove of Riot records has recently been recovered—the fate of Dick Roland remains a mystery.
A wealth of clues suggest that newly discovered images may reveal the young man whose arrest sparked the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. See more images from the 1921 Booker T. Washington yearbook.
EXCLUSIVE: Diamond in the Rough: On the Trail of the Man at the Center of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921