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



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A typical member of the white mob. Not only did they set African-American homes and businesses on fire, but looted their possessions as well (Courtesy Bob Hower).

 

At the courthouse, the sudden and unexpected turn of events had a jolting effect on the would-be lynch mob, and groups of angry, vengeance-seeking whites soon took the streets and sidewalks of downtown. "A great many of these persons lining the sidewalks," one white eyewitness later recalled, "were holding a rifle or shotgun in one hand, and grasping the neck of a liquor bottle with the other. Some had pistols stuck into their belts."111



 



Following the outbreak of violence at the courthouse, crowds of angry whites took to the streets downtown. There, according to white eye witnesses, a number of blacks were killed in the riots early hours. And even though the fighting soon moved north toward Greenwood, groups of whites-including these at Main and Archer-were still roaming the streets of downtown the next morning (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

Some were about to become, at least temporarily, officers of the law. Shortly after the fighting had broken out at the courthouse, a large number of whites - many of whom had only a little while earlier been members of the would-be lynch mob -- gathered outside of police headquarters on Second Street. There, perhaps as many as five-hundred white men and boys were sworn-in by police officers as "Special Deputies." Some were provided with badges or ribbons indicating their new status. Many, it appears, also were given specific instructions. According to Laurel G. Buck, a white bricklayer who was sworn-in as one of these 'Special Deputies", a police officer bluntly told him to "Get a gun and get a nigger."112



Shortly thereafter, whites began breaking into downtown sporting goods stores, pawnshops, and hardware stores, stealing -- or "borrowing" as some would later claim -- guns and ammunition. Dick Bardon's store on First Street was particularly hard hit as well as the J.W. MeGee Sporting Goods shop at 22 W. Second Street, even though it was located literally across the street from police headquarters. The owner later testified that a Tulsa police officer helped to dole out the guns that were taken from his store.113

More bloodshed soon followed, as whites began gunning down any African Americans that they discovered downtown. William R. Holway, a white engineer, was watching a movie at the Rialto Theater when someone ran into the theater, shouting "Nigger fight, nigger fight". As Holway later recalled:

Everybody left that theater on high, you know. We went out the door and looked across the street, and there was Younkman's drug store with those big pillars. There were two big pillars at the entrance, and we got over behind them. Just got there when a Negro ran south of the alley across the street, the minute his head showed outside, somebody shot him.

"We stood there for about half-an-hour watching," Holway added, "which I shall never forget. He wasn't quite dead, but he was about to die. He was the first man that I saw shot in that riot."114



 



Groups of whites gathered throughout the city (Courtesy Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries).

Not far away, at the Royal Theater - that was showing a movie called "One Man in a Million" that evening -- a similar drama played itself out. Among the onlookers was a white teenager named William "Choc" Phillips, who later became a well-known Tulsa police officer. As described by Phillips in his unpublished memoir of the riot:

The mob action was set off when several [white] men chased a Negro man down the alley in back of the theater and out onto Fourth Street where be saw the stage door and dashed inside. Seeing the open door the Negro rushed in and hurried forward in the darkness hunting a place to hide.

Suddenly he was on the stage in front of the picture screen and blinded by the bright flickering light coming down from the operator's booth in the balcony. After shielding his eyes for a moment he regained his vision enough to locate the steps leading from the stage down past the orchestra pit to the aisle just as the pursuing men rushed the stage. One of them saw the Negro and yelled, "there he is, heading for the aisle". As he finished the sentence, a roaring blast from a shotgun dropped the Negro man by the end of the orchestra pit.115

Not all of the victims of the violence that broke out downtown were white. Evidence suggests that after the fighting broke out at the courthouse, carloads of black Tulsans may have exchanged gunfire with whites on streets downtown, possibly resulting in casualties on both sides. At least one white man in an automobile was killed by a group of whites, who had mistaken him to be black.116

Around midnight, a small crowd of whites gathered -- once again -- outside of the courthouse, yelling "Bring the rope" and "Get the nigger". But they did not rush the building, and nothing happened.117 Because the truth of the matter was that, by then, most of Tulsa's rioting whites no longer particularly cared about Dick Rowland anymore. They now had much bigger things in mind.

