(Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

Riot Property Loss

By Larry O'Dell

An account of the property damage in North Tulsa during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot can impart solid information. But researching the history of an African American controlled community seventy-nine years later, however, entails many problems associated with the racial climate of the era. Throughout the research process not just the destruction of property, but also the loss of life had to be considered. When tallying up the monetary value of a community the results are insignificant when compared to the loss of a father, mother, brother, sister, son, or daughter. Yet, the physical character of the community and the property lost are an important aspect to any undertaking to understand this awful occurrence in Oklahoma history.

Most of Tulsa's African American population resided in the northeast section of the city. The first step in the research involved building a database of North Tulsa for the years of 1920-1923. This would not only show the residence of many African Americans affected by the riot, but also would give a clue to the wealth and prosperity of black Tulsa by revealing the addresses of businesses, professionals, and civic locations. Also, listing the name and location of a resident in 1920, and then tracking that name through 1923, should shed insight on whether there was a huge population loss in North Tulsa and help to pinpoint citizens that may not have survived the riot.

The database utilized city directories, 1920 census information, and the appendix to Mary E. Jones Parrish's account, Events of the Tulsa Disaster, which has a partial list of losses and their addresses. With its document's completion, this database became a tool itself when compared to maps, interviews, Sanborn Insurance maps (created for insurance purposes and including descriptions of building and the materials they are made of), plat maps, warranty deed records, building permits, Red Cross reports, and so on. The database highlights problems in the records for North Tulsa. Many of the African Americans in the census records do not show up in the 1920 city directory and vice versa. Poor research or lack of interest by the city directory would probably enumerators account for the discrepancies. The census takers would likely mirror this attitude.

 

(Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).

 

The United States census of 1920 reported 10,903 African Americans living in Tulsa County. The census also claimed that 8,878 blacks lived in the city of Tulsa, or that 10.8 percent of Tulsans were African Americans.1 The influx of African Americans continued, totaling almost 11,000 by 1921 and, according to the database founded on city directory estimates, included 191 businesses. There were fifteen doctors, one chiropractor, and two dentists practicing in the district as well as three lawyers. This section of town contained a library, two schools, a hospital, and an office of the Tulsa public health services. Two newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun, were published in North Tulsa. African American fraternal lodges and churches dotted the neighborhoods and business districts in the northeastern quadrant of the city.

The database listed 159 businesses in 1920. After the riot in 1922, city directories listed 120 businesses. The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses burned, that 215 houses were looted and not burned, and the total number of building not burned but looted and robbed was 314. According to 1920 census entries, a number of the residences in North Tulsa contained more than just one family, Greenwood Avenue held the heart of the district, with two theaters and many of the prominent businesses located there. Distinguished business owners and leaders of the community resided on Detroit Avenue, the western boundary to the African American section; across the street were white houses and businesses. Another economically prosperous section of the African American district was the Lacy sector in the eastern part of the community.2

Three sources corroborate an approximate value for the destroyed property: the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission; the claims filed against the city in the City Commission meetings; and the actual damage claimed in court cases against insurance companies and the city of Tulsa. The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission reported 1.5 million dollars worth of property damage, with one-third of it being in the business district. This research by the commission was done shortly after the riot and may be suspect because of their temporary involvement in the plan to relocate the black population and develop the Greenwood area for a train station.3 The Real Estate Commission estimated personal property loss at $750,000. Between June 14, 1921, and June 6, 1922, Tulsa residents filed riot-related claims against the city for over $1.8 million dollars. The city commission disallowed most of the claims. One exception occurred when a white resident obtained compensation for guns taken from his shop.4 The sum of the actual damage filed in the 193 retrieved court cases equaled $1,470,711.56, which is in close relation to the $1.5 and the $1.8 million of the other estimates.5

Of course, not all residents took insurance companies or the city to court, but most of the prominent businessmen and women, as well as the influential residents did have detailed petitions drawn out against both entities. In 1937, Judge Bradford J. Williams summarily dismissed most of the court cases.6 North Tulsans claimed a variety of possessions in these cases. For example, Dr. R. W. Motley claimed not only his surgical instruments and medicines, but Chippendale book cases, a set of the Harvard Classics, a mahogany library table, a silk mohair library outfit, a Steinway piano, and Rodgers silverware, among other items. Other claims were for livestock, rental property, and other essential materials.7 A study of these claims reveals the diverse wealth and poverty in the community, one that could match or exceed that of many other many communities in 1921 Oklahoma.

 

Destruction in the black business district incurred most of the financial loss of the riot (Courtesy of Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries).

