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



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North Tulsa burns while a white audience views the destruction from a safe distance (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

In Tulsa's black neighborhoods, meanwhile, word of what had happened at the courthouse was soon followed by even more disturbing news. A light-complexioned African American man, who could "pass" for white, had mingled with the crowds of angry whites downtown, where he overheard talk of invading the African American district. Carefully making his way back home, the man then related what he had heard to Seymour Williams, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. Williams, who had served with the army in France, grabbed his service revolver and began to spread the news among his neighbors living just off of Standpipe Hill.128

All along the southern edge of Greenwood, in fact, a great amount of activity was in progress. Alerted to the news of the violence that had broken out downtown, garage and theater owner John Wesley Williams wasted no time in preparing for the possibility of even greater trouble. Loading his 30-30 rifle and a repeating shotgun, he positioned himself along a south-facing window of his family's second floor apartment at the corner of Greenwood and Archer. Later telling his son that he was "defending Greenwood," he was one of scores of other African American residents who were preparing to do exactly the same.129

Other black Tulsans, however, reached a different conclusion on what was the best course of action. Despite the fact that many of the city's African American residents undoubtedly hoped that daylight would bring an end to the violence, others decided not to wait and find out. In the early hours of June 1, a steady stream of black Tulsans began to leave the city, hoping to find safety in the surrounding countryside. "Early in the evening when there was first talk of trouble," Irene Scofield later told the Black Dispatch, "I and about forty others started out of the town and walked to a little town about fifteen miles away." Others joining the exodus, however, were not as fortunate. Billy Hudson, an African American laborer who lived on Archer, hitched up his wagon as conditions grew worse, and set out -- with his grandchildren by his side - for Nowata. He was killed by whites along the way.130



Adding to the confusion over what to do was the simple reality that, for most black Tulsans, it was by no means clear as to what, exactly, was going on throughout the city. This was particularly the case during the early hours of June 1. Intermittent gunfire continued along the southernmost edges of the African American district throughout the night, while down along Archer Street, the fires had not yet burned themselves out. Yet, as far as anyone could determine, Dick Rowland was still safe inside the courthouse. There had been no lynching.

 



Street by street, block by block, the white invaders moved northward across Tulsa's African-American district, looting homes and setting them on fire (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

At approximately 2:00 a.m., the fierce fighting along the Frisco railroad yards had ended. The white would-be invaders still south of the tracks. As a result, some of Greenwood's defenders not only concluded that they had "won" the fight, but also that the riot was over. "Nine p.m. the trouble started," A.J. Smitherman later wrote, "two a.m. the thing was done."131



Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Regardless of whatever was, or was not, happening down by the Frisco tracks, crowds of angry, armed whites were still very much in evidence on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Tulsa. Stunned, and then outraged, by what had occurred at the courthouse, they had only begun to vent their anger.

Like black Tulsans, whites were not exactly certain as to what exactly was happening in the city, a situation that was, not surprisingly, tailor-made for rumors. Indeed, at about 2:30 a.m., the word spread quickly across downtown that a train carrying five- hundred armed blacks from Muskogee was due to arrive shortly at the Midland Valley Railway passenger station off Third Street. Scores of armed whites including a National Guard patrol rushed to the depot, but nothing happened. There was no such train.132

Approximately 30 minutes later, reports reached the local National Guard officers that African American gunman were firing on white residences on Sunset Hill, north of Standpipe Hill. Moreover, it was said that a white woman had been shot and killed. Responding to the news, guardsmen including the crew manning the semi-defective machine gun were deployed along Sunset Hill, an area that overlooked black homes to the east.133



In other white neighborhoods across Tulsa, a different kind of activity was taking place, particularly during the first hours following midnight. As word of what some would later call the "Negro uprising" began to spread across the white community, groups of armed whites began to gather at hastily-arranged meeting places, to discuss what to do next.134

 



White rioters began setting black homes and businesses on fire around midnight, largely along Archer Street. There were atrocities as well. One elderly African-American couple, it was later reported, was shot in the back of the head by whites as they knelt in prayer inside their home (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

For "Choc" Phillips and his other young companions, word of this activity came while they were sitting in an all-night restaurant. "Everybody", they were told, "go to Fifteenth and Boulder". Phillips wrote:



Many people were drifting out of the restaurant so we decided to go along and see what happened at the meeting place. Driving south on Boulder we realized that many trucks and automobiles were headed for the same location, and near Fifteenth Street people had abandoned their vehicles because the streets and intersections were filled to capacity. We left the car more than a block away and began walking toward the crowded intersection. There were already three or four hundred people there and more arriving when we walked up.

Once there, a man stood up on top of a touring car and announced, "We have decided to go out to Second and Lewis Streets and join the crowd that is meeting there."135

Returning to their automobiles, Phillips and his companions blended in with the long line of cars headed east. He later estimated, the crowd that had gathered was about six-hundred strong. Once again, men stood up on top of cars and began shouting instructions to the crowd. "Men," once man announced, "we are going in at daylight." Another man declared that they would be having, right then and there, an ammunition exchange. "If any of you have more ammunition than you need, or if what you have doesn't fit your gun, sing out," he said. "Be ready at daybreak," another man insisted, claiming that meetings like this were taking place all over town. "Nothing can stop us," he added, "for there will be thousands of others going in at the same time."136

The Tulsa police also appear to have been scattered all over town. No doubt responding to rumors that armed blacks were supposedly en route to Tulsa from various towns across eastern Oklahoma, Tulsa police officers had been dispatched to guard various roads leading into the city. Indeed, no less than a half-dozen officers that by Chief Gustafson's subsequent calculations, was nearly one-fifth of the regularly scheduled available police force that evening, had apparently been posted at the ice plant overlooking the Eleventh Street bridge. Some local guardsmen also were deployed to stand guard at various public works as well including the city water works along the Sand Springs road, and the Public Service Company's power plant off First Street.137



 



Sweeping past the black business district, now aflame, the white rioters entered the heart of Tulsa's African-American residential area (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

 

Word of what was happening in Tulsa was also making its way to state officials in Oklahoma City. At 10:14 p.m., Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett, the commandant of the Oklahoma National Guard, had received a long distance telephone call from Major Byron Kirkpatrick, a Tulsa guard officer, advising him of the worsening conditions in Tulsa. Kirkpatrick phoned again at 12:35 a.m. At that point he was instructed by Governor J.B.A. Robertson to prepare and send a signed telegram, as required by Oklahoma state law, by the chief of police, the county sheriff, and a local judge, requesting that state troops be sent to Tulsa. Kirkpatrick, however, ran into some problems as he tried to collect the necessary signatures, particularly that of Sheriff McCullough, who was still barricaded with his men and Dick Rowland on the top floor of the courthouse. However, Kirkpatrick persevered, and at 1:46 a.m., the needed telegram arrived at the state capital.138 It read:






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