*1921my30:je01; Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot

Excerpts from an essay by Scott Ellsworth
Ellsworth is historian, journalist and a native of Tulsa
*1982 he published the definitive history of the riot, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
(with a foreword by John Hope Franklin, another Tulsa native)
Ellsworth later served as consultant to the official Oklahoma State Commission
*1997 three-quarters of a century after the events:The Commission launched a serious investigation of the riot
*2001fe21:The Commission issued its report =
Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 [W-TXT#1] [W-TXT#2]

Text of Ellsworth’s contribution to the official report

*2009oc28:Tulsa newspaper announced coming lecture by Ellsworth on this topic [W#1]
Another local journalistic account [W#2]

[Source of the text that follows,  curiously titled “Black Wall Street Tulsa's Successful History”]
[“Black Wall Street” or “Negro Wall Street” was a Tulsa nickname for the Greenwood district destroyed in the riot]
[Source included inserted numbers suggesting footnotes, but no footnotes. Inserted footnote indicators #1 & #76 are missing]

[SAC editor has (1) abridged the text, (2) divided it into sections ( F/[**/ ), (3) created a Table of Contents based on these divisions, (4) indented extended quotes, (5) corrected duplications and dislocations of passages (G/ftn~ 18-24)  and made other minor editorial changes to meet the needs of our course]

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Table of Contents =

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = Long term background = = = = = = = = = =
Ellwood’s big interpretive position
    Bright new prairie city Tulsa
City divided = Greenwood or “Little Africa”
Greenwood public institutions
Greenwood economy
    Racial problems in USA in WW1 era
Racial problems in Oklahoma
Ku Klux Klan and related social organizations
Resentments associated with “race” in Tulsa
Tulsa crime and vice in the Prohibition era
Lynch law in general
Lynch law in the Tulsa Black community
    Role of the print media
Inter-racial sexuality conflated with vice and criminality
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = 1921my30 = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Incident involving black shoe-shine boy and young white female elevator operator
Newspapers fanned the flames of mounting hysteria
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = 1921my31 = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
A crowd gathered at the County Courthouse
9pm = Black community sent delegation to Courthouse
Mutinous mob took up arms & the Black community responded
10pm: Riot broke out
Second skirmish
    Armed mob deputized, i.e., granted portion of “monopoly on violence”
Local National Guard took actions
Greenwood prepared itself for attack
Mob anger grew
    Oklahoma National Guard mobilized
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = 1921je01 = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Mob attacked Greenwood at dawn
    Airplanes and a machine gun
    Men in uniforms
The stand at Mount Zion Baptist Church
    More on role of police, National Guardsmen, and their “deputies”
Greenwood fought fiercely, but fires spread northward
    Local National Guardsmen threw full weight behind mutinous mob
Some whites aided blacks
    9:15am = State National Guard appeared on scene
Noon hour = the riot subsided in a city under martial law
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = Aftermath = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Burying the dead
Greenwood was gone
Tulsa officials took steps to ensure Greenwood was not rebuilt

More websites at bottom of this page

[** Ellwood’s big interpretive position]

Historical events, be they great or small, do not exist in isolation, but are a product of the age during which they occurred. […]

To understand the [Tulsa] riot, one cannot begin with the first shot that was fired, nor even with the seemingly insignificant chain of events that led to the first signs of real trouble. Rather, we must begin with the spirit of the times. Only seeing the world as Tulsans did in 1921, and by grasping both their passions and their fears, can we comprehend not only how this great tragedy could occur, but why, in the end, that it did.


[** Bright new prairie city Tulsa]

[…] From the modern office buildings that were rising up out of downtown, to the electric trolleys that rumbled back and forth along Main Street, to the rows of freshly painted houses that kept pushing the city limits further and further into the surrounding countryside, compared to other cities, Tulsa was nothing short of an overnight sensation. Indeed, Tulsa had grown so much and so fast -- in a now-you-don't-see-it, now-you-do kind of fashion -- that local boosters called it the Magic City.

The elixir which had fueled this remarkable growth was, of course, oil. The discovery of the nearby Glenn Pool -- reputed to be the “richest small oil field in the world” -- in 1905, and by the farsightedness of local leaders to build a bridge across the Arkansas River one year earlier, the sleepy rural crossroads known as Tulsa, Indian Territory, was suddenly catapulted into the urban age.

By 1910, thanks to the forest of derricks which had risen up over the nearby oil fields, Tulsa had mushroomed into a raucous boomtown of more than 10,000. Astonishingly, its real growth was only beginning. As the word began to spread about Tulsa -- as a place where fortunes could be made, lives could be rebuilt, and a fresh start could be had -- people literally began to pour in from all over the country. Remarkably enough, by 1920, the population of greater Tulsa had skyrocketed to more than 100,000.

The city that these newcomers had built was, in many ways, equally remarkable. Anchored by the oil industry, and by its new role as the hub of the vast Mid-Continent Field, by 1921 Tulsa was home to not only the offices of more than four-hundred different oil and gas companies, but also to a score of oil field supply companies, tank manufacturers, pipe line companies, and refineries. While the city also enjoyed its role as a regional commercial center, serving nearby farms and ranches, for good reason it was already being referred to as the Oil Capital of the World.

Despite its youth, Tulsa also had acquired, by 1921, practically all of the trappings of older, more established American cities. Four different railroads -- the Frisco, the Santa Fe, the Katy, and the Midland Valley -- served the city, as did two separate inter-urban train lines. A new, all-purpose bridge spanned the Arkansas River near Eleventh Street, while street repair, owing to the ever-increasing numbers of automobiles, was practically constant. By 1919, Tulsa also could boast of having its own commercial airport.

A new city hall had been built in 1917, a new federal building in 1915, and a new county courthouse in 1912. New schools and parks also had been dedicated, and in 1914, the city erected a magnificent new auditorium, the 3,500 seat Convention Hall. Tulsa had grown so quickly, in fact, that even the old city cemetery had to be closed to new burials. In its place, the city had designated Oaklawn Cemetery, located at Eleventh Street and Peoria Avenue, as the new city cemetery.2 [map]

In 1921, Tulsa could lay claim to two daily newspapers the Tulsa World, a morning paper, and a newly renamed afternoon daily, the Tulsa Tribune plus a handful of weeklies. Radio had not arrived yet, but the city was connected to the larger world through four different telegraph companies. Telephone service also existed -- with some ten-thousand phones in use by 1918 -- although long-distance service was still in its infancy. While the city was linked both to nearby towns and to the state capital at Oklahoma City by a network of roads, rail travel was by far the fastest and most reliable mode of transportation in and out of town.

Seven different banks, some of which were capitalized at more than one-million dollars each, were located downtown, as were the offices of dozens of insurance agencies, investment advisers, accounting firms, stock and bond brokerages, real estate agencies, and loan companies. By 1921, more than two-hundred attorneys were practicing in Tulsa, as were more than one-hundred-fifty doctors and sixty dentists.

Frequently awash in money, the citizens of Tulsa had plenty of places to spend it from furniture stores, jewelry shops, and clothing stores to restaurants and cafes, motion picture theaters, billiard halls, and speakeasies. Those who could afford it could find just about anything in Tulsa, from the latest in fashion to the most modern home appliances, including vacuum cleaners, electric washing machines and Victrolas. For those whose luck had run dry, the city had its share of pawnshops and second-hand stores.3

Many Tulsans were especially proud of the city's residential neighborhoods -- and with good reason. From the workingman's castles that offered electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and spacious front porches, to the real castles that were being built by the oil barons, the city could boast of block after block of handsome, modern homes. While Tulsa was by no means without its dreary rooming houses and poverty stricken side streets, brand new neighborhoods with names like Maple Ridge, Sunset Park, Glen Acres, College Addition, Gurley Hill, and Irving Heights were built year after year. Some of the new homes were so palatial that they were regularly featured on picture postcards, chamber of commerce pamphlets, and other publications extolling the virtues of life in Tulsa.4

So too, not surprisingly, was downtown. With its modern office buildings, its graceful stone churches, and its busy nightlife, it is easy to see why Tulsans -- particularly those who worked, played, or worshiped downtown -- were so proud of the city's ever- growing skyline. What the pamphlets and the picture postcards did not reveal was that, despite its impressive new architecture and its increasingly urbane affectations, Tulsa was a deeply troubled town. As 1920 turned into 1921, the city would soon face a crossroads that, in the end, would change it forever.

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[** City divided = Greenwood or “Little Africa”]

However, chamber of commerce pamphlets and the picture postcards did not reveal everything. Tulsa was, in some ways, not one city but two. Practically in the shadow of downtown, there sat a community that was no less remarkable than Tulsa itself. Some whites disparagingly referred to it as “Little Africa”, or worse, but it has become known in later years simply as Greenwood.5 In the early months of 1921, it was the home of nearly ten-thousand African American men, women, and children.

Many had ties to the region that stretched back for generations. Some were the descendants of African American slaves, who had accompanied the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws on the Trail of Tears. Others were the children and grandchildren of runaway slaves who had fled to the Indian nations in the years prior to and during the Civil War. A few elderly residents, some of whom were later interviewed by WPA workers during the 1930s, had been born into slavery.6

However, most of Tulsa's African American residents had come to Oklahoma, like their white neighbors, in the great boom years just before and after statehood. Some had come from Mississippi, some from Missouri, and others had journeyed all the way from Georgia. For many, Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former states of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope, a place worth sacrificing for, a place to start anew. And come they did, in wagons and on horseback, by train and on foot. While some of the new settlers came directly to Tulsa, many others had first lived in smaller communities -- many of which were all-black, or nearly so -- scattered throughout the state.

B.C. Franklin was one. Born in a small country crossroads about twenty miles southwest of Pauls Valley, Franklin's family had roots in Oklahoma that stretched back to the days of the old Chickasaw Nation during the Civil War. An intelligent and determined young man, Franklin had attended college in Tennessee and Georgia, but returned to Indian Territory to open up a law practice. He eventually settled in Rentiesville, an all-black town located between Muskogee and Checotah, where he became not only the sole lawyer in town, but also its postmaster, its justice of the peace, and one of its leading businessmen. However, as his son John Hope Franklin later wrote, “there was not a decent living in all those activities”. Thus, in February 1921, B.C. Franklin moved to Tulsa in the hopes of setting up a more lucrative practice.7

Franklin's experiences, however, were hardly unique, and scattered about Greenwood were other businessmen and businesswomen who had first tried their luck in smaller communities. In the end, however, their earlier difficulties often proved to be an asset in their new home. Full of energy and well-schooled in entrepreneurialism, these new settlers brought considerable business skills to Tulsa. Aided by the buoyant local economy, they went to work on building business enterprises that rested upon sturdier economic foundations. By early 1921, the community that they built was, by national standards, in many ways quite remarkable.8

Running north out of the downtown commercial district -- and shaped, more or less, like an elongated jigsaw puzzle piece -- Greenwood was bordered by the Frisco railroad yards to the south, by Lansing Street and the Midland Valley tracks to the east, and by Standpipe and Sunset Hills to the west. The section line, now known as Pine Street, had for many years been the northernmost boundary of the African American settlement, but as Tulsa had grown, so had Greenwood. By 1921, new all-black housing developments -- such as the Booker T. Washington and Dunbar Additions -- now reached past Pine and into the open countryside north of the city.

The backbone of the community, however, was Greenwood Avenue. Running north for more than a mile -- from Archer Street and the Frisco yards all the way past Pine -- it was not only black Tulsa's primary thoroughfare, but also possessed considerable symbolic meaning as well. Unlike other streets and avenues in Tulsa, which crisscrossed both white and black neighborhoods, Greenwood Avenue was essentially confined to the African American community.9

The southern end of Greenwood Avenue, and adjacent side streets, was the home of the African American commercial district. Nicknamed “Deep Greenwood”, this several block stretch of handsome one, two, and three-story red brick buildings housed dozens of black-owned and operated businesses, including grocery stores and meat markets, clothing and dry good stores, billiard halls, beauty parlors and barber shops, as well as the Economy Drug Company, William Anderson's jewelry store, Henry Lilly's upholstery shop, and A.S. Newkirk's photography studio. A suit of clothes purchased at Elliott & Hooker's clothing emporium at 124 N. Greenwood, could be fitted across the street at H.L. Byars' tailor shop at 105 N. Greenwood, and then cleaned around the corner at Hope Watson's cleaners at 322 E. Archer.

There were plenty of places to eat including late night sandwich shops and barbecue joints to Doc's Beanery and Hamburger Kelly's place. Lilly Johnson's Liberty Cafe, recalled Mabel Little, who owned a beauty shop in Greenwood at the time of the riot, served home-cooked meals at all hours, while at the nearby Little Cafe, “people lined up waiting for their specialty -- chicken or smothered steak with rice and brown gravy.” A Coca-Cola, a sarsaparilla, or a soda could be bought at Rolly and Ada Huff's confectionery on Archer between Detroit and Cincinnati. Although both the nation and Oklahoma were nominally dry, there were also places where a man or a woman could purchase a shot of bootleg whiskey or a milky-colored glass of Choctaw beer.10

For a community of its size, the Greenwood business district could boast of a number of impressive commercial structures. John and Loula Williams, who owned the three-story Williams Building at the northwest corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, also operated the seven-hundred-fifty seat Dreamland Theater, that offered live musical and theatrical revues as well as silent movies accompanied by a piano player. Across the street from the Dreamland sat the white-owned Dixie Theater with seating for one-thousand, which made it the second largest theater in town. In nearby buildings were the offices of nearly all of Tulsa's black lawyers, realtors, and other professionals. Most impressively, there were fifteen African American physicians in Tulsa at the time of the riot, including Dr. A.C. Jackson, who had been described by one of the Mayo brothers as the “most able Negro surgeon in America”.11


[** Greenwood public institutions]

The overall intellectual life of Greenwood was, for a community of its size, quite striking. There was not one black newspaper but two - the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. African Americans were discouraged from utilizing the new Carnegie library downtown, but a smaller, all-black branch library had been opened on Archer Street. Nationally recognized African American leaders, such as W.E.B. DuBois, had lectured in Tulsa before the riot. Moreover, Greenwood was also home to a local business league, various fraternal orders, a Y.M.C.A. branch, and a number of women's clubs, the last of which were often led by the more than thirty teachers who taught in the city's separate -- and, as far as facilities were concerned, decidedly unequal -- African American public schools.

The political issues of the day also attracted considerable interest. The Tulsa Star, in particular, not only provided extensive coverage of national, state, and local political campaigns and election results, but also devoted significant column space for recording the activities of the local all-black Democratic and Republican clubs. Moreover, the Star also paid attention to a number of quasi-political movements as well, including Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, different back-to-Africa movements, and various nationalist organizations. One such group, the African Blood Brotherhood, later claimed to have had a chapter in Greenwood prior to the riot.12

When it came to religious activity, however, there was no question at all where Tulsa's African American community stood. Church membership in Tulsa ran high. On a per capita basis, there were more churches in black Tulsa than there were in the city's white community as well as a number of Bible study groups, Christian youth organizations, and chapters of national religious societies. All told, there were more than a dozen African American churches in Tulsa at the time of the riot, including First Baptist, Vernon A.M.E., Brown's Chapel, Morning Star, Bethel Seventh Day Adventist, and Paradise Baptist, as well as Church of God, Nazarene, and Church of God in Christ congregations. Most impressive from an architectural standpoint, perhaps, was the beautiful, brand new home of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which was dedicated on April 10, 1921 -- less than eight weeks before the riot.13

[** Greenwood economy]

The new Mount Zion Baptist Church building (constructed of brick and mortar) also was a tangible symbol, of the fact that African Americans had also shared, to some degree, in Tulsa's great economic boom. While modest in comparison with the fortunes being amassed by the city's white millionaires, Greenwood was home to some highly successful business entrepreneurs. O.W. Gurley, a black real estate developer and the owner of the Gurley Hotel, reportedly suffered some $65,000 in losses during the riot. Even more impressive was the business resume of J.B. Stradford, whose assets were said to be nearly twice as large. Stradford, a highly successful owner of rental property, had borrowed $20,000 in order to construct his own hotel. Opened on June 1, 1918, the Stradford Hotel, a modern fifty-four room structure, instantly became not only one of the true jewels of Greenwood Avenue, but was also one of the largest black-owned businesses in Oklahoma.14

Most of the black-owned businesses in Tulsa were, of course, much more modest affairs. Scattered about the district were numerous small stores, from two-seater barber shops to family-run grocery stores that helped to make pre-riot Greenwood, on a per capita basis, one of the most business-laden African American communities in the country. Grit, hard work, and determination were the main reasons for this success, as were the entrepreneurial skills that were imported to Tulsa from smaller communities across Oklahoma.

