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



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WESTERN UNION TELEGRAM

Tulsa, Okla

June l,1921

Govemor J.B.A. Robertson Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Race riot developed here. Several killed. Unable handle situation. Request that National Guard forces be sent by special train. Situation serious.

Jno. A. Gustaftson,

Chief of Police

Wm. McCullough,

Sheriff


V.W. Biddison

District Judge139

Twenty-nine minutes later, at 2:15 a.m., Major Kirkpatrick spoke again by phone with Adjutant General Barrett, who informed him that the governor had authorized the calling out of the state troops. A special train, carrying approximately one-hundred National Guard soldiers would leave Oklahoma City, bound for Tulsa, at 5:00 a.m. that morning.140

Tulsa's longest night would finally be ending, but its longest day would have only begun.

In the pre-dawn hours of June l, thousands of armed whites had gathered in three main clusters along the northern fringes of downtown, opposite Greenwood. One group had assembled behind the Frisco freight depot, while another waited nearby at the Frisco and Santa Fe passenger station. Four blocks to the north, a third crowd was clustered at the Katy passenger depot. While it is unclear how many people were in each group, some contemporary observers estimated the total number of armed whites who had gathered as high as five or ten thousand.141

Smaller bands of whites also had been active. One group hauled a machine gun to the top of the Middle States Milling Company's grain elevator off of First Street, and set it up to fire to the north of Greenwood Avenue.142 Shortly before daybreak, five white men in a green Franklin automobile pulled up alongside the crowd of whites who were massed behind the Frisco freight depot. "What the hell are you waitin' on?," one of the men hollered, "let's go get 'em." But the crowd would not budge, and the men in the car set off alone toward Deep Greenwood. Their bodies, and the bullet-ridden Franklin, were later seen in the middle of Archer Street, near Frankfort.143



 



The looting and burning of African -American homes was indiscriminate, both poor and wealthy families lost their homes (Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).

 

Across the tracks in Greenwood, considerable activity also had been taking place. While some black Tulsans prepared themselves to face the onslaught, others decided that it was time to go. "About this time officers Pack and Lewis pushed up to us and said it would not be safe for us to remain any longer," recalled Mrs. Dimple Bush, who was with her husband at the Red Wing Hotel. "So," she added, "We rushed out and found a taxi which took us straight north on Greenwood."144



Not far away, along North Elgin, Julia Duff, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, faced a similar crisis. Awakened by loud voices outside of her rented room shortly before dawn, the young teacher was soon nearly overcome with fear. As later described in a letter published in the Chicago Defender:

Mrs. S. came into her room and told her to dress-there was something wrong for soldiers were all around, and she looked out the window and saw them driving the men out of the houses on Detroit. Saw Mr. Woods running with both hands in the air and their 3-month-old baby in one hand and three brutes behind him with guns.

"She said her legs gave way from under her," the letter continued, "and she had to crawl about the room, taking things from her closet, putting them in her trunk, for she thought if anything happened she'd have her trunk packed, and before she got everything in they heard footsteps on their steps and there were six out there and they ordered Mr. Smart to march, hands up, out of the house.145

Several eyewitnesses later recalled that when dawn came at 5:08 a.m. that morning, an unusual whistle or siren sounded, perhaps as a signal for the mass assault on Greenwood to begin. Although the source of this whistle or siren is still unknown, moments later, the white mobs made their move. While the machine gun in the grain elevator opened fire, crowds of armed whites poured across the Frisco tracks, headed straight for the African American commercial district.146 As later described by one eyewitness:

With wild frenzied shouts, men began pouring from behind the freight depot and the long string of boxcars and evidently from behind the piles of oil well easing which was at the other end and on the north side of the building. From every place of shelter up and down the tracks came screaming, shouting men to join in the rush toward the Negro section. Mingled with the shouting were a few rebel-yells and Indian gobblings as the great wave of humanity rushed forward totally absorbed in thoughts of destruction.147

