Please note: It’s impossible to tell this story without relaying some offensive language. One word in particular, I will not say, even though it was used quite profusely by some of the antagonists. In its place you will hear a beep/see [CENSORED]. I have included the other version of that word, as it was the more polite word at the time, and provides a certain amount of context.
The issues raised here have not gone away; organisations like Black Lives Matter and Stand Up To Racism are still working to dismantle white supremacy and achieve equality; please support them if you can.
When the HBO series “Watchmen” came out in 2019, many viewers were surprised by the opening scenes. There were no super-powered heroes in sight; just a little black boy and his parents, trying to escape the city of Tulsa with their lives amidst horrific racial violence.
Many were even more surprised to learn that the event depicted really happened.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, was originally part of Indian Territory, settled between the 1820s and 1830s by the Creek and Lochapoka tribes when they were forced to give up their land. It was incorporated in 1898, and the discovery of oil there prompted a boom; from a population of 1,390 in 1900, it grew to over 18,000 in 1910 and over 72,000 in 1920.
There were black people living in Tulsa very early in its history; slaves owned by the Creek and Lochapoka, who became freedmen with the end of the Civil War. Other freed slaves made their way there, too; escaping bad memories of their former lives, and looking for somewhere that promised to be better. Oklahoma looked like a good place to go for some time; there had even been a movement in the 1880s to make it a black state. Black men there were able to exercise their right to vote, and there was even an African American, A.C. Hamlin, elected to the state legislature in 1908.
Although originally most black Tulsans were employed as servants and labourers, gradually the number of black professionals grew; grocers, barbers, doctors and lawyers. The opening of their first black school in 1908 drove black literacy higher than in many other areas.
Those who didn’t still live-in with white employers began to congregate in the area north of the railroad tracks; white residents began to call it “Little Africa”, although some gave it the even more degrading name “[CENSORED]town”.
The famous educator, orator and author Booker T. Washington visited the community there in 1905, drawn by stories of black success. He had organised a black-owned district in Tuskegee, Alabama which was called Greenwood; the new Tulsa community, formally organised the following year, would take the same name.
One of the early pioneers of Tulsa’s Greenwood community was landowner O.W. Gurley. He purchased a large strip of land and stated that it was “only to be sold to colored”. He also opened a mercantile store, followed by a boarding house.
John and Loula Williams were also pillars of the community; John was the first black Tulsan to own an automobile, and became so adept with repairs that he was able to open his own garage on Greenwood Avenue. In 1912, they built their home on the north-west corner of Greenwood and Archer; on the ground floor they opened Williams Confectionary, selling ice cream, soda and candy and offering the community a thriving social spot. Their apartment was on the second floor, and they rented out the top floor as office space.
Two years later, they built another property, a couple of blocks north – this would become the Dreamland Theatre, showing silent movies with piano accompaniment.
Unknown Photographer., “Dreamland Theater,” Tulsa Race Riot Photographs
A thriving business district grew around these two properties; shops, restaurants and billiard halls, alongside the offices of doctors, lawyers, dentists and other professionals. As well as black schools – one now named after Booker T. Washington – they had churches, a library and a hospital. Barney Cleaver became Tulsa’s first black police officer in 1911.
Schoolteacher Mary Parrish described the area later:
“I came to Tulsa from Rochester, New York in 1918. I had heard of the town since girlhood and the many opportunities to make money, but I came because of the wonderful cooperation I observed among our people, especially among our business men and women. Every face seemed to wear a smile. After spending years of struggling and sacrifice people had begun to look upon Tulsa as the Negro metropolis of the South West. Going North to Archer Street, for two or more blocks one could see nothing but Negro businesses. Going East you would behold Greenwood Avenue, the Negro’s Wall Street. There were homes of beauty and splendour, and the schools and churches were well attended. It was a city within a city, and some malicious newspapers took pride in referring to it as Little Africa.”
By 1921, Greenwood was a prosperous community numbering almost 11,000; they felt secure. But there were ominous warning signs of what was to come.
A.C. Hamlin was not only the first black legislator in Oklahoma, he would also be the last until 1964, serving only one term. The introduction of Jim Crow laws – notably the “grandfather clause” which tied your right to vote to the status of your ancestors – disenfranchised much of the black population.
Tulsa was strictly segregated, but this was not too much of a concern to most of Greenwood, as their community provided everything they needed.
What would have been concerning, however, was the presence of the Ku Klux Klan and a steady number of lynchings.
Tulsa resident Phillip Rhees told the documentary “”The Tulsa Lynching of 1921”:
“I can remember, as a child, the Ku Klux Klan, and there were probably, oh in my opinion a couple thousand of them that would all roll up with their hoods on and their gowns and all and women and men and children, they had little children maybe three feet high, they were all rolling up and holding onto someone’s hand, they would march too. Usually they would form up down about 7th Street and Main or someplace and the police would clear all the cars off of Main Street and they would march and they would fill the street from curb to curb and it seemed like thousands of them, might’ve been two thousand, I don’t know, I don’t remember.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons
George Monroe, who grew up in Greenwood, remembered:
“We used to go up and watch the Ku Klux Klan and their rally on top of Standpipe Hill. They were in their white robes and their pointed cap attire and we used to just watch ‘em. They had their torches burning and having a meeting, we knew not to get too close to them.”