There were other reasons as well. Tulsa's booming economy was a major factor, as was the fact that, on the whole, Greenwood was not only the place where black Tulsans chose to shop, but was also practically the only place that they could. Hemmed in by the city's residential segregation ordinance, African Americans were generally barred from patronizing white-owned stores downtown -- or ran the risk of insult, or worse, if they tried. While many black Tulsans made a conscious decision to patronize African American merchants, the fact of the matter was that they had few others places to go.15

There was no dearth of African American consumers. Despite the growing fame of its commercial district, the vast majority of Greenwood's adults were neither businessmen nor businesswomen, but worked long hours, under trying conditions, for white employers. Largely barred from employment in both the oil industry and from most of Tulsa's manufacturing facilities, these men and women toiled at difficult, often dirty, and generally menial jobs -- the kinds that most whites considered beneath them--as janitors and ditch-diggers, dishwashers and maids, porters and day laborers, domestics and service workers. Unsung and largely forgotten, it was, nevertheless, their paychecks that built Greenwood, and their hard work that helped to build Tulsa.16

Equally forgotten perhaps, are the housing conditions that these men and women returned to at the end of the day. Although Greenwood contained some beautiful, modern homes -- particularly those of the doctors, business owners, and educators who lived in the fashionable 500 block of North Detroit Avenue along the shoulder of Standpipe Hill -- most African Americans in pre-riot Tulsa lived in far more meager circumstances. According to a study conducted by the American Association of Social Workers of living conditions in black Tulsa shortly before the riot, some “95 percent of the Negro residents in the black belt lived in poorly constructed frame houses, without conveniences, and on streets which were unpaved and on which the drainage was all surface”.17

Not all black Tulsans, however, lived in Greenwood. As the city boomed and the newly-minted oil tycoons built mansions, purchased touring cars, and in general sought to mimic the lifestyles of their more established counterparts back East, there was a corresponding boom in the market for domestic help. Such positions were often open to African Americans as well as whites, and by early 1921, upward of two-hundred black Tulsans were residing in otherwise all-white neighborhoods, especially on the city's ever growing south side. Working as maids, cooks, butlers, and chauffeurs, they lived in servant's quarters that, more often than not, were attached to garages located at the rear of their employer's property.

For the men and women who lived and worked in these positions, a visit to Greenwood -- be it to attend Sunday services, or simply to visit with family and friends -- was often the highlight of the week. Whether they caught a picture show at the Dreamland or the Dixie, or merely window-shopped along Greenwood Avenue, they, too, could take both pride and ownership in what lay before them.18 Its poverty and lack of services notwithstanding, there was no question that Greenwood was an American success story.

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[** Racial problems in USA in WW1 era]

Yet, despite its handsome business district and its brand-new brick church, and the rags-to-riches careers of some of its leading citizens, neither Greenwood's present, nor its future, was by any means secure. By the spring of 1921, trouble -- real trouble -- had been brewing in Tulsa for some time. When it came to issues of race -- not just in Tulsa or in Oklahoma, but all across American -- the problems weren't simply brewing. They had, in fact, already arrived.

In the long and often painful history of race relations in the United States, few periods were as turbulent as the years surrounding World War I, when the country exploded into an era of almost unprecedented racial strife. In the year 1919 alone, more than two dozen different race riots broke out in cities and towns across the nation. Unlike the racial disturbances of the 1960s and the 1990s, these riots were characterized by the specter of white mobs invading African American neighborhoods, where they attacked black men and women and, in some cases, set their homes and businesses on fire.19

These riots were set off in different ways. In Chicago, long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites over housing, recreation, and jobs were ignited one Sunday afternoon in late July 1919. A group of teenaged African American boys, hoping to find some relief from the rising temperatures, climbed aboard a homemade raft out on Lake Michigan. They ended up drifting opposite an all-white beach. The white beach-goers, meanwhile, who were already angered by an attempt by a group of black men and women to utilize that beach earlier that day, began hurling stones at the youths, killing one, and setting off nearly two weeks of racial terror. In the end, more than thirty-eight people -- both black and white -- were killed in Chicago, and scores and scores of homes were burned to the ground.20

A race riot in Washington, D.C., which broke out earlier that summer, followed a more typical pattern. After rumors had been circulating for weeks that rapists were on the loose, a white woman claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by two young African American men. Although she later admitted that her original story was false, the white press built up the incident, and racial tensions rose. Then, on July 19, the Washington Post published yet another story of an alleged assault -- “NEGROES ATTACK GIRL” ran the headline, “WHITE MEN VAINLY PURSUE”. The next day, the nation's capital erupted into racial violence, as groups of white soldiers, sailors, and Marines began to “molest any black person in sight, hauling them off of streetcars and out of restaurants, chasing them up alleys, and beating them mercilessly on street corners”. At least six people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. After whites threatened to set fire to African American neighborhoods, order was finally restored when the secretary of war called out some two-thousand federal troops to patrol the streets.21

Alleged sexual assaults played a role in two other race riots that broke out that year. In Knoxville, Tennessee, a white mob gathered outside the jail where a black male was being held for supposedly attacking a white female. Troops were called in to quell the disturbance, but the soldiers -- all of whom were white -- instead invaded the African American district and “shot it up.” In Omaha, Nebraska, a similar situation rapidly developed after William Brown, who was black, was arrested for allegedly assaulting a young white girl. A mob of angry whites then stormed the courthouse where Brown was being held, shot him, hung him from a nearby lamppost, and then mutilated his body beyond recognition.22

The savage attack on William Brown brutally demonstrated just how passionately many white Americans felt about situations involving interracial sexual relations. While this subject -- which has a long and complicated history in the United States -- cannot be dealt with in a detailed fashion here, suffice it to say that during the post-World War I era, and for many years before and after, perhaps no crime was viewed as more egregious by many whites than the rape, or attempted rape, of a white woman by a black male.23

Riots, however, were not the only form of extralegal violence faced by African Americans during the World War I era. In 1919 alone, more than seventy-five blacks were lynched by white mobs -- including more than a dozen black soldiers, some of whom were murdered while still in uniform. Moreover, many of the so-called lynchings were growing ever more barbaric. During the first year following the war, eleven African Americans were burned -- alive -- at the stake by white mobs.24

Across the nation, blacks bitterly resisted these attacks, which were often made worse by the fact that in many instances, local police authorities were unable or unwilling to disperse the white mobs. As the violence continued, and the death count rose, more and more African American leaders came to the conclusion that nothing less than the very future of black men and women in America hung in the balance.

World War I had done much to clarify their thinking. In the name of democracy, African Americans had solidly supported the war effort. Black soldiers -- who were placed in segregated units -- had fought gallantly in France, winning the respect not only of Allied commanders, but also of their German foes. Having risked their lives and shed their blood in Europe, many black veterans felt even more strongly that not only was it time that democracy was practiced back home, but that it was a long time overdue.25

They returned home to a nation not only plagued by race riots and lynchings, but also by a poisonous racial climate that, in many ways, was only growing worse. The very same years that saw the emergence of the United States as a major world power also witnessed, back home, the rise of some aggressive and insidious new forms of white racism.

Moreover, the new racial climate was far from limited to the South. Less than fifty years after the Civil War, a number of northern cities began to bar African Americans from restaurants and other public establishments, while in the classrooms of Ivy League colleges and universities, a new scientific racism -- which held that whites from northern Europe were innately superior to all other human groups -- was all the rage. In Washington, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson proposed dozens of laws which mandated discriminatory treatment against African Americans. And across the country, racist white politicians constantly preyed upon racial fear and hostility.26 They soon had a new ally.

Re-established in Atlanta in 1915, the so-called second Ku Klux Klan had adopted both the name and familiar hooded robes of its nineteenth century predecessor, but in many ways was a brand new organization. Launched the same year that D.W. Griffith's anti-black blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation, was released in movie theaters nationwide, Klan organizers fanned out across the country, establishing powerful state organizations not only in the South, but also in places like New Jersey, Indiana, and Oregon. While African Americans were often the recipients of the political intimidation, beatings, and other forms of violence meted out by klansmen, they were not the only targets of the new reign of terror. Klan members also regularly attacked Jews, Catholics, Japanese Americans, and immigrants from southern Europe, as well as suspected bootleggers, adulterers, and other alleged criminals.27


[** Racial problems in Oklahoma]

Although still a young state, many of these national trends were well-represented in Oklahoma. Like their counterparts elsewhere, black Oklahomans had rallied strongly behind the war effort, purchasing Liberty Bonds, holding patriotic rallies and taking part in home front conservation efforts. More than a few African American men from Oklahoma -- including a large number of Tulsans -- had enlisted in the army. Some, like legendary Booker T. Washington High School football coach Seymour Williams, had fought in France.28

But when Oklahoma's black World War I veterans finally returned to civilian life, they, too, came home to a state where, sadly enough, anti-black sentiments were alive and well. In 1911, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the infamous “Grandfather Clause”, which effectively ended voting by African Americans statewide. While the law was ruled unconstitutional by a unanimous vote by the U.S. Supreme Court four years later, other methods were soon employed to keep black Oklahomans from the polls. Nor did the Jim Crow legislation stop there. In the end, the state legislature passed a number of segregation statutes, including one which made Oklahoma the first state in the Union to segregate its telephone booths.29

Racial violence, directed against black Oklahomans, also was a grim reality during this period. In large part owing to conditions of frontier lawlessness, Oklahoma had long been plagued by lynchings, and during the territorial days, numerous suspected horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and outlaws, the vast majority of whom were white, had been lynched by white mobs. However, from 1911 onward, all of the state's lynching victims, save one, were African American. And during the next decade, twenty-three black Oklahomans -- including two women -- were lynched by whites in more than a dozen different Oklahoma communities, including Anadarko, Ardmore, Eufaula, Holdenville, Idabel, Lawton, Madill, Mannford, Muldrow, Norman, Nowata, Okemah, Oklahoma City, Purcell, Shawnee, Wagoner, and Wewoka.30

[** Ku Klux Klan and related social organizations]

The Sooner State also proved to be fertile ground for the newly revived Ku Klux Klan [ID]. Estimates vary, but at the height of its power in the mid-1920s, it is believed that there were more than 100,000 klansmen in Oklahoma. Chapters existed statewide, and the organization's membership rolls included farmers, ranchers, miners, oil field workers, small town merchants, big city businessmen, ministers, newspaper editors, policemen, educators, lawyers, judges, and politicians. Most Klan activities -- including cross burnings, parades, night riding, whippings, and other forms of violence and intimidation -- tended to be local in nature, although at one point the political clout of the state organization was so great that it managed to launch impeachment proceedings against Governor John C. Walton, who opposed the Klan.31

Tulsa, in particular, became a lively center of Klan activity. While membership figures are few and far between -- one estimate held that there were some 3,200 members of the Tulsa Klan in December 1921 -- perhaps as many as six-thousand white Tulsans, at one time or another, became members of the Klan including several prominent local leaders. At one Klan initiation ceremony, that took place in the countryside south of town during the summer of 1922, more than one-thousand new members were initiated, causing a huge traffic jam on the road to Broken Arrow. Tulsa also was home to a thriving chapter of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan as well as being one of the few cities in the country with an active chapter of the organization's official youth affiliate, the Junior Ku Klux Klan. There were Klan parades, Klan funerals, and Klan fund-raisers including one wildly successful 1923 benefit that netted some $24,000, when 13 Ford automobiles were raffled off. In time, the Tulsa Klan grew so solvent that it built its own brick auditorium, Beno Hall -- short, it was said, for “Be No Nigger, Be No Jew, Be No Catholic” -- on Main Street just north of downtown.32

The local Klan also was highly active in politics in Tulsa. It regularly issued lists of Klan-approved candidates for both state and local political offices, that were prominently displayed in Tulsa newspapers. According to one student of the Klan in Tulsa Country during the 1920s, “mayors, city commissioners, sheriffs, district attorneys, and many other city and country office holders who were either klansmen or Klan supporters were elected, and reelected, with regularity.” In 1923, three of the five members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from Tulsa Country were admitted klansmen.33

In addition to cross burnings, Tulsa Klan members also routinely engaged in acts of violence and intimidation. Richard Gary, who lived off Admiral Boulevard during the early 1920s, still has vivid memories of hooded klansmen, a soon-to-be horsewhipped victim sitting between them, heading east in open touring cars. Suspected bootleggers, wife-cheaters, and automobile thieves were among the most common victims -- but they weren't the only ones. In May 1922, black Deputy sheriff John Henry Smitherman was kidnaped by klansmen, who sliced off one of his ears. Fifteen months later, Nathan Hantaman, a Jewish movie projectionist, was kidnaped by Klan members, who nearly beat him to death. The city's Catholic population also was the target of considerable abuse, as Tulsa klansmen tried to force local businessmen to fire their Catholic employees.34

Not all white Tulsans, of course, or even a majority, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Among the city's white Protestants, there were many who disdained both the Klan's tactics and beliefs. Nonetheless, at least until the mid-1920s, and in some ways all the way until the end of the decade, there is no doubt but that the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in the life of the city.35

Less easy to document, however, is whether the Klan was organized in Tulsa prior to the 1921 race riot. While there have been a number of allegations over the years claiming that the Klan was directly involved in the riot, the evidence is quite scanty -- in either direction -- as to whether or not the Klan had an actual organizational presence in the city prior to August 1921, some two months after the riot. However, since this is an area of continuing interest, it may prove helpful to examine this evidence a bit more closely.

According to the best available scholarship, the first Klan organizers to officially visit Oklahoma--George Kimbro, Jr. and George C. McCarron, both from Houston -- did not arrive until the summer of 1920. Setting up headquarters in the Baltimore Building in downtown Oklahoma City, McCarron stayed on in the state capital, and began looking for future klansmen among the membership of the city's various white fraternal orders. According to Carter Blue Clark, whose 1976 doctoral dissertation remains the standard work on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma, McCarron “shortly had twelve Kleagles [assistant organizers] working out of his office selling memberships throughout the city, and very soon throughout the state.” While Clark concluded that the Klan “could not be credited with precipitating the riot” -- a finding shared by most scholars of the riot -- he also determined that Klan organizers had been active in the Tulsa region beforehand.36

The fact that Tulsa would have been an early destination for Klan organizers -- who, like their counterparts elsewhere, were paid on a commission basis -- is entirely reasonable. Not only did Tulsa itself offer a large base of potential members, but the city was a likely jumping-off place for organizing the nearby oil fields.37

Other evidence also points toward there being members of the Klan in Tulsa prior to the riot. In the sermon he delivered on Sunday evening, June 5, 1921 -- only four days after the riot -- Bishop E.D. Mouzon told parishioners at Boston Avenue Methodist Church that, “There may be some of you here tonight who are members of the Ku Klux Klan.” Furthermore, research conducted by Ruth Avery in the 1960s and 1970s also points toward pre-riot Klan membership in Tulsa.38

However, other evidence suggests that, if anything, the Klan had a very limited presence in Tulsa before the riot. Throughout the first five months of 1921, for example, the Tulsa Tribune did not hesitate to print stories about Ku Klux Klan activities elsewhere, but gave no hint of there being any in Tulsa.39

Moreover, only one week before the riot, on May 22, 1921, the Tribune carried an advertisement for the May Brothers clothing store which poked fun at the Klan. Announcing that the downtown men's clothiers had created its own “Kool Klad Klan”, the advertisement went on to explain that this was a “hot weather society” whose members would receive discounts on their purchases of summer clothing. “Men who join the K.K.K. pay less for their summer clothes and get more out of them,” ran the ad copy, “Palm Beach is the favorite suit of most members.” What went unspoken, however, is that the May brothers were Jewish immigrants from Russia, something that made them likely candidates for Klan harassment. The fact the brothers ran the advertisement would seem to suggest that on the eve of the riot, the existence of the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa was far from common knowledge, perhaps reflecting membership numbers that were still low.40

The riot would change all of that. Beginning with what one student of the history of the Klan described as “the first open sign of the Klan's presence in Tulsa” in early August 1921, more than two months after the riot, the Klan literally exploded across the city. On August 10, more than two-thousand people attended a lecture at Convention Hall by a Klan spokesman from Atlanta. Three weeks later, on the evening of August 31, some three-hundred white Tulsa men were initiated into the Klan at a ceremony held outside of town. Three days later, masked klansmen kidnaped an alleged bootlegger named J.E. Frazier and took him to a remote spot outside of Owasso and whipped him severely. After the county attorney subsequently announced that he would take no action against the klansmen, and intimated that the victim probably got what he deserved, more whippings soon followed. With the attack on J.E. Frazier, Tulsa's Klan era began in earnest.

