Monday, December 6, 2021
Tulsa Historical Society & Museum

Tulsa Race Riot (1921)

By State Representative Don Ross
Personal belongings and household goods had been removed from many homes and piled in the streets. On the steps of the few houses that remained sat feeble and gray Negro men and women and occasionally a small child. The look in their eyes was one of dejection and supplication. Judging from their attitude, it was not of material consequence to them whether they lived or died. Harmless themselves, they apparently could not conceive the brutality and fiendishness of men who would deliberately set fire to the homes of their friends and neighbors and just as deliberately shoot them down in their tracks.
– Tulsa Daily World, June 2, 1921
A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
February 28, 2001
Related Stories
A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 is comprised, in part, of nine (9) related reports and stories. We have published select elements of the commission’s study to provide both a broad and detailed analysis of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Please read and share at your convenience.
Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Compiled by Dr. Danney Goble (University of Oklahoma)
History Knows No Fences: An Overview
Dr. John Hope Franklin (James B. Duke Professor Emeritus, Duke University) Dr. Scott Ellsworth (Consultant to the Commission)
The Tulsa Race Riot
Dr. Scott Ellsworth
Airplanes and the Riot
Richard Warner (Tulsa Historical Society)
Confirmed Deaths: A Preliminary Report
Dr. Clyde Snow (Consultant to the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner)
The Investigation of Potential Mass Grave Locations for the Tulsa Race Riot
Dr. Robert Brooks (State Archaeologist), Dr. Alan H. Witten (University of Oklahoma)
History Uncovered: Skeletal Remains As a Vehicle to the Past
Dr. Lesley Rankin-Hill (University of Oklahoma)
Phoebe Stubblefield (University of Florida)
Riot Property Loss
Larry O’Dell (Oklahoma Historical Society)
Asessing State and City Culpability: The Riot and the Law
Alfred Brophy (Oklahoma City University)
Courtesy Special Collections Department, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa

History Knows No Fences: An Overview

By John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth
As the centennial of Oklahoma statehood draws near, it is not difficult to look upon the history of our state with anything short of awe and wonder. In ninety-three short years, whole towns and cities have sprouted upon the prai- ries, great cultural and educational institutions have risen among the blackjacks, and the state’s agricultural and industrial output has far surpassed even the wildest dreams of the Boomers. In less than a century, Oklahoma has transformed itself from a rawboned territory more at home in the nineteenth century, into now, as a new millennium dawns about us, a shining example of both the promise and the reality of the American dream. In looking back upon our past, we have much to take pride in.

 

But we have also known heartaches as well. As any honest history textbook will tell you, the first century of Oklahoma statehood has also featured dust storms and a Great Depression, political scan dals and Jim Crow legislation, tumbling oil prices and truckloads of Okies streaming west. But through it all, there are two twentieth century tragedies which, sadly enough, stand head and shoulders above the others.

 

For many Oklahomans, there has never been a darker day than April 19, 1995. At two minutes past nine o’clock that morning, when the northern face of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was blown inward by the deadliest act of terrorism ever to take place on American soil, lives were shattered, lives were lost, and the history of the state would never again be the same.

 

One-hundred-sixty-eight Oklahomans died that day. They were black and white, Native American and Hispanic, young and old. And during the weeks that followed, we began to learn a little about who they were. We learned about Colton and Chase Smith, brothers aged two and three, and how they loved their playmates at the daycare center. We learned about Captain Randy Guzman, U.S.M.C., and how he had commanded troops during Operation Desert Storm, and we learned about Wanda Lee Howell, who always kept a Bible in her purse. And we learned about Cartney Jean McRaven, a nineteen-year-old Air Force enlistee who had been married only four days earlier.

 

The Murrah Building bombing is, without any question, one of the great tragedies of Oklahoma history. And well before the last memorial service was held for the last victim, thousands of Oklahomans made it clear that they wanted what happened on that dark day to be remembered. For upon the chain-link fence surrounding the bomb site there soon appeared a makeshift memorial of the heart — of teddy bears and handwritten children’s prayers, key rings and dreamcatchers, flowers and flags. Now, with the construction and dedication of the Oklahoma City National Memorial, there is no doubt but that both the victims and the les sons of April 19, 1995 will not be forgotten.