Lynchings occurred on a fairly regular basis throughout the South during this period; an article in the Tulsa Tribune on the 1st of January 1921 reported, “Texas Takes Lead in Negro Lynchings”; there had been ten in the Lone Star state the previous year. In total, the paper said, “Lynchings were less numerous during 1920 than in 1919, the record shows. Sixty-one persons, including eight white men, were put to death by mobs this year, as compared with 83 last year and 64 in 1918.”
This, of course, does not include any of the cases where the mob was unsuccessful, whether turned away by force or frustrated by their target being smuggled away.
Although only three of those lynchings had occurred in Oklahoma, one had been right there in Tulsa. In August, a taxi driver named Homer Nida was hijacked and shot. The suspect was Roy Belton, an eighteen year old former telephone company worker. While he and his alleged accomplices were in the jail, at the top of the Tulsa Courthouse, Nida died. A mob gathered, and Belton was forcibly taken from the cell on the top floor. He was put inside his victims taxi, which the mob had stolen from the authorities, and with a large escort of other vehicles was driven to the spot where the shooting had occurred. The police followed, but when they all arrived they did little more than keep onlookers back and direct traffic. Meanwhile, a rope was brought out, tied into a noose and put around Belton’s neck. He was given a last cigarette before he was hauled into the air, where he hung for eleven minutes.
The Tulsa World reported on the scene when the young man’s body was finally dropped to the ground.
“Hundreds rushed over the prostrate form to get bits of the clothing. The rope was cut into bits for souvenirs. His trousers and shoes were torn into bits and the mob fairly fought over gruesome souvenirs.”
This was not the only notable occurrence of mob justice in Tulsa. In 1917, the home of a wealthy oil man named Pew was bombed; Pew and his family were unharmed, but the home was severely damaged. The Tulsa World ran a headline implicating the International Workers of the World, a socialist labor union who was opposed to the war, and in further articles quoted a citizen of Tulsa who would “be one of a committee of citizens who will knot the rope and pull it over the nearest tree, when one of the disreputable wretches is found.”
Another column, in response to suggestions that the IWW should leave the country, said, “As a matter of fact, there is no place for them to go. The only relief is a wholesale application of concentration camps. Or, what is hemp worth now, the long foot?”
The police raided the IWW hall a week later, arresting everyone present and placing dubious charges of vagrancy. When they came to trial, judge T.D. Evans not only found all twelve men guilty, but also had another five people, who had been witnesses for the defense, arrested, tried and found guilty then and there. All seventeen were to be transferred to the county jail that night, with an escort of nine policemen.
Instead, they were stopped by a large group of armed men in long black robes and masks, who called themselves the “Knights of Liberty”. They had the prisoners bound hand and foot, and made the police drive them to a ravine to the west of the city. There, they were whipped, tarred and feathered, and told to leave Tulsa. Signs appeared around the city: “Notice to I.W.W.’s: Don’t let the sun set on you in Tulsa.”
One of those men said later, “It was very evident that the police force knew what was going to happen when they took us from jail, as there were extra gowns and masks provided which were put on by the Chief of Police and one detective…”
The memory of these events would play into the atmosphere that reigned in May, 1921.
It was Memorial Day, and 19-year-old Dick Rowland was working in a Main Street shoeshine parlour. It was common for black boys like Rowland to work in service occupations like this, shining the shoes of white customers for white employers, and it was lucrative for them. As another boy who worked with Rowland later recalled, they were paid only five dollars a week, “but the tips were just out of sight. At that time, you see, Tulsa was in the oil boom, and everybody would go to bed poor as Lazarus, and wake up rich as country butter. They didn’t know what to do with their money, and they’d come down there and get a shine, and they’d give you a dollar as fifteen cents.”
Those tips had given Rowland enough to treat himself to a diamond ring as a birthday present to himself; as a result, some called him Diamond Dick.
The shoeshine parlour where he worked didn’t have toilets for the bootblacks; instead, the owner had arranged for them to use the “coloured” toilets (remember, segregation was in force) on the top floor of the nearby Drexel building. Getting there meant using the elevator, which had a white female operator; on that day, 17 year old Sarah Page.
We’re never going to know exactly what happened in the elevator that day; what we do know is how it was reported.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The front page of the Tulsa Tribune the following day carried an article headed, “Nab Negro For Attacking Girl in an Elevator.”
“A negro delivery boy who gave his name to the police as “Diamond Dick”… was arrested on South Greenwood avenue this morning… charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl in the Drexel building early yesterday… he entered the elevator she claimed, and attacked her, scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes. Her screams brought a clerk from Renberg’s store to her assistance and the negro fled… Rowland denied that he tried to harm the girl, but admitted he put his hand on her arm in the elevator when she was alone. Tenants of the Drexel building said the girl is an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through business college.”
