Binkley Wright, Los Angeles, CA, b. 1909
Interview by Eddie Faye Gates, Chair, Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race riot of 1921. Recorded Feb. 2000
Mrs. Gates: "Mr. Wright, tell me what you remember about that riot."
Mr. Wright: "I was part of it. I was part of that riot!!! I didn't actually do no killing, but I was part of the "pass-the-ammunition" team that took part in the fighting June 1, 1921. It happened this way. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning, to the night of May 31st. There were lots of end-of-school celebrations going on that night. Whites were having a school play at the Convention Center (now
the Brady Theater). Black Tulsans were having their play at the Dixie Theater. My wife, Clotie Lewis, also a Tulsa Race Riot survivor, was 10 years old and she was in the play being performed by black high school seniors. She was playing the little sister of one of the seniors, I believe.
My young friends and I stole a ride on a jitney to downtown Tulsa so we could see that play. My friends and I had a lot of experience in jumping onto Jitneys going from our home in North Tulsa to downtown Tulsa. One of my buddies was Toussaint Smitherman, the youngest Smitherman boy who lived on North Detroit where the most prominent Tulsa blacks lived in some of the fanciest houses in Tulsa. His older brothers were Andrew Jackson (A.J.) who owned the "Tulsa Star" newspaper and John Smitherman who was a deputy sheriff. John was once kidnapped by the Klan who cut off part of his ear and tried to force him to eat it! The Klan was very active in those days. They were always burning crosses. Even in front of the number 2 Fire Station, the Klan burned crosses! I was always playing with Touissant and his "poor white trash" neighbors and Mexican neighbors who lived on the East side of Detroit. I remember we were always playing cowboys and Indians. One day while we were playing and horsing around, Touissant shot and killed a boy over there. But he got out of that trouble because of his influential relatives.
Back to the jitneys. This is how we boys would steal rides. The jitneys would come into North Tulsa and pick up people all along Greenwood, Pine, and the Addition outside those two areas, and take them downtown. The jitneys all had a spare tire on the side of the vehicle. If a boy jumped upon the slow-moving jitney, he could grab the spare tire and hang on for a free ride. The driver couldn't see the kid hanging onto the spare tire. His vision of that area
was blocked. There was no glass window on the jitney except for the windshield. So us boys would jump on the spare tire of a jitney and steal a ride to town. We'd cling to that tire and we'd jump off when the jitney crossed Cameron and Greenwood streets. Then we'd slip into the Dixie Theater. That's what me and my buddies did the night of May 31, 1921. But after the play had been on only ten minutes, the bright lights of the theater came one. The manager asked us all to leave. No explanation was given. Outside, we heard and saw all kind of confusion - people running, people upset, people talking about a "race riot" being on. We boys didn't know what a "race riot" was. But we sensed that this was something serious. So we each caught a jitney and rode back into North Tulsa on a spare tire. We jumped off in the Addition, now the Greenwood and Latimer Place area. When we got off the jitneys, we were talking about the term "race riot." One boy told me to ask my Daddy what a "race riot" was. So I did. My Daddy said, "Boy, what you talking about"? So I told my Daddy what had happened at the theater, and about the people rushing
home and talking about a "race riot" being on. We told him about the jitney drivers yelling out at people, warning them - like Mr. Wilson Jarrett, and Mr. Wilson - to get guns, to get ready to defend themselves because a race riot was on. My Daddy put on his hat and said
he was going to check things out for himself. He came back later and said, "it looks bad." He carried us out to Mr. Holderness' house. Two of the Holderness sons, Len and Clark, in their twenties, went to Mt. Zion Baptist Church to help a "protective
brigade" fight off mobs entering Greenwood. They survived, but many black men were killed when white mobs broke through and heavily attacked the Church which was falsely accused of being a storehouse for ammunition. Anyway, there were about 8 or 9 black families hiding at the Holderness house in the Section Line Addition where Pine Street is today. My Daddy went back downtown after he got us safely to the Holderness house. He was a janitor in
the Fourth National Bank building at Fourth and Boulder in downtown Tulsa. Mr. Holderness, the father of Len and Clark, worked there too, and also a man named West. Before Daddy left, he gave Mother his gun and told her to use it if she had to.
Meanwhile, downtown, Dick Rowland was in the city jail which was behind the bank
building. My Daddy knew Dick Rowland who was a porter in a bank building at Second and Boulder. Daddy said Dick was going with (courting) Sarah Page, the young, white elevator operator. He met her when he stocked the concession stand where she
Now, back to the riot, back to the fighting, and how I got involved in it. When the white mobs came across the Frisco Railroad, blacks put up a brave fight to keep them out of North Tulsa.
