Unearthing a Riot

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Unearthing a Riot

By Brent Staples

Published: December 19, 1999

Tulsa grew explosively between 1910 and 1920, built by the oil families who have dominated business, politics and cultural life right up to the present. Downtown Tulsa has changed so little in the last half-century that a traveler who returned after 50 years would find it familiar. But since 1997, Tulsans who thought they knew the city well have been startled to learn of a 1921 riot in which hundreds of people were shot, burned alive or tied to cars and dragged to death. These grim facts have been churned up by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, created by the Oklahoma Legislature two years ago to investigate the country's bloodiest civil disturbance of the century. The commission report, due on Gov. Frank Keating's desk early next year, will attempt to fix a death toll, provide an estimate of property damage and explain what caused the disturbance in the first place. But the most controversial mission is to determine whether or not the state should pay reparations either to the black district of Greenwood or to individual survivors. The issue has spawned a contentious dispute in the city as a whole -- and reopened interest in the race wars that swept the country early in this century, when whites and African-Americans engaged in armed combat in the streets The race war in Tulsa involved thousands of whites who destroyed most of the 35 square blocks of Greenwood, including its affluent business district, known locally as the Negro Wall Street, in riots that left as many as 300 dead. But the nightmare was soon banished from newspapers, textbooks and civil conversation, so that most Tulsans born just 20 years later grew up with no idea that it had ever happened. Older Tulsans, quiet for decades, have been talking nonstop since The Tulsa World ran a series of articles on the commission earlier this year, inviting people to call the Tulsa Historical Society with their stories. Nearly 150 people have called so far. An employee at the historical society itself tells of an aging black man who shot an unarmed white man during the riot and still cries every time he passes the spot. A nurse tells of a white man who confessed on his deathbed that he had killed many blacks during the riot and buried them near the railroad tracks -- and would do it again if he had to.

The commission has located more than 50 black survivors of the riot and has begun to videotape their testimony. Among the survivors who still live in Tulsa is Kinney Booker, 86, who was 8 at the time and relates on one of the videotapes how he listened from a hiding place in the attic as white men called his father ''nigger'' and took him away at gunpoint: He said, 'Please don't set my house on fire.' Soon as he left, they set our house on fire and we were up in the attic. . . . Five kids. . . . [We] were able to get out without injury but bullets were zinging around there. . . . But when we got down, the telephone poles were burned and falling and my poor sister who was two years younger than I am [said], 'Kinney, is the world on fire?' I said, 'I don't think so, but we are in deep trouble.'''

People who have called the historical society focus mainly on corpses. Corpses stacked like cordwood on street corners, photographed for keepsakes. Corpses piled in the backs of wagons, dump trucks and along railroad sidings. Corpses buried in an underground tunnel downtown, where one caller said 123 blacks had been clubbed to death. Corpses left to rot for days in a park under the blistering Oklahoma sun. Corpses dumped in the Arkansas River and allowed to float away.

Tips have led commission investigators to three sites within the city that they suspect to be mass graves containing the riot dead, though given the way the bodies seem to have been scattered, all of them will never be found.

The man who brought the riot back to life is state representative Don Ross, who has served the Greenwood district in the Legislature for 17 years and wrote the riot commission resolution that became law in 1997. Ross has lived with the riot for more than 40 years, and since he became a senior member of the Legislature, has forced Tulsa and Oklahoma to live it with him. As a young magazine editor in 1971, Ross ran an article exposing the carnage in Greenwood that has been widely credited for breaking a 50-year conspiracy of silence. As a community gadfly in the late 70's, he helped fight to preserve the few historic buildings that remained after Greenwood had been almost completely changed by middle-class flight, urban renewal and highway construction. He was elected to the Legislature in 1982 on the basis of his civil rights activism and has since made the riot a top issue -- helping to secure money in 1995 for the Greenwood Cultural Center, which contains a permanent photo exhibit of the destruction, and working to get a black granite memorial to the Negro Wall Street, which was built in 1996.

Ross is a skillful legislator. He knew in the beginning that a bill requiring the state to pay reparations would be dead on arrival. Even so, the initial bill obligated the state to pay $5 million -- but mainly as a tactic. When the Legislature balked, Ross, a Democrat, allowed the provision to be stripped away, but language calling for a study of the history of the riot remained. The bill passed both houses, partly because many legislators were ignorant of the riot.