Some say that Rowland may have actually tripped as he entered the elevator, and grabbed Page by reflex. Tim Madigan, in his book, “The Burning”, also points out that Page was not exactly the innocent that this article portrayed.
“People said she had ditched her husband in Kansas City and come to Tulsa to live with a relative. Tulsa’s sheriff served divorce papers on her that spring and was heard to comment that if half the charges in the divorce petition were true, “she was a notorious character.””
Some Tulsa residents later said that the same issue of the Tribune continued with Rowland’s story in an editorial, which would have been carried on the back page of the paper. The headline, they said, was “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
Rowland was held in the jail cell at the top of the Tulsa courthouse – the same cell that Roy Belton had occupied the previous year. Some time after the Tribune hit the newsstands, a crowd of white people began to gather outside the courthouse; reports said that there were about three hundred there by half past seven that evening, and four hundred by nine.
Sheriff William McCullough ordered the crowd to disperse, but apparently didn’t do much to make them comply. When three men walked in at around 8:20, he ordered them straight out, and told them there wouldn’t be a lynching that night. To protect his prisoner, he disabled the elevator, and had his guards barricade themselves in, meaning that they could easily defend the single narrow staircase, but they were still outnumbered.
McCullough told newspapers later,
“There were no facts given me that the rumours had a basis and I didn’t place much stock in them. I knew that I could protect the jail and that no mob could take a prisoner out of there.”
Meanwhile, another crowd was gathering in Greenwood. They were equally concerned by the Tribune’s coverage, and many were keen to ensure Rowland’s safety. Given that Belton – a white man – had been taken out of the very same cell, they didn’t have the same confidence in its safety that the Sheriff did.
A group of armed black men went to the courthouse; reports differ as to whether they went to offer assistance to the Sheriff or whether they went there because they’d heard that the whites were already storming the building. Whatever the logic, they were apparently reassured that the situation was under control, and they left.
Many of the men of Greenwood had served in the First World War.
Unknown photographer, “Tulsa Boys who were called by the Government to do their “Bit”,” Tulsa Race Riot Photographs
The white crowd continued to swell. Some were already armed; others decided to go and arm themselves.
Major James A. Bell, of the Tulsa National Guard, later made a report, stating that he had been informed of the gathering crowd and threats of lynching at around 9pm; he had called the Sheriff and the Chief of Police for information, and issued orders for the Guard to get ready, in case they were ordered to action.
“I then returned to my home, just across the alley from the Armory, for my uniform. However, before I could get into it a runner came to my door very much excited and reported that a mob was trying to break into the Armory. Grabbing my pistol in one hand and my belt in the other I jumped out of the back door and running down the west side of the Armory building I saw several men apparently pulling at the window grating. Commanding these men to get off the lot and seeing this command obeyed I went to the front of the building near the southwest corner where I saw a mob of white men about three or four hundred strong. I asked them what they wanted. One of them replied “Rifles and ammunition”. I explained to them that they could not get anything there. Some one shouted “we don’t know about that, we guess we can”. I told them we only had sufficient arms and ammunition for our own men and that not one piece could go out of there without orders from the Governor, and in the name of the law demanded that they disperse at once.”
After being informed in no uncertain terms that they would be shot if they tried to enter, that mob left, and a guard was put on the armoury. Bell stated that this was around ten o’clock.
By around half past ten that night, there were between 1,500 and 2,000 people outside the courthouse. Another group of armed black men came down from Greenwood. Like the first time, they were convinced to leave, but as they did so, one of them was stopped by one of the whites.
Madigan described this encounter in “The Burning”:
“An old white man, short and frail, went after the largest Negro of them all, the famous black veteran O.B. Mann. The white barely came to Mann’s belt buckle.“[CENSORED], what are you going to do with that pistol?” the old man demanded.“I’m going to use it if I need to,” Mann replied.“No, you give it to me,” the white man said.“Like hell I will,” Mann replied.
The old white man was in no mood for insolence. He lunged for Mann’s pistol, and the gun discharged in the brief tussle that ensued. A hundred other shots rang out within seconds, sending the panicked mass of men, women, and children fleeing in all directions.”
It’s not clear exactly how many were killed or injured in this initial tussle, but it was clear that both sides had casualties. Madigan asserts that the old white man who tried to disarm Mann was the first to die; other reports tell of white doctors and an ambulance crew being prevented from treating one of the wounded, because he was black. Walter White of the NAACP, who visited Tulsa a week later, said that a dozen had been killed in this interaction; the Tulsa Race Riot Commission said in 2001 that “more than twenty” were dead or wounded.
McCullough quickly ducked inside the courthouse, and would stay there for the rest of the night to protect Rowland. Meanwhile, the fighting quickly moved away from the courthouse – the mob had apparently forgotten about the boy in the jail cell. Now they were just after any and all black people.
The Greenwood men retreated, as best they could, back across the railroad tracks; several more gunfights happened along the way, with further casualties.