But they were outnumbered, so the whites forced their way into Greenwood, shooting, wounding, and killing many blacks, and burning down everything in their path. They even burned Mt. Zion church where those brave men fought so hard to keep the mobs out. Jitneys had driven ammunition into the North Tulsa Greenwood area from downtown where it had been stored behind Paradise Baptist Church. Horace "Peg-Leg" Taylor said "They're getting too many. They're killing too many of our people. I'm going on the hill and take 'em." He was talking about the hill between Haskell and Jasper Streets, Brickyard Hill. Later, he and the blacks who were defending North Tulsa moved on to Standpipe Hill to try to defend the people of North Tulsa who were under attack. "Peg-Leg" and the other black defenders met and "conferenced" behind the steps of Paradise Baptist Church. Then they made a human chain and went up the hill to defend blacks from the white mobs. They told three of us young black boys, Douglas Jackson, Virgil Whiteside, and me, that we could help to defend our
people. They told us that the mayor of the City of Tulsa had opened the Armory and given two machine guns to whites and that whites were using those machine guns to mow down our people. They told us we could be part of history, that we could help defend North Tulsa. And so we did! Our job was to stay behind the steps of Paradise Baptist Church and load and reload guns for the human chain of black defenders. And so we did. But the shotguns and rifles those black men had could not compete with those machine guns. But those brave men sure did try to save North Tulsa and me and my buddies sure did our part to help them! We used hatchets to open the boxes of ammunition that the jitneys had brought in earlier. And we kept those guns loaded and reloaded, and we kept that assemblyline going, the passing of those loaded guns to the human chain. But it was all in vain. Those brave black men were outnumbered, and they were picked off by the white mobs and by guardmen in uniform who were firing those machine guns. Still, our black people put up a brave fight and my buddies and I were proud to be part of that movement to defend North Tulsa May 31st and June 1st 1921!"
Second Interview with Binkley Wright August 25, 2000
Eddie Faye Gates (EFG): Mr. Wright, tell me some more about the ammunition that the black defenders of Greenwood used on the night of May 31 and June 1, 1921 from their Paradise Baptist Church "battle station."
Where did it come from?
When was it sent to Tulsa?
Where did it come from?
Where was it stored or hidden?
Did you know anything about an organization called the African Blood Brotherhood?
Binkley Wright (BW): No, I didn't know anything about the African Blood Brotherhood. Peg-Leg Taylor and the other men who defended Greenwood during the riot never said anything to us about such an organization. Course me and my friends were 11-year-old boys and they wouldn't have talked to us about such. All they told us was that whites who came in and destroyed Greenwood those two days of the riot broke into hardware stores and pawn shops on 2nd Street and stole guns and ammunition; but they said that the most powerful weapons that the white mobsters had were machine guns that had been given to them by national guardsmen and police officials. They said that blacks who were defending Greenwood broke into pawn shops on 1st Street which was nearest Greenwood and stole guns and ammunition. My friends and I broke open those crates of ammunition with hammers and tools. The guns that we loaded, reloaded, and handed to the human chain of black defenders of Greenwood were mainly 12 and 14 gauge shotguns and 30/30 rifles which were no match for the machine guns used to kill and wound blacks. My wife's cousin, Tommy Lewis, got his arm shot off in the riot.
EFG: Mr. Wright, in my research and interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses I have heard a lot about Horace (Peg-Leg) Taylor. I have talked to his daughter Lena Eloise Taylor Butler who lives in Seattle. Tell me what you remember about Peg-Leg.
BW: Peg-Leg was a colorful character, and a very brave man. Before the riot, he and his sons had worked as builders/carpenters. His sons (3 or 4 of them) shingled most every house that was built in the Addition (area just off Greenwood and Pine). During the riot, Peg-Leg put his life on the line to try to keep those mobsters out of Greenwood. He was a very brave man!
EFG: What were your personal losses during the riot? What did you miss most?
BW: We lost everything. Everything that we owned was burned to the ground! What I miss most were the family photos that we had in our house. My father had lots of photographs of family in our house, and those can never be replaced. His family came from Paris, Texas. After the riot, my father divorced my mother and married another lady. They lived in Tulsa for a while. Then they moved to Chicago. My mother and I moved to California.
NOTE: The African Blood Brotherhood, a defense organization for black people in the U.S. who received little or no protection from their local police forces during the era of rigid segregation and racism, naturally had to operate in secrecy. So it is not surprising that black people who were not actively involved in the Brotherhood knew nothing about the Brotherhood. It is difficult to find and interview Brotherhood survivors in Oklahoma. Because they were grown men at the time of the riot, many have died of old age; the handful of remaining Brotherhood survivors in Oklahoma maintain their secrecy out of fear of retribution or distrust of "the establishment." Robert Littlejohn, noted retired geologist/paleontologist from Amoco Research Company in Tulsa, is the grandson of a late Brotherhood member and has contact with the handful of Brotherhood survivors in Oklahoma. Perhaps if they could be guaranteed immunity from any legal action on the part of officials, and if they could be convinced of their safety, some of them might talk to interviewers.
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