The Tulsa Race Riot By Scott Ellsworth History does not take place in a vacuum



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Any fleeing families were denied freedom by whites positioned on escape routes (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

Downtown, normal activities were even more in disarray, as business owners found themselves shorthanded, and crowds of onlookers took to the streets, or climbed up on rooftops, to stare at the great clouds of smoke billowing over the north end of town. At the all-white Central High School, several male students bolted from class when gunfire was heard nearby. One of the students later recalled, "struck out for the riot area." Along the way, he added, they were met by a white man who handed them a new rifle and a box of shells. "You can have it," the man told them, "I'm going home and going to bed."181



The riot was felt along the southern edge of the city as well, particularly in the well-to- o white neighborhoods off of 21st Street, as carloads of armed white vigilantes went door to door, rounding up live-in African American cooks, maids, and butlers at gunpoint, and then hauling them off toward downtown. A number of white homeowners, however, fearing for the safety of their black employees, stood in the way of this forced evacuation. When Charles and Amy Arnold refused to hand over their housekeeper, cries of being "nigger lovers" were followed by a brick being thrown through their front window.182

Even out in the countryside, miles from town, people knew that something was happening in Tulsa. Since daybreak, huge columns of black smoke had been rising up, hundreds of feet into the air, over the north end of the city.

The smoke was still there, some four hours later, when the State Troops finally arrived in town.

The special train from Oklahoma City, carrying Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett and the approximately 109 soldiers and officers under his command, pulled into Tulsa's bullet-scarred Frisco and Santa Fe passenger depot at approximately 9:15 a.m. on the morning of June 1, 1921. The soldiers, who arrived armed and in uniform, were all-members of an Oklahoma City based National Guard unit. In Tulsa, they soon became known, by both blacks and whites, as the "State Troops," a term which had the intrinsic benefit of helping to distinguish the out-of-towners from the local National Guard units. Like the local guardsmen, the State Troops were also all-white.183



 



Shortly after the outbreak of violence, the Tulsa police presented the local National Guardsmen with a machine gun-only it proved to be defective. A second machine gun that was in the hands of white civilians, however, was used to considerable effect during the attack on Greenwood (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

By the time the State Troops arrived, Tulsa's devastating racial conflagration was already ten and one-half hours old. Dozens of blacks and whites had been killed, while the wards of the city's four remaining hospitals -- the all-black Frissell Memorial Hospital had already been burned to the ground by white rioters -- were filled with the wounded. Most of the city's African American district had already been torched, while looting continued in those black homes and businesses that were still standing. "One very bad thing was the way whites delved into the personal belongings of the Negroes, throwing their possessions from trunks and otherwise damaging them," reported M.J. White, a Denver dental supply dealer who was visiting Tulsa at the time of the riot. "This lawless looting continued from about 9 until 11 o'clock," he added, "when martial law prevented further spoilation."184



 



As more and more African Americans were detained the "protective custody" alternate holding locations had to be used including McNulty baseball Park (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

There were ongoing horrors as well. "One Negro was dragged behind an automobile, with a rope around his neck, through the business district," reported the Tulsa World in its "Second Extra" edition on the morning of June 1". Decades later, both former Tulsa mayor L.C. Clark, and E.W. "Gene" Maxey of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department, confirmed this report. "About 8 a.m. on the morning of June 1, 1921," Maxey told riot chronicler Ruth Avery,



I was downtown with a friend when they killed that good, old, colored man that was blind. He had amputated legs. His body was attached at the hips to a small wooden platform with wheels. One leg stub was longer than the other, and hung slightly over the edge of the platform, dragging along the street. He scooted his body around by shoving and pushing with his hands covered with baseball catcher mitts. He supported himself by selling pencils to passersby, or accepting their donations for his singing of songs.

The street car tracks ran north and south on Main Street, and the tracks were laid on pretty rough bricks. The fellow that was driving the car I knew--an outlaw and a bootlegger. But I won't give his name because he has some folks here. There were two or three people with him. They got that old colored man that had been here for years. He was helpless. He'd carry an old tin cup, sing, and mooched for money. One of them thuggy, white people had a new car, so he went to the depot, and came back up Main Street between First and Second Streets. We were on the east side of the street. These white thugs had roped this colored man on the longer stump of his one leg, and were dragging him behind the car up Main Street. He was hollering. His head was being bashed in, bouncing on the steel rails and bricks.

