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



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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

 






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