Despite the lack of convincing evidence linking the Klan to the outbreak of the riot in the months that followed, Klan organizers used the riot as a recruiting tool. The Klan lecturer from Atlanta who visited Tulsa in August 1921 declared that “the riot was the best thing that ever happened to Tulsa”, while other Klan spokesmen preyed upon the heightened emotional state of the white community after the riot. However the pitch was made, it soon became abundantly clear that Tulsa was prime recruiting territory for the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, it had been for quite some time.41


[** Resentments associated with “race” in Tulsa]

Despite the fact that segregation appeared to be gaining ground statewide, in the months leading up to the riot, more than a few white Tulsans instead feared, at least in Tulsa itself, that the opposite was true. Many were especially incensed when black Tulsans disregarded, or challenged, Jim Crow practices. Others were both enraged at, and jealous of, the material success of some of Greenwood's leading citizens -- feelings that were no doubt increased by the sharp drop in the price of crude oil, and the subsequent layoffs in the oil fields, that preceded the riot. Indeed, an unidentified writer for one white Tulsa publication, the Exchange Bureau Bulletin, later listed “niggers with money” as one of the so-called causes of the catastrophe. During the weeks and months leading up to the riot, there were more than a few white Tulsans who not only feared that the color line was in danger of being slowly erased, but believed that this was already happening.42

Adding to these fears was the simple reality that, at the time, the vast majority of white Tulsans possessed almost no direct knowledge of the African American community whatsoever. Although a handful of whites owned businesses in Greenwood, and a few others occasionally visited the area for one reason or another, most white Tulsans had never set foot in the African American district, and never would. Living in all-white neighborhoods, attending all-white schools and churches, and working for the most part in all-white work environments, the majority of white Tulsans in 1921 had little more than fleeting contact with the city's black population. What little they knew, or thought they knew, about the African American community was susceptible not only to racial stereotypes and deeply-ingrained prejudices, but also to rumor, innuendo, and, as events would soon prove, what was printed in the newspaper.

Such conditions, it turned out, proved helpful to the Klan, and both before and after the riot, Klan organizers exploited the racial concerns of white Tulsans as a method of boosting membership. However, the organizers also used something else. Race relations was not the only major societal issue that weighed heavily on the minds of many Tulsans during the months that led up to the riot. Rather, they were also deeply concerned about something else -- something that, in the end, proved to be a gateway to catastrophe.

[** Tulsa crime and vice in the Prohibition era]

Of all the visitors who came to Tulsa in the months preceding the riot, not everyone left town with a positive image. Despite the city's new skyscrapers and impressive mansions, its booming oil industry and its rags-to-riches millionaires, some visitors -- like the federal agent who spent five days undercover in Tulsa in late April, 1921 -- saw a far different side of local life. In his “Report on Vice Conditions in Tulsa”, the agent had found that:

Gambling, bootlegging and prostitution are very much in evidence. At the leading hotels and rooming houses the bell hops and porters are pimping for women, and also selling booze. Regarding violations of the law, these prostitutes and pimps solicit without any fear of the police, as they will invariably remind you that you are safe in these houses.

The agent concluded, “Vice conditions in this city are extremely bad.”43

Few Tulsans, in those days, would have been surprised by the agent's findings. In addition to the city's growing fame as the Oil Capital, Tulsa also was gaining something of a reputation -- and not just regionally, but also among New York bankers and insurance men -- as a wide-open town, a place where crime and criminals were as much a part of the oil boom as well logs and drilling rigs.

Most certainly, there was plenty of evidence to support such a conclusion. Well- known gambling dens -- like Dutch Weete's place three miles east of the fairgrounds, or Puss Hall's roadhouse along the Turley highway -- flourished on the outskirts of town, while within the city, both a fortune in oil royalties, or a roughneck's wages, could be gambled away, night after night, in poker games in any number of hotels and rooming houses.

During the Prohibition era, both Oklahoma and the nation were supposedly dry, although one would not know it from a visit to Tulsa. One well-known local watering hole flourished in the Boston Building, less that two blocks from police headquarters, while scattered across the city were a number of illegal bars offering corn whiskey, choc beer, or the latest rage, “Jake” or jamaica ginger. In Greenwood, customers with a taste for live music with their whiskey might frequent Pretty Belle's place, while on the south side of town, the well-to-do oil set, it was said, purchased their liquor from a woman living at Third and Elgin. Hotel porters and bellhops regularly delivered pints and quarts to their guests, while an active bootlegging network operated out of the city's drug stores and pharmacies. For customers who placed a premium on discretion, both bootleggers and taxi drivers alike would also make regular home deliveries.44

Illegal drugs were also present. Morphine, cocaine, and opium could all be purchased in Tulsa, apparently without much difficulty. Indeed, one month before the riot, federal narcotics officer Charles C. Post, declared, “Tulsa is overrun with narcotics.”45

Hand-in-hand with this illegal consumption came a plenitude of other crime. Automobile theft was said to be so common in Tulsa prior to the riot, it was claimed, that “a number of companies have canceled all policies on cars in Tulsa.” Petty crimes, from housebreaking to traffic violations, were common fodder in the city's newspapers during this period -- but so were more serious offenses. In the year preceding the riot, two Tulsa police officers had been killed on duty, while less than six weeks before the riot, Tulsa police officers were involved in a spectacular shoot-out with armed bandits at an east side rooming house. State Assistant Attorney General George F. Short, who visited Tulsa during this same period, even went so far as to describe the local crime conditions as “apparently grave.”46

While not everyone in town would have agreed with such a bleak assessment, there was no denying the fact that, on the eve of the race riot, the city had a serious crime problem. However, it was equally true that, in many ways, this was not only nothing new, but had more or less been a constant since the first heady days of the Glenn Pool and its attendant land swindles and get-rich-quick schemes. “Tulsans on the whole have had enough of the slime and crime that characterize a new community which draws much of the bad with the good in a rich strike,” mused one local editorial writer, “But Tulsa has outgrown that stage.”47

A number of Tulsans had attempted, seemingly without a great deal of success, for years to do something about the local crime conditions. In 1914, the Ministerial Alliance had mounted a campaign against gambling and other forms of vice. Five years later, a group of well-known white leaders formed a “Committee of One Hundred” to combat local crime problems. Two years after that, in early 1921, the group was revived, vowing to see that a “clean sweep of criminals is made here and that the laws are enforced.”48


[** Lynch law in general]

However, there was a dark side to local anti-crime efforts as well. As young as the city of Tulsa was in the spring of 1921, it could already claim a long history of vigilante activity. In 1894, a white man known as “Dutch John”, who was suspected of being a cattle rustler, was reportedly lynched in Tulsa. Ten years later, in 1904, a mob of whites gathered outside of the local jail, intending to lynch an African American prisoner held inside, but were turned away by the mayor, a local banker, and, not the least, by the city marshall, who had drawn both of his guns on the mob.49

Although violence had been averted, that was far from the end of vigilantism in Tulsa. In 1917, after the United States had entered World War I, a secret society calling itself the Knights of Liberty unleashed a local campaign of terror and intimidation against suspected slackers, Mennonites and other pacifists, as well as political radicals. The group's most infamous action -- that gained the attention of the national press -- came in November 1917 when, with the encouragement of the white press and the apparent cooperation of the local authorities, masked members of the Knights tarred and feathered more than a dozen local members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union movement, and forced them out of town at gunpoint.50

Even though the Knights of Liberty/I.W.W. incident had been an all-white affair, it proved to be an important step along the road to the race riot. Not only did local law enforcement refuse to actively investigate the incident, but the secret society was praised by the white press for taking the law into its own hands, an important precedent for more such activities in the future.51

Nevertheless, it would not be until nearly three years later, during the late summer of 1920, that Tulsa would experience an incident that would prove to be the single most important precursor to the race riot. While all of its participants also were white, it, too, would have profound reverberations on both sides of the color line.

It began on Saturday night, August 21, 1920, when a Tulsa cab driver named Homer Nida was hired by two young men and one young woman to drive them to a dance in Sapulpa. Along the way, in the countryside past Red Fork, one of the men pulled out a revolver and forced Nida to pull over. Striking the terrified cab driver with the pistol, the gunman demanded money. When Nida could not produce a sufficient amount of cash, the gunman shot Nida in the stomach and kicked him out onto the highway, as the trio sped off in the now-stolen taxi. A passing motorist discovered Nida a short while later, and rushed the severely wounded driver to a hospital.52

The next day, police in Nowata, acting on a tip, arrested an eighteen-year-old one-time telephone company employee named Roy Belton, who denied having had anything to do with the affair. Belton was taken to Homer Nida's hospital room in Tulsa, where the cab driver identified him as his assailant. Again, Belton denied the accusation.

Two days later, however, Roy Belton who was now being held in the jail located on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse changed his story. He admitted that he had been in the taxicab, and that he and his accomplices had planned on robbing the driver. He insisted the shooting had been accidental. Belton claimed that the gun had been damaged when he struck Nida in the head with it, and that it had gone off accidentally while he was trying to repair it.53

Belton's dubious account, however, only added fuel to the already inflamed emotions that many Tulsans already held about the shooting, a situation made even more tense by the fact that Homer Nida lay languishing in a Tulsa hospital. Less than forty-eight hours after Belton's so-called “confession”, Tulsa County Sheriff Jim Woolley had heard rumors that if the cab driver died, the courthouse would be mobbed and Roy Belton would be lynched.54

Two days later, on Saturday, August 28, 1920, Homer Nida finally succumbed to his wounds and died. In reporting the news of his death in that afternoon's edition, the Tulsa Tribune quoted the driver's widow as saying that Belton deserved “to be mobbed, but the other way is better.”55

Other Tulsans thought otherwise. By 11:00 p.m. that same evening, hundreds of whites had gathered outside of the courthouse. Soon, a delegation of men carrying rifles and shotguns, some with handkerchiefs covering their faces, entered the building and demanded of Sheriff Woolley that he turn Belton over to them. The sheriff later claimed that he tried to dissuade the intruders, but he appears to have done little to stop them. For a little while later, the men appeared on the courthouse steps with Roy Belton. “We got him boys,” they shouted, “We've got him.”56

Belton was then placed in Homer Nida's taxicab which had been stolen from the authorities -- and was driven out past Red Fork, followed by a line of automobiles “nearly a mile long”. Not far from where Nida had been shot, the procession stopped, and Belton was taken from the cab and interrogated. But when a rumor spread that a posse was in hot pursuit, everyone returned to their cars and set out along the road to Jenks.

The lynch mob had little to fear. Tulsa police did not arrive at the courthouse in any appreciable numbers until after Belton had been kidnapped and the caravan of cars had left downtown. “We did the best thing,” Police Chief John Gustafson later claimed, “[we] jumped into cars and followed the ever increasing mob.”

By the time police officers finally caught up with the lynching party, it had reassembled along the Jenks road about three miles southwest of Tulsa. Once again, Roy Belton was taken from the cab, and then led to a spot next to a roadside sign. A rope was procured from a nearby farmhouse, a noose was thrown around his neck, and he was lynched. Among the crowd -- estimated to be in the hundreds -- were members of the Tulsa police, who had been instructed by Chief Gustafson not to intervene. “Any demonstration from an officer,” he later claimed, “would have started gun play and dozens of innocent people would have been killed and injured.”57

In the days that followed, however, Gustafson practically applauded the lynching. While claiming to be “absolutely opposed” to mob law, the police chief also stated “it is my honest opinion that the lynching of Roy Belton will prove of real benefit to Tulsa and the vicinity. It was an object lesson to the hijackers and auto thieves.” Sheriff Woolley echoed the chief, claiming that the lynching showed criminals “that the men of Tulsa mean business.”58

Nor were Tulsa's top lawmen alone in their sentiments. The Tulsa Tribune, the city's afternoon daily, also claimed to be opposed to mob law, but offered little criticism of the actual lynching party. The Tulsa World, the morning daily, went even further. Calling the lynching a “righteous protest”, the newspaper added: “There was not a vestige of the mob spirit in the act of Saturday night. It was citizenship, outraged by government inefficiency and a too tender regard for the professional criminal.” The World went on to blast the current state of the criminal justice system, ominously adding, “we predict that unless conditions are speedily improved”, that the lynching of Roy Belton “will not be the last by any means.”59

With the death of Roy Belton, Tulsa had not simply joined the list of other Oklahoma cities and towns where, sadly enough, a lynching had occurred. Of equal importance was the fact that, as far as anyone could tell, the local law enforcement authorities in Tulsa had done precious little to stop the lynching. Thus, the question arose, if another mob ever gathered in Tulsa to lynch someone else, who was going to stop them?


[** Lynch law in the Tulsa Black community]

The lynching of Roy Belton cast a deep pall over black Tulsa. For even though Homer Nida, Roy Belton, and the lynching party itself had all been white, there was simply no escaping the conclusion that if Belton had been black, he would have been lynched just the same, and probably sooner. What about the next time that an African American was charged with a serious crime in Tulsa, particularly if it involved a white victim? What would happen then?

A.J. Smitherman, the outspoken editor of the Tulsa Star, the city's oldest and most popular African American newspaper, was absolutely resolute on the matter of lynching. “There is no crime, however atrocious,” he wrote following the lynching of Roy Belton, “that justifies mob violence.”60 For Smitherman, lynching was not simply a crime to be condemned, but was literally a “stain” upon society.61

Nor was Smitherman alone in his sentiments. If there was one issue which united African Americans all across the nation, it was opposition to mob law. Moreover, that opposition was particularly strong in Oklahoma, as many blacks had immigrated to the state in no small measure to escape the mob mentality that was far from uncommon in some other parts of the country.

However, both the lynching of Roy Belton in Tulsa, and that of a young African American in Oklahoma City that same week, brought to the surface some dire practical issues. In a situation where a black prisoner was being threatened by a white mob, what should African Americans do? Smitherman was quite clear on the answer.

As early as 1916, it has been reported, “a group of armed blacks prevented the lynching of one of their number in Muskogee.”62 In a similar situation, which happened only five months prior to the Tulsa riot, Smitherman had strongly praised a group of black men who had first armed themselves, and then set out in pursuit of a white mob that was en route to lynch an African American prisoner at Chandler. “As to the Colored men of Shawnee,” Smitherman wrote, . . . they are the heroes of the story. If one set of men arm themselves and chase across the country to violate the law, certainly another set who arm themselves to uphold the supremacy of the law and prevent crime, must stand out prominently as the best citizens. Therefore, the action of the Colored men in this case is to be commended. We need more citizens like them in every community and of both races.63

Five months later, when a group of African Americans in the state capital had not gathered until after a black youth had been lynched by a white mob, Smitherman was unsparing in his criticism. “It is quite evident,” he wrote, “that the proper time to afford protection to any prisoner is BEFORE and during the time he is being lynched.”64

It also was clear that there were black Tulsans who were prepared to do just that. A little more than a year before Roy Belton was lynched, an incident occurred in Tulsa that -- while it received little press coverage at the time --- gave a clear indication as to what actions some black Tulsans would take if they feared that an African American was in danger of becoming the victim of mob violence.

The incident began on the evening of March 17, 1919, when a white ironworker was shot by two armed stick-up men on the outskirts of downtown. The ironworker died of his wounds some twelve hours later, but before he succumbed, he told Tulsa police detectives that his assailants were black, and he provided the officers with a rather sketchy description of each man. “Violence is feared,” wrote the Tulsa Democrat of the shooting, “if the guilty pair is taken in charge.”65

Some forty-eight hours later, Tulsa police officers arrested not two, but three, African American men in connection with the shooting. Despite proclamations by the police that the accused men would be protected, concerns for their safety quickly spread across the black community, and rumors began to circulate that the trio might be in danger of being lynched. The rumors reached a crescendo the day after the ironworker's funeral, when a delegation of African American men -- some of them armed -led by Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, a well-known physician, paid an evening visit to the city jail, where the accused men were being held.66

“We understand there is to be some trouble here,” Dr. Bridgewater reportedly informed a police captain.

The police officer was adamant that nothing of the kind was going to occur. “There is not going to be any trouble here,” the captain allegedly replied, “and the best thing you fellows can do is beat it back and drop the firearms.” Despite his confidence, however, the officer allowed a small contingent to visit with the prisoners in their cells. Apparently satisfied with the situation, Dr. Bridgewater and the other African American men returned to Greenwood. There was no lynching.67

Whatever relief black Tulsans may have felt following this affair did not last long. With the lynching of Roy Belton some seventeen months later, the door to mob violence in Tulsa was suddenly pushed wide open. If a white could by lynched in Tulsa, why would a black not suffer the same fate? Moreover, as editor Smitherman observed, the Belton lynching had also clarified another matter -- one that would prove to be of vital importance on May 3l, 1921. “The lynching of Roy Belton,” Smitherman wrote in the Tulsa Star, “explodes the theory that a prisoner is safe on the top of the Court House from mob violence.”68

The death of Roy Belton shattered any confidence that black Tulsans may have had in the ability, or the willingness, of local law enforcement to prevent a lynching from taking place in Tulsa. It also had done something else. For more than a few black Tulsans, the bottom line on the matter had become clearer than ever. Namely, the only ones who might prevent the threatened lynching of an African American prisoner in Tulsa would be black Tulsans themselves.


