Recovering History: The Freeing of Dick Roland

by Randy Hopkins –



An affidavit signed by Dick Roland. Courtesy of Ruth Avery Sigler Collection, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa

 

While most relevant historical and contemporary documents refer to Dick "Rowland,” it is now clear that the correct spelling was “Roland.’ This is shown by Dick Roland's sworn affidavit of September 16, 1921 (shown above). Apart from direct quotations, the Roland spelling will be used throughout so as to finally give Dick Roland a “say” in his own history.

 

On May 31, 1921, Dick Roland, described as a nineteen-year-old negro delivery boy, burst onto the public scene in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The afternoon Tulsa Tribune painted him as attempting to assault Sarah Page, described as a seventeen-year-old white elevator operator and orphan. The public was told that he gave his name as “Diamond Dick” to the Tulsa police when arrested and to have admitted that “he put his hand on her arm in the elevator when she was alone.” Allegations of face scratching, torn clothes, and screams were also mentioned. Roland’s reported arrest and unreported incarceration in the Tulsa County Jail triggered the bloodbath of the Tulsa Race Massacre. [1]

Throughout the ordeal, Roland scarcely put in another public appearance. He was not quoted; the papers published no pictures. There was no immediate trial as the Tribune’s article promised. Like Sarah Page herself, he moved like a phantom through the proceedings. Members of the public filled in the blanks for both with their own preferences and biases. Thanks to records maintained through the years by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, it is now possible to track Roland’s travels through the Tulsa criminal justice system. His journey also throws additional light on a major culprit of the Massacre itself, Tulsa police chief John Gustafson.

The key is a 110-year old log that lists every man, woman, and child confined in the county jail between December 1911 and September 1921. [2] The lack of evident alteration and the consistency of recordation over the ten-year period gives the ancient document much credibility. The leather-bound behemoth lists the prisoners by name, race, and date of imprisonment.