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

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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


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