The case has attracted considerable interest from legal scholars like Alfred L. Brophy, a law professor at Oklahoma City University, who read about the case in the newspapers and volunteered to serve as the commission's legal counsel. Brophy has a keen interest in civil rights issues that predate contemporary civil rights law. He compares the Greenwood case to that of the Japanese-Americans who had property confiscated and were placed in internment camps during World War II, and then waited nearly 50 years before receiving an official apology from Ronald Reagan, in 1988, along with $1.65 billion in compensation from the federal government. What links Greenwood and the Japanese-Americans, Brophy says, is the fact that the government permitted the harm that was committed in both cases.

The case that Greenwood most resembles is that of Rosewood, Fla., a black enclave in the central part of the state that was wiped out by an invading force of whites in 1923. Told that reparations were ''a moral obligation,'' the Florida Legislature voted in 1994 to, among other things, make reparations through a college scholarship fund for Rosewood descendants. In Florida, the government admitted that it knew of the impending disaster and failed to protect the town. But in Tulsa, the city ''made the riot worse,'' Brophy argues, by deputizing a lynch mob. In an analysis of the case, Brophy writes that the city ''clothed private citizens with the authority to arrest, almost surely instructed them to kill and quite likely instructed them to burn Greenwood.'' Brophy thinks Tulsa would ''find some money'' to pay survivors if a trial appeared imminent. In November, the riot commission's reparations committee suggested a settlement of at least $33 million, including a scholarship fund for black Tulsans and additional payments of up to $150,000 each for survivors whose families lost assets in 1921.

Don Ross, 58, should be contented now that his life's work has been vindicated. But the day I visited him at his yellow ranch house in a subdivision not far from Greenwood, I realized that the word ''contented'' may never apply to him. Ross seems permanently enraged by the rape of what he calls ''my community.'' The kitchen table, the breakfast counter and his office were awash in manila envelopes and file folders containing photocopies of Tulsa city records from the 20's and newspaper clippings from The Chicago Defender, The Kansas City Call, The New York Age, The Pittsburgh Courier and several other Negro-press newspapers that covered the riot's aftermath critically, while The Tulsa Tribune swallowed whole the ''official story.''

''See?'' Ross says, pointing to the minutes of the Tulsa City Commission in 1921. ''This is where the city paid off whites who lost property in the riot and disallowed claims by blacks. This is where the city promised a fund to rebuild the community, but the fund was never created and the money was never paid!'' Flipping pages, he continues. ''See this! The mayor and the city commission plotted in open session -- open session! -- to steal black land so that the 'colored section' could be pushed farther north. It's right there, in black and white.'' During lulls in the conversation, Ross sat silently dreaming into the middle distance. But when he spoke of the riot, he was animated and fiery.

The Greenwood business district today consists of a one-block stretch of historic structures built after the riots that were saved from the wrecking ball during urban renewal. This museum block is surrounded by expanses of empty space, the exposed foundations of long-gone houses and ghostly driveways that start at the curb and disappear into the grass.

But the Greenwood Avenue in Ross's mental landscape is a densely built street that runs for more than a mile, a street crowded with hotels, bars, jazz joints, barbershops and poolrooms, with the premier addresses occupied by doctors, dentists and lawyers. When Ross rides these streets in his red Lincoln Town Car, he sees not just empty fields, but shades of the community as it was on the eve of the riot.

Greenwood came into being out of necessity, when black people were forbidden by law to live or own businesses in the white city -- and were expected to be off the white city streets by sundown. By the eve of the riot in 1921, the black city within a city included as many as 15,000 people and supported 191 businesses, including 15 doctors, 2 dentists, one chiropractor and three law offices. With a larger black land-owning class, Oklahoma had about 45 black municipalities -- more by far than any state in the union -- and was known as ''the promised land,'' a veritable capital of black economic independence. At the beginning of the Negro Wall Street, at 102 North Greenwood Avenue, was the three-story Williams Building, the first of several properties owned by John Williams and his wife, Loula, who began their enterprises with an auto-repair business, then built a movie house, the Williams Dreamland Theater, as well as other holdings. A few doors down was the soon-to-be-famous attorney B.C. Franklin, who, like many others, went by his first initials only to prevent white folks from getting overly familiar and calling him by his first name. B.C.'s 6-year-old son, John Hope Franklin, told everyone within hearing range that he planned to be the first Negro president of the United States, but grew up to become one of the most respected historians of his era. At No. 112 lived Emma and O.W. Gurley, rich developers who built much of the black district and estimated their holdings at more than $1 million in 1921. At No. 126 stood The Tulsa Star, whose owner and publisher, A.J. Smitherman, campaigned vigorously against lynching while the white-owned Tulsa Tribune tacitly endorsed it.