Meanwhile, over at the Katy depot, the other crowd of armed whites also moved forward. Heading east, they were soon joined by dozens of others in automobiles, driving along Brady and Cameron Streets. As one unidentified observer later told reporter Mary Parrish, "Tuesday night, May 31, was the riot, and Wednesday morning, by daybreak, was the invasion."148

While black Tulsans fought hard to protect their homes and businesses, the sheer numerical advantage of the invading whites soon proved to be overwhelming. After a valiant, night long effort, John Wesley Williams had to flee from his family's apartment once whites began to riddle the building with gunfire. Squeezing off a few final rounds a little further up Greenwood Avenue, Williams then faced the inevitable, and began walking north along the Midland Valley tracks, leaving his home and businesses behind.149

He was hardly alone. Not far away, in her apartment in the Woods Building at 105 N. Greenwood, Mary E. Jones Parrish and her young daughter Florence Mary had sat up much of the night, uncertain of what to do. "Finally," she later wrote,

My friend, Mrs. Jones, called her husband, who was trying to take a little rest. They decided to try to make for a place of safety, so called to me that they were leaving. By this time the enemy was close upon us, so they ran out of the south door, which led out onto Archer Street, and went east toward Lansing. I took my little girl, Florence Mary, by the hand and fled out of the west door on Greenwood. I did not take time to get a hat for myself or Baby, but started out north on Greenwood, running amidst showers of bullets from the machine gun located in the granary and from men who were quickly surrounding our district. Seeing that they were fighting at a disadvantage, our men had taken shelter in the buildings and in other places out of sight of the enemy. When my daughter, Florence Mary, and I ran into the street, it was vacant for a block or more. Someone called to me to "Get out of the street with that child or you both will be killed." I felt that it was suicide to remain in the building, for it would surely be destroyed and death in the street was preferred, for we expected to be shot down at any moment. So we placed our trust in God, our Heavenly Father, who seeth and knoweth all things, and ran out of Greenwood in the hope of reaching a friend's home who lived over the Standpipe Hill in Greenwood Addition.150

For Dimple Bush, the flight from Greenwood had bordered upon the indescribable. "It was just dawn; the machine guns were sweeping the valley with their murderous fire and my heart was filled with dread as we sped along,," she recalled, "Old women and men, children were running and screaming everywhere."151

Soon, however, new perils developed. As the mobs of armed whites rushed into the southern end of the African American district, airplanes -- manned by whites -- also appeared overhead. As Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, a well-respected black Tulsa physician, later described what happened:

Shortly after we left a whistle blew. The shots rang from a machine gun located on Standpipe Hill near my residence and aeroplanes began to fly over us, in some instances very low to the ground. A cry was heard from the women saying, "Look out for the aeroplanes, they are shooting upon us."152

Numerous other eyewitnesses --both black and white -- confirm the presence of an unknown number of airplanes flying over Greenwood during the early daylight hours of June 1. While certain other assertions made over the years such as that the planes dropped streams of "liquid fire" on top of African American homes and businesses appear to have been technologically improbable, particularly during the early 1920s, there is little doubt but that some of the occupants of the airplanes fired upon black Tulsans with pistols and rifles. Moreover, there is evidence, to suggest that men in at least one airplane dropped some form of explosives, probably sticks of dynamite, upon a group of African American refugees as they were fleeing the city.153

Gunfire soon erupted along the western boundary of the black community. Sharp fighting broke out along Standpipe Hill, where the local guardsmen positioned there traded fire with armed African Americans, who had set up defensive lines off Elgin and Elgin Place. Nearby, on Sunset Hill, the white guardsmen opened fire on the black neighborhood to the east, using both their standard issue thirty-caliber 1906 Springfield rifles as well as the semi-defective machine gun provided to them by the Tulsa police.154

As the waves of white rioters descended upon the African American district, a deadly pattern soon emerged. First, the armed whites broke into the black homes and businesses, forcing the occupants out into the street, where they were led away at gunpoint to one of a growing number of internment centers. Anyone who resisted was shot. Moreover, African American men in homes where firearms were discovered met the same fate. Next, the whites looted the homes and businesses, pocketing small items, and hauling away larger items either on foot or by car or truck. Finally, the white rioters then set the homes and other buildings on fire, using torches and oil-soaked rags. House by house, block by block, the wall of flame crept northward, engulfing the city's black neighborhoods.155