Hardware and sporting goods stores and pawn shops were looted by the white mob for weapons and ammunition; Scott Ellsworth, in “Death In A Promised Land”, wrote that sixteen stores reported break-ins that night, with an estimated $42,923 worth of goods stolen. The owner of McGee’s Hardware Store later stated that he thought that the chief looter in his case was Captain George H. Blaine of the Tulsa police.
The police were deputising white men by the dozen, and one light-skinned black man was able to join them to get inside information.
“It occurred to me I could get sworn in as one of the special deputies. It was easy. My skin was apparently white, and that was enough. After some 50 or 60 of us had been sworn in, a villainous looking man remarked casually, even with a note of happiness in his voice, “Now you can go out and shoot any [CENSORED] you see, and the law will be behind you.”
Any black people who happened to be downtown now found themselves targeted by the mob. One man, unarmed, was chased down an alley until he sought safety in the Royal Theater. William “Choc” Phillips, at that time a teenager, described the scene later.
“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.”
Clashes would continue through the night, although it was now generally a defensive battle for the people of Greenwood. The heaviest gunfire was exchanged across the railroad tracks, the effective border between Greenwood and downtown. Passengers on a train passing through had to throw themselves to the floor, as the carriages were riddled with bullets.
Cars drove through black neighbourhoods, bristling with white gunmen who fired indiscriminately into the houses. One story tells of rioters breaking into a house, finding an elderly black couple kneeling in prayer, and shooting them both in the back of the head.
The first fires were set sometime after midnight, along Archer St. More than two dozen buildings had burned by 4am.
The Tulsa National Guard was officially mobilised at around 11pm; however, the mob was already beyond control, so their efforts to maintain order – by giving instructions not to fire unless fired upon, and to disarm anyone under 21 years old – were largely ignored.
They were initially positioned downtown, but later deployed a poorly-functioning machine gun in the vicinity of Standpipe Hill. They also began rounding up black people, who they handed over to the police as prisoners. They were initially all held in Convention Hall – assuming they got there safely.
Captain Frank Van Voorhis, of the Oklahoma National Guard, wrote the following in his report – under the subject line “Detailed Report of Negro Uprising…”
“Had between twenty (20) and thirty (30) negro prisoners under guard when the white civilians on Sun Set Hill opened fire on us and caused us to suspend operations at that point. Ordered men with the prisoners to double time South about one-fourth block and halted them behind a new concrete building for protection.”
The guardsmen were not always so impartial. Captain John W. McCuen wrote, in his report:
“At the north east 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.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The main activity through that night, however, was preparation. At the Southern end of Greenwood, where the gunfire made the trouble all too obvious, many tried to protect their homes and businesses, or took what they could and tried to flee. Some, like labourer Billy Hudson, were shot as they ran. Others were either unaware, or hoping that it would blow over – and when things went quiet, sometime around 2am, many thought that it had.
The first edition of the Tulsa World carried one of the earliest reports; its headline declared that “1,000 Armed Blacks Are Reported at Bay With More Than 500 Armed Whites Facing Them Opposite Frisco Tracks”
Those numbers are thought to be a serious underestimation. It’s thought that some five hundred men had been deputised, but the mob itself had swelled immensely by dawn, perhaps to as many as ten thousand.
“Choc” Phillips had joined the mob from curiosity; his experience was later retold by Scott Ellsworth.
“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,” one 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 day break,” 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.”
They gathered in three main groups to the south of Greenwood, while a machine gun – a fully working one this time – was hoisted to the top of a granary, where its firing line pointed straight up Greenwood Avenue.
Meanwhile, during the night, efforts had been made to get the governor’s permission to deploy state troops. That required a telegram with the signatures of a judge, the police chief, and the sheriff. The last one was the trickiest to get, since McCullough was still holed up in the courthouse, protecting Dick Rowland and not opening the door to anyone. A reporter eventually managed to get through to him, and the telegram was received at 1:46. The authorisation was given by 2:15, and at 5am a train carrying a hundred troops left Oklahoma City.
A few minutes later, in Tulsa, a loud whistle sounded. It may have come from a steam train or from one of the factories – nobody seemed sure – but it seemed to be the signal the mob was waiting for.
When the whistle sounded, Phillips wrote:
“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.”
Schoolteacher Mary Parrish wrote:
“We heard such a buzzing noise that on running to the door to get a better view of what was going on the sights our eyes beheld made our poor hearts stand still for a moment. There was a great shadow in the sky and upon a second look we discerned that this cloud was caused by fast-approaching airplanes. It then dawned upon us that the enemy had organised in the night and was invading our district, the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium. Looking south out of the window of what then was the Woods building, we saw carloads of men with rifles unloading up near First St. Then the truth dawned upon us that our men were fighting in vain to hold their dear Greenwood.”