[** Role of the print media]

Despite the clarity of these conclusions, it is important to note that white Tulsans were utterly unaware of what their black neighbors were thinking. Although A.J. Smitherman's editorials regarding lynching were both direct and plainspoken, white Tulsans did not read the Tulsa Star, and Smitherman's opinions were not reported in the white press. As dramatic and as significant as the visit of Dr. Bridgewater and the others was to the city jail during the 1919 incident, it received little coverage in the city's white newspapers at the time, and was no doubt quickly forgotten.

Rather, when it came to the matter of lynching, black Tulsa and white Tulsa were like two separate galaxies, with one quite unaware of what the other was thinking. However, as the year 1921 began to unfold, events would soon bring them crashing into one another.

In 1921, most Tulsans received their news through either one or both of the city's two daily newspapers -- the Tulsa World, which was the morning paper, or the Tulsa Tribune, which came out in the afternoon. While the World went all the way back to 1905, the Tribune was only two years old. It was the creation of Richard Lloyd Jones, a Wisconsin born newspaperman who had also worked as a magazine editor in New York. Hoping to challenge the more established -- and, in many ways, more restrained -- Tulsa World, Jones had fashioned the Tribune as a lively rival, unafraid to stir up an occasional hornet's nest.69 As it turned out, Tulsa's vexing crime problem proved to be an ideal local arena in which the Tribune could hope to make a name for itself

Sensing just how frustrated many Tulsans were with the local crime conditions, the Tribune launched a vigorous anti-crime campaign that ran throughout the early months of 1921. In addition to giving broad coverage to both local criminal activity, and to sensational murders from across the state, the Tribune also published a series of hard-hitting editorials. Using titles such as “Catch the Crooks”, “Go After Them”, “Promoters of Crime”, “To Make Every Day Safe”, “The City Failure”, and “Make Tulsa Decent”, the editorials called for nothing less than an aggressive citywide clean-up campaign.70

Not surprisingly, the Tribune's campaign ruffled the feathers of some local law enforcement figures along the way, including the county attorney, the police commissioner, and several members of the Tulsa Police Department. While it is uncertain as to how much of the Tribune's campaign had been motivated by partisan political concerns, both the paper's news stories and its editorials caused considerable commotion. Allegations of police corruption -- particularly regarding automobile theft -- received a great amount of attention, and ultimately led to formal investigations of local law enforcement by both the State of Oklahoma and the City of Tulsa.71

By mid-May 1921, the Tribune's anti-crime and anti-corruption campaign seemed to be on the verge of reaching some sort of climax. Branding the city government's investigation of the police department as a “whitewash”, the newspaper kept hammering away at the alleged inability of, or refusal by, local law enforcement to tackle Tulsa's crime problem. “The people of Tulsa are becoming awake to conditions that are no longer tolerable,” argued a May 14 editorial. Two days later, in an editorial titled “Better Get Busy”, the Tribune warned that if the mayor and the city commission did not fulfill their campaign pledges to “clean up the city”, and “do it quick”, that “an awakened community conscience will do it for them.”72

Just what that might entail was also becoming clearer and clearer. The very same months during which the Tribune waged its anti-crime campaign, the newspaper also gave prominent attention to news stories involving vigilante activities from across the Southwest. Front-page coverage was given to lynching threats made against African Americans in Okmulgee in March, Oktaha in April, and Hugo in May. The horsewhipping of an alleged child molester in Dallas by a group of masked men believed to be members of the Ku Klux Klan that also took place in May, was also given front-page treatment. Not surprisingly, the specter of Tulsa's own recent lynching also re-emerged in the pages of the Tribune in a May 26 editorial. While asserting that “Lawlessness to fight lawlessness is never justified”, the editorial went on to claim “Tulsa enjoyed a brief respite following the lynching of Roy Belton.” Moreover, the Tribune added that Belton's guilt had been “practically established . . ..”73


[** Inter-racial sexuality conflated with vice and criminality]

A revived discussion of the pros and cons of vigilante activity was not the only new element to be added to the ongoing conversation about crime that was taking place in Tulsa in late May. Despite latter claims to the contrary, for much of early 1921, race had not been much of a factor in the Tribune's vigorous anti-crime and anti-corruption campaign. Crimes in Greenwood had not been given undue coverage, nor had black Tulsans been singled out for providing the city with a disproportionate share of the city's criminal element.74

But beginning on May 21, 1921, only ten days before the riot, all that was to change. In a lengthy, front-page article concerning the ongoing investigation of the police department, not only did racial issues suddenly come to the foreground, but more importantly, they did so in a manner that featured the highly explosive subject of relations between black men and white women. Commenting on the city's rampant prostitution industry, a former judge flatly told the investigators that black men were at the root of the problem. “We've got to get to the hotels,” he said, “We've got to kick out the Negro pimps if we want to stop this vice.”

Echoing these sentiments was the testimony of Reverend Harold G. Cooke, the white pastor of Centenary Methodist Church. Accompanied by a private detective, Cooke had led a small group of white men on an undercover tour of the city's illicit nightlife -- and had been, it was reported, horrified at what he had discovered. Not only was liquor available at every place that they visited, but at hotels and rooming houses across the city. It was said, African American porters rather routinely offered to provide the men with the services of white prostitutes. Just beyond the city limits, the Tribune reported, the group visited a roadhouse where the color lines seemed to have disappeared entirely. “We found whites and Negroes singing and dancing together,” one member of Reverend Cooke's party testified, “Young, white girls were dancing while Negroes played the piano.”75

Considering Oklahoma's social, political, and cultural climate during the 1920s, the effect of this testimony should not be taken lightly. Many white Tulsans no doubt found Reverend Cooke's revelations to be both shocking and distasteful. Perhaps even more importantly, they now had a convenient new target for their growing anger over local crime conditions. African American men who, at least as far as they were concerned, had far too much contact with white women.

As it turned out however, Tulsans did not have much time to digest the new revelations. Only five days later, on May 26, 1921, the city was rocked by the news of a spectacular jailbreak at the county courthouse. Sawing their way through their cell doors and through the one-inch steel bars that were set in an outer window, and then lowering themselves four stories to the ground on a rope that they had made by tying their blankets together, no less than twelve prisoners had escaped from the top floor jail. Remarkably, however, that was not the last jailbreak that month. Four days later, early on the morning of Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, six more prisoners -- sawing through the same hastily repaired cell doors and window bars also escaped from the courthouse jail.77

Although some of the escapees were quickly apprehended, the jailbreaks were one more ingredient in what had become, by the end of May 1921, an unstable and potentially volatile local atmosphere. For more than a few white Tulsans, local conditions regarding crime and punishment were fast becoming intolerable. Frustrated over the amount of lawbreaking in the city, and by the apparent inability of the police to do anything about it, they had helped turn the city into a ticking time bomb, where anger and frustration sat just beneath the surface, waiting to explode. Moreover, during the last ten days of the month, they also had been presented with, however fleetingly, a compelling new target for their fury, namely, black men who, to their eyes, had an undue familiarity with white women.

As Tulsa prepared to celebrate Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, something else was in the air. As notions of taking the law into their own hands began to once again circulate among some white Tulsans, across the tracks in Greenwood, there were black Tulsans who were more determined than ever that in their city, no African American would fall victim to mob violence. World War veterans and newspaper editors, common laborers and businessmen, they were just as prepared as they had been two years earlier to make certain that no black person was ever lynched in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Precisely at this moment, in this highly charged atmosphere, that two previously unheralded Tulsans, named Dick Rowland and Sarah Page, walked out of the shadows, and onto the stage of history.


[** Incident involving black shoe-shine boy and young white female elevator operator]

Although they played a key role in the events which directly led to Tulsa's race riot, very little is known for certain about either Dick Rowland or Sarah Page. Rumors, theories, and unsubstantiated claims have been plentiful throughout the years, but hard evidence has been much more difficult to come by.

Dick Rowland, who was black, was said to have been nineteen-years-old at the time of the riot. At the time of his birth, he was given the name Jimmie Jones. While it is not known where he was born, by 1908 he and his two sisters had evidently been orphaned, and were living “on the streets of Vinita, sleeping wherever they could, and begging for food.” An African American woman named Damie Ford, who ran a tiny one-room-grocery store, took pity on young Jimmie and took him in. “That's how I became Jimmie's 'Mama,”' she told an interviewer decades afterwards.

Approximately one year later, Damie and her adopted son moved to Tulsa, where they were reunited with Damie's family, the Rowlands. Eventually, little Jimmie took Rowland as his own last name, and selected his favorite first name, Dick, as his own. Growing up in Tulsa, Dick attended the city's separate all-black schools, including Booker T. Washington High School, where he played football.78

Dick Rowland dropped out of high school to take a job shining shoes in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor located downtown on Main Street. Shoe shines usually cost a dime in those days, but the shoe shiners -- or bootblacks, as they were sometimes called -- were often tipped a nickel for each shine, and sometimes considerably more. Over the course of a busy working day, a shoe shiner could pocket a fair amount of money -- especially if he was a teenaged African American youth with few other job prospects.

There were no toilet facilities, however, for blacks at the shine parlor where Dick Rowland worked. The owner had arranged for his African American employees to be able to use a “Colored” restroom that was located, nearby, in the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street. In order to gain access to the washroom, located on the top floor, Rowland and the other shoe shiners would ride in the building's sole elevator. Elevators were not automatic, requiring an operator. A job that was usually reserved for women.79

In late May 1921, the elevator operator at the Drexel Building was a seventeen-year-old white woman named Sarah Page. Thought to have come to Tulsa from Missouri, she apparently lived in a rented room on North Boston Avenue. It also has been reported that Page was attending a local business school, a good career move at the time. Although, Tulsa was still riding upon its construction boom, some building owners were evidently hiring African American women to replace their white elevator operators.80

Whether - and to what extent -- Dick Rowland and Sarah Page knew each other has long been a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable that they would have least been able to recognize each other on sight, as Rowland would have regularly rode in Page's elevator on his way to and from the restroom. Others, however, have speculated that the pair might have been lovers -- a dangerous and potentially deadly taboo, but not an impossibility. Damie Ford later suggested that this might have been the case, as did Samuel M. Jackson, who operated a funeral parlor in Greenwood at the time of the riot. “I'm going to tell you the truth,” Jackson told riot historian Ruth Avery a half century later, “He could have been going with the girl. You go through life and you find that somebody likes you. That's all there is to it.” However, Robert Fairchild, who shined shoes with Rowland, disagreed. “At that time,” Fairchild later recalled, “the Negro had so much fear that he didn't bother with integrated relationship[s].”81

Whether they knew each other or not, it is clear that both Dick Rowland and Sarah Page were downtown on Monday, May 30, 1921 -- although this, too, is cloaked in some mystery. On Memorial Day, most -- but not all -- stores and businesses in Tulsa were closed. Yet, both Rowland and Page were apparently working that day. A large Memorial Day parade passed along Main Street that morning, and perhaps Sarah Page had been required to work in order to transport Drexel Building employees and their families to choice parade viewing spots on the building's upper floors. As for Dick Rowland, perhaps the shine parlor he worked at may have been open, if nothing else, to draw in some of the parade traffic. One post-riot account suggests another alternative, namely, that Rowland was making deliveries of shined shoes that day. What is certain, however, is that at some point on Monday, May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland entered the elevator operated by Sarah Page that was situated at the rear of the Drexel Building.82

What happened next is anyone's guess. After the riot, the most common explanation was that Dick Rowland tripped as he got onto the elevator and, as he tried to catch his fall, he grabbed onto the arm of Sarah Page, who then screamed. It also has been suggested that Rowland and Page had a lover's quarrel. However, it simply is unclear what happened. Yet, in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he would never have been capable of rape.83

A clerk from Renberg's, a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel Building, however, reached the opposite conclusion. Hearing what he thought was a woman's scream, and apparently seeing Dick Rowland hurriedly flee the building, the clerk rushed to the elevator, where he found a distraught Sarah Page. Evidently deciding that the young elevator operator had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault, the clerk then summoned the police.

While it appears that the clerk stuck to his interpretation that there had been an attempted rape -- and of a particularly incendiary kind -- no record exists as to what Sarah Page actually told the police when they initially interviewed her. Whatever she said at the time, however, it does not appear that the police officers who interviewed her necessarily reached the same potentially explosive conclusion as that made by the Renberg's clerk, namely, that a black male had attempted to rape a white female in a downtown office building. Rather than issue any sort of an all-points bulletin for the alleged assailant, it appears that the police launched a rather low-key investigation into the affair.84

Whatever had or had not happened in the Drexel Building elevator, Dick Rowland had become a justly terrified young man. For of all the crimes that African American men would be accused of in early twentieth century America, none seemed to bring a white lynch mob together faster than an accusation of the rape, or attempted rape, of a white woman. Frightened and agitated, Rowland hastened to his adopted mother's home, where he stayed inside with blinds drawn.85

The next morning, Tuesday, May 31, 1921, Dick Rowland was arrested on Greenwood Avenue by two Tulsa police officers, Detective Henry Carmichael, who was white, and by Patrolman Henry C. Pack, who was one of a handful of African Americans on the city's approximately seventy-five man police force. Rowland was booked at police headquarters, and then taken to the jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Informed that her adopted son was in custody, Damie Ford seems to have lost no time in hiring a prominent white attorney to defend him.86


[** Newspapers fanned the flames of mounting hysteria]

Word of both the alleged incident in the Drexel Building, and of the subsequent arrest of the alleged perpetrator, quickly spread throughout the city's legal circles. Black attorney B.C. Franklin was sitting in the courtroom during a recess in a trial when he overheard some other lawyers discussing what he later concluded was the alleged rape attempt. “I don't believe a damn word of it,” one of the men said, “Why I know that boy and have known him a good while. That's not in him.”87

Not surprisingly, word of both the alleged incident and of the arrest of Dick Rowland had also made it to the offices of Tulsa's two daily newspapers, the Tribune and the World. Due to the timing of the events, the Tulsa Tribune would have the first crack at the story. Not only had the alleged Drexel Building incident gone without notice in that morning's Tulsa World -- perhaps, one is tempted to surmise, because word of the alleged incident had not yet made it to the paper's news desk, which may have been short-staffed due to the holiday -- but Rowland's arrest had apparently occurred after that morning's edition had already been printed.88 Being an afternoon paper, however, the Tulsa Tribune had enough time to break the news in its regular afternoon editions -- which is exactly what it did.

Precisely what the Tulsa Tribune printed in its May 31, 1921 editions about the Drexel Building incident is still a matter of some conjecture. The original bound volumes of the now defunct newspaper apparently no longer exist in their entirety. A microfilm version is, however, available, but before the actual microfilming was done some years later, someone had deliberately torn out of the May 31, 1921 city edition both a front-page article and, in addition, nearly all of the editorial page.

We have known what the front-page story, titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”, said for some time. In his 1946 master's thesis on the riot, Loren Gill printed the entire text of the missing -- and what he believed was no less than “inflammatory” -- story, which read:

Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator

A Negro delivery boy who gave his name to the public as “Diamond Dick” but who has been identified as Dick Rowland, was arrested on South Greenwood Avenue this morning by Officers Carmichael and Pack, charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl in the Drexel Building early yesterday.

He will be tried in municipal court this afternoon on a state charge.

The girl said she noticed the Negro a few minutes before the attempted assault looking up and down the hallway on the third floor of the Drexel Building as if to see if there was anyone in sight but thought nothing of it at the time.

A few minutes later he entered the elevator she claimed, and attacked her, scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes. Her screams brought a clerk from Renberg's store to her assistance and the Negro fled. He was captured and identified this morning both by the girl and the clerk, police say.

Tenants of the Drexel Building said the girl is an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through business college.89

Since Gill's thesis first appeared, additional copies of this front-page article have surfaced. A copy can be found in the Red Cross papers that are located in the collections of the Tulsa Historical Society. A second copy, apparently from the “State Edition” of the Tulsa Tribune, could once be found in the collections of the Oklahoma Historical Society, but has now evidently disappeared.90

This front page article was not, however, the only thing that the Tulsa Tribune seems to have printed about the Drexel Building incident in its May 31 edition. W.D. Williams, who later taught for years at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, had a vivid memory that the Tribune ran a story titled “To Lynch Negro Tonight”.91 In fact, however, what Williams may be recalling is not another news article, but an editorial from the missing editorial page. [W w/ TXT of Williams’ memoirs of the riot]

Other informants, both black and white, buttress Williams' account. Specifically, they recalled that the Tribune mentioned the possibility of a lynching -- something that is entirely absent from the “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” story, and thus must have appeared elsewhere in the May 31 edition. Robert Fairchild later recalled that the Tribune “came out and told what happened. It said to the effect that 'there is likely to be a lynching in Tulsa tonight'”. One of Mary Parrish's informants, whom she interviewed shortly after the riot, provided a similar account:

The Daily Tribune, a white newspaper that tries to gain its popularity by referring to the Negro settlement as “Little Africa”, came out on the evening of Tuesday, May 31, with an article claiming that a Negro had experienced some trouble with a white elevator girl at the Drexel Building. It also said that a mob of whites was forming in order to lynch the Negro.

Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett, who led National Guard troops from Oklahoma City into Tulsa the next day, recalled that there had been a “fantastic write-up of the [Drexel Building] incident in a sensation-seeking newspaper.”92

Given the fact that the editorial page from the May 31 Tulsa Tribune was also deliberately removed, and that a copy has not yet surfaced, it is not difficult to conclude that whatever else the paper had to say about the alleged incident, and what should be done in response to it, would have appeared in an editorial. “To Lynch Negro Tonight” certainly would have fit as the title to a Tribune editorial in those days. Moreover, given the seriousness of the charges against Dick Rowland, the aggressiveness of the paper's anti-crime campaign, and the fact that a Tribune editorial had mentioned the lynching of Roy Belton only four days earlier, it is highly likely that any editorial the paper would have run concerning the alleged Drexel Building incident would have surely mentioned lynching as a possible fate for Dick Rowland. Exactly what the newspaper would have said on the matter, however, can only be left to conjecture.

The Tuesday, May 31, 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune hit the streets at about 3:15 p.m. And while the “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” was far from being the most prominent story on the front page of the city edition, it was the story that garnered the most attention. Making his way through downtown toward his office in Greenwood shortly after the Tribune rolled off the presses, attorney B.C. Franklin later recalled that “as I walked leisurely along the sidewalk, I heard the sharp shrill voice of a newsboy, 'A Negro assaults a white girl.'”93

Indeed, lynch talk came right on the heels of the Tribune's sensational reporting. Ross T. Warner, the white manager of the downtown offices of the Tulsa Machine and Tool Company, wrote that after the Tribune came out that afternoon, “the talk of lynching spread like a prairie fire.” Similar memories were shared by Dr. Blaine Waynes, an African American physician and his wife Maude, who reported that after the Tribune was issued that day, that rumors of the “intended lynching of the accused Negro” spread so swiftly and ominously that even “the novice and stranger” could readily sense the fast-approaching chain of events that was about to unfold. By 4:00 p.m., the talk of lynching Dick Rowland had already grown so ubiquitous that Police and Fire Commissioner J.M. Adkison telephoned Sheriff Willard McCullough and alerted him to the ever-increasing talk on the street.94


[** A crowd gathered at the County Courthouse]

Talk soon turned into action. As word of the alleged sexual assault in the Drexel Building spread, a crowd of whites began to gather on the street outside of the Tulsa County Courthouse, in whose jail Dick Rowland was being held. As people got off of work, and the news of the alleged attack reported in the Tribune became more widely dispersed across town, more and more white Tulsans, infuriated by what had supposedly taken place in the Drexel Building, began to gather outside the courthouse at Sixth and Boulder. By sunset -- which came at 7:34 p.m. that evening -- observers estimated that the crowd had grown into the hundreds. Not long afterwards, cries of “Let us have the nigger” could be heard echoing off of the walls of the massive stone courthouse.95

Willard M. McCullough, who had recently been sworn in as the new sheriff of Tulsa County, however, had other ideas. Determined that there would be no repeat of the Roy Belton affair during his time in office, he quickly took steps to ensure the safety of Dick Rowland. Organizing his small force of deputies into a defensive ring around his now terrified prisoner, McCullough positioned six of his men, armed with rifles and shotguns, on the roof of the courthouse. He also disabled the building's elevator, and had his remaining men barricade themselves at the top of the stairs with orders to shoot any intruders on sight.

McCullough also went outside, on the courthouse steps, and tried to talk the would-be lynch mob into going home, but was “hooted down” when he spoke. At approximatley 8:20 p.m., in a near replay of the Belton incident, three white men entered the courthouse and demanded that the sheriff turn over Rowland, but were angrily turned away. Even though his small force was vastly outnumbered by the ever-increasing mob out on the street, McCullough, unlike his predecessor, was determined to prevent another lynching.96


[** 9pm = Black community sent delegation to Courthouse]

Word of the alleged incident at the Drexel Building, and of the white mob that was gathering outside of the courthouse, meanwhile, also had raced across Greenwood. After reading the stories in the afternoon's Tribune, Willie Williams, a popular junior at Booker T. Washington High School, had hurried over to his family's flagship business, the Dreamland Theater, at 127 N. Greenwood. Inside, he found a scene of tension and confusion. “We're not going to let this happen,” declared a man who had leapt onto the theater's stage, “We're going to go downtown and stop this lynching. Close this place down.”

Outside, similar discussions were taking place up and down Greenwood Avenue, as black Tulsans debated how to respond to the increasingly dire threat to Dick Rowland. B.C. Franklin later recalled two army veterans out in the street, urging the crowd gathered about them to take immediate action, while perhaps the most intense discussions were held in the offices of the Tulsa Star, the city's premier African American newspaper.

What went unspoken was the fact an African American had never been lynched in Tulsa. How to prevent one from taking place now was no easy matter. It was not simply the crime that Dick Rowland had been charged with -- although that, by itself, made the situation particularly dire. Rather, with the lynching of Roy Belton only nine months earlier, there was now no reason at all to place much confidence in the ability of the local authorities to protect Dick Rowland from the mob of whites that was gathering outside the courthouse. However, exactly how to respond was of utmost concern.

For A.J. Smitherman, the editor of the Tulsa Star, there was no question whatsoever that a demonstration of resolve was necessary. Black Tulsans needed to let the white mob know that they were determined to prevent this lynching from taking place, by force of arms if necessary. Others, including a number of war veterans as well as various local leaders, the most prominent being hotel owner J.B. Stradford, vigorously agreed. Moreover, when Dr. Bridgewater had led a group of armed men downtown to where three accused African American men were being held only two years later [?? earlier], a rumored lynching did not take place. “Come on boys”, Smitherman is said to have urged his audience, “let's go downtown.”

Not everyone agreed with the plan of action. O.W. Gurley, the owner of the Gurley Hotel, seems to have argued for a more cautious approach. So, too, apparently, did Barney Cleaver, a well-respected African American deputy sheriff, who had been trying to keep in telephone contact with Sheriff McCullough, and therefore have something of a handle on the actual conditions down at the courthouse.97

Despite some entreaties to the contrary, at about 9:00 p.m. a group of approximately twenty-five African American men decided to cast their lot not only with an endangered fellow member of the race, but also, literally, upon the side of justice. Leaving Greenwood by automobile, they drove down to the courthouse, where the white mob had gathered. Armed with rifles and shotguns, the men got out of their automobiles, and marched to the courthouse steps. Their purpose, they announced to the no doubt stunned authorities, was to offer their services toward the defense of the jail -- an offer that was immediately declined. Assured that Dick Rowland was safe, the men then returned to their automobiles, and drove back to Greenwood.98


[** Mutinous mob took up arms & the Black community responded]

The visit of the African American veterans had an electrifying effect, however, on the white mob, now estimated to be more than one thousand strong. Denied Rowland by Sheriff McCullough, it had been clear for some time that this was not to be an uncomplicated repetition of the Belton affair. The visit of the black veterans had not at all been foreseen. Shocked, and then outraged, some members of the mob began to go home to fetch their guns.99

Others, however, made a beeline for the National Guard Armory, at Sixth and Norfolk, where they intended to gain access to the rifles and ammunition stored inside. Major James A. Bell, an officer with the local National Guard units -- “B” Company, the Service Company, and the Sanitary Detachment, all of the Third Infantry Regiment of the Oklahoma National Guard -- had already been notified of the trouble brewing down at the courthouse, and had telephoned the local authorities in order to better understand the overall situation. [”]I then went to the Armory and called up the Sheriff and asked if there was any indications of trouble down there”, Bell later wrote. “The sheriff reported that there were some threats but did not believe it would amount to anything, that in any event he could protect his prisoner.” Bell also phoned Chief Gustafson, who reported, “Things were a little threatening.”100

Despite such vague answers, Major Bell took the initiative and began to quietly instruct local guardsmen -- who were scheduled to depart the next day for their annual summer encampment -- to report down at the armory in case they were needed that evening. Meanwhile, a guardsman informed Bell that a mob of white men was attempting to break into the armory. As Bell later reported:

Grabbing my pistol in one hand and my belt in the other I jumped out of the back door and running down the west side of the Armory building I saw several men apparently pulling at the window grating. Commanding these men to get off the lot and seeing this command obeyed I went to the front of the building near the southwest corner where I saw a mob of white men about three or four hundred strong. I asked them what they wanted. One of them replied, “Rifles and ammunition”, I explained to them that they could not get anything here. Someone shouted, “We don't know about that, we guess we can.” I told them that we only had sufficient arms and ammunition for our own men and that not one piece could go out of there without orders from the Governor, and in the name of the law demanded that they disperse at once. They continued to press forward in a threatening manner when with drawn pistol I again demanded that they disperse and explained that the men in the Armory were armed with rifles loaded with ball ammunition and that they would shoot promptly to prevent any unauthorized person entering there.

“By maintaining a firm stand,” Bell added, “. . . this mob was dispersed.”101

Major Bell's actions were both courageous and effective but as the night wore on, similar efforts would be in exceedingly short supply. With each passing minute, Tulsa was a city that was quickly spinning out of control.

By 9:30 p.m., the white mob outside the courthouse had swollen to nearly two-thousand persons. They blocked the sidewalks as well as the streets, and had spilled over onto the front lawns of nearby homes. There were women as well as men, youngsters as well as adults, curiosity seekers as well as would-be lynchers. A handful of local leaders, including the Reverend Charles W. Kerr of the First Presbyterian Church as well as a local judge had tried unsuccessfully to talk the crowd into going home.102

Police Chief John A. Gustafson later claimed that he tried to talk the lynch mob into dispersing. However, at no time that afternoon or evening did he order a substantial number of Tulsa policemen to appear, fully armed, at the courthouse. Gustafson, in his defense, would later claim that because there was a regular shift change that very day only thirty-two officers were available for duty at eight o'clock on the evening of May 31. As subsequent testimony -- as recorded in handwritten notes to a post-riot investigation -- later revealed, there were apparently only “5 policemen on duty between courthouse & Brady hotel notwithstanding lynching imminent.” Moreover, by 10:00 p.m., when the drama at the courthouse was approaching its climax, Gustafson was no longer at the scene, but had returned to his office at police headquarters.103


[** 10pm: Riot broke out]

In the city's African American neighborhoods, meanwhile, tension continued to mount over the increasingly ugly situation down at the courthouse. Alerted to the potentially dangerous conditions, both school and church groups broke up their evening activities early, while parents and grandparents tried to reassure themselves that the trouble would quickly blow over. Down in Deep Greenwood, a large crowd of black men and women still kept their vigil outside of the offices of the Tulsa Star, awaiting word on the latest developments downtown.104

Some of the men, however, decided that they could wait no longer. Hopping into cars, small groups of armed African American men began to make brief forays into downtown, their guns visible to passersby. In addition to reconnaissance, the primary intent of these trips appears to have been to send a clear message to white Tulsans that these men were determined to prevent, by force of arms if necessary, the lynching of Dick Rowland. Whether the whites who witnessed these excursions understood this message is, however, an open question. Many, apparently, thought that they were instead witnessing a “Negro uprising,” a conclusion that others would soon share.

In the midst of all of this activity, rumors began to circulate, particularly with regards to what might or might not be happening down at the courthouse. Possibly spurred on by a false report that whites were storming the courthouse, moments after 10:00 p.m., a second contingent of armed African American men, perhaps seventy-five in number this time, decided to make a second visit to the Courthouse. Leaving Greenwood by automobile, they got out of their cars near Sixth and Main and marched, single file, to the courthouse steps. Again, they offered their services to the authorities to help protect Dick Rowland. Once again, their offer was refused.105

Then it happened. As the black men were leaving the courthouse for the second time, a white man approached a tall African American World War I veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver. [SAC editor breaks paragraph into 5 further paragraphs=]

“Nigger”, the white man said, “What are you doing with that pistol?”

“I'm going to use it if I need to,” replied the black veteran.

“No, you give it to me.”

“Like hell I will.”

The white man tried to take the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out.106 America's worst race riot had begun.

While the first shot fired at the courthouse may have been unintentional, those that followed were not. Almost immediately, members of the white mob -- and possibly some law enforcement officers -- opened fire on the African American men, who returned volleys of their own. The initial gunplay lasted only a few seconds, but when it was over, an unknown number of people -- perhaps as many as a dozen -- both black and white -- lay dead or wounded.107

Outnumbered more than twenty-to-one, the black men began a retreating fight toward the African American district. With armed whites in close pursuit, heavy gunfire erupted again along Fourth Street, two blocks north of the courthouse.108

Dr. George H. Miller, a white physician who was working late that evening in his office at the Unity Building at 21 W. Fourth Street, rushed outside after hearing the gunshots, only to come upon a wounded black man, “shot and bleeding, writhing on the street,” surrounded by a group of angry whites. As Dr. Miller later told an interviewer:

I went over to see if I could help him as a doctor, but the crowd was gathering around him and wouldn't even let the driver of the ambulance which just arrived to even pick him up. I saw it was an impossible situation to control, that I could be of no help. The crowd was getting more and more belligerent. The Negro had been shot so many times in his chest, and men from the onlookers were slashing him with knives.

Unable to help the dying man, Dr. Miller got into his car and drove home.109


[** Second skirmish]

A short while later, a second , deadlier, skirmish broke out at Second and Cincinnati. No longer directly involved with the fate of Dick Rowland, the beleaguered second contingent of African American men were now fighting for their own lives. Heavily outnumbered by the whites, and suffering some casualties along the way, most were apparently able, however, to make it safely across the Frisco railroad tracks, and into the more familiar environs of the African American community.110

At the courthouse, the sudden and unexpected turn of events had a jolting effect on the would-be lynch mob, and groups of angry, vengeance-seeking whites soon took the streets and sidewalks of downtown. “A great many of these persons lining the sidewalks,” one white eyewitness later recalled, “were holding a rifle or shotgun in one hand, and grasping the neck of a liquor bottle with the other. Some had pistols stuck into their belts.”111


[** Armed mob deputized, i.e., granted portion of “monopoly on violence”]

Some were about to become, at least temporarily, officers of the law. Shortly after the fighting had broken out at the courthouse, a large number of whites - many of whom had only a little while earlier been members of the would-be lynch mob -- gathered outside of police headquarters on Second Street. There, perhaps as many as five-hundred white men and boys were sworn-in by police officers as “Special Deputies.” Some were provided with badges or ribbons indicating their new status. Many, it appears, also were given specific instructions. According to Laurel G. Buck, a white bricklayer who was sworn-in as one of these “Special Deputies”, a police officer bluntly told him to “Get a gun and get a nigger.”112

Shortly thereafter, whites began breaking into downtown sporting goods stores, pawnshops, and hardware stores, stealing -- or “borrowing” as some would later claim -- guns and ammunition. Dick Bardon's store on First Street was particularly hard hit as well as the J.W. MeGee Sporting Goods shop at 22 W. Second Street, even though it was located literally across the street from police headquarters. The owner later testified that a Tulsa police officer helped to dole out the guns that were taken from his store.113

More bloodshed soon followed, as whites began gunning down any African Americans that they discovered downtown. William R. Holway, a white engineer, was watching a movie at the Rialto Theater when someone ran into the theater, shouting “Nigger fight, nigger fight”. As Holway later recalled:

Everybody left that theater on high, you know. We went out the door and looked across the street, and there was Younkman's drug store with those big pillars. There were two big pillars at the entrance, and we got over behind them. Just got there when a Negro ran south of the alley across the street, the minute his head showed outside, somebody shot him.

“We stood there for about half-an-hour watching,” Holway added, “which I shall never forget. He wasn't quite dead, but he was about to die. He was the first man that I saw shot in that riot.”114

Not far away, at the Royal Theater - that was showing a movie called “One Man in a Million” that evening -- a similar drama played itself out. Among the onlookers was a white teenager named William “Choc” Phillips, who later became a well-known Tulsa police officer. As described by Phillips in his unpublished memoir of the riot:

The mob action was set off when several [white] men chased a Negro man down the alley in back of the theater and out onto Fourth Street where he saw the stage door and dashed inside. Seeing the open door the Negro rushed in and hurried forward in the darkness hunting a place to hide.