 

According to Mary Parrish's book, court case claims, warranty deed records, and court clerk records, many African Americans in Tulsa owned rental property. Black Tulsans who suffered significant financial loss attributed to rental properties included R.T. Bridgewater, J.H. Goodwin, Sadie Partee, Loula Williams and G.W. Hutchins. Many other African Americans possessed rental property, including Carrie Kinlaw, Virgil Rowe, John Swinger, Emma Works, S.M. Jackson, J.B. Stradford, Osborne Monroe, C.W. Henry, Mrs. Warren and A.L. Stovall.

 

Ruins of a building completed months prior to the riot (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

Also, many white Tulsans conducted real estate business in the African American district prior to the riot. One of the better known white businessmen, Cyrus S. Avery, sold multiple lots in the Greenwood addition to black residents in the years before the riot. A powerful member of the chamber of commerce, Avery served as a member of the Tulsa Water Board for the Spavinaw water project, and he also directed the Executive Welfare Committee that collected $26,000 for the Red Cross after the riot.8 E.W. Sinclair also conducted real business in North Tulsa. Sinclair was the president of Exchange National Bank and vice president of Sinclair Pipeline. Other significant white property owners in the district were: S.R. Lewis, vice-chairman of the taxpayer's committee; W.H. Botkin, real estate financier; Tate Brady, former Democratic national committeeman and Oklahoma commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; T.E. Smiley, realtor; R.J. Dixon, realtor; George Stephens, realtor; H.E. Bagby, department manager of Exchange National Bank; Claude Sample, realtor; H.C. Stahl, information not found, but probably related to W.E. Stahl involved in insurance, loans and bonds; Earl Sneed, lawyer; Win Redfearn, proprietor of the Dixie Theater; The Brockman brothers, realtors; and J.A. Oliphant, lawyer.9

It is problematic to determine property ownership in 1921 North Tulsa for a variety of reasons. The city renamed some of the streets in the area after the riot, creating complications in the transference of an address from pre-riot to modern.10 Also, urban renewal and the accumulation of North Greenwood property for the highway and Rogers State University (Now OSU-Tulsa), create a gap in the records of property and cause old addresses, legal and otherwise, do not display on the county clerk computer system. City directories list residents by their city address, and even comparing these to city plats can cause confusion on the legal address; but, luckily, all warranty deeds and other tracking devices are made with the legal address, making this a time-consuming but not an insurmountable task. A great problem arises when the legal address is all that is known; matching it to a street address tends to be complex unless the owner and not the renter is listed in the city directory. Oftentimes two buildings would be on one lot making the assignment of street addresses almost entirely guesswork. Another problem consists of property transfer that is conducted by means other than money convoluting the value of the property. In many instances a transfer of deed would be listed as costing the buyer only one dollar.

 

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Portion of the Sanborn map dated 1920 with occupants drawn from the 1921 City Directory overlapped.

 

When looking for a certain individual or family, the best place to begin is the compiled database of city directories. After finding the address, if it can be located on the existing Sanborn maps, the size and make up of the structure and its location on the property can be determined. The Sanborn map will also pinpoint the legal address. If it is located outside the Sanborn map area it needs to be examined on the plat maps. Using the legal address, ownership can be determined by going to the Tulsa County Clerk's office. In theory, finding the last transaction in the tract indexes before 1921 should indicate the owner at the time of the riot. Besides problems listed in the paragraph above, however, many times the lot will be split and sold to two parties, making it difficult to decide who owned what part of the lot.

 

Black Tulsans salvaged what they could from their burned homes and businesses and began to rebuild on their own, using whatever materials they could find. It took some congregations years to rebuild their burned churches (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

Examining the properties of Percy and Mabel Little provides an example of how using the database, warranty deed records, plats, and county court house records can provide needed data. The Littles resided at 617 East Independence, which is not on a portion of the Sanborn Insurance maps. Percy had interest in the Bell and Little Restaurant on land owned by J. Hodnett or W. Appleby at 525 Cameron. The Littles had just bought some land off Greenwood Avenue at the legal address lots 13-14, block 8 Greenwood Addition, for $600 from C.S. Avery on April 12, 1921. The bank released them from their mortgage on June 8, 1923. The 1923 directory lists P.L. Little at 1301 Greenwood. This residence should be on the land they purchased. This property before the riot could have been used as a beauty parlor; after the riot Mrs. Little put an ad for her beauty parlor in Mary Parrish's book, Events of the Tulsa Disaster, that claimed the address as 1301 Greenwood.11

