Prologue

By State Representative Don Ross

 

Personal belongings and household goods had been removed from many homes and piled in the streets. On the steps of the few houses that remained sat feeble and gray Negro men and women and occasionally a small child. The look in their eyes was one of dejection and supplication.

Judging from their attitude, it was not of material consequence to them whether they lived or died.

Harmless them selves, they apparently could not conceive the brutality and fiendishness of men who would deliberately set fire to the homes of their friends and neighbors and just as deliberately shoot them down in their tracks.

Tulsa Daily World, June 2, 1921

 

A mob destroyed 35-square-blocks of the African American Community during the evening of May 31, through the afternoon of June 1, 1921. It was a tragic, infamous moment in Oklahoma and the nation's history. The worse civil disturbance since the Civil War. In the aftermath of the death and destruction the people of our state suffered from a fatigue of faith - some still search for a statue of limitation on morality, attempting to forget the longevity of the residue of injustice that at best can leave little room for the healing of the heart. Perhaps this report, and subsequent humanitarian recovery events by the governments and the good people of the state will extract us from the guilt and confirm the commandment of a good and just God - leaving the deadly deeds of 1921 buried in the call for redemption, historical correctness, and repair. Then we can proudly sing together:

"We know we be long to this land.

"And the land we be long to is grand,

and when we say, ay yippy yi ki yea,

"We're only saying, you're doing fine Oklahoma."

"Oklahoma, you're O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma OK."

Hopefully with this report, the feeling of the state will be quickened, the conscience of the brutal city will be ignited, the hypocrisy of the nation will be exposed, and the crimes against God and man denounced. Oklahoma can set such an example. It was Abolitionist Frederick Douglass who reminded a callous nation that "[A] government that can give liberty in its Constitution ought to have the power to protect liberty, and impose civilized behavior in its administration." Tulsa's Race Relations Are Ceremonial In the 80 years hence, survivor, descendants, and a bereaved community seeks that administration in some action akin to justice. Tulsa's race relations are more ceremonial - liken to a bad marriage, with spouses living in the same quarters but housed in different rooms, each escaping one an other by perpetuating a separateness of silence. The French political historian Alexis d'Tocqueville noted, "Once the majority has irrevocably decided a question, it is no longer discussed. This is be cause the majority is a power that does not respond well to criticism." I first learn about the riot when I was about 15 from Booker T. Washington High School teacher and riot survivor W.D. Williams. In his slow, laboring voice Mr. W.D. as he was fondly known, said on the evening of May 31, 1921, his school graduation, and prom were canceled.

Dick Rowland, who had dropped out of high school a few years before to become rich in the lucrative trade of shining shoes, was in jail, accused of raping a white woman Sarah Page, "on a public elevator in broad daylight." After Rowland was arrested, angry white vigilantes gathered at the court house intent on lynching the shine boy. Armed blacks integrated the mob to protect him. There was a scuffle between a black and a white man, a shot rang out. The crowd scattered. It was about 10:00 a.m. A race riot had broken out. He said blacks defended their community for awhile, "but then the airplanes came dropping bombs." All of the black community was burned to the ground and 300 people died." More annoyed than bored, I leaped from my chair and spoke: "Greenwood was never burned. Ain't no 300 people dead. We're too old for fairy tales." Calling a teacher a liar was a capital offense Mr. W.D. snorted with a twist that framed his face with anger. He ignored my obstinacy and returned to his hyperbole. He finished his tale and dismissed the class. The next day he asked me to remain after class, and passed over a photo album with picture and post cards of Mount Zion Baptist Church on fire, the Dreamland Theater in shambles, whites with guns standing over dead bodies, blacks being marched to concentration camps with white mobs jeering, trucks loaded with caskets, and a yellowing news paper article accounting block after block of destruction - "30, 75 even 300 dead." Everything was just as he had described it. I was to learn later that Rowland was assigned a lawyer who was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan.

"What you think, fat mouth?" Mr. W.D. asked his astonished student.

After having talked to more than 300 riot survivors over the years, I have pondered that question for 45 years. The report raises the same question Mr. W.D. asked me. I now ask the Oklahoma Legislature, the City and County of Tulsa: "What do you think?" To understand the full context of Mr. W.D.'s question is a travelogue of African American history, Oklahoma blacks in particular. It includes, The Seven Year War and the birth of the nation, the infamous Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the allotment of Indian Territory, statehood, segregation, black towns, and the African American on Greenwood Avenue.

Each was a preponderance of the fuel that ignited the 1921 race war in Tulsa.

A bit of American history with an African-American perspective During the Seven Year War, Indians in the Ohio Valley sided with the French against Great Britain in a losing effort. Canada and other territories were ceded to the British.