Suddenly he was on the stage in front of the picture screen and blinded by the bright flickering light coming down from the operator's booth in the balcony. After shielding his eyes for a moment he regained his vision enough to locate the steps leading from the stage down past the orchestra pit to the aisle just as the pursuing men rushed the stage. One of them saw the Negro and yelled, “there he is, heading for the aisle”. As he finished the sentence, a roaring blast from a shotgun dropped the Negro man by the end of the orchestra pit.115

Not all of the victims of the violence that broke out downtown were white [??black!!]. Evidence suggests that after the fighting broke out at the courthouse, carloads of black Tulsans may have exchanged gunfire with whites on streets downtown, possibly resulting in casualties on both sides. At least one white man in an automobile was killed by a group of whites, who had mistaken him to be black.116


[** Midnight]

Around midnight, a small crowd of whites gathered -- once again -- outside of the courthouse, yelling “Bring the rope” and “Get the nigger”. But they did not rush the building, and nothing happened.117 Because the truth of the matter was that, by then, most of Tulsa's rioting whites no longer particularly cared about Dick Rowland anymore. They now had much bigger things in mind.

While darkness slowed the pace of the riot, sporadic fighting took place throughout the nighttime hours of May 31 and June 1. The heaviest occurred alongside the Frisco railroad tracks, one of the key dividing lines between Tulsa's black and white commercial districts. From approximately midnight until around 1:30 a.m., scores of blacks and whites exchanged gunfire across the Frisco yards. At one point during the fighting, an inbound train reportedly arrived, its passengers forced to take cover on the floor as the shooting continued, raking both sides of the train.118

A few carloads of whites also made brief excursions into the African American district, firing indiscriminately into houses as they roared up and down streets lined with black residences. there were deliberate murders as well.119 As Walter White, who visited Tulsa immediately after the riot, later reported:

Many are the stories of horror told to me - not by colored people - but by white residents. One was that of an aged colored couple, saying their evening prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Avenue. A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.120

It appears that the first fires set by whites in black neighborhoods began at about 1:00 a.m. African American homes and businesses along Archer were the earliest targets, and when an engine crew from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived and prepared to douse the flames, white rioters forced the firemen away at gunpoint. By 4:00 a.m., more than two-dozen black-owned businesses, including the Midway Hotel, had been torched.121


[** Local National Guard took actions]

The nighttime hours of May 31 and June 1 also witnessed the first organized actions taken by the Tulsa units of the National Guard. While evidence indicates that Sheriff McCullough may have requested local guard officers that they send men down to the courthouse at around 9:30 p.m.,122 it was not until more than an hour later -- about the time that the fighting broke out at the courthouse - that the local National Guard units were specifically ordered to take action with regards to the riot. According to the after action report later submitted by Major James Bell to local National Guard commander Lieutenant Colonel L.J.F. Rooney:

About 10:30 o'clock, I think it was, I had a call from the Adjt. General asking about the situation. I explained that it looked pretty bad. He directed that we continue to use every effort to get the men in so that if a call came we would be ready. I think it was only a few minutes after this, another call from the Adjt. General directed that “B” Co., the Sanitary Det. and the Service Co. be mobilized at once and render any assistance to the civil authorities we could in the maintenance of law and order and the protection of life and property. I think this was about 10:40 o'clock and while talking to the General you appeared and assume command.123

At approximately 11:00 p.m., perhaps as many as fifty local National Guardsmen -- nearly all of whom had been contacted at their homes -- had gathered at the armory on Sixth Street. Some were World War I veterans. It is unclear whether any of the men had been trained in riot control. Although various official and unofficial manuals were available in 1921 on the use of National Guard soldiers during riots, it is uncertain whether the Tulsa units had received any training in this area.124

Another interesting aspect regarding the guardsmen who gathered at the armory exists. Not only were the Tulsa units of the National Guard exclusively white, but as the evening wore on, it became increasingly clear that they would not play an impartial role in the “maintenance of law and order.” Like many of their white neighbors, a number of the local guardsmen also came to conclude that the race riot was, in fact, a “Negro uprising,” a term used throughout their various after action reports. At least one National Guard officer went even further, using the term “enemy” in reference to African Americans. Given the tenor of the times, it is hardly surprising that Tulsa's all-white National Guard might view black Tulsans antagonistically. As the riot continued to unfold, this also would prove to be far from irrelevant.125

Initially, the local guardsmen were deployed downtown. Sometime before midnight, one detachment was stationed in front of police headquarters, where they blocked off Second Street. Guardsmen also led groups of armed whites on “patrols” of downtown streets, an activity that was later taken over by members of the -- similarly all-white -- local chapter of the American Legion. Tulsa police officials also presented the guardsmen with a machine gun, which guard officers then had mounted on the back of a truck. This particular gun, possibly a war trophy, it turned out, was in poor operating condition, and could only be fired one shell at a time.126

Taking the machine gun along with them, about thirty guardsmen then headed north, and positioned themselves along Detroit Avenue between Brady Street and Standpipe Hill, along one of the borders separating the city's white and black neighborhoods. Their deployment was far from impartial, for the “skirmish line” that the National Guard officers established was set-up facing - or soon would be -- the African American district. Moreover, the guardsmen also began rounding up black Tulsans, whom they handed over -- as prisoners -- to the police, and they also briefly exchanged fire with gunmen to the east. Far from being utilized as a neutral force, Tulsa's local National Guard unit along Detroit Avenue were, even in the early hours of the riot, being deployed in a manner which would eventually set them in opposition to the black community.127


[** Greenwood prepared itself for attack]

In Tulsa's black neighborhoods, meanwhile, word of what had happened at the courthouse was soon followed by even more disturbing news. A light-complexioned African American man, who could “pass” for white, had mingled with the crowds of angry whites downtown, where he overheard talk of invading the African American district. Carefully making his way back home, the man then related what he had heard to Seymour Williams, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. Williams, who had served with the army in France, grabbed his service revolver and began to spread the news among his neighbors living just off of Standpipe Hill.128

All along the southern edge of Greenwood, in fact, a great amount of activity was in progress. Alerted to the news of the violence that had broken out downtown, garage and theater owner John Wesley Williams wasted no time in preparing for the possibility of even greater trouble. Loading his 30-30 rifle and a repeating shotgun, he positioned himself along a south-facing window of his family's second floor apartment at the corner of Greenwood and Archer. Later telling his son that he was “defending Greenwood,” he was one of scores of other African American residents who were preparing to do exactly the same.129

Other black Tulsans, however, reached a different conclusion on what was the best course of action. Despite the fact that many of the city's African American residents undoubtedly hoped that daylight would bring an end to the violence, others decided not to wait and find out. In the early hours of June 1, a steady stream of black Tulsans began to leave the city, hoping to find safety in the surrounding countryside. “Early in the evening when there was first talk of trouble,” Irene Scofield later told the Black Dispatch, “I and about forty others started out of the town and walked to a little town about fifteen miles away.” Others joining the exodus, however, were not as fortunate. Billy Hudson, an African American laborer who lived on Archer, hitched up his wagon as conditions grew worse, and set out -- with his grandchildren by his side - for Nowata. He was killed by whites along the way.130

Adding to the confusion over what to do was the simple reality that, for most black Tulsans, it was by no means clear as to what, exactly, was going on throughout the city. This was particularly the case during the early hours of June 1. Intermittent gunfire continued along the southernmost edges of the African American district throughout the night, while down along Archer Street, the fires had not yet burned themselves out. Yet, as far as anyone could determine, Dick Rowland was still safe inside the courthouse. There had been no lynching.

At approximately 2:00 a.m., the fierce fighting along the Frisco railroad yards had ended. The white would-be invaders still south of the tracks. As a result, some of Greenwood's defenders not only concluded that they had “won” the fight, but also that the riot was over. “Nine p.m. the trouble started,” A.J. Smitherman later wrote, “two a.m. the thing was done.”131

Nothing could have been further from the truth.


[** Mob anger grew]

Regardless of whatever was, or was not, happening down by the Frisco tracks, crowds of angry, armed whites were still very much in evidence on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Tulsa. Stunned, and then outraged, by what had occurred at the courthouse, they had only begun to vent their anger.

Like black Tulsans, whites were not exactly certain as to what exactly was happening in the city, a situation that was, not surprisingly, tailor-made for rumors. Indeed, at about 2:30 a.m., the word spread quickly across downtown that a train carrying five- hundred armed blacks from Muskogee was due to arrive shortly at the Midland Valley Railway passenger station off Third Street. Scores of armed whites including a National Guard patrol rushed to the depot, but nothing happened. There was no such train.132

Approximately 30 minutes later, reports reached the local National Guard officers that African American gunman were firing on white residences on Sunset Hill, north of Standpipe Hill. Moreover, it was said that a white woman had been shot and killed. Responding to the news, guardsmen including the crew manning the semi-defective machine gun were deployed along Sunset Hill, an area that overlooked black homes to the east.133

In other white neighborhoods across Tulsa, a different kind of activity was taking place, particularly during the first hours following midnight. As word of what some would later call the “Negro uprising” began to spread across the white community, groups of armed whites began to gather at hastily-arranged meeting places, to discuss what to do next.134

For “Choc” Phillips and his other young companions, word of this activity came while they were sitting in an all-night restaurant. “Everybody”, they were told, “go to Fifteenth and Boulder”. Phillips wrote:

Many people were drifting out of the restaurant so we decided to go along and see what happened at the meeting place. Driving south on Boulder we realized that many trucks and automobiles were headed for the same location, and near Fifteenth Street people had abandoned their vehicles because the streets and intersections were filled to capacity. We left the car more than a block away and began walking toward the crowded intersection. There were already three or four hundred people there and more arriving when we walked up.

Once there, a man stood up on top of a touring car and announced, “We have decided to go out to Second and Lewis Streets and join the crowd that is meeting there.”135

Returning to their automobiles, Phillips and his companions blended in with the long line of cars headed east. He later estimated, the crowd that had gathered was about six-hundred strong. Once again, men stood up on top of cars and began shouting instructions to the crowd. “Men”, one man announced, “we are going in at daylight.” Another man declared that they would be having, right then and there, an ammunition exchange. “If any of you have more ammunition than you need, or if what you have doesn't fit your gun, sing out,” he said. “Be ready at daybreak,” another man insisted, claiming that meetings like this were taking place all over town. “Nothing can stop us,” he added, “for there will be thousands of others going in at the same time.”136

The Tulsa police also appear to have been scattered all over town. No doubt responding to rumors that armed blacks were supposedly en route to Tulsa from various towns across eastern Oklahoma, Tulsa police officers had been dispatched to guard various roads leading into the city. Indeed, no less than a half-dozen officers that by Chief Gustafson's subsequent calculations, was nearly one-fifth of the regularly scheduled available police force that evening, had apparently been posted at the ice plant overlooking the Eleventh Street bridge. Some local guardsmen also were deployed to stand guard at various public works as well including the city water works along the Sand Springs road, and the Public Service Company's power plant off First Street.137


[** Oklahoma National Guard mobilized]

Word of what was happening in Tulsa was also making its way to state officials in Oklahoma City. At 10:14 p.m., Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett, the commandant of the Oklahoma National Guard, had received a long distance telephone call from Major Byron Kirkpatrick, a Tulsa guard officer, advising him of the worsening conditions in Tulsa. Kirkpatrick phoned again at 12:35 a.m. At that point he was instructed by Governor J.B.A. Robertson to prepare and send a signed telegram, as required by Oklahoma state law, by the chief of police, the county sheriff, and a local judge, requesting that state troops be sent to Tulsa. Kirkpatrick, however, ran into some problems as he tried to collect the necessary signatures, particularly that of Sheriff McCullough, who was still barricaded with his men and Dick Rowland on the top floor of the courthouse. However, Kirkpatrick persevered, and at 1:46 a.m., the needed telegram arrived at the state capital.138 It read:

Tulsa, Okla
June l,1921
Governor J.B.A. Robertson Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Race riot developed here. Several killed. Unable handle situation. Request that National Guard forces be sent by special train. Situation serious.

Jno. A. Gustaftson,
Chief of Police
Wm. McCullough,
V.W. Biddison
District Judge

Twenty-nine minutes later, at 2:00 a.m. that morning.140

Tulsa's longest night would finally be ending, but its longest day would have only begun.


[** Mob attacked Greenwood at dawn]

In the pre-dawn hours of June l, thousands of armed whites had gathered in three main clusters along the northern fringes of downtown, opposite Greenwood. One group had assembled behind the Frisco freight depot, while another waited nearby at the Frisco and Santa Fe passenger station. Four blocks to the north, a third crowd was clustered at the Katy passenger depot. While it is unclear how many people were in each group, some contemporary observers estimated the total number of armed whites who had gathered as high as five or ten thousand.141

Smaller bands of whites also had been active. One group hauled a machine gun to the top of the Middle States Milling Company's grain elevator off of First Street, and set it up to fire to the north of Greenwood Avenue.142 Shortly before daybreak, five white men in a green Franklin automobile pulled up alongside the crowd of whites who were massed behind the Frisco freight depot. “What the hell are you waitin' on?,” one of the men hollered, “let's go get 'em.” But the crowd would not budge, and the men in the car set off alone toward Deep Greenwood. Their bodies, and the bullet-ridden Franklin, were later seen in the middle of Archer Street, near Frankfort.143

Across the tracks in Greenwood, considerable activity also had been taking place. While some black Tulsans prepared themselves to face the onslaught, others decided that it was time to go. “About this time officers Pack and Lewis pushed up to us and said it would not be safe for us to remain any longer,” recalled Mrs. Dimple Bush, who was with her husband at the Red Wing Hotel. “So,” she added, “We rushed out and found a taxi which took us straight north on Greenwood.”144

Not far away, along North Elgin, Julia Duff, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, faced a similar crisis. Awakened by loud voices outside of her rented room shortly before dawn, the young teacher was soon nearly overcome with fear. As later described in a letter published in the Chicago Defender```

Mrs. S. came into her room and told her to dress-there was something wrong for soldiers were all around, and she looked out the window and saw them driving the men out of the houses on Detroit. Saw Mr. Woods running with both hands in the air and their 3-month-old baby in one hand and three brutes behind him with guns.