 

But what would have come as a surprise to most of the state’s citizens during the sad spring of 1995 was that there were, among them, other Oklahomans who carried within their hearts the painful memories of an equally dark, though long ignored, day in our past. For seventy-three years before the Murrah Building was bombed, the city of Tulsa erupted into a firestorm of hatred and violence that is perhaps unequaled in the peacetime history of the United States.
Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa.
For those hearing about the 1921 Tulsa race riot for the first time, the event seems almost impossible to believe. During the course of eighteen terrible hours, more than one thousand homes were burned to the ground. Practically overnight, entire neighborhoods where families had raised their children, visited with their neighbors, and hung their wash out on the line to dry, had been suddenly reduced to ashes. And as the homes burned, so did their contents, including furniture and family Bibles, rag dolls and hand-me-down quilts, cribs and photograph albums. In less than twenty-four hours, nearly all of Tulsa’s African American residential district — some forty-square-blocks in all had been laid to waste, leaving nearly nine-thousand people homeless.

 

Gone, too, was the city’s African American commercial district, a thriving area located along Greenwood Avenue which boasted some of the finest black-owned businesses in the en- tire Southwest. The Stradford Hotel, a modern fifty-four room brick establishment which housed a drug store, barber shop, restaurant and banquet hall, had been burned to the ground. So had the Gurley Hotel, the Red Wing Hotel, and the Midway Ho tel. Literally dozens of family-run businesses—from cafes and mom-and-pop grocery stores, to the Dreamland Theater, the Y.M.C.A. Cleaners, the East End Feed Store, and Osborne Monroe’s roller skating rink — had also gone up in flames, taking with them the livelihoods, and in many cases the life savings, of literally hundreds of people.

 

The offices of two newspapers — the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun — had also been de- stroyed, as were the offices of more than a dozen doctors, dentists, lawyers, realtors, and other professionals. A United States Post Office sub-station was burned, as was the all-black Frissell Memorial Hospital. The brand new Booker T. Washington High School building escaped the torches of the rioters, but Dunbar Elementary School did not. Neither did more than a half-dozen African American churches, including the newly constructed Mount Zion Baptist Church, an impressive brick tabernacle which had been dedicated only seven weeks earlier.

 

Harsher still was the human loss. While we will probably never know the exact number of people who lost their lives during the Tulsa race riot, even the most conservative estimates are appalling. While we know that the so-called “official” estimate of nine whites and twenty-six blacks is too low, it is also true that some of the higher estimates are equally dubi- ous. All told, considerable evidence exists to suggest that at least seventy-five to one-hundred people, both black and white, were killed during the riot. It should be added, how- ever, that at least one credible source from the period — Maurice Willows, who directed the relief operations of the American Red Cross in Tulsa following the riot — indicated in his offi- cial report that the total number of riot fatalities may have ran as high as three-hundred.

 

We also know a little, at least, about who some of the victims were. Reuben Everett, who was black, was a laborer who lived with his wife Jane in a home along Archer Street. Killed by a gunshot wound on the morning of June 1, 1921, he is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery. George Wal ter Daggs, who was white, may have died as much as twelve hours earlier. The manager of the Tulsa office of the Pierce Oil Company, he was shot in the back of the head as he fled from the initial gunplay of the riot that broke out in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse on the evening of May 31. Moreover, Dr. A. C. Jackson, a renowned African American physician, was fatally wounded in his front yard after he had surrendered to a group of whites. Shot in the stomach, he later died at the National Guard Armory. But for every riot victim’s story that we know, there are others — like the “unidentified Negroes” whose burials are re- corded in the now yellowed pages of old fu- neral home ledgers — whose names and life stories are, at least for now, still lost.

 

We also know a little, at least, about who some of the victims were. Reuben Everett, who was black, was a laborer who lived with his wife Jane in a home along Archer Street. Killed by a gunshot wound on the morning of June 1, 1921, he is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery. George Wal ter Daggs, who was white, may have died as much as twelve hours earlier. The manager of the Tulsa office of the Pierce Oil Company, he was shot in the back of the head as he fled from the initial gunplay of the riot that broke out in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse on the evening of May 31. Moreover, Dr. A. C. Jack- son, a renowned African American physician, was fatally wounded in his front yard after he had surrendered to a group of whites. Shot in the stomach, he later died at the National Guard Armory. But for every riot victim’s story that we know, there are others — like the “unidentified Negroes” whose burials are re- corded in the now yellowed pages of old fu- neral home ledgers — whose names and life stories are, at least for now, still lost.