Another witness, identified only as A.H., gave this account:
“As daylight approached, the whites were given a signal by a whistle, and the outrage took place. All of this happened while innocent negroes were slumbering, and did not have the least idea they would fall victim to such brutality. At the sound of another whistle, more than a dozen aeroplanes went up and began to drop turpentine balls on the negro residences, while five thousand whites with machine guns and other deadly weapons fired in all directions. Negro men, women and children began making haste to flee to safety, but to no avail, as they were met on all sides with volleys of shot. They were killed in great numbers as they ran trying to flee to safety. Torchlights were used to burn up the negro settlement, and in the meantime they used large trucks, loading up pianos, Victrolas and other articles that were left in the negro homes.”
As the wave of angry whites surged into Greenwood, some of the community did what they could to hold them off.
In the Williams building, above the confectionary, John Williams had used a rifle and a shotgun to keep the whites at bay for a couple of hours, shooting from the window at every chance he had. His teenage son Bill helped him, reloading one gun while his father used the other, until the airplanes arrived and the white mob got too close to their home. They retreated to a pool hall, where they maintained fire a little longer, but eventually conceded defeat. They discarded their guns, fearing they’d be shot on sight if they held onto them, and split up, hoping to meet in the countryside north of Tulsa.
Another stand was made at the Mount Zion Baptist Church. It had only been completed a little over a month before, and its belfry gave the fighters a good view of the surrounding area, allowing them to hold off the mob until a machine gun was brought to bear on them. The church was later torched; claims were made that it was being used as an ammunition store, but it seems unlikely that the black people of Greenwood had that sort of ammunition around.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the resistance could not last very long. Street by street, block by block, the mob advanced. Any black people they found were shot, beaten, or rounded up – or a combination of the three. The houses and the businesses were looted, not just of large valuables like those mentioned by A.H. but also small items like jewellery. Madigan relates that one white girl, the daughter of a Tulsa detective, was seen giving out handfuls of chewing gum in the days after the burning, saying that her father had taken it from one of Greenwood’s looted stores. Several witnesses spoke of seeing white women with shopping bags, following the mob into the houses once they’d been cleared of their occupants.
Once looted, the houses were torched.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Survivor George Monroe recalled;
“My mother saw some white people coming toward our house and she put us under the bed when she saw them coming. My older sister got under first, then it was my younger sister, and then my brother and then they pulled me under the bed. Now by this time the people were coming in, they had torches in their hands. We could see their feet from under the bed and one stepped on my finger, and as I went to scream my sister put her hand over my mouth. I don’t know what, I don’t know today as to what would have happened had they heard us under the bed, but they came in and set the curtains on fire and set our house on fire and then went out the door, and my momma got us from under the bed.”
In one house, a woman was forced to flee without one of her daughters, as the girl was so sick with a fever she couldn’t run, and they couldn’t carry her. The mob showed a modicum of mercy, setting the sick girl out on the street in a chair, with a blanket, before burning her home.
Surrendering was a gamble that many of the people of Greenwood had to take. They didn’t know how they would be received, particularly if they had weapons or made any kind of protest. One resident, J. C. Latimer, was able to talk about his reception later.
“We came out after several shots were fired into the house by the mob. Two or three whites thrust guns in each man’s face and side and took him downstairs. As I neared the bottom of the steps I was met by a man who very unkindly treated me. Seeing a man with hands raised he came up to the blind side and struck me in the jaw, after which I was questioned and my money taken.”
Others fared much worse. Dr Andrew C. Jackson was one of the most prominent residents of Greenwood; the Mayo brothers – of Mayo Clinic fame – called him “the most able Negro surgeon in America.” He lived on Detroit Avenue, where some of Greenwood’s finest homes stood, and where they counted white people amongst their neighbours- including Judge John Oliphant. Oliphant made several calls to the authorities on the morning of June the 1st, begging for help to protect the houses on Detroit Avenue which were still untouched as late as ten o’clock that morning. He later gave evidence about the events of that day as part of a vice investigation into the activities of Police Chief Gustafson.
“OLIPHANT- Well, it was early the next morning, June 1st, just a good daylight when I discovered a lot of men coming up on the hill there west of my place.
QUESTION- White men or [CENSORED] men?OLIPHANT- They were white men.QUESTION- Armed or unarmed?OLIPHANT- They were armed, they were all dressed in khaki clothing, they looked to me to be oversea soldiers… They were looking east and I got up and came out of my home and I walked rapidly over to Detroit and they were shooting across Detroit over on Elgin and in that locality on the north of Easton.…QUESTION- Were you acquainted with Dr. Jackson?
OLIPHANT – Yes, sir…. I was standing down on Detroit just fronting his house, just right opposite Easton down from where I live. I heard him holler and I looked up and saw him coming about twenty five feet away from me or thirty, with his hands up, and he said “Here am I”, he wanted to go… I said to the fellows, “That is Dr. Jackson, don’t hurt him.”
QUESTION- How many were there? How many men were there there at that time, Judge?OLIPHANT- About thirty or forty or fifty around there.
QUESTION – How many of them were armed?
OLIPHANT- Oh, I don’t know, the major portion of them was I presumed armed, they were practically all armed, I think.
QUESTION- what did you say Dr. Jackson said?
