|The White mob was held at bay for a while by Black veterans along the Frisco Railroad Tracks in Tulsa as part their neighborhood behind them was already in flames. Not long after this photo, the defenders were overwhelmed.|
Otis G. Clark did not quite make it. One of last known survivors and an eyewitness old enough to remember the two days of horror known as the Tulsa Race Riots died on May 21 in Seattle. He was reputed to be 109 years old.
That would have made him 18 years old when violence broke out in Oklahoma’s oil boom town on May 31, 1921. A lifelong resident of the Greenwood neighborhood, the thriving center of a flourishing African-American community, the young man spent a night of terror dodging rampaging white mobs and then witnessed his family home being burned to the ground, along with almost all of the neighborhood.
Clark made it to the railroad yards with others and hopped a northbound freight to safety and a new life. It was in interesting life, too. After drifting around taking all sort of jobs, he ended in California where he became Joan Crawford’s butler. Then he turned to preaching and was advertised as The World’s Oldest Evangelist.
Like many traumatized survivors, Clark seldom spoke of his ordeal until a resurgent Black community in Tulsa began demanding that the city face its dark past in the 1970’s. Since then he often shared his story and his powerful eyewitness testimony helped bring the story to new light.
He told Tim Madigan, author of The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, “We had two theaters, two pool halls, hotels, and cafes, and stuff. We had an amazing little city.”
Greenwood was a bustling place. In addition to the amenities mentioned by Clark there were two newspapers, several churches, a branch library, and a thriving business strip. Residents of the neighborhood worked in Tulsa business and homes.
In the early days when Oklahoma Territory had been carved out of the Indian Territory once promised in perpetuity to tribes relocated there from all over the United States, there had been the kind of easy going informal meritocracy of the frontier. Black cowboys worked the ranches. Black homesteaders busted the tough prairie soil. Blacks adopted and assimilated in the Cherokee and other tribes mixed freely. Black whores serviced white customers and visa-versa. Blacks came as construction laborers and oil field roughnecks.
But in post World War I America racial attitudes were polarizing and deteriorating rapidly. The Federal government had long since abandoned Reconstruction in the states of the old Confederacy and had ceased to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment which promised equal justice before the law and had abandon enforcement of Civil Rights laws. Jim Crow reigned across the South and was spreading to border and western states.
Racial tensions had heightened during and after World War I. Labor shortages had empowered blacks to leave sharecropping and head to big cities for good paying industrial jobs. The planters and local oligarchs resented the loss of their semi-chattel. White workers in northern cities worried that their wages were being undercut. Horrible race riots had broken out in Chicago in 1919 where white gangs rampaged through Black neighborhoods.
Blacks, on the other hand were feeling more empowered than they had in years. Many placed high hopes that the record of Black troops in the war, and their service on the home front would earn them respect and greater freedom. Many of their leaders had promised them that would be the case.
Returning veterans, toughened by war, were less likely to meekly submit to indignities. Incidents flared across the country. There was also the beginning of a movement against the lynch law that was spreading across the South and mostly targeting blacks.
About the same time D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation opened across the country to ecstatic reviews. It glorified the defense of outraged southern womanhood from “arrogant and ignorant” Reconstruction Black politicians and their carpet bagger and scallywag allies by the and heroically presented Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat with Southern roots screened the movie at the White House and endorsed it. Wilson also systematically dismantled the last little Federal civil rights enforcement and re-introduced segregation in Federal facilities nation-wide.
A new version of the Klan, started as a sham by hustlers looking to peddle sheets, crosses, and memorabilia spread like wildfire across the nation. It often took deepest roots outside of the old Confederacy.
By 1921 Tulsa, whose population had swelled to over 100,000 in the oil boom including many new White residents from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and southern Missouri, was a tinder box ready to explode.
It didn’t take much.
On May 30 Dick Rowland, a Black shoe shiner got on a downtown elevator and in the process evidently stepped on the foot of the operator, a White woman named Sarah Page. She let out a yelp of pain or a scream. By afternoon rumors were racing through the city that Rowland had attacked her. He was arrested and taken to jail.
The next day the city’s afternoon newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune not only reported on Rowland’s arrest, but positively claimed that he had attempted to rape Page. Going further, an editorial titled To Lynch a Negro Tonight. It has widely been regarded as a signal for a lynch mob.
That might not be too unexpected of a newspaper that identified itself as Democratic in a town with a big Southern White population. But the Tribune was owned and edited by Richard Lloyd Jones, a self-described liberal crusader. Jones was the son of the legendary progressive leader of the Western Unitarian Conference and the Unity movement, Jenkin Lloyd Jones and an experienced journalist and former editor of Collier’s and Cosmopolitan magazines and of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. That same year Jones was instrumental in founding All Souls Unitarian Church in the city. Despite all of this, he evidently quickly adopted the predominant racial attitudes of the White population.