"They went on all the speed that the car could make," Maxey added, ". . . a new car, with the top down, and 3 or 4 of them in it, dragging him behind the car in broad daylight on June 1, right through the center of town on Main Street."185

When the State Troops arrived in Tulsa, the majority of the city's black citizenry had either fled to the countryside, or were being held -- allegedly for their own protection -- against their will in one of a handful of hastily set-up internment centers, including Convention Hall, the fairgrounds, and McNulty baseball park. There were still, however, some pockets of armed black resistance to the remnants of the white invasion, especially along the northern reaches of the African American district. In certain borderline areas such as the residential neighborhood that lay just to the east of the Santa Fe tracks where the Jim Crow line ran right down the center of the street, a number of African American homes had escaped destruction, sometimes through the efforts of sympathetic white neighbors.186



Upon their arrival in Tulsa, the State Troops apparently did not proceed immediately to where the fighting was still in progress, although it is uncertain how long this delay lasted. The reasons for this seeming hold-up appear to be largely due to the fact that certain steps needed to be fulfilled -- either through protocol or by law -- in order for martial law to be declared in Tulsa. Accordingly, after detraining at the Frisco and Santa Fe station, Adjutant General Barrett led a detachment of soldiers to the courthouse, where an unsuccessful attempt was made to contact Sheriff McCullough. Barrett then went to city hall, where, after conferring with city officials, he contacted Governor Robertson in Oklahoma City and asked to be granted the authority to proclaim martial law in Tulsa County. Other detachments of State Troops, meanwhile, appear to have begun taking charge of black Tulsans who were being held by armed white civilians.187 However, another account of the riot, published a decade later, alleges that upon their arrival in Tulsa, the State Troops wasted valuable minutes by taking time to prepare and eat breakfast.188

 



Remarkably, a handful of Tulsa's finest African-American homes were still standing when the State Troops arrived in town. But about one-hour later, a small group of white men were seen entering the houses, and setting them on fire. By the time the State Troops marched up Standpipe Hill, it was too late, the homes were gone (Courtesy Tulsa Historical Society).

 

As it turned out, while the State Troops were occupied downtown, not far away, some of the finest African American homes in the city were still standing. Located along North Detroit Avenue, near Easton, they included the homes of some of Tulsa's most prominent black citizens, among them the residences of Tulsa Star editor A.J. Smitherman, Booker T. Washington High School principal Ellis W. Woods, and businessman Thomas R. Gently and his wife, Lottie.189



For several hours that morning, John A. Oliphant a white attorney who lived nearby, had been telephoning police headquarters in an effort to save these homes, that had been looted but not burned. Oliphant believed that a handful of officers, if sent over immediately, could see to it that the homes were spared. As he later recounted in sworn testimony:

Q. Judge, when you phoned the police station what reply did you get?

A. He said, somebody in there, I thought I knew the voice but I am not certain, he said, I will do the best I can for you." I told him who I was, I wanted some policemen, I says, "If you will send me ten policemen I will protect all this property and save a million dollars worth of stuff they were burning down and looting." I asked the fire department for the fire department to be sent over to help protect my property and they said they couldn't come, they wouldn't let them.190

Oliphant's hopes were raised, however, when he observed the arrival of the State Troops, figuring that they might be able to save the homes along North Detroit. "I sent for them," he testified, I sent for the militia to come, send over fifteen or twenty of them, that is all I wanted." But, instead, at around 10:15 a.m. or 10:30 a.m., a party of three or four white men, probably so-called 'Special Deputies," each wearing badges arrived, and then set fire to one of the very homes that Oliphant had been trying to protect. By the time the State Troops arrived in the neighborhood later that morning, it was too late. Most of the homes were already on fire.191

One of the few that was not belonged to Dr. Robert Bridgewater and his wife, Mattie, at 507 N. Detroit. Returning to his home -- after being held at Convention Hall -- in order to retrieve his medicine cases, Dr. Bridgewater later wrote,

On reaching the house, I saw my piano and all of my elegant furniture piled in the street. My safe had been broken open, all of the money stolen, also my silverware, cut glass, all of the family clothes, and everything of value had been removed, even my family Bible. My electric light fixtures were broken, all of the window lights and glass in the doors were broken, the dishes that were not stolen were broken, the floors were covered (literally speaking) with glass, even the phone was torn from the wall.192

The Bridgewaters, as they well knew, were among the fortunate few. Most black Tulsans no longer had homes anymore.

By the time that marital law was declared in Tulsa County at 11:29 a.m. on June 1, the race riot had nearly run its course. Scattered bands of white rioters, some of whom had been awake for more than twenty-four hours straight, continued to loot and burn, but most had already gone home. Along the northern and eastern edges of black Tulsa, where homes were mixed in with stretches of farmland, it had become difficult for the rioters to distinguish the homes of African Americans from those of their white neighbors. The home that riot survivor Nell Hamilton shared with her mother out near the Section Line was, perhaps, spared for just that reason.193



 



As the riot wore on, African-American families frequently be came separated, as black men were often the first to be led away at gunpoint. For many black Tulsans, it was hours-and, in some cases, much longer-before they learned the fate of their loved ones (Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