Atrocities occurred along the way. According to one account, published ten days after the riot in a Chicago newspaper,

Another cruel instance was when they [white rioters] went to the home of an old couple and the old man, 80 years old, was paralyzed and sat in a chair and they told him to march and he told them he was crippled, but he'd go if someone would take him, and they told his wife (old, too) to go, but she didn't want to leave him, and he told her to go on anyway. As she left one of the damn dogs shot the old man and then they fired the house.156

There were near-atrocities as well. After armed whites had led his mother away at gunpoint, five-year-old George Monroe was hiding beneath his parents' bed with his two older sisters and his one older brother when white men suddenly entered the room. After rifling through the dresser, the men set the curtains on fire. As the men began to leave, one of them stepped on George's hand. George started to cry out, but his sister Lottie threw her hand over his mouth, preventing their discovery. A few minutes later, the children were able to escape from their home before it burst into flame.157

Some of the fires in Greenwood appear to have been set by whites wearing khaki uniforms. The actual identity of these men remains unclear. Most likely, they were World War I veterans who had donned their old army uniforms when the riot erupted, rather than an officially organized group.159

They were not, however, the only uniformed whites observed setting fires in Tulsa's African American neighborhoods. According to black Deputy Sheriff V.B. Bostic, a white Tulsa police officer "drove him and his wife from his home,"' and then "poured oil on the floor and set a lighted match to it."159

Deputy Sheriff Bostic was not, however, the only eyewitness to report acts of criminal misconduct by Tulsa police officers during the course of the riot. According to one white eyewitness, a "uniformed [white] policeman on East Second Street went home, changed his uniform to plainclothes, and went to the Negro district and led a bunch of whites into Negro, houses, some of the bunch pilfering, never offered to protect men, women or children, or property." This particular account was buttressed by the testimony of an African American witness, who reported that he had seen the same officer in question "on the morning of the riot, June 1, kicking in doors of Negro homes, and assisting in the destruction of property."160

Despite the daunting odds against them, black Tulsans valiantly fought back. African American riflemen had positioned themselves in the belfry of the newly-built Mount Zion Baptist Church, whose commanding view of the area just below Standpipe Hill allowed them to temporarily stem the tide of the white invasion. When white rioters set up a machine gun-probably the same weapon that had been used earlier that morning at the grain elevator, and unleashed its deadly fire on the church belfry, the black defenders were quickly overwhelmed. As "Choc" Phillips later described what happened:

In a couple of minutes pieces of brick started falling, then whole bricks began tumbling from the narrow slits in the cupola. Within five or six minutes the openings were large jagged holes with so many bricks flying from that side of the cupola wall that it seemed ready to fall.

The men stopped firing the machine gun and almost immediately the houses on the outer rim of the area that had been protected by the snipers, became victims of the arsonists. We watched the men take the machine gun from the tripod, wrap it in a canvas cover then lay it on the bed of the truck. They rolled up the belts with the empty shell casings, put away those that were still unused, and in what seemed less than ten minutes from the time the truck was parked at the location, drove away.

While standing on the high ground where the machine gun had been firing, we watched the activity below for a few minutes. Most of the houses were beginning to burn and smoke ascended slowly in to the air while people flitted around as busy as bees down there. From the number that ran in and out of the houses and the church, there had evidently been a couple of hundred who remained behind when the mob bypassed the area.