While darkness slowed the pace of the riot, sporadic fighting took place throughout the nighttime hours of May 31 and June 1. The heaviest occurred alongside the Frisco railroad tracks, one of the key dividing lines between Tulsa's black and white commercial districts. From approximately midnight until around 1:30 a.m., scores of blacks and whites exchanged gunfire across the Frisco yards. At one point during the fighting, an inbound train reportedly arrived, its passengers forced to take cover on the floor as the shooting continued, raking both sides of the train.118

A few carloads of whites also made brief excursions into the African American district, firing indiscriminately into houses as they roared up and down streets lined with black residences. there were deliberate murders as well.119 As Walter White, who visited Tulsa immediately after the riot, later reported:

Many are the stories of horror told to me - not by colored people - but by white residents. One was that of an aged colored couple, saying their evening prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Avenue. A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.120

It appears that the first fires set by whites in black neighborhoods began at about 1:00 a.m. African American homes and businesses along Archer were the earliest targets, and when an engine crew from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived and prepared to douse the flames, white rioters forced the firemen away at gunpoint. By 4:00 a.m., more than two-dozen black-owned businesses, including the Midway Hotel, had been torched.121



 



During the nighttime hours of May 31 and June 1, groups of armed whites made "drive-by" shootings in black residential neighborhoods, firing into African-American homes (Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).

 

The nighttime hours of May 31 and June 1 also witnessed the first organized actions taken by the Tulsa units of the National Guard. While evidence indicates that Sheriff McCullough may have requested local guard officers that they send men down to the courthouse at around 9:30 p.m.,122 it was not until more than an hour later -- about the time that the fighting broke out at the courthouse - that the local National Guard units were specifically ordered to take action with regards to the riot. According to the after action report later submitted by Major James Bell to local National Guard commander Lieutenant Colonel L.J.F. Rooney:



About 10:30 o'clock, I think it was, I had a call from the Adjt. General asking about the situation. I explained that it looked pretty bad. He directed that we continue to use every effort to get the men in so that if a call came we would be ready. I think it was only a few minutes after this, another call from the Adjt. General directed that "B" Co., the Sanitary Det. and the Service Co. be mobilized at once and render any assistance to the civil authorities we could in the maintenance of law and order and the protection of life and property. I think this was about 10:40 o'clock and while talking to the General you appeared and assume command.123

At approximately 11:00 p.m., perhaps as many as fifty local National Guardsmen -- nearly all of whom had been contacted at their homes -- had gathered at the armory on Sixth Street. Some were World War I veterans. It is unclear whether any of the men had been trained in riot control. Although various official and unofficial manuals were available in 1921 on the use of National Guard soldiers during riots, it is uncertain whether the Tulsa units had received any training in this area.124



 



Some of the most intense fighting during the riot took place alongside the Frisco Railroad yards, as African-American defenders tried to keep the white rioters away from Greenwood. But when dawn broke on the morning of June 1, the black defenders were simpley overwhelmed (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Sociey).

 

Another interesting aspect regarding the guardsmen who gathered at the armory exists. Not only were the Tulsa units of the National Guard exclusively white, but as the evening wore on, it became increasingly clear that they would not play an impartial role in the "maintenance of law and order." Like many of their white neighbors, a number of the local guardsmen also came to conclude that the race riot was, in fact, a "Negro uprising," a term used throughout their various after action reports. At least one National Guard officer went even further, using the term "enemy" in reference to African Americans. Given the tenor of the times, it is hardly surprising that Tulsa's all-white National Guard might view black Tulsans antagonistically. As the riot continued to unfold, this also would prove to be far from irrelevant.125



Initially, the local guardsmen were deployed downtown. Sometime before midnight, one detachment was stationed in front of police headquarters, where they blocked off Second Street. Guardsmen also led groups of armed whites on "patrols" of downtown streets, an activity that was later taken over by members of the -- similarly all-white -- local chapter of the American Legion. Tulsa police officials also presented the guardsmen with a machine gun, which guard officers then had mounted on the back of a truck. This particular gun, possibly a war trophy, it turned out, was in poor operating condition, and could only be fired one shell at a time.126

Taking the machine gun along with them, about thirty guardsmen then headed north, and positioned themselves along Detroit Avenue between Brady Street and Standpipe Hill, along one of the borders separating the city's white and black neighborhoods. Their deployment was far from impartial, for the "skirmish line" that the National Guard officers established was set-up facing - or soon would be -- the African American district. Moreover, the guardsmen also began rounding up black Tulsans, whom they handed over -- as prisoners -- to the police, and they also briefly exchanged fire with gunmen to the east. Far from being utilized as a neutral force, Tulsa's local National Guard unit along Detroit Avenue were, even in the early hours of the riot, being deployed in a manner which would eventually set them in opposition to the black community.127



 






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