Treaties were sign with the tribes protecting their right to hold their lands. The treaties were ignore by the colonial governors. The colonies also soon discovered that rum and slaves were profitable commodities. One of the most enterprising - if unsavory - trading practices of the time was the so-called "triangular trade." Merchants and shippers would purchase slaves off the coast of Africa for New England rum, then sell the slaves in the West Indies where they would buy molasses to bring home for sale to the local rum producers. In debt after the French and Indian War, England began to tax the colonies to pay for occupation. The measure was resisted, and the colonies began to prepare its Declaration of Independence. In an early draft, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

He (King George) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in an other hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the op pro brium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of an other.

[This version was removed from the Declaration of Independence after protest from southern colonies, and planted the seed of the Civil War to come.]

The Revolutionary War was fought and a constitution was presented and approved by the colonies. It would sanction slavery and human bondage as the law of the land. Broken treaties and genocide slowly moved Indians for the Ohio Valley, while other treaties settled them in the rich farm lands of the south. The southern tribes held slaves, but also offered the run away sanctuary, in some case tribal membership and rights. During the administration of Andrew Jackson, a direct assault on Indian lands was launched. Phony treaties corrupts chiefs and intra-tribal rivalry would lead to warring factions, assassinations and divide the tribal leaders, instigating their removal from their southern homelands. This odyssey, during the 1830s and before, the lives of blacks and Native Americans would be linked on the infamous, cruel "Trail of Tears." On long marches under extreme duress and hardship, the trail led to present-day Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Indian Territory would be split by the creation of the Kansas and Nebraska territories and after the Civil War abolished in 1907 with the entrance of Oklahoma as a state. Pressed by rival chiefs many of the tribes officially sided with the Confederacy. Afterward, many former black slaves, Freemen, were registered as members of the tribes and offered sections of the Indian land allotments. After the government opened Oklahoma for settlement more blacks came seeking freedom from southern oppression and for new opportunities in the Promised Land. Of the more than 50 all black towns, more than 20 were located in the new state, the more prosperous were Boley and Langston.

Oklahoma history re-recorded

Attorney B.C. Franklin, one of the genuine heroes in the aftermath of the race war heeded the call to settle into Indian Territory. He was the father of historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, who served as consultant scholars for this report and an earlier inspiration in my inquiry of the riot. In his memoirs attorney Franklin wrote of two men, whom he called "very rich Negroes" and the "greatest leaders" - O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford. In 1908, Gurley, constructed the first building, a rooming house and later the home of Vernon A.M.E. Church, on a muddy trail that would become the Black Wall Street of America. According to B.C. Franklin, Gurley bought 30 or 40 acres, plotted them and had them sold to "Negroes only." Attorney Franklin's account of the settlement of Greenwood, shattered earlier notions of blacks being forced in a section of town. It now appears the division was self-imposed. "In the end," Attorney Franklin wrote, "Tulsa became one of the most sharply segregated cities in the country." One of the possible errors I find in the report is that Gurley lost $65,000 in the riot. Indeed, he is listed in City Commission reports of having lost $157,783. Today his fortune would be worth more than $1 million.

J.B. Stradford, would later join Gurley on Greenwood, and build the finest hotel in the city, valued at $75,000. Before statehood, the territory had been seen by blacks as not only the Promised Land more notably as the nation's first all-black state, E.P. McCabe was the leading advocate of all-black towns and had migrated from Kansas and founded Langston, Oklahoma. A former Kansas auditor active in Republican politics, McCabe had also be come the assistant auditor of Oklahoma. He would lead a crusade to press President Benjamin Harrison into bringing "Indian Territory" into the union as an all-black state. Against that back drop, Gurley viewed his acres as a natural urban evolution from the rural trend of organizing black towns. White Democrats prepared for the State Constitutional Convention by using the black statehood issues and racist attacks against their Republican "Nigger loving opponents." Both Democrats and Republicans would disenfranchise blacks during the balloting for control of the convention. The Democrats won and some times with the Ku Klux Klan as allies maintains political control of the state into the millennium. After statehood the first bill passed by the Oklahoma Legislature was the in famous 'Senate Bill One' that tightly segregated the state.

Stradford, and his friend A.J. Smitherman, publisher of the Tulsa Star newspaper, were brave tenacious advocates on behalf of their race. After Stradford was acquitted for violating Oklahoma Jim Crow laws, in 1912, the hotel owner filed a lawsuit in the State Supreme Court suing the Midland Valley Railroad for false imprisonment. In a narrowly interpreted decision the court opined the unconstitutionality of the Jim Crow law did not affect the right of the conductor to rely upon it. Similarly, the court rested upon a case filed by E.P. McCabe challenging Oklahoma's segregation dismissing the McCabe argument as irrelevant to the case. Four years later Stradford petitioned the Tulsa City Commission against its segregationist ordinance that "such a law is to cast a stigma upon the colored race in the eyes of the world; and to sap the spirit of hope for justice before the law from the race itself." The Tulsa City Ordinance would remain on the books until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From his unpublished memoirs, Stradford was accused as being an instigator of the riot, but contended he was not present. He said initially the sheriff contacted him and other black leaders for their assistance in protecting Rowland. However, when they arrived the sheriff said he could handle it and would call them when needed.