A short while later, Mount Zion was torched.161



 



Dedicated only weeks before the riot, the Mount Zion Baptist Church was a great source of pride for many black Tulsans. But after a prolonged battle, the white rioters burned it-as well as more than a half dozen other African American churches-to the ground (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

Attempts by black Tulsans to defend their homes and property were undercut by the actions of both the Tulsa police and the local National Guard units, who, rather than focus on disarming and arresting the white rioters, took steps that led to the eventual imprisonment of practically all of the city's African American citizens. Guardsmen deployed on Standpipe Hill made at least one eastward march in the early hours of June 1, rounding up African Americans along the way, before they were fired upon, apparently by whites as well as blacks, near Greenwood Avenue. The guardsmen then marched to Sunset Hill, where they handed over their black prisoners to local police officers.162



An arrest by a white officer was not a guarantee of safety for black Tulsans. According to Thomas Higgins, a white resident of Wichita, Kansas who happened to be visiting Tulsa when the riot broke out, "I saw men of my own race, sworn officers, on three occasions search Negroes while their hands were up, and not finding weapons, extracted what money they found on them. If the Negro protested, he was shot."163

White civilians also took black prisoners. When the invasion began, Carrie Kinlaw, an African American woman who lived out toward the Section Line, had to run toward the fighting in order to help her sisters retrieve their invalid mother. Reaching the elderly woman in a "rain of bullets", Kinlaw later wrote:

My sisters and I gathered her up, placed her on a cot, and three of us carried the cot and the other one carried a bundle of clothes; thus we carried Mother about six blocks, with bullets falling on all sides. About six squads of rioters overtook us, asked for men and guns, made us hold up our hands.

Not all of her captors, however, were adults. "There were boys in that bunch," she added, "from about 10 years upward, all armed with guns."164

Black Tulsans also faced dangers while in the custody of white civilians. James T. West a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, was arrested by whites at his home on Easton Street that morning. "Some men appeared with drawn guns and ordered all of the men out of the house," he recalled immediately after the riot,

I went out immediately. They ordered me to raise my hands, after which three or four men searched me. They told me to line up in the street. I requested them to let me get my hat and best shoes, but they refused and abusively ordered me to line up. They refused to let one of the men put on any kind of shoes. After lining up some 30 or 40 of us men, they ran us through the streets to Convention Hall, forcing us to keep our hands in the air all the while. While we were running, some of the ruffians would shoot at our heels and swore at those who had difficulty keeping up. They actually drove a car into the bunch and knocked down two or three men.165

Harold M. Parker, a white bookkeeper for the Oklahoma Producing and Refining Corporation at the time of the riot, later corroborated how armed whites sometimes shot at the heels of their black prisoners. "Sometimes they missed and shot their legs," Parker recalled a half century later, "It was sheer cruelty coming out."166

The most infamous incident involving white civilians imprisoning African Americans was that which concerned Dr. A.C. Jackson, Tulsa's noted black surgeon. Despite the increasing gunfire, Dr. Jackson had decided to remain inside of his handsome home at 523 N. Detroit, along the shoulder of Standpipe Hill. But when a group of armed whites arrived on his front lawn, Jackson apparently walked out the side door of his home with his hands up, saying, "Here I am boys, don't shoot."167 What happened next was later recounted by John A. Oliphant, a white attorney who lived nearby, in testimony he provided after the riot:

Q. About what time in the morning did you say it was Dr. Jackson was shot?

A. Right close to eight o'clock, between seven thirty and eight o'clock.

Q. Dr. Jackson was a Negro?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And he was coming toward you and these other men at the time he was shot?

A. Yes, Sir, coming right between his house, right in his yard between his home and the house below him.

Q. What did these men say at the time he was shot?

A. They didn't say anything but they pulled down on him; I kept begging him not to shoot him, I held him a good bit and I thought he wouldn't shoot but he shot him twice and the other fellow on the other side-and he fell-shot him and broke his leg.

Q. One man shot him twice?

A. Yes, sir, this is my recollection now.

Q. Then another one shot him through the leg?

A. Yes, I didn't look at that fellow.

Q. These same men that shot him carried him to the hospital?

A. No, they didn't.

Q. What did they do?

A. I have never seen them after that, I don't know a thing about what became of them.

Dr. Jackson died of his wounds later that day.168

Not all black Tulsans, however, countenanced surrender. In the final burst of fighting off of Standpipe Hill that morning, a deadly firefight erupted at the site of an old clay pit, where several African American defenders were said to have gone to their deaths fighting off the white invaders. Stories also have been passed down over the years regarding the exploits of Peg Leg Taylor, a legendary black defender who is said to have singlehandedly fought off more than a dozen white rioters. Along the northern face of Sunset Hill, the white guardsmen posted there found themselves, at least for a while, under attack.169

Black Tulsa, it was clear, was not going without a fight.