Copies of that issue of the Tribune have mysteriously vanished from the paper’s own archives and from the files of local libraries. They exact wording of the editorial has been lost. But enough witnesses later remembered it so that there can be no doubt that it was, indeed, published.
If Jones, or members of his staff, wanted to signal a lynch mob, they succeeded. A mob began to form outside the Tulsa County Courthouse at 7:30 and continued to grow in numbers and ferocity through the evening. It demanded that Rowland be handed over for “summary justice.” Authorities, who had been criticized for handing over a white youth to a lynch mob eight month earlier, refused.
When word reached the Greenwood neighborhood a group of about 20 veterans armed themselves and proceeded to the courthouse to offer themselves as deputies to defend the jail. Their offer was flatly refused. The men returned to the neighborhood.
The angry mob tried to break into the National Guard Armory to obtain more arms, but was turned back by Guardsmen. Reports of this filtered back to Greenwood in a garbled manner and believing that it was the Courthouse being stormed, a second, larger group of armed volunteers responded to the courthouse after 10 P.M. They were again turned down.
As the group attempted to leave, scuffles broke out between them and the mob. A shot was fired, by whom and at whom it is not known. A full blown riot erupted.
The enraged White mob fanned out over the city seeking black targets. Black Veterans held a line for a while along the railroad tracks. Meanwhile a Black man was killed in a downtown movie theater, the first known fatality. Any Blacks found on the streets were attacked. Men in automobiles sprayed gunfire into Black businesses and homes. Around midnight fires were set in the Greenwood business district which rapidly spread as the Fire Department refused to respond. By morning most of the neighborhood lay in ashes.
But the worst was not yet over. Leaders planned an all out systematic military style assault on the community at dawn as dazed survivors of the fires roamed the streets. The National Guard was mobilized, but rather than being sent to protect Greenwood, it was dispatched to screen upscale White neighborhoods from non-existing attacks.
The mob struck at dawn as planned, unopposed by authority. Black defenders were out gunned and quickly over-run. Untouched areas were put to the torch. Blacks moving were shot on sight. A well known local surgeon Dr. A. C. Jackson tried to surrender, but was summarily executed on the spot. The mobs spared neither women nor children when found. There were reports of gang rapes. And the mob was heavily armed. At least one machine gun was used and there were reports of firebombs being hand dropped from a bi-plane.
When out of town Guardsmen finally arrived at 9:30 in the morning, it was virtually all over. The entire neighborhood was smoldering wreckage. More than one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed, while credible estimates of riot deaths range from fifty to three hundred, virtually all Black, with hundreds injured.
The city was place under Marshall Law. Many Greenwood residents, like Clark fled. Other determined to stay, erecting shanties and living in tents for more than a year.
Official investigations resulted in not a single charge being brought against a White man for the violence. An all-White Grand Jury officially blamed Blacks for the violence and determined that all actions by Whites were acts of “self-defense.”
Ironically Rowland, the supposed attacker of a White woman, was found not-guilty on all counts. But the damage was done.
The events of 1921 were for years expunged from Tulsa’s official memory. A conspiracy of silence and fear settled over the city that lasted for decades.
As historians began dredging up the sordid past in the 1980’s pressure began to mount for some kind of official acknowledgment of what had happened. Finally in 1997 a special State Legislative Commission was formed to investigate the “incident” and report back with recommendations for action. The Commission’s report, issued in 2001, put the blame squarely where it belonged and castigated local and state authorities at the time not only for ignoring the crisis, but for actively abetting attacks on the Black community. The report called for reparations to be paid to survivors for losses, similar to the reparations granted survivors of a similar riot against the Black town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. The legislature let the report languish without action.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of All Souls, recognizing the historic complicity of one of its leading founders, joined with the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration, College Hill Presbyterian Church, and Metropolitan Community Church United to attempt to raise at least symbolic reparations. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) contributed $20,000. Combined with local donations $28,000 was made available to the rapidly dwindling numbers of survivors. In addition the UUA gave a $5000 grant to the churches operating together as the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry for continued anti-racism work.
Today All Souls is the largest congregation under one roof in the UUA with over 1,500 members. It is noted for its social justice activism. African American Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson his followers after espousing universal salvation and losing his mega church ministry and were invited by Rev. Marlin Lavanhar and the congregation to bring their New Dimensions ministry to All Souls.
The congregation is now considering a move back to the center of Tulsa, planning to occupy a whole city block with a new church and outreach facilities.
As for the Tulsa Tribune, it remained in the hands of four generations of the Jones family until it ceased publication in 1992.
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