Down at No. 301 stood the 65-room Stradford Hotel, the jewel of Greenwood Avenue, built by J.B. Stradford, who had come to the area in 1899 with degrees from both Oberlin and Indiana Law School. Farther along, in a less prestigious block at No. 503, were the offices of A.C. Jackson, who was described by the Mayo brothers, the founders of the Mayo Clinic, as ''the most able Negro surgeon in America.''

White Tulsans especially hated Stradford and Smitherman. Stradford had already sued a railroad for confining him to the Jim Crow car even though he purchased a first-class ticket. He had once beaten a white deliveryman nearly to death for a racist remark. The pistol-packing Smitherman was similarly volatile. Three years before the riot, he led an armed group of black farmers to prevent the lynching of a black prisoner in nearby Bristow. He was also brazen enough to write about them in his paper, The Star. The white hatred of these ''uppity'' Negroes was intensified by the city's desire for their land. Hemmed in by the river on the south and Greenwood on the north, Tulsa was burgeoning with nowhere to grow.

The tensions in Tulsa were part of a national pattern during the teens and 20's, when city after city exploded in the worst racial conflicts that the country would ever see. Fear of black independence and self-determination took a Freudian form: rape hysteria. In one town after another, racial violence was sparked by rumors that a Negro had harmed a white woman. This happened in Washington; Omaha, Neb.; Kansas City, Kan.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Longview, Tex.; and Rosewood, Fla.

Rape hysteria touched down in Tulsa on the morning of Monday, May 30, at the Drexel Building on Main Street. The protagonists were a Negro shoe-shiner named Dick Rowland and a white elevator operator named Sarah Page. The Drexel Building was the only one in the vicinity that allowed Rowland and his co-workers to use its bathrooms. That morning, Rowland rode up with Page, used the bathroom and came down again as he did almost every day. When the elevator car reached the lobby, people allegedly heard Page scream and saw Rowland run from the scene. No Negro in his right mind, of course, would attack a random white woman in a public elevator, in a public building, at the height of rush hour in the busiest city in the state. Later, Rowland was acquitted when Page refused to press charges. Articles in the Negro press maintained that Rowland and Page were romantically involved.

But all that was yet to come when Rowland was arrested and taken to a jail cell atop the Tulsa County Courthouse. The Tribune had been raging for weeks against Greenwood -- which it regularly called ''Niggertown'' and blamed for all of the city's vice and troubles. Seizing on the Rowland affair, the editors published a front-page article and an editorial that bore the headline ''To Lynch Negro Tonight,'' essentially encouraging a lynching. (Both articles were removed from the paper's archives and presumably destroyed before The Tribune went to microfilm. The riot commission continues to search for clippings or copies.) On the evening of May 31, a white mob showed up at the courthouse in search of Rowland. As though on cue, a group of black men marched in from Greenwood to protect Rowland. The two camps exchanged words, then shots, and several men fell dead. Outgunned, the black force retreated north, across the railroad tracks into Greenwood.

Back downtown, the destruction of Greenwood was all but assured when the Tulsa police deputized perhaps hundreds from the lynch mob and, according to court records from the time, instructed them to, in effect, ''go out and kill you some damn niggers.''

The mob moved to the tracks that separated white Tulsa from Greenwood and began to close in on Greenwood Avenue. During the initial hours, snipers held off the white invaders from the windows overlooking the tracks. But the skirmishing continued through the night, and at dawn the snipers fell back in the face of ever-growing numbers.

Otis Clark, now 96, was eager to defend Greenwood that morning. Clark, then 18, went toward the gunfire and arrived at the Jackson Funeral Home just off Greenwood Avenue, where other blacks had gathered. White snipers had climbed into the old mill across the tracks, which offered an unobstructed view of the funeral home and its garage, where Clark says an ambulance was parked. ''While [the driver] was trying to unlock the door to get the ambulance,'' Clark recalls, ''they shot out of that mill and hit the boy on the hand while he was unlocking the door, and blood shot out his hand . . . and he dropped the keys and whatnot and we ran back to the back part of the funeral home by the dead folks.''