Despite their gallant effort, however, Tulsa's African American minority was simply outgunned and outnumbered. As the white mobs continued to move northward, into the heart of the black residential district, some of the worst violence of the riot appears to have taken place. "Negro men, women and children were killed in great numbers as they ran, trying to flee to safety," one unidentified informant later told Mary E. Parrish, ". . . the most horrible scenes of this occurrence was to see women dragging their children while running to safety, and the dirty white rascals firing at them as they ran."170



 



While the white rioters continued their assault upon the African-American community, black Tulsans soon found themselves subject to arrest by Tulsa officials and "Special deputies"(Courtesy Bob Hower).

 

In the wake of the invasion came a wall of flame, steadily moving northward. "Is the whole world on fire?" asked a young playmate of eight-year-old Kinney Booker, who was fleeing with his family from their home on North Frankfort. Not far away, a fiery horror was underway. As later recounted by Walter White in The Nation magazine:



One story was told to me by an eyewitness of five colored men trapped in a burning house. Four burned to death. A fifth attempted to flee, was shot to death as he emerged from the burning structure, and his body was thrown back into the flames.

Humans, however, were not the only victims of the conflagration. More that a few black Tulsans kept pigs and chickens in their backyards in those days. The too perished in the flames, as did some dogs and other family pets.171



Efforts made by the Tulsa Fire Department to halt the burning were of little effect. The earliest attempts by firemen to put out fires in the African American district were halted, at gunpoint, by crowds of white rioters. Thereafter, what efforts that were made appear to have been directed towards keeping the flames away from nearby white neighborhoods. This may also have played a role in how another new black church, the First Baptist Church located at Archer and Jackson, was spared. "Yonder is a nigger church, why ain't they burning it?" a white woman allegedly asked on the morning of June 1. Because, she was told, "It's in a white district."172

 



While only the authorities detained a handful of white rioters, most black Tulsans soon found themselves held under guard. Even in the predominantly white neighborhoods on the city's south side, African-American domestic workers were rounded up and taken to the various internment Centers (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

As the morning wore on, and the fighting moved northward across Greenwood, there was a startling new development. On the heels of their brief gun battle with African American riflemen to their north, the guardsmen who were positioned along the crest of Sunset Hill then joined in the invasion of black Tulsa, with one detachment heading north, the other to the northeast. As later described by Captain John W. McCuen in the after action report he submitted to the commander of Tulsa's National Guard units:



We advanced to the crest of Sunset Hill in skirmish line and then a little further north to the military crest of the hill where our men were ordered to lie down because of the intense fire of the blacks who had formed a good skirmish line at the foot of the hill to the northeast among the out-buildings of the Negro settlement which stops at the foot of the hill. After about 20 minutes "fire at will" at the armed groups of blacks the latter began falling back to the northeast, thus getting good cover among the frame buildings of the Negro settlement. Immediately we moved forward, "B" Company advancing directly north and the Service company in a north-easterly direction.173

More remarkable, the guardsmen came upon a group of African Americans barricaded inside a store, who were attempting to hold off a mob of armed white rioter's. Rather than attempt to get the white invaders and the black defenders to disengage, the guardsmen joined in on the attack. Again, as described by Captain McCuen:

At the northeast corner of the Negro settlement 10 or more Negroes barricaded themselves in a concrete store and dwelling and a stiff fight ensued between these Negroes on one side and guardsmen and civilians on the other. Several whites and blacks were wounded and killed at this point. We captured, arrested and disarmed a great many Negro men in this settlement and then sent them under guard to the convention hall and other points where they were being concentrated.174

No longer remotely impartial, the men of "B" Company, Third Infantry, Oklahoma National Guard, had now joined in on the assault on black Tulsa.