Another example is Osborne Monroe. According to the 1921 Tulsa City Directory, Monroe and his wife, Olive, lived at 410 Easton, lot 3, block 17 North Tulsa, and worked as a porter at 117 South Main Avenue. Mary Parrish listed the loss of their residence as $1,000. According to the Sanborn Insurance maps their house before the riot was a one-story frame house with a porch. In August 1920, Monroe received a building permit to build a $2,000 one-story frame structure on lot 1 block 15 North Tulsa Addition. In a petition filed against the Mechanics and Traders Insurance Company of New Orleans, Osborne Monroe claimed fire destroyed his property, consisting of two one-story shingle-roof, frame building with stone piers foundation and brick chimneys and flues, on June 1, 1921. Six months after the riot, Mr. Monroe requested building permits on December 6, 1921, to build a frame building on lot 1, block 15 North Side Addition and on December 12, 1921 to build three frame buildings on lot 1, block 15 North Tulsa Addition at $400 each. This would be on the 500 block of Exeter or North Elgin Place.12

By early July 1921, the city of Tulsa began granting building permits to African American residents of North Tulsa. O.W. Gurley received a permit on July 2 for a one-story brick building that was to cost him $6,000. The earliest to rebuild were generally the "Deep Greenwood" business owners. For example, Gurley, Goodwin, Woods, Young, Bridgewater, and Williams were among the first to gain a building permit.13 This happened amidst the efforts of white Tulsa to industrialize this sector with various codes to prevent black rebuilding.14 The city manager or the fire marshal likely issued more permits to individual families as the winter of 1921 approached.15

Although much of the research on ownership of all property in North Tulsa may not be definitive, the character of the Greenwood area can be deciphered before and after the riot. A thriving area of the town of Tulsa where the majority of the business district was owned and managed by the African American residents, Greenwood also contained a diverse residential area. But, there were extensive business dealings, especially in real estate, by whites and oftentimes, by major leaders of the white business or civic community conducted in North Tulsa. The majority of the wealth occurred in the "Deep Greenwood" business section and in the residential areas around Detroit Avenue and what was known as the Lacy Sector northeast of the business district. Using the three different sources explained above (Records of The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission, claims addressed at the Tulsa City Commission meetings, and the various court cases) each with its own particular faults, an estimate of just under $2 million of property damage in 1921 dollars can be made. When using a consumer price index inflation calculator, a tool provided by the website at NASA, a 1921 amount of $1.8 million would equal an amount of $16,752,600 in 1999.16

The tragedy and triumph of North Tulsa transcends numbers and amounts and who owned what portion of what lot. The African American community not only thrived in an era of harsh "Jim Crow" and oppression, but when the bigotry of the majority destroyed their healthy community, the residents worked together and rebuilt. Not only did they rebuild, they again successfully ran their businesses, schooled their children, and worshiped at their magnificent churches in the shadow of a growing Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma and continuing legal racial separatism for more than forty years. In fact, one of the largest Ku Klux Klan buildings, not only in the state, but the country stood within a short walking distance of their community.17

 

(Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

Endnotes

1Bureau of the Census, 1920.

2 Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. 1982). Tulsa City Directories for 1920-1923 (Tulsa: Polk-Hoffhine Directory Company, 1920-1923).

3Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land, p. 72.

4Records of Commission Proceedings, City of Tulsa, September 2, 1921. J.W. Megee's pawnshop received $3,994.57 for guns and ammunition taken from the store during the riot.

5Court cases vs. the City of Tulsa and various insurance companies. Although the punitive damages were claimed in many of these cases, for this purpose only actual damage was tallied.

6Dismissal records from court cases filed.

7Motley vs. Mechanics and Traders Insurance Company, Case No. 23404 Tulsa Country District Court (1937)

8Avery, Ruth Sigler, "Cyrus Stevens Avery," Chronicles of Oklahoma, 45 (Spring 1967), pp 84-91.

9Tulsa City Directory, 1921 (Tulsa: Polk-Hoffhine Directory Company, 1921)

10Comparing the 1920 to the 1922 Tulsa City Directories.

11Tulsa City Directories, Tulsa County Court cases, etc.

12Tulsa City Directories, Court Cases, Deed Records, etc.

13Building permits garnished from The Tulsa Daily Legal News, 1921-1922.

14Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land, pp. 84-89.

15Ibid., p. 90.

16<<http://www/jsc.nasa.gov/bu2/inflateCPIhtm>>. The CPI inflation calculator is for adjusting costs from one year to another using the Consumer Price Index inflation index. The calculator is based on the average inflation index during the calendar year. The CPI represents changes in prices of all goods and services purchased for consumption by urban household. User fees and sales and excise taxes paid by the consumer are also included. Income taxes and investment items (like stocks, bonds and life insurance) are not included.

17Carter Blue Clark, "A History of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma" (Ph.D, diss., University of Oklahoma, 1976), p. 71.

 

The William's Dreamland Theater before the riot, destruction after the riot, rebuilding process, and opened after the riot (All Photos Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).

 

 

 

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