Thus, the men left. The court house mob grew and there was no call to them for assistance.

Armed and filled with moonshine, the men returned to the court house. According to Stradford a white man attempted in take a gun from one of the blacks "our boys shot into the crowd and a number were killed and wounded.

Under the threat of lynching, Stradford escaped to Independence, Kansas and from there to Chicago, where his descendants reside to this day.

A.J. Smitherman wrote passionately about the rights of blacks from the daily news paper columns. In 1917, the brave and fearless publisher traveled to Dewey, Oklahoma in the middle of a race riot where a white mob had pulled the accused from the jail, lynched him, and burned the homes and businesses in the black section. His investigation led to the arrest of 36 white men including the mayor. In 1918, he stood with black farmers and local law officers in Bristow averting a lynching of an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. Smitherman was involved in similar incidents in Beggs, Okmulgee, Haskell, and Muskogee, Oklahoma. He and Stradford were among the leading black citizens arrested for causing the riot. Both fled. Smitherman died in Buffalo, New York after publishing newspapers there and in Springfield, Massachusetts.

His descendants now live in Florida and North Carolina. From my view there were black and whites that stood gallantly in face of a hostile community. Among those were Judge L. J. Martin who called for reparations and set out to raise $500,000 from the city's wealthy elite, only to be ousted by the mayor from the city's welfare committee; Cyrus Avery, treasurer of the relief committee who raised funds to house and feed the black refugees; Maurice Willow, the Red Cross director whose work saved many lives and through his effort food, shelter, medical and hospital care was provided; Franklin, Stradford, Gurley, and Smitherman, aforementioned in his report.

From my Memories of early oral histories of blue suits and Klan sheets

"I teach U.S. History and those decisions that brought us to the riot," Seymour Williams my high school history professor said to me 45 years ago. He and W.D. Williams (no relations) for many years tutored me on their experience and prodded others of their generation to tell me the story. "The riot isn't known much by young teachers. Many were born after the riot and it was banned by book publishers, as much as U.S. history about blacks and slavery. I could teach a course on just what has been left out of history." Why the silence in our community? The old man then introduced this student to his assessment. "Blacks lost everything. They were afraid it could happen again and there was no way to tell the story. The two Negro news papers were bombed. With the unkept promises, they were too busy just trying to make it." He added, There were a lot of big shot rednecks at that court house who ran the city and still do. Sinclair Oil Company owned one of the airplanes used to drop fire bombs on people and buildings." Polite white people want to excuse what happen as being caused by trouble-making blacks and white trash ruffians. "Nope," he said, noting that blacks did not like to talk about the riot. "The killers were still running loose and they're wearing blue suits as well as Klan sheets." During that time, whites seeking opportunity could not circulate among the rich and powerful with out Klan credentials. "Hell, Robert Hudson, the lawyer assigned to Rowland was a charter member of the Klan. In the aftermath of the riot, where could Negroes find justice?" He further noted, "Lot of people were killed. Many, many Negroes." I only vividly remember the stories of Professor and Mr. W.D. The other 300 or more voices have blended in to one essay. Still I hold all their collective anger, fear, and hope.

 

Reparation?

Reparations: It happened. There was murder, false imprisonment, forced labor, a cover-up, and local precedence for restitution.

While the official damage was estimated at $1.5 million, the black community filed more than $4 million in claims. All were denied.

However, the city commission did approved two claims exceeding $5,000 "for guns and ammunition taken during the racial disturbance of June 1." In his memoirs Stradford recalled the guards acted like wild men. "The militia had been ordered to take charge, but instead they joined the rioter." His view is supported by action of the governor in a concerted effort to rid the National Guard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922. The preponderance of the information demands what was promised. Whether it was Ku Klux Klan instigated, land speculator's conspiracy, inspired by yellow journalism, or random acts, it happened. Justice demands a closure as it did with Japanese Americans and Holocaust victims of Germany. It is a moral obligation. Tulsa was likely the first city in the to be bombed from the air. There was a precedent of payments to at least two whites victims of the riot. The issue today is what government entity should provide financial repair to the survivors and the condemned community that suffered under vigilante violence? The Report tells the story, let justice point the finger and begin the reconciliation!

And Finally

Vigilantes under deputized and under the color of law, destroyed the Black Wall Street of America. Some known victims were in unmarked graves in a city owned cemetery and others were hauled off to unknown places in full view of the National Guard. The mob torched the soul of the city, an evil from which neither whites nor blacks have fully recovered.

 

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