 

By any standard, the Tulsa race riot of 1921 is one of the great tragedies of Oklahoma his- tory. Walter White, one of the nation’s fore-most experts on racial violence, who visited Tulsa during the week after the riot, was shocked by what had taken place. “I am able to state,” he said, “that the Tulsa riot, in sheer bru- tality and willful destruction of life and prop- erty, stands without parallel in America.”

 

Indeed, for a number of observers through the years, the term “riot” itself seems some- how inadequate to describe the violence and conflagration that took place. For some, what occurred in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921 was a massacre, a pogrom, or, to use a more modern term, an eth nic cleans ing. For others, it was nothing short of a race war. But whatever term is used, one thing is certain: when it was all over, Tulsa’s AfricanAmerican district had been turned into a scorched wasteland of vacant lots, crumbling storefronts, burned churches, and blackened, leafless trees.

 

Like the Murrah Building bombing, the Tulsa riot would forever alter life in Oklahoma. Nowhere, perhaps, was this more starkly apparent than in the mat ter of lynch ing. Like several other states and territories during the early years of the twentieth century, the sad spectacle of lynching was not uncommon in Oklahoma. In her 1942 master’s thesis at the University of Oklahoma, Mary Elizabeth Estes determined that between the declaration of statehood on November 16, 1907, and the Tulsa race riot some thirteen years later, thirty-two individuals — twenty-six of whom were black — were lynched in Oklahoma. But during the twenty years follow- ing the riot, the number of lynchings statewide fell to two. Although they paid a terrible price for their efforts, there is little doubt except by their actions on May 31, 1921, that black Tulsans helped to bring the barbaric practice of lynching in Oklahoma to an end.

 

But unlike the Oklahoma City bombing, which has, to this day, remained a high profile event, for many years the Tulsa race riot practically disappeared from view. For decades after- wards, Oklahoma newspapers rarely mentioned the riot, the state’s historical establishment es- sentially ignored it, and entire generations of Oklahoma school children were taught little or nothing about what had happened. To be sure, the riot was still a topic of conversation, particularly in Tulsa. But these discussions — whether among family or friends, in barber shops or on the front porch — were private affairs. And once the riot slipped from the headlines, its public memory also began to fade.

 

Of course, any one who lived through the riot could never forget what had taken place. And in Tulsa’s African American neighborhoods, the physical, psychological, and spiritual dam- age caused by the riot remained highly appar- ent for years. Indeed, even today there are places in the city where the scars of the riot can still be observed. In North Tulsa, the riot was never forgotten because it could not be.

 

But in other sections of the city, and elsewhere through out the state, the riot slipped further and further from view. And as the years passed and, particularly after World War II, as more and more families moved to Oklahoma from out-of-state, more and more of the state’s citizens had simply never heard of the riot. In- deed, the riot was discussed so little, and for so long, even in Tulsa, that in 1996, Tulsa County District Attorney BIll LaFortune could tell a reporter, “I was born and raised here, and I had never heard of the riot.”

 

How could this have happened? How could a disaster the size and scope of the Tulsa race riot become, somehow, forgotten? How could such a major event in Oklahoma history become so little known?

 

Some observers have claimed that the lack of attention given to the riot over the years was the direct result of noth ing less than a “conspiracy of silence.” And while it is certainly true that a number of important documents relating to the riot have turned up missing, and that some individuals are, to this day, still reluctant to talk about what happened, the shroud of silence that descended over the Tulsa race riot can also be accounted for without resorting to conspiracy theories. But one must start at the beginning.

 

The riot, when it happened, was front-page news across America. “85 WHITES AND NEGROES DIE IN TULSA RIOTS” ran the headline in the June 2, 1921 edition of the New York Times, while dozens of other newspapers across the country published lead stories about
the riot. Indeed, the riot was even news overseas, “FIERCE OUTBREAK IN OKLAHOMA” declared The Times of London.

 

But something else happened as well. For in the days and weeks that followed the riot, editorial writers from coast-to-coast unleashed a tor- rent of stinging condemnations of what had taken place. “The bloody scenes at Tulsa, Oklahoma,” declared the Philadelphia Bulletin, “are hardly conceivable as happening in Ameri- can civilization of the pres ent day.” For the Kentucky State Journal, the riot was nothing short of “An Oklahoma Disgrace,” while the Kansas City Journal was revolted at what it called the “Tulsa Horror.” From both big-city dailies and small town newspapers — from the Houston Post and Nashville Tennessean to the tiny Times of Gloucester, Massachusetts — came a chorus of criticism. The Christian Recorder even went so far as to declare that “Tulsa has become a name of shame upon America.”