OLIPHANT- He said, “Here am I, I want to go with you,” or something to that effect… I don’t know whether he was speaking to me or the other fellows. I was standing immediately in front of him and right on either side of me were three or four or five young fellows, citizens, with guns, and on the other side of the driveway were some more, two or three others.
QUESTION- Was Dr Jackson shot by anybody?
OLIPHANT- Yes, sir… Two men fired at him… he fell at the second shot with the high powered rifle.
Dr Jackson was then loaded into a car and taken away; although they told Oliphant they were taking him to a hospital, he was actually taken to the armory, where he died of his wounds. Oliphant also testified that the men who finally torched those grand houses on Detroit were policemen.
One of the houses on Detroit Avenue, before the massacre.
A. S. Newkirk, photographer., “[Thomas Gentry house],” Tulsa Race Riot Photographs
As people fleeing north caught up to those who’d left earlier, the same question echoed; how far had they burned when you left? Even out of Tulsa, they weren’t necessarily safe. There were stories of refugees from Greenwood being fired upon as they approached other white settlements, who were afraid of a “negro invasion”. However, in some places faith in humanity was restored. On the road to Sand Springs, a white couple named Merrill and Ruth Phelps took in and aided dozens of black refugees. Mary Korte, maid to a wealthy white family, hid refugees at her family’s farm to the east of Tulsa.
As the morning wore on, it wasn’t just the black people in Greenwood who were being rounded up; servants living in white households throughout Tulsa were being brought in. Some white families successfully hid their servants and thus kept them safe. A young stenographer named Mary Jo Ernhardt, who lived at the YWCA, not only hid the building’s African American porter in the walk-in refrigerator, but also confronted the whites who had been chasing him.
“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 can not 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 [CENSORED],” 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. He was nearly frozen, dressed thinly as he was for the hot summer night, but he was ALIVE!”
Convention Hall was not large enough to contain Tulsa’s entire surviving black community; the fairgrounds and the baseball park were also being used as detention areas. Some were also taken to white churches.
The state troops arrived in Tulsa at 9:15 am, but they didn’t go into action straight away, despite calls from the likes of Oliphant. Some accounts say that they broke ranks for breakfast first.
Martial law was declared at 11:30, but by then the chaos had mostly run its course as the white mob grew tired and ran out of buildings to burn. The state troops finally began to disarm whites and send them home – none were detained.
A panorama of Greenwood after the massacre.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
More state troops arrived through the day, and took charge of the city, taking custody of the many black detainees away from the vigilantes. By 7pm, the streets were clear, the only people having permission to go out being military or civil authorities, physicians and relief workers.
It was far from over for the black population of Tulsa. None were allowed to be released from custody until a white person would vouch for them; they had no homes, the mob had taken their money, many had literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. Once they did secure their release, they had to wear a large green tag with all their details on it, showing that they had a white person’s permission to be out and about.
One column in the Tribune described some of the difficulties in achieving this, from their own certain point of view.
“At the fairgrounds the incessant paging of names goes on from morning till night. White people are looking for their negro launderesses, maids and porters. Most of them only know these negroes by “Annie” or “Luella” or “Aunt Lizzie”, which makes it rather difficult to locate them, especially when there are dozens of Annies and Lizzies…”
A more sympathetic column appeared on the front page of the Tulsa World on the 2nd of June, written by Faith Hieronymous. One of the headings described it as “A Scene of Pathos”.
“Inside the park was color and heat – stifling, odorous heat – the crying of babies, the sound of many voices and the moaning of women; and negroes- thousands of negroes, huddled together as far as the eye could see from one end of the grandstand to the other. The majority of them accepted the inevitable in good part, crowded and hot and sticky as it was, there was good cheer every place.”
Newspaper reports of the tragedy were already being published, and they overwhelmingly put the blame on the black people. It was called a race riot; an uprising, even a war.
Even some of their own said so. The Tulsa Tribune – the same paper that set it all off – published an article on the 4th June with the heading “Negro Tells How Others Mobilized”:
“The first inside story of what happened in the negro quarter just prior to the time armed bands of blacks swooped down upon the court house and paraded the streets of the business district was told today by O.W. Gurley, one of the wealthiest negroes in Tulsa…
Gurley declares that the belligerent negroes established headquarters at the plant of the Tulsa Star, published by A.J. Smitherman, early in the evening, assembled ammunition there in large quantities and sent runners hurriedly to all parts of the negro section to round up their forces and bring guns along.
“I entered the Star office about 9 o’clock,” said Gurley, “and found their activities far advanced. Men were coming in singly and in little groups in answer to the call to arms and guns and ammunition were being collected from every available source. Many of the men were making open threats and talking in a most turbulent manner…
There were not more than 40 or 50 men in the crowd of armed blacks who marched upon the court house. They were nearly all dope users or ‘jake’ drinkers with police records. However, there were a few more intelligent ones in the lead.
the real leader of the gang was a tall, brown-skinned negro named Mann. He and his brother ran two or three stores in the colored quarter and they stand well in the community, but this boy has come back from France with exaggerated ideas about equality and thinking he can whip the world…
“I am telling the whole truth so far as I know it because I, in common with all good colored citizens of Tulsa, which includes by far the larger number of the negroes, want those men of our race who armed themselves and marched on the courthouse punished. They started the trouble and this fellow Mann fired the first shot. They brought calamity on us when we were doing our best to make good.”