Perhaps as many as 10,000 whites surged across the tracks into Greenwood. The commission has found the daughter of a waitress who recalled running into the street to sweep up a child being fired on from a passing airplane. A woman named Mary E. Jones Parrish mentions the plane strafings and the machine-gun fire in her memoir ''Events of the Tulsa Disaster,'' published soon after the event: ''There was a great shadow in the sky and, upon a second look, we discerned that this cloud was caused by fast-approaching aeroplanes. . . . The enemy had organized in the night and was invading our district, the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium.'' Parrish watched for a long time, frozen with fear, but eventually swept up her young daughter and ran through machine-gun fire to safety. The oral tradition of Greenwood had many variations on this theme. Yet another mother is said to have strapped her baby to her back and escaped Greenwood by crawling through the storm drains.

As the morning wore on, a wall of fire worked its way across Greenwood, destroying everything in its path. The mob burst into one house after another, sometimes killing the occupants outright, often looting the house and setting it afire from within, in the manner of the pogroms that were carried out against the Jews in Eastern Europe.

Among those who survived is 83-year-old George Monroe, a black survivor located by the riot commission. Monroe was 5 at the time and at home with his mother and three siblings. ''We saw coming up the walk in front of the house four men with torches in their hands,'' he told the riot commission. ''These torches were burning. When my mother saw them coming, she says, 'You get up under the bed, get up under the bed.' . . . All four of us got up under the bed. I was the last one and my sister grabbed me and pulled me under there, and while I was under the bed, one of the guys coming past the bed stepped on my finger and I was about to scream. My sister put her hand over my mouth so I couldn't be heard. . . . [The men] set the curtains on fire, and as a result that's how our house started to burning.''

The most traumatic story comes from Elwood Lett, who died recently at the age of 82. Five white men came to his family's house but surprised them by allowing the grandfather to place his daughter and two grandchildren into a wagon so that they could leave town. ''I was happy to know they didn't shoot him or kill him there at the house,'' Lett recalled. ''He's thinking, 'They're pretty nice people by letting us get in the wagon and go on about our business.' . . . We hadn't got to the town of Sperry before this white guy asked, 'Where in the hell you going?' -- using the 'N' word. My grandfather said, 'We're heading out, we're going out of town.' And he said, 'Not this day you're not going out of town.' Bam! . . . And he just tumbled. My mother let out a scream: 'Oh, you have killed my father, you've killed him,' and I thought he was going to do the same thing to my mother.''

As the burning continued unabated, deputies who had been called to defend some of the finest houses in Greenwood -- houses owned by Smitherman, A.C. Jackson and others -- doused the properties with kerosene and watched them burn. By the time the Oklahoma National Guard marched into Greenwood, in the late morning of June 1, virtually all of black Tulsa had gone up in smoke and ash. About 1,200 buildings were burned or looted or both. For months afterward, black Tulsans would encounter white people on the streets wearing familiar clothing and jewelry looted from black homes.

The dead fell so thick in the streets that the National Guard was diverted from quelling the disturbance by the task of piling corpses onto wagons and trucks. The city fathers played down the horror and placed the death toll at an implausible 35. But based on new interviews and newly discovered records, the riot commission's historian, Scott Ellsworth, is convinced that as many as 300 were killed, about 90 percent of them black.

Greenwood was physically wiped out. But in the long run, the loss of leadership and spiritual vitality proved more devastating. Stradford and Smitherman were unfairly indicted for the riot and fled the city. Jackson, the surgeon, was shot while trying to surrender and bled to death. Gurley, the developer, went missing soon after the riot.

Its offices razed by fire, Franklin's law firm set up in a tent overlooking the tracks and prepared for the legal onslaught that was soon to come. The city told the outside world that it would provide a generous rebuilding fund -- and actively discouraged money-raising efforts that had begun all across the country. But the city fund never materialized. In fact, the mayor and the city commission did everything they could to ensure that Greenwood was never rebuilt. The ashes were scarcely cooled before the city passed an ordinance that forbade the building of anything but ''fireproof'' structures -- a law, expensive to comply with, that would have kept Greenwood a vacant lot had not Franklin and his colleagues defeated the ordinance in court. Black Tulsans filed a total of nearly 200 damage claims, but the insurance companies declined to pay any of them because of a riot-exclusion clause in the policies, and the city refused any claims as well.

