Tulsa panel seeks truth from 1921 race riot
Commission to recommend if survivors should be compensated
TULSA, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Beulah Smith and Kenny Booker, two elderly Oklahomans, lived through one of the worst race riots in U.S. history, a rarely mentioned 1921 Tulsa blood bath that officially took dozens of African-American lives, but more likely claimed hundreds. Perhaps even thousands.
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, formed two years ago to determine exactly what happened, will consider next week the controversial issue of what, if any, reparations should be paid to the known survivors of the riot, a group of less than 100 that includes Smith, now 92, and Booker, 86.
'The gun went off, the riot was on'
On the night of May 31, 1921, mobs called for the lynching of Dick Rowland, a black man who shined shoes, after hearing reports that on the previous day he had assaulted Sarah Page, a white woman, in the elevator she operated in a downtown building.
A local newspaper had printed a fabricated story that Rowland tried to rape Page. In an editorial, the same newspaper said a hanging was planned for that night.
As groups of both blacks and whites converged on the Tulsa courthouse, a white man in the crowd confronted an armed black man, a war veteran, who had joined with other blacks to protect Rowland.
Commission member Eddie Faye Gates told CNN what happened next. "This white man," she said, asked the black man, "'What are you doing with this gun?'"
A fabricated newspaper story triggered the violent riots that may have left hundreds, if not thousands, dead
"'I'm going to use it if I have to,'" the black man said, according to Gates, "and (the white man) said, 'No, you're not. Give it to me,' and he tried to take it. The gun went off, the white man was dead, the riot was on."
Truckloads of whites set fires and shot blacks on sight. When the smoke lifted the next day, more than 1,400 homes and businesses in Tulsa's Greenwood district, a prosperous area known as the "black Wall Street," lay in ruins.
Today, only a single block of the original buildings remains standing in the area.
The official death toll was below 100, most of them black, but there was always doubt about the actual number. Experts now estimate that at least 300 people, and perhaps as many as 3,000, died.
'We're in a heck of a lot of trouble'
Beulah Smith was 14 years old the night of the riot. A neighbor named Frenchie came pounding on her family's door in a Tulsa neighborhood known as "Little Africa" that also went up in flames.
"'Get your families out of here because they're killing niggers uptown,'" she remembers Frenchie saying. "We hid in the weeds in the hog pen," Smith told CNN.
People in a mob that came to Kenny Booker's house asked, "'Nigger, do you have a gun?'" he told CNN.
Booker, then a teen-ager, hid with his family in their attic until the home was torched. "When we got downstairs, things were burning. My sister asked me, 'Kenny, is the world on fire?' I said, 'I don't know, but we're in a heck of a lot of trouble, baby.'"
Another riot survivor, Ruth Avery, who was 7 at the time, gives an account matched by others who told of bombs dropped from small airplanes passing overhead. The explosive devices may have been dynamite or Molotov cocktails -- gasoline-filled bottles set afire and thrown as grenades.
"They'd throw it down and when it'd hit, it would burst into flames," Avery said.
Only a single block remains of the 1,400 homes and businesses that made up the area known as the 'black Wall Street'
Many of the survivors "mentioned bodies were stacked like cord wood," says Richard Warner of the Tulsa Historical Society.
In its search for the facts, the commission has literally been trying to dig up the truth.
Two headstones at Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery indicate that riot victims are buried there. In an effort to determine how many, archeological experts in May used ground-piercing radar and other equipment to test the soil in a search for unmarked graves.
The test picked up indications that dozens, if not hundreds, of people may have been buried in an area just outside the cemetery.
Further tests will be conducted, but there are no plans to excavate the area.
The Tulsa commission is scheduled to release its final report on the riot in January. For many of the survivors, the issue is not money -- they want an apology.
"We were innocent," Booker said. "We didn't do anything to start this race riot."
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