 

For many Oklahomans, and particularly for whites in positions of civic responsibility, such sentiments were most unwelcome. For regard- less of what they felt personally about the riot, in a young state where attracting new businesses and new settlers was a top priority, it soon became evident that the riot was a public relations nightmare. Nowhere was this felt more acutely than in Tulsa. “I suppose Tulsa will get a lot of unpleasant publicity from this affair,” wrote one Tulsa-based petroleum geologist to family members back East. Reverend Charles W. Kerr, of the city’s all-white First PresbyterianChurch, added his own assessment. “For 22 years I have been boosting Tulsa,” he said, “and we have all been boosters and boasters about our buildings, bank ac counts and other as sets, but the events of the past week will put a stop to the bragging for a while.” For some, and particularly for Tulsa’s white business and political leaders, the riot soon became something best to be forgotten, something to be swept well beneath history’s carpet.
Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society.
Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa
What is remarkable, in retrospect, is the degree to which this nearly hap pened. For within a decade after it had happened, the Tulsa race riot went from being a front-page, national calamity, to being an incident portrayed as an unfortunate, but not really very significant, event in the state’s past. Oklahoma history textbooks published dur- ing the 1920s did not mention the riot at all — nor did ones published in the 1930s. Finally, in 1941, the riot was mentioned in the Oklahoma volume in the influential American Guide Series — but only in one brief paragraph.

 

Nowhere was this historical amnesia more startling than in Tulsa itself, especially in the city’s white neighborhoods. “For a while,” noted former Tulsa oilman Osborn Campbell, “picture postcards of the victims in awful poses were sold on the streets,” while more than one white ex-rioter “boasted about how many notches he had on his gun.” But the riot, which some whites saw as a source of local pride, in time more generally came to be re- garded as a local embarrassment. Eventually, Osborn added, “the talk stopped.”

 

So too, apparently did the news stories. For while it is highly questionable whether — as it has been alleged — any Tulsa newspaper actually discouraged its reporters from writing about the riot, for years and years on end the riot does not appear to have been mentioned in the local press. And at least one local paper seems to have gone well out of its way, at times, to avoid the subject altogether.

 

During the mid-1930s, the Tulsa Tribune — the city’s afternoon daily newspaper — ran a regular feature on its editorial page called “Fifteen Years Ago.” Drawn from back issues of the newspaper, the column highlighted events which had happened in Tulsa on the same date fifteen years earlier, including local news sto- ries, political tidbits, and society gossip. But when the fifteenth anniversary of the race riot arrived in early June, 1936, the Tribune ignored it completely — and instead ran the following:

 

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO

 

Miss Carolyn Skelly was a charming young hostess of the past week, having en- tertained at a luncheon and theater party for Miss Kathleen Sinclair and her guest, Miss Julia Morley of Saginaw, Mich. Corsage bouquets of Cecil roses and sweet peas were presented to the guests, who were Misses Claudine Miller, Martha Sharpe, Elizabeth Cook, Jane Robinson, Pauline Wood, Marie Constantin, Irene Buel, Thelma Kennedy, Ann Kennedy, Naomi Brown, Jane Wallace and Edith Smith.

 

Mrs. O.H.P. Thomas will entertain for her daughter, Elizabeth, who has been attending Randolph Macon school in Lynchburg, Va.

 

Central high school’s crowning social event of the term just closed was the senior prom in the gymnasium with about 200 guests in attendance. The grand march was led by Miss Sara Little and Seth Hughes.

 

Miss Vera Gwynne will leave next week for Chicago to enter the University of Chicago where she will take a course in kindergarten study.

 

Mr. And Mrs. E.W. Hance have as their guests Mr. L.G. Kellenneyer of St. Mary’s, Ohio.

 

Mrs. C.B. Hough and her son, Ralph, left last night for a three-months trip through the west and northwest. They will return home via Dallas, Texas, where they will visit Mrs. Hough’s homefolk.

 

Ten years later, in 1946, by which time the Tribune had added a “Twenty-Five Years Ago” feature, the newspaper once again avoided men-tioning the riot. It was as if the greatestcatastrophe in the city’s history simply had not happened at all.

 

That there would be some reluctance toward discussing the riot is hardly surprising. Cities and states — just like individuals — do not, as a general rule, like to dwell upon their past shortcomings. For years and years, for exam- ple, Oklahoma school children were taught only the most sanitized versions of the story of the Trail of Tears, while the history of slavery