In the years after the riot, survivors in Greenwood bragged that they had ''won'' the shooting war, killing more white people than the white community or The Tulsa Tribune cared to admit. But the shouts of victory faded as survivors grew older and more vulnerable. Fearful that speaking evil would summon it to life, most black Tulsans banned the riot from conversation and no longer spoke of it to young people and newcomers. As Ross put it years later, ''Black folks lived with the fear that the whites who had come once might come again.''

The conspiracy of silence was locked down tight by the time Ross was born in Greenwood in 1941. He was 15 and a sophomore at Greenwood's Booker T. Washington High School before he learned how the streets that seemed so lively and substantial to him had once been burned to the ground. The news came from a teacher, W.D. Williams, who had watched the early stages of the invasion from his family's apartment on Greenwood Avenue -- and seen his family's real estate holdings reduced to ruins.

When Williams revealed this in class, Ross leapt to his feet. ''I thought he was lying,'' Ross recalls ''I challenged him almost with my finger in his face -- something that got you kicked out of school in those days. I thought my community was a proud community that would never have let whites get away with burning us down.'' But Williams settled the matter with a collection of photographs showing scenes from the riot, including corpses with arms and legs burned away and wicker coffins stacked on the backs of trucks, being borne away to anonymous graves.

Anger at this discovery became the driving force of Ross's life. In his quest to understand and expose the riot, he dragged the city as a whole along with him. This history propelled him into journalism, where, in 1971, he joined with some friends to create a magazine in Tulsa. On the 50th anniversary of the riot, the editors of the magazine, Oklahoma Impact, were casting about for something spectacular when an article called ''Profile of a Race Riot'' came across his desk. A young white editor named Larry Silvey had assigned it for Tulsa, the Chamber of Commerce magazine, and was about to send it to press when officials at the chamber killed it. Silvey's bosses at the chamber argued that the article was ''possibly inflammatory.'' But Silvey has other suspicions. ''I didn't think about this back then,'' he said recently, ''but the men who controlled the Chamber of Commerce were in their 70's in 1971. Which meant that they had been in their 20's during the riot.'' Given that thousands of young men in the city were in the streets at the time, Silvey said, ''it is likely that these men had something to hide.''

The article was written by a white amateur historian and radio host, Ed Wheeler, who had learned a great deal about Oklahoma history for his popular radio show, which dramatized historical events -- including episodes based on African-American history. Black Tulsans agreed to meet him and discuss the riot -- but only at night, in their churches, accompanied by their ministers.

On the white side of town, Wheeler had gotten interviews with people who had a great deal to hide. Among them were several former Ku Klux Klansmen, whom Wheeler had tracked through grandsons and great-nephews he knew from his weekend training with the Oklahoma National Guard. The K.K.K. had essentially acted as an execution squad and had crisscrossed the burning streets for the express purpose of murdering black men.

When it became known that Wheeler was moving forward with the article, he began to be harassed by telephone, both at home and at work. One afternoon in downtown Tulsa, a man in overalls tapped Wheeler on the shoulder, whispered, ''You'll be sorry if you publish that story,'' and walked away.

In the spring of 1971, his article nearly finished, Wheeler discovered a message scrawled in soap across the windshield of his blue Ford sedan: ''Best Look Under Your Hood From Now On.''

After Tulsa magazine rejected the article, Wheeler took ''Profile of a Race Riot'' to The Tulsa World, where an editor told him that the paper would not touch the article with ''an 11-foot pole.'' This was not surprising since the article trashed The World's sister paper, The Tribune, for the inflammatory articles that had stoked up the lynch mob in the first place. Once competitors, The World and The Tribune had since become business partners.

Shut out of white Tulsa, Wheeler's article found its way across the tracks and into Greenwood -- and into the hands of Ross. The issue of his magazine, Oklahoma Impact, with ''Profile of a Race Riot'' on the cover, sold out in Greenwood and was largely ignored on the white side of the tracks, at least publicly.

Between the two of them, Don Ross and Ed Wheeler cracked the wall of silence and made it possible to speak openly about the riot for the first time in 50 years. But Ross and Wheeler take opposite sides of the reparations issue, chilling what was once a warm relationship. Wheeler is opposed to reparations and believes that modern-day Tulsans are not responsible for the sins of their fathers. Ross, of course, believes that reparation is the one and only issue, and will think so until the day he dies.

Brent Staples writes editorials on politics and culture for The Times and is the author of the memoir ''Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White.''

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