A final skirmish appears to have occurred a little after Noon, when the remaining members of the white mob exchanged fire with a group of African Americans not far from where the Santa Fe railroad tracks cut across the Section Line, just off of Peoria Avenue. The black defenders had apparently held off the whites who were gathered along the railroad embankment. When a second group of whites, armed with high-powered rifles, arrived on the scene, the African Americans were soon overrun.194



 



From their positions along Standpipe and Sunset Hills, members of the Tulsa-based units of the Oklahoma National Guard also took black Tulsans into "protective custody." And as the local guardsmen began making forays into the African-American district, they actively took black prisoners (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

Most of the city's black population, meanwhile, was being held under armed guard. Many families had been sent, at first, to Convention Hall, but as it filled to capacity, black Tulsans were taken to the baseball park and to the fairgrounds. As the day wore on, hundreds would soon join them. As the men, women, and children who had fled to the countryside, or had taken refuge at Golden Gate Park, began to wander back toward town, they too, were taken into custody. While the white authorities would later argue, and not without some validity, that this was a protective measure designed to save black lives, other reasons including a lingering white fear of a "Negro uprising" undoubtedly played a role in their rationale. In any event, following the destruction of their homes and businesses on May 31 and June 1, black Tulsa now found itself, for all practical purposes, under arrest.195



 



On the morning of June 1, most black Tulsans who were taken into custody were brought to Convention Hall, on Brady Street. But as the day wore on, and more and more African Americans were placed under arrest, new internment Centers had to be established (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

Following the declaration of martial law, the State Troops began to move into what little remained of Tulsa's African American neighborhoods, disarming whites and sending them away from the district. After the riot, a number of black Tulsans, strongly condemned, in no uncertain terms, the actions of both the Tulsa Police Department and the local National Guard units during the conflict. However, the State Troops were largely praised. "Everyone with whom I met was loud in praise of the State Troops who so gallantly came to the rescue of stricken Tulsa," wrote Mary Parrish, "They used no partiality in quieting the disorder. It is the general belief that if they had reached the scene sooner, many lives and valuable property would have been saved."196



Additional detachments of State Troops from other Oklahoma cities and towns arrived in Tulsa throughout June 1, and with their help, the streets were eventually cleared. All businesses were ordered to close by 6:00 p.m. One hour later, only members of the military or civil authorities, physicians, or relief workers were allowed on the streets. It was later claimed that by 8:00 p.m. on the evening of June 1, order had been restored.197 The Tulsa race riot was over.

Doctors, relief workers, and members of the military and civil authorities were not, however, the only ones who were active in Tulsa on Wednesday evening, June 1, 1921. As Walter White later reported:

O.T. Johnson, commandant of the Tulsa Citadel of the Salvation Army, stated that on Wednesday and Thursday the Salvation Army fed thirty-seven Negroes employed as grave diggers and twenty on Friday and Saturday. During the first two days these men dug 120 graves in each of which a dead Negro was buried. No coffins were used. The bodies were dumped into the holes and covered over with dirt.198

Other written evidence, including funeral home records that had lain unseen for more than seventy-five years, would later confirm that African American riot victims were buried in unmarked graves at Oaklawn Cemetery.199 But oral sources would also point to additional unmarked burial sites for riot victims in Tulsa County, including Newblock Park, along the Sand Springs road, and the historic Booker T. Washington Cemetery, located some twelve miles southeast of the city.200



 



Scene in front of Convention Hall as African Americans are being incarcerated on June 1 (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

Conducted, no doubt, under trying circumstances, the burial of Tulsa's African American riot dead would nevertheless bear little in common with the interment of white victims. Largely buried by strangers, there would be no headstones or graveside services for most of black Tulsa's riot dead. Nor would family members be present at the burials, as most of them were still being held under armed guard at the various detention centers. It appears that in some cases, not only did some black Tulsa families not learn how their loved ones died, but not even where they were buried.



In the week following the riot, nearly all of Tulsa's African American citizenry had managed to win their freedom, by one way or another, from the internment centers. Largely homeless, and in many cases now penniless, they made their way back to Greenwood. However, Greenwood was gone.

 



As black Tulsans won their re lease from the var ious in tern ment Centers, and re turned to Greenwood, most dis cov ered that they no lon ger had homes any more (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

What they found was a blackened landscape of vacant lots and empty streets, charred timbers and melted metal, ashes and broken dreams. Where the African American commercial district once stood was now a ghost town of crumbling brick storefronts and the burned-out bulks of automobiles. Gone was the Dreamland and the Dixie, gone was the Tulsa Star and the black public library, gone was the Liberty Cafe and Elliott & Hooker's clothing store, H.L. Byars' cleaners and Mabel Little's beauty salon. Gone were literal lifetimes of sweat and hard work, and hard-won rungs on the ladder of the American Dream.



 






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