On Monday, May 30, 1921, a young black man named Dick Rowland got onto an elevator on the third floor of the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main St. For some reason, he came into contact with Sarah Page, the white elevator operator, and Page cried out. Her cry was heard by a store clerk, who called police.
The Drexel Building, at 319 S. Main St., was four stories tall. Renberg’s Department Store occupied the first two floors, with offices and small businesses upstairs.
The building was probably quiet that morning. It was Memorial Day and most downtown stores, including Renberg’s, were closed. Rain dampened the holiday activities, including a parade.
Although Dick Rowland seems to have been fairly well known, his true identity is a bit of a mystery. He is generally identified as the son of Dave and Alice “Ollie” Rowland, who operated a boarding house in the Piro Building on East Archer Street. Some sources, though, say his name was actually John or Johnny Rowland, and that he was the adopted son or even grandson of Dave Rowland. Damie Rowland, Dave and Alice’s daughter, said in a 1972 interview that she had taken in young Johnny while living in Vinita and that he had been born in Arkansas. The 1920 Census listing for the Rowland household includes an adopted son named John who had been born in Texas.
Adding to the uncertainty is a slight age discrepancy. The Census recorded John Rowland’s age as 16 in 1920. Dick Rowland’s age, when he was arrested a year later, was given as 19.
Almost nothing is known of Sarah Page. Originally described as a 17-year-old orphan working her way through business college, it later developed that she may have been as young as 15 and had come to Tulsa from Kansas City while waiting for a divorce to be finalized.
Some, including Damie Rowland, have fostered the notion that Page and Rowland were romantically involved. Though possibly true, the story cannot be verified through contemporary accounts.
People who knew Rowland said the elevator did not stop level with the third-floor threshold, causing him to trip as he entered the car and fall against Page. Police later said that whatever happened, it was almost certainly not intentional. In any case, Page’s cry caught the attention of a Renberg’s employee, who apparently summoned police. Rowland fled, but Page and the clerk, if not actually naming the man she said attacked her, supplied enough of a description that authorities had no difficulty locating him.