“She said her legs gave way from under her,” the letter continued, “and she had to crawl about the room, taking things from her closet, putting them in her trunk, for she thought if anything happened she'd have her trunk packed, and before she got everything in they heard footsteps on their steps and there were six out there and they ordered Mr. Smart to march, hands up, out of the house.”145

Several eyewitnesses later recalled that when dawn came at 5:08 a.m. that morning, an unusual whistle or siren sounded, perhaps as a signal for the mass assault on Greenwood to begin. Although the source of this whistle or siren is still unknown, moments later, the white mobs made their move. While the machine gun in the grain elevator opened fire, crowds of armed whites poured across the Frisco tracks, headed straight for the African American commercial district.146 As later described by one eyewitness:

With wild frenzied shouts, men began pouring from behind the freight depot and the long string of boxcars and evidently from behind the piles of oil well easing which was at the other end and on the north side of the building. From every place of shelter up and down the tracks came screaming, shouting men to join in the rush toward the Negro section. Mingled with the shouting were a few rebel-yells and Indian gobblings as the great wave of humanity rushed forward totally absorbed in thoughts of destruction.147

Meanwhile, over at the Katy depot, the other crowd of armed whites also moved forward. Heading east, they were soon joined by dozens of others in automobiles, driving along Brady and Cameron Streets. As one unidentified observer later told reporter Mary Parrish, “Tuesday night, May 31, was the riot, and Wednesday morning, by daybreak, was the invasion.”148

While black Tulsans fought hard to protect their homes and businesses, the sheer numerical advantage of the invading whites soon proved to be overwhelming. After a valiant, night long effort, John Wesley Williams had to flee from his family's apartment once whites began to riddle the building with gunfire. Squeezing off a few final rounds a little further up Greenwood Avenue, Williams then faced the inevitable, and began walking north along the Midland Valley tracks, leaving his home and businesses behind.149

He was hardly alone. Not far away, in her apartment in the Woods Building at 105 N. Greenwood, Mary E. Jones Parrish and her young daughter Florence Mary had sat up much of the night, uncertain of what to do. “Finally,” she later wrote,

My friend, Mrs. Jones, called her husband, who was trying to take a little rest. They decided to try to make for a place of safety, so called to me that they were leaving. By this time the enemy was close upon us, so they ran out of the south door, which led out onto Archer Street, and went east toward Lansing. I took my little girl, Florence Mary, by the hand and fled out of the west door on Greenwood. I did not take time to get a hat for myself or Baby, but started out north on Greenwood, running amidst showers of bullets from the machine gun located in the granary and from men who were quickly surrounding our district. Seeing that they were fighting at a disadvantage, our men had taken shelter in the buildings and in other places out of sight of the enemy. When my daughter, Florence Mary, and I ran into the street, it was vacant for a block or more. Someone called to me to “Get out of the street with that child or you both will be killed.” I felt that it was suicide to remain in the building, for it would surely be destroyed and death in the street was preferred, for we expected to be shot down at any moment. So we placed our trust in God, our Heavenly Father, who seeth and knoweth all things, and ran out of Greenwood in the hope of reaching a friend's home who lived over the Standpipe Hill in Greenwood Addition.150

For Dimple Bush, the flight from Greenwood had bordered upon the indescribable. “It was just dawn; the machine guns were sweeping the valley with their murderous fire and my heart was filled with dread as we sped along”, she recalled, “Old women and men, children were running and screaming everywhere.”151


[** Airplanes and a machine gun]

Soon, however, new perils developed. As the mobs of armed whites rushed into the southern end of the African American district, airplanes -- manned by whites -- also appeared overhead. As Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, a well-respected black Tulsa physician, later described what happened:

Shortly after we left a whistle blew. The shots rang from a machine gun located on Standpipe Hill near my residence and aeroplanes began to fly over us, in some instances very low to the ground. A cry was heard from the women saying, “Look out for the aeroplanes, they are shooting upon us.”152

Numerous other eyewitnesses -- both black and white -- confirm the presence of an unknown number of airplanes flying over Greenwood during the early daylight hours of June 1. While certain other assertions made over the years such as that the planes dropped streams of “liquid fire” on top of African American homes and businesses appear to have been technologically improbable, particularly during the early 1920s, there is little doubt but that some of the occupants of the airplanes fired upon black Tulsans with pistols and rifles. Moreover, there is evidence, to suggest that men in at least one airplane dropped some form of explosives, probably sticks of dynamite, upon a group of African American refugees as they were fleeing the city.153

Gunfire soon erupted along the western boundary of the black community. Sharp fighting broke out along Standpipe Hill, where the local guardsmen positioned there traded fire with armed African Americans, who had set up defensive lines off Elgin and Elgin Place. Nearby, on Sunset Hill, the white guardsmen opened fire on the black neighborhood to the east, using both their standard issue thirty-caliber 1906 Springfield rifles as well as the semi-defective machine gun provided to them by the Tulsa police.154

As the waves of white rioters descended upon the African American district, a deadly pattern soon emerged. First, the armed whites broke into the black homes and businesses, forcing the occupants out into the street, where they were led away at gunpoint to one of a growing number of internment centers. Anyone who resisted was shot. Moreover, African American men in homes where firearms were discovered met the same fate. Next, the whites looted the homes and businesses, pocketing small items, and hauling away larger items either on foot or by car or truck. Finally, the white rioters then set the homes and other buildings on fire, using torches and oil-soaked rags. House by house, block by block, the wall of flame crept northward, engulfing the city's black neighborhoods.155

Atrocities occurred along the way. According to one account, published ten days after the riot in a Chicago newspaper,

Another cruel instance was when they [white rioters] went to the home of an old couple and the old man, 80 years old, was paralyzed and sat in a chair and they told him to march and he told them he was crippled, but he'd go if someone would take him, and they told his wife (old, too) to go, but she didn't want to leave him, and he told her to go on anyway. As she left one of the damn dogs shot the old man and then they fired the house.156

There were near-atrocities as well. After armed whites had led his mother away at gunpoint, five-year-old George Monroe was hiding beneath his parents' bed with his two older sisters and his one older brother when white men suddenly entered the room. After rifling through the dresser, the men set the curtains on fire. As the men began to leave, one of them stepped on George's hand. George started to cry out, but his sister Lottie threw her hand over his mouth, preventing their discovery. A few minutes later, the children were able to escape from their home before it burst into flame.157


[** Men in uniforms]

Some of the fires in Greenwood appear to have been set by whites wearing khaki uniforms. The actual identity of these men remains unclear. Most likely, they were World War I veterans who had donned their old army uniforms when the riot erupted, rather than an officially organized group.158

They were not, however, the only uniformed whites observed setting fires in Tulsa's African American neighborhoods. According to black Deputy Sheriff V.B. Bostic, a white Tulsa police officer “drove him and his wife from his home,”' and then “poured oil on the floor and set a lighted match to it.”159

Deputy Sheriff Bostic was not, however, the only eyewitness to report acts of criminal misconduct by Tulsa police officers during the course of the riot. According to one white eyewitness, a “uniformed [white] policeman on East Second Street went home, changed his uniform to plainclothes, and went to the Negro district and led a bunch of whites into Negro, houses, some of the bunch pilfering, never offered to protect men, women or children, or property.” This particular account was buttressed by the testimony of an African American witness, who reported that he had seen the same officer in question “on the morning of the riot, June 1, kicking in doors of Negro homes, and assisting in the destruction of property.”160


[** The stand at Mount Zion Baptist Church]

Despite the daunting odds against them, black Tulsans valiantly fought back. African American riflemen had positioned themselves in the belfry of the newly-built Mount Zion Baptist Church, whose commanding view of the area just below Standpipe Hill allowed them to temporarily stem the tide of the white invasion. When white rioters set up a machine gun-probably the same weapon that had been used earlier that morning at the grain elevator, and unleashed its deadly fire on the church belfry, the black defenders were quickly overwhelmed. As “Choc” Phillips later described what happened:

In a couple of minutes pieces of brick started falling, then whole bricks began tumbling from the narrow slits in the cupola. Within five or six minutes the openings were large jagged holes with so many bricks flying from that side of the cupola wall that it seemed ready to fall.

The men stopped firing the machine gun and almost immediately the houses on the outer rim of the area that had been protected by the snipers, became victims of the arsonists. We watched the men take the machine gun from the tripod, wrap it in a canvas cover then lay it on the bed of the truck. They rolled up the belts with the empty shell casings, put away those that were still unused, and in what seemed less than ten minutes from the time the truck was parked at the location, drove away.

While standing on the high ground where the machine gun had been firing, we watched the activity below for a few minutes. Most of the houses were beginning to burn and smoke ascended slowly in to the air while people flitted around as busy as bees down there. From the number that ran in and out of the houses and the church, there had evidently been a couple of hundred who remained behind when the mob bypassed the area.

A short while later, Mount Zion was torched.161.


[** More on role of police, National Guardsmen, and their “deputies”]

Attempts by black Tulsans to defend their homes and property were undercut by the actions of both the Tulsa police and the local National Guard units, who, rather than focus on disarming and arresting the white rioters, took steps that led to the eventual imprisonment of practically all of the city's African American citizens. Guardsmen deployed on Standpipe Hill made at least one eastward march in the early hours of June 1, rounding up African Americans along the way, before they were fired upon, apparently by whites as well as blacks, near Greenwood Avenue. The guardsmen then marched to Sunset Hill, where they handed over their black prisoners to local police officers.162

An arrest by a white officer was not a guarantee of safety for black Tulsans. According to Thomas Higgins, a white resident of Wichita, Kansas who happened to be visiting Tulsa when the riot broke out, “I saw men of my own race, sworn officers, on three occasions search Negroes while their hands were up, and not finding weapons, extracted what money they found on them. If the Negro protested, he was shot.”163

White civilians also took black prisoners. When the invasion began, Carrie Kinlaw, an African American woman who lived out toward the Section Line, had to run toward the fighting in order to help her sisters retrieve their invalid mother. Reaching the elderly woman in a “rain of bullets”, Kinlaw later wrote:

My sisters and I gathered her up, placed her on a cot, and three of us carried the cot and the other one carried a bundle of clothes; thus we carried Mother about six blocks, with bullets falling on all sides. About six squads of rioters overtook us, asked for men and guns, made us hold up our hands.

Not all of her captors, however, were adults. “There were boys in that bunch,” she added, “from about 10 years upward, all armed with guns.”164

Black Tulsans also faced dangers while in the custody of white civilians. James T. West a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, was arrested by whites at his home on Easton Street that morning. “Some men appeared with drawn guns and ordered all of the men out of the house,” he recalled immediately after the riot,

I went out immediately. They ordered me to raise my hands, after which three or four men searched me. They told me to line up in the street. I requested them to let me get my hat and best shoes, but they refused and abusively ordered me to line up. They refused to let one of the men put on any kind of shoes. After lining up some 30 or 40 of us men, they ran us through the streets to Convention Hall, forcing us to keep our hands in the air all the while. While we were running, some of the ruffians would shoot at our heels and swore at those who had difficulty keeping up. They actually drove a car into the bunch and knocked down two or three men.165

Harold M. Parker, a white bookkeeper for the Oklahoma Producing and Refining Corporation at the time of the riot, later corroborated how armed whites sometimes shot at the heels of their black prisoners. “Sometimes they missed and shot their legs,” Parker recalled a half century later, “It was sheer cruelty coming out.”166

The most infamous incident involving white civilians imprisoning African Americans was that which concerned Dr. A.C. Jackson, Tulsa's noted black surgeon. Despite the increasing gunfire, Dr. Jackson had decided to remain inside of his handsome home at 523 N. Detroit, along the shoulder of Standpipe Hill. But when a group of armed whites arrived on his front lawn, Jackson apparently walked out the side door of his home with his hands up, saying, “Here I am boys, don't shoot.”167 What happened next was later recounted by John A. Oliphant, a white attorney who lived nearby, in testimony he provided after the riot:

Q. About what time in the morning did you say it was Dr. Jackson was shot?

A. Right close to eight o'clock, between seven thirty and eight o'clock.

Q. Dr. Jackson was a Negro?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And he was coming toward you and these other men at the time he was shot?

A. Yes, Sir, coming right between his house, right in his yard between his home and the house below him.

Q. What did these men say at the time he was shot?

A. They didn't say anything but they pulled down on him; I kept begging him not to shoot him, I held him a good bit and I thought he wouldn't shoot but he shot him twice and the other fellow on the other side-and he fell-shot him and broke his leg.

Q. One man shot him twice?

A. Yes, sir, this is my recollection now.

Q. Then another one shot him through the leg?

A. Yes, I didn't look at that fellow.

Q. These same men that shot him carried him to the hospital?

A. No, they didn't.

Q. What did they do?

A. I have never seen them after that, I don't know a thing about what became of them.

Dr. Jackson died of his wounds later that day.168

Not all black Tulsans, however, countenanced surrender. In the final burst of fighting off of Standpipe Hill that morning, a deadly firefight erupted at the site of an old clay pit, where several African American defenders were said to have gone to their deaths fighting off the white invaders. Stories also have been passed down over the years regarding the exploits of Peg Leg Taylor, a legendary black defender who is said to have singlehandedly fought off more than a dozen white rioters. Along the northern face of Sunset Hill, the white guardsmen posted there found themselves, at least for a while, under attack.169

Black Tulsa, it was clear, was not going [down] without a fight.


[** Greenwood fought fiercely, but fires spread northward]

Despite their gallant effort, however, Tulsa's African American minority was simply outgunned and outnumbered. As the white mobs continued to move northward, into the heart of the black residential district, some of the worst violence of the riot appears to have taken place. “Negro men, women and children were killed in great numbers as they ran, trying to flee to safety,” one unidentified informant later told Mary E. Parrish, “. . . the most horrible scenes of this occurrence was to see women dragging their children while running to safety, and the dirty white rascals firing at them as they ran.”170

In the wake of the invasion came a wall of flame, steadily moving northward. “Is the whole world on fire?” asked a young playmate of eight-year-old Kinney Booker, who was fleeing with his family from their home on North Frankfort. Not far away, a fiery horror was underway. As later recounted by Walter White in The Nation magazine:

One story was told to me by an eyewitness of five colored men trapped in a burning house. Four burned to death. A fifth attempted to flee, was shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and his body was thrown back into the flames.

Humans, however, were not the only victims of the conflagration. More that a few black Tulsans kept pigs and chickens in their backyards in those days. They too perished in the flames, as did some dogs and other family pets.171

Efforts made by the Tulsa Fire Department to halt the burning were of little effect. The earliest attempts by firemen to put out fires in the African American district were halted, at gunpoint, by crowds of white rioters. Thereafter, what efforts that were made appear to have been directed towards keeping the flames away from nearby white neighborhoods. This may also have played a role in how another new black church, the First Baptist Church located at Archer and Jackson, was spared. “Yonder is a nigger church, why ain't they burning it?” a white woman allegedly asked on the morning of June 1. Because, she was told, “It's in a white district.”172


[** Local National Guardsmen threw full weight behind mutinous mob]

As the morning wore on, and the fighting moved northward across Greenwood, there was a startling new development. On the heels of their brief gun battle with African American riflemen to their north, the guardsmen who were positioned along the crest of Sunset Hill then joined in the invasion of black Tulsa, with one detachment heading north, the other to the northeast. As later described by Captain John W. McCuen in the after action report he submitted to the commander of Tulsa's National Guard units:

We advanced to the crest of Sunset Hill in skirmish line and then a little further north to the military crest of the hill where our men were ordered to lie down because of the intense fire of the blacks who had formed a good skirmish line at the foot of the hill to the northeast among the out-buildings of the Negro settlement which stops at the foot of the hill. After about 20 minutes “fire at will” at the armed groups of blacks the latter began falling back to the northeast, thus getting good cover among the frame buildings of the Negro settlement. Immediately we moved forward, “B” Company advancing directly north and the Service company in a north-easterly direction.173

More remarkable, the guardsmen came upon a group of African Americans barricaded inside a store, who were attempting to hold off a mob of armed white rioter's. Rather than attempt to get the white invaders and the black defenders to disengage, the guardsmen joined in on the attack. Again, as described by Captain McCuen:

At the northeast corner of the Negro settlement 10 or more Negroes barricaded themselves in a concrete store and dwelling and a stiff fight ensued between these Negroes on one side and guardsmen and civilians on the other. Several whites and blacks were wounded and killed at this point. We captured, arrested and disarmed a great many Negro men in this settlement and then sent them under guard to the convention hall and other points where they were being concentrated.174

No longer remotely impartial, the men of “B” Company, Third Infantry, Oklahoma National Guard, had now joined in on the assault on black Tulsa.


[** Some whites aided blacks]

As African Americans fled the city, new dangers sometimes appeared. Mary Parrish later reported that as the group of refugees she was with “had traveled many miles into the country and were turning to find our way to Claremore,” they were warned to stay clear of a nearby town, where whites were “treating our people awfully mean as they passed through”.175 Similar stories have persisted for decades.

Not all white Tulsans, however, shared the racial views of the white rioters. Mary Korte, a white maid who worked for a wealthy Tulsa family, hid African American refugees at her family's farm east of the city.176 Along the road to Sand Springs, a white couple named Merrill and Ruth Phelps hid and fed black riot victims in the basement of their home for days. The Phelps home, which still stands, became something of a “safe house” for black Tulsans who had managed not to be imprisoned by the white authorities. Traveling through the woods and along creek beds at night, dozens of African American refugees were apparently hidden by the Phelpses during the daylight hours.177

Other white Tulsans also hid blacks, or directly confronted the white rioters. Mary Jo Erhardt, a young stenographer who roomed at the Y.W.C.A. Building at Fifth and Cheyenne, did both. After a sleepless night, punctuated by the sounds of gunfire, Erhardt arose early on the morning of June 1. Heading downstairs, she then heard a voice she recognized as belonging to the African American porter who worked there. “Miss Mary! Oh, Miss Mary!” he said, “Let me in quick.” Armed whites, he told her, were chasing him. Quickly secreting the man inside the building's walk-in refrigerator, Erhardt later recalled,

Hardly had I hidden him behind the beef carcasses and returned to the hall door when a loud pounding at the service entrance drew me there. A large man was trying to open the door, fortunately securely locked, and there on the stoop stood three very rough-looking middle-aged white men, each pointing a revolver in my general direction!

“What do you want?” I asked sharply. Strangely, those guns frightened me not at all. I was so angry I could have torn those ruffians apart-three armed white men chasing one lone, harmless Negro. I cannot recall in all my life feeling hatred toward any person, until then. Apparently my feelings did not show, for one answered, “Where did he go?” “Where did WHO go?”, I responded.

“That nigger,” one demanded, “did you let him in here?”

“Mister,” I said, “I'm not letting ANYBODY in here!”, which was perfectly true. I had already let in all I intended.

