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

 

The Tulsa Race Riot

By Scott Ellsworth

History does not take place in a vacuum.

Historical events, be they great or small, do not exist in isolation, but are a product of the age during which they occurred. Often times, the reasons why a particular historical incident turned out the way it did can be readily located, while for others, the causes may be more difficult to locate. In both cases, one rule still holds true: that the events of the past cannot be separated from the era when they occurred.

The same applies to the Tulsa race riot as well. To understand the 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.

Of all the qualities that impressed out-of-town visitors about Tulsa in the days before the race riot, one of them was just how new and up-to-date everything seemed. 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.

 

A birds eye view of Tulsa in 1918 (Courtesy Mark Adkinson).

 

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

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 f 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.

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 (Courtesy John Hope Franklin).

 

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.

 

Centered along busy Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa's African-American commercial district was a bona fide American success story.

Home to literally dozens of black-owned and operated businesses in the days be fore the riot, "Deep Greenwood" could also lay

claim to a public Library, a postal substation, a Y. M. C. A. branch, and the offices of two newspapers (Courtesy Don Ross).

 

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

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

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

 

One of the Mann Grocery stores of the Greenwood district (Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).

 

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.

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.

 

African Americans rallied solidly behind the nation's war effort during World War I, and thousands of black soldiers served in France. Upon their return to the U. S., however, many black vets found that the democracy that they had fought to protect overseas was often unavailable to them back home (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

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

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

 

The Ku Klux Klan gripped Oklahoma in the 1920s, this ceremony was in Lone Grove (Courtesy Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries).

 

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

The Sooner State also proved to be fertile ground for the newly revived Ku Klux Klan. 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

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.

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."48

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

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 tying 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 kidnaped 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?

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

 

W. H. Twine and A. J. Smitherman at Twine's law office in Muskogee (Courtesy Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries).

 

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.

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

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.

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

 

 

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