Other columns took pains to point out that innocent white people had suffered losses, too:
“There are white mourners in Tulsa as well as colored ones. Nearly all who had their family washing in the destroyed negro huts lost the clothes.”
Setting aside the burnt laundry of white people, the losses in Greenwood were catastrophic.
More than a thousand homes, a dozen churches, five hotels, 31 restaurants, four drug stores, eight doctor’s offices, more than two dozen grocery stores, the black public library and the black hospital, were all torched.
Reports in the early days varied wildly as to the reported number of casualties; the Tribune initially said nine whites and 68 blacks had been killed, then cut that to just 27, total, the following day.
The World estimated 100 dead on the 2nd June, and noted that there would be problems establishing the death toll:
“The difficulty of determining the number of dead negroes is caused by the fact that the bodies were apparently not handled in a systematic manner. Byron Kirkpatrick, aide to Adjutant General Barrett, said last night that none of the bodies had been handled by guardsmen, but that it was reported a number of bodies were removed in motor trucks operated by civilians. Kirkpatrick said he does not know where they were taken – whether they were placed at some specific point for later attention, if they were dumped into a large hole, or thrown into the Arkansas river.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The following day, they reported the death toll had been “reduced to 30 by re-checking”.
Later estimates suggest that there may have been as many as three hundred dead. Recent surveys carried out by experts from the University of Oklahoma suggested two sites that may be mass graves; plans were made to carry out a limited excavation, but this had to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And what of Diamond Dick? At around eight o’clock on the morning of June 1st, while the white mob was busy burning Greenwood, Sheriff McCullough managed to smuggle him out of town. Sarah page refused to press any charges against him, and he was set free, but his comfortable life in Tulsa was over. He had to sell that diamond ring to survive.
In that atmosphere, those who had survived and chose not to leave Tulsa faced an uphill struggle to rebuild. Some didn’t want them to rebuild at all. An editorial in, surprise, the Tulsa Tribune, on the 4th of June said:
“Such a district as the old “[CENSORED]town” must never be allowed in Tulsa again. It was a cesspool of iniquity and corruption. It was the cesspool which had been pointed out specifically to the Tulsa police and to Police Commissioner Adkison, and they could see nothing in it. Yet anybody could go down there and buy all the booze they wanted. Anybody could go into the most unspeakable dance halls and base joints of prostitution. All this had been called to the attention of our police department and all the police department could do under the Mayor of this city was to whitewash itself. The Mayor of Tulsa is a perfectly nice, honest man, we do not doubt, but he is guileless. He could have found out himself any time in one night what just one preacher found out.
In this old “[CENSORED]town” were a lot of bad [CENSORED]s and a bad [CENSORED] is about the lowest thing that walks on two feet. Give a bad [CENSORED] his booze and his dope and a gun and he thinks he can shoot up the world. And all these four things were to be found in “[CENSORED]town”- booze, dope, bad [CENSORED]s and guns…
Well the bad [CENSORED]s started it. The public would now like to know: why wasn’t it prevented? Why were these [CENSORED]s not made to feel the force of the law and made to respect the law? Why were not the violators of the law in “[CENSORED]town” arrested? Why were they allowed to go on in many ways defying the law? Why? Mr Adkison, why?”
The previous day’s issue had detailed plans to move the black district:
“Replacement of the principal section of the burned negro area by an industrial and wholesale district crosscut by railroad yards is the principal point in a series of recommendations presented to the Reconstruction Commission by the Real Estate Exchange, following their survey of the situation yesterday. A new negro quarter adjacent to the present devastated one would be platted if the exchange’s plans are carried through…
“We do this for the reason that this area is accessible to all railroads at small cost; it is low ground; it is too near the present business district and that part of our city occupied by white citizens. We believe that the vacant lots with proper railroad facilities will bring enough money to enable the negroes to rebuild in a more removed section.
We further believe that the two races being divided by an industrial section will draw more distinctive lines between them and thereby eliminate the intermingling of the lower elements of the two races, which in our opinion is the root of the evil which should not exist.”
Fire ordinances were also employed to try and keep the black community from rebuilding on their own land; by expanding the city fire limits to include 35 blocks of Greenwood, they imposed building regulations that would be much harder for the black owners to meet. The Tribune (of course) said, “Because of the building requirements laid on this district it is believed impossible that the negroes will again build homes there.”
Nevertheless, all these plans were defeated, and Greenwood was allowed to rebuild – but it would never be the same.
And then… silence fell. The massacre became something that nobody openly spoke about, for decades. Anniversaries passed unmentioned; the Tulsa Tribune ran a “Fifteen years ago” column, and a “25 years ago” one – without a single word about the burning. In 1996, Tulsa County District Attorney Bill LaFortune told a reporter, “I was born and raised here, and I had never heard of the riot.”