“It was at least ten minutes before I felt secure enough to release Jack,” Erhardt added, “He was nearly frozen, dressed thinly as he was for the hot summer night, but he was ALIVE!”178

Some whites, in their efforts to protect black Tulsans from harm put themselves at risk. None, perhaps, more so than a young Hispanic woman named Maria Morales Gutierrez. A recent immigrant from Mexico, she and her husband were living, at the time of the riot, in a small house off Peoria Avenue, near Independence Street. Hearing a great deal of noise and commotion on the morning of June 1, Morales ventured outside, where she saw two small African American children, who had evidently been separated from their parents, walking along the street. Suddenly, an airplane appeared on the horizon, bearing down on the two frightened youngsters. Morales ran out into the street, and scooped the little ones into her arms, and out of danger.

A group of armed whites later demanded that Morales hand the two terrified children over to them. “In her English, she told them 'No',” her daughter Gloria Lough, later recalled. “Somehow or other,” she added, “they didn't shoot her.” The youngsters were safe.179

As the battle for black Tulsa continued to rage, it soon became evident, even in neighborhoods far removed from the fighting, that on June 1, 1921, there would be very little business as usual in the city of Tulsa. When Guy Ashby, a young white employee at Cooper's Grocery on Fourteenth Street, showed up for work that morning, his boss was on his way out the door. “The boss told me there would be no work that day as he was declaring it 'Nigger Day' and he was going hunting niggers,” Ashby later remembered, “He took a rifle and told me to lock up the store and go home.”180

Downtown, normal activities were even more in disarray, as business owners found themselves shorthanded, and crowds of onlookers took to the streets, or climbed up on rooftops, to stare at the great clouds of smoke billowing over the north end of town. At the all-white Central High School, several male students bolted from class when gunfire was heard nearby. One of the students later recalled, “struck out for the riot area.” Along the way, he added, they were met by a white man who handed them a new rifle and a box of shells. “You can have it,” the man told them, “I'm going home and going to bed.”181

The riot was felt along the southern edge of the city as well, particularly in the well-to- o white neighborhoods off of 21st Street, as carloads of armed white vigilantes went door to door, rounding up live-in African American cooks, maids, and butlers at gunpoint, and then hauling them off toward downtown. A number of white homeowners, however, fearing for the safety of their black employees, stood in the way of this forced evacuation. When Charles and Amy Arnold refused to hand over their housekeeper, cries of being “nigger lovers” were followed by a brick being thrown through their front window.182

Even out in the countryside, miles from town, people knew that something was happening in Tulsa. Since daybreak, huge columns of black smoke had been rising up, hundreds of feet into the air, over the north end of the city.


[** 9:15am = State National Guard appeared on scene]

The smoke was still there, some four hours later, when the State Troops finally arrived in town.

The special train from Oklahoma City, carrying Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett and the approximately 109 soldiers and officers under his command, pulled into Tulsa's bullet-scarred Frisco and Santa Fe passenger depot at approximately 9:15 a.m. on the morning of June 1, 1921. The soldiers, who arrived armed and in uniform, were all-members of an Oklahoma City based National Guard unit. In Tulsa, they soon became known, by both blacks and whites, as the “State Troops,” a term which had the intrinsic benefit of helping to distinguish the out-of-towners from the local National Guard units. Like the local guardsmen, the State Troops were also all-white.183

By the time the State Troops arrived, Tulsa's devastating racial conflagration was already ten and one-half hours old. Dozens of blacks and whites had been killed, while the wards of the city's four remaining hospitals -- the all-black Frissell Memorial Hospital had already been burned to the ground by white rioters -- were filled with the wounded. Most of the city's African American district had already been torched, while looting continued in those black homes and businesses that were still standing. “One very bad thing was the way whites delved into the personal belongings of the Negroes, throwing their possessions from trunks and otherwise damaging them,” reported M.J. White, a Denver dental supply dealer who was visiting Tulsa at the time of the riot. “This lawless looting continued from about 9 until 11 o'clock”, he added, “when martial law prevented further spoilation.”184

There were ongoing horrors as well. “One Negro was dragged behind an automobile, with a rope around his neck, through the business district,” reported the Tulsa World in its “Second Extra” edition on the morning of June 1. Decades later, both former Tulsa mayor L.C. Clark, and E.W. “Gene” Maxey of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department, confirmed this report. “About 8 a.m. on the morning of June 1, 1921,” Maxey told riot chronicler Ruth Avery,

I was downtown with a friend when they killed that good, old, colored man that was blind. He had amputated legs. His body was attached at the hips to a small wooden platform with wheels. One leg stub was longer than the other, and hung slightly over the edge of the platform, dragging along the street. He scooted his body around by shoving and pushing with his hands covered with baseball catcher mitts. He supported himself by selling pencils to passersby, or accepting their donations for his singing of songs.

The street car tracks ran north and south on Main Street, and the tracks were laid on pretty rough bricks. The fellow that was driving the car I knew -- an outlaw and a bootlegger. But I won't give his name because he has some folks here. There were two or three people with him. They got that old colored man that had been here for years. He was helpless. He'd carry an old tin cup, sing, and mooched for money. One of them thuggy, white people had a new car, so he went to the depot, and came back up Main Street between First and Second Streets. We were on the east side of the street. These white thugs had roped this colored man on the longer stump of his one leg, and were dragging him behind the car up Main Street. He was hollering. His head was being bashed in, bouncing on the steel rails and bricks.

“They went on all the speed that the car could make,” Maxey added, “. . . a new car, with the top down, and 3 or 4 of them in it, dragging him behind the car in broad daylight on June 1, right through the center of town on Main Street.”185

When the State Troops arrived in Tulsa, the majority of the city's black citizenry had either fled to the countryside, or were being held -- allegedly for their own protection -- against their will in one of a handful of hastily set-up internment centers, including Convention Hall, the fairgrounds, and McNulty baseball park. There were still, however, some pockets of armed black resistance to the remnants of the white invasion, especially along the northern reaches of the African American district. In certain borderline areas such as the residential neighborhood that lay just to the east of the Santa Fe racks where the Jim Crow line ran right down the center of the street, a number of African American homes had escaped destruction, sometimes through the efforts of sympathetic white neighbors.186

Upon their arrival in Tulsa, the State Troops apparently did not proceed immediately to where the fighting was still in progress, although it is uncertain how long this delay lasted. The reasons for this seeming hold-up appear to be largely due to the fact that certain steps needed to be fulfilled -- either through protocol or by law -- in order for martial law to be declared in Tulsa. Accordingly, after detraining at the Frisco and Santa Fe station, Adjutant General Barrett led a detachment of soldiers to the courthouse, where an unsuccessful attempt was made to contact Sheriff McCullough. Barrett then went to city hall, where, after conferring with city officials, he contacted Governor Robertson in Oklahoma City and asked to be granted the authority to proclaim martial law in Tulsa County. Other detachments of State Troops, meanwhile, appear to have begun taking charge of black Tulsans who were being held by armed white civilians.187 However, another account of the riot, published a decade later, alleges that upon their arrival in Tulsa, the State Troops wasted valuable minutes by taking time to prepare and eat breakfast.188

As it turned out, while the State Troops were occupied downtown, not far away, some of the finest African American homes in the city were still standing. Located along North Detroit Avenue, near Easton, they included the homes of some of Tulsa's most prominent black citizens, among them the residences of Tulsa Star editor A.J. Smitherman, Booker T. Washington High School principal Ellis W. Woods, and businessman Thomas R. Gently and his wife, Lottie.189

For several hours that morning, John A. Oliphant, a white attorney who lived nearby, had been telephoning police headquarters in an effort to save these homes, that had been looted but not burned. Oliphant believed that a handful of officers, if sent over immediately, could see to it that the homes were spared. As he later recounted in sworn testimony:

Q. Judge, when you phoned the police station what reply did you get?

A. He said, “somebody in there,” I thought I knew the voice but I am not certain, he said, “I will do the best I can for you.” I told him who I was, I wanted some policemen, I says, “If you will send me ten policemen I will protect all this property and save a million dollars worth of stuff they were burning down and looting.” I asked the fire department for the fire department to be sent over to help protect my property and they said they couldn't come, they wouldn't let them.190

Oliphant's hopes were raised, however, when he observed the arrival of the State Troops, figuring that they might be able to save the homes along North Detroit. “I sent for them,” he testified, “I sent for the militia to come, send over fifteen or twenty of them, that is all I wanted.” But, instead, at around 10:15 a.m. or 10:30 a.m., a party of three or four white men, probably so-called “Special Deputies,” each wearing badges arrived, and then set fire to one of the very homes that Oliphant had been trying to protect. By the time the State Troops arrived in the neighborhood later that morning, it was too late. Most of the homes were already on fire.191

One of the few that was not belonged to Dr. Robert Bridgewater and his wife, Mattie, at 507 N. Detroit. Returning to his home -- after being held at Convention Hall -- in order to retrieve his medicine cases, Dr. Bridgewater later wrote,

On reaching the house, I saw my piano and all of my elegant furniture piled in the street. My safe had been broken open, all of the money stolen, also my silverware, cut glass, all of the family clothes, and everything of value had been removed, even my family Bible. My electric light fixtures were broken, all of the window lights and glass in the doors were broken, the dishes that were not stolen were broken, the floors were covered (literally speaking) with glass, even the phone was torn from the wall.192

The Bridgewaters, as they well knew, were among the fortunate few. Most black Tulsans no longer had homes anymore.


[** Noon hour = the riot subsided in a city under martial law]

By the time that martial law was declared in Tulsa County at 11:29 a.m. on June 1, the race riot had nearly run its course. Scattered bands of white rioters, some of whom had been awake for more than twenty-four hours straight, continued to loot and burn, but most had already gone home. Along the northern and eastern edges of black Tulsa, where homes were mixed in with stretches of farmland, it had become difficult for the rioters to distinguish the homes of African Americans from those of their white neighbors. The home that riot survivor Nell Hamilton shared with her mother out near the Section Line was, perhaps, spared for just that reason.193

A final skirmish appears to have occurred a little after Noon, when the remaining members of the white mob exchanged fire with a group of African Americans not far from where the Santa Fe railroad tracks cut across the Section Line, just off of Peoria Avenue. The black defenders had apparently held off the whites who were gathered along the railroad embankment. When a second group of whites, armed with high-powered rifles, arrived on the scene, the African Americans were soon overrun.194

Most of the city's black population, meanwhile, was being held under armed guard. Many families had been sent, at first, to Convention Hall, but as it filled to capacity, black Tulsans were taken to the baseball park and to the fairgrounds. As the day wore on, hundreds would soon join them. As the men, women, and children who had fled to the countryside, or had taken refuge at Golden Gate Park, began to wander back toward town, they too, were taken into custody. While the white authorities would later argue, and not without some validity, that this was a protective measure designed to save black lives, other reasons including a lingering white fear of a “Negro uprising” undoubtedly played a role in their rationale. In any event, following the destruction of their homes and businesses on May 31 and June 1, black Tulsa now found itself, for all practical purposes, under arrest.195

Following the declaration of martial law, the State Troops began to move into what little remained of Tulsa's African American neighborhoods, disarming whites and sending them away from the district. After the riot, a number of black Tulsans, strongly condemned, in no uncertain terms, the actions of both the Tulsa Police Department and the local National Guard units during the conflict. However, the State Troops were largely praised. “Everyone with whom I met was loud in praise of the State Troops who so gallantly came to the rescue of stricken Tulsa,” wrote Mary Parrish, “They used no partiality in quieting the disorder. It is the general belief that if they had reached the scene sooner, many lives and valuable property would have been saved.”196

Additional detachments of State Troops from other Oklahoma cities and towns arrived in Tulsa throughout June 1, and with their help, the streets were eventually cleared. All businesses were ordered to close by 6:00 p.m. One hour later, only members of the military or civil authorities, physicians, or relief workers were allowed on the streets. It was later claimed that by 8:00 p.m. on the evening of June 1, order had been restored.197 The Tulsa race riot was over.


[** Burying the dead]

Doctors, relief workers, and members of the military and civil authorities were not, however, the only ones who were active in Tulsa on Wednesday evening, June 1, 1921. As Walter White later reported:

O.T. Johnson, commandant of the Tulsa Citadel of the Salvation Army, stated that on Wednesday and Thursday the Salvation Army fed thirty-seven Negroes employed as grave diggers and twenty on Friday and Saturday. During the first two days these men dug 120 graves in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No coffins were used. The bodies were dumped into the holes and covered over with dirt.198

Other written evidence, including funeral home records that had lain unseen for more than seventy-five years, would later confirm that African American riot victims were buried in unmarked graves at Oaklawn Cemetery.199 But oral sources would also point to additional unmarked burial sites for riot victims in Tulsa County, including Newblock Park, along the Sand Springs road, and the historic Booker T. Washington Cemetery, located some twelve miles southeast of the city.200

Conducted, no doubt, under trying circumstances, the burial of Tulsa's African American riot dead would nevertheless bear little in common with the interment of white victims. Largely buried by strangers, there would be no headstones or graveside services for most of black Tulsa's riot dead. Nor would family members be present at the burials, as most of them were still being held under armed guard at the various detention centers. It appears that in some cases, not only did some black Tulsa families not learn how their loved ones died, but not even where they were buried.


[** Greenwood was gone]

In the week following the riot, nearly all of Tulsa's African American citizenry had managed to win their freedom, by one way or another, from the internment centers. Largely homeless, and in many cases now penniless, they made their way back to Greenwood. However, Greenwood was gone.

What they found was a blackened landscape of vacant lots and empty streets, charred timbers and melted metal, ashes and broken dreams. Where the African American commercial district once stood was now a ghost town of crumbling brick storefronts and the burned-out bulks of automobiles. Gone was the Dreamland and the Dixie, gone was the Tulsa Star and the black public library, gone was the Liberty Cafe and Elliott & Hooker's clothing store, H.L. Byars' cleaners and Mabel Little's beauty salon. Gone were literal lifetimes of sweat and hard work, and hard-won rungs on the ladder of the American Dream.

Gone, too, were hundreds of homes, and more than a half-dozen African American churches, all torched by the white invaders. Nearly ten-thousand Tulsans, practically the entire black community, was now homeless.

Across the tracks and across town, in Tulsa's white neighborhoods, no homes had been looted and no churches had been burned. From the outside, life looked much the same as it had been prior to the riot, but even here, beneath the surface, there was little normalcy.

In one way or another, white Tulsans had been stunned by what had happened in their city. More than a few whites, including those whose homes now featured stolen goods, had undeniably, taken great joy in what had occurred, particularly the destruction of Greenwood. Some whites had even applauded as black families had been led through the streets, at gunpoint, toward the various internment centers.201 Some would soon find a new outlet for their racial views in the hooded order that was about to sweep across the white community.

Other white Tulsans were horrified by what had taken place. Immediately following the riot, Clara Kimble, a white teacher at Central High School opened up her home to her black counterparts at Booker T. Washington High School, as did other white families.202 Others donated food, clothing, money, and other forms of assistance. For many whites, the riot was a horror never to be forgotten, a mark of shame upon the city that would endure forevermore.

Many African Americans were forced to spend the winter after the riot in tents (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).


[** Tulsa officials took steps to ensure Greenwood was not rebuilt]

However, for black Tulsans, the trials and tribulations had only just begun. Six days after the riot, on June 7, the Tulsa City Commission passed a fire ordinance designed to prevent the rebuilding of the African American commercial district where it had formerly stood, while the so-called Reconstruction Commission, an organization of white business and political leaders, had been fuming away offers of outside aid .203 In the end, black Tulsans did rebuild their community, and the fire ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Yet, the damage had been done, and the tone of the official local response to the disaster had already been set. Despite the Herculean efforts of the American Red Cross, thousands of black Tulsans were forced to spend the winter of 1921- 22 living in tents.204 Others simply left. They had had enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For some, staying was not an option. It soon became clear, both in the grand jury that had been impaneled to look into the riot, and in various other legal actions that, by and large, languished in the courts, that African Americans would be blamed for causing the riot. Nowhere, perhaps, was this stated more forcefully than in the June 25, final report of the grand jury, which stated:

We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland then and now in the custody of the Sheriff of Tulsa Country for an alleged assault upon a young white woman. We have not been able to find any evidence either from white or colored citizens that any organized attempt was made or planned to take from the Sheriff's custody any prisoner; the crowd assembled about the courthouse being purely spectators and curiosity seekers resulting from rumors circulated about the city.

“There was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms,,” the report added, “The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair.”205

A few other court cases, largely involving claims against the city and various insurance companies, lingered on for a number of years afterward. In the end, while a handful of African Americans were charged with riot-related offenses, no white Tulsan was ever sent to prison for the murders and burnings of May 31, and June 1, 1921. In the 1920s Oklahoma courtrooms and halls of government, there would be no day of reckoning for either the perpetrators or the victims of the Tulsa race riot. Now, some seventy-nine years later, the aged riot survivors can only wonder if, indeed, that day will ever come.



Other Websites and Sources

University of Tulsa archive devoted to 1921 Tulsa race riot