As African Americans fled the city, new dangers sometimes appeared. Mary Parrish later reported that as the group of refugees she was with "had traveled many miles into the country and were turning to find our way to Claremore," they were warned to stay clear of a nearby town, where whites were "treating our people awfully mean as they passed through".175 Similar stories have persisted for decades.

 



Whites detained fleeing African Americans as well as those that stayed near their homes and businesses (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

 

Not all white Tulsans, however, shared the racial views of the white rioters. Mary Korte, a white maid who worked for a wealthy Tulsa family, hid African American refugees at her family's farm east of the city.176 Along the road to Sand Springs, a white couple named Merrill and Ruth Phelps hid and fed black riot victims in the basement of their home for days. The Phelps home, which still stands, became something of a "safe house" for black Tulsans who had managed not to be imprisoned by the white authorities. Traveling through the woods and along creek beds at night, dozens of African American refugees were apparently hidden by the Phelpses during the daylight hours.177



Other white Tulsans also hid blacks, or directly confronted the white rioters. Mary Jo Erhardt, a young stenographer who roomed at the Y.W.C.A. Building at Fifth and Cheyenne, did both. After a sleepless night, punctuated by the sounds of gunfire, Erhardt arose early on the morning of June 1. Heading downstairs, she then heard a voice she recognized as belonging to the African American porter who worked there. "Miss Mary! Oh, Miss Mary!" he said, "Let me in quick." Armed whites, he told her, were chasing him. Quickly secreting the man inside the building's walk-in refrigerator, Erhardt later recalled,

Hardly had I hidden him behind the beef carcasses and returned to the hall door when a loud pounding at the service entrance drew me there. A large man was trying to open the door, fortunately securely locked, and there on the stoop stood three very rough-looking middle-aged white men, each pointing a revolver in my general direction!

"What do you want?" I asked sharply. Strangely, those guns frightened me not at all. I was so angry I could have torn those ruffians apart-three armed white men chasing one lone, harmless Negro. I cannot recall in all my life feeling hatred toward any person, until then. Apparently my feelings did not show, for one answered, "Where did he go?" "Where did WHO go?", I responded.

"That nigger," one demanded, "did you let him in here?"

"Mister," I said, "I'm not letting ANYBODY in here!," which was perfectly true. I had already let in all I intended.

"It was at least ten minutes before I felt secure enough to release Jack," Erhardt added, "He was nearly frozen, dressed thinly as he was for the hot summer night, but he was ALIVE!"178



 



The Zarrow Family. The parents of Jack and Henry Zarrow, founder of Sooner Pipeling, owned a grocery store in the riot-torn area. It was spared be cause they were white. The Zarrow's hid many of the fleeing blacks in their business (Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center).

 

Some whites, in their efforts to protect black Tulsans from harm put themselves at risk. None, perhaps, more so than a young Hispanic woman named Maria Morales Gutierrez. A recent immigrant from Mexico, she and her husband were living, at the time of the riot, in a small house off Peoria Avenue, near Independence Street. Hearing a great deal of noise and commotion on the morning of June 1, Morales ventured outside, where she saw two small African American children, who had evidently been separated from their parents, walking along the street. Suddenly, an airplane appeared on the horizon, bearing down on the two frightened youngsters. Morales ran out into the street, and scooped the little ones into her arms, and out of danger.



A group of armed whites later demanded that Morales hand the two terrified children over to them. "In her English, she told them 'No'," her daughter Gloria Lough, later recalled. "Somehow or other," she added, "they didn't shoot her." The youngsters were safe.179

As the battle for black Tulsa continued to rage, it soon became evident, even in neighborhoods far removed from the fighting, that on June 1, 1921, there would be very little business as usual in the city of Tulsa. When Guy Ashby, a young white employee at Cooper's Grocery on Fourteenth Street, showed up for work that morning, his boss was on his way out the door. "The boss told me there would be no work that day as he was declaring it 'Nigger Day' and he was going hunting niggers," Ashby later remembered, "He took a rifle and told me to lock up the store and go home."180



 






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