Nancy Feldman, originally from Chicago, also knew nothing about the massacre when she came to teach sociology at the University of Tulsa in 1946. After learning of it from a survivor, she spoke about it in class.
“I mentioned the race riot in class one day and was surprised at the universal surprise among my students. No one in this all-white class room of both veterans, who were older, and standard 18-year-old freshmen, had ever heard of it, and some stoutly denied it and questioned my facts.
I invited Mr. Fairchild to come to class and tell of his experience, walking along the railroad tracks to Turley with his brothers and sister. Again, there was stout denial and, even more surprising, many students asked their parents and were told, no, there was no race riot at all. I was called to the Dean’s office and advised to drop the whole subject.”
State representative Don Ross first learned about the Tulsa race massacre as a teenager, in around 1956.
“I first learn about the riot when I was about 15 from Booker T. Washington High School teacher and riot survivor W.D. Williams. In his slow, laboring voice Mr. W.D. as he was fondly known, said on the evening of May 31, 1921, his school graduation, and prom were canceled… A race riot had broken out. He said blacks defended their community for awhile, “but then the airplanes came dropping bombs.” All of the black community was burned to the ground and 300 people died.”
“More annoyed than bored, I leaped from my chair and spoke: “Greenwood was never burned. Ain’t no 300 people dead. We’re too old for fairy tales.”
…The next day he asked me to remain after class, and passed over a photo album with picture and post cards of Mount Zion Baptist Church on fire, the Dreamland Theater in shambles, whites with guns standing over dead bodies, blacks being marched to concentration camps with white mobs jeering, trucks loaded with caskets, and a yellowing newspaper article accounting block after block of destruction.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons
When he became a state legislator, Ross drafted a bill to create the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, to uncover the truth of what happened in 1921. In his prologue to their report, Ross further wrote of a conversation he had with his high school history professor.
“Why the silence in our community? The old man then introduced this student to his assessment. “Blacks lost everything. They were afraid it could happen again and there was no way to tell the story. The two Negro newspapers were bombed. With the unkept promises, they were too busy just trying to make it.”
Even some archives were, apparently, censored. Although multiple witnesses recalled seeing the incendiary headline, “To Lynch Negro Tonight” on the pages of the Tulsa Tribune, no existing copy of the paper carries those words.
The archived copy available on Newspapers.com has the bottom-right section of the front page torn away, half of page 15 torn away, and no scan of page sixteen, where the editorial columns would have appeared.
Another archived copy, held by Tulsa City-County Library, does show the front page intact. In the space that is missing on the other copy is the article headlined, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator”. This copy also includes the back page, with an editorial about US disarmament.
However, the other notable difference between the two copies is that the defaced one is the City edition, while the intact version is the State edition, actually carrying the date June 1st. There would have been an opportunity to change the copy between the printing of the City edition and the State edition, so it is possible that the inflammatory headline did run above an editorial that was then withdrawn.
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, in 2001, finally put the official record straight; the black community were the victims, not the instigators, of the massacre, and there were those in authority who not only made no attempt to stem the violence against the black community, but also promoted and took part in it. One sign of the changing perception of this tragedy is that, increasingly, it is now called the Tulsa Race Massacre, rather than the Tulsa Race Riot; the Commission itself was renamed in 2018.
Greenwood today is a tiny shadow of its former self. The district, as marked out by Google Maps, is a little triangle that was just the very southern end of old Greenwood. It used to extend much further north, as far as Pine Street, but now that land has been cut through by a highway, and large amounts of it given over to Oklahoma State University. But there is still a bit of the old Black Wall Street; the Williams Building was rebuilt much as it had been before; across from it, a three storey building replaced the two-storey Woods Building which Mary Parrish escaped from. A mural, on the side of the highway, highlights the culture of the destroyed community, and nearby John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park holds several memorials both to the victims of this tragedy and to the slaves who helped build Oklahoma.
Unknown photographer, “Greenwood and Archer during the reconstruction,” Tulsa Race Riot Photographs
The reconstructed Williams Building is on the left.
It would be nice to be able to say that, at some point over the last 99 years, we as a society had successfully addressed and eradicated systemic and institutionalised racism. However, that is clearly not the case. There have been many steps taken, but recent events, not least the death of George Floyd, show that there is still a long way to go.
When people say, “Black Lives Matter”, there are a number who answer, “All lives matter.” Unfortunately, that isn’t true; we cannot honestly say that all lives matter while black lives are clearly and openly treated like they don’t. Giving them that equality takes nothing away from us, just as the existence and wealth of Greenwood took nothing away from the rest of Tulsa.
This is not simply a matter of individual beliefs; it goes to the core of our society.
Why were people of colour disproportionately affected when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? A hurricane isn’t racist – but the systems that put minority populations in positions of higher risk are. However, that is perhaps a subject for another episode.
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Sources, References and Further Reading
(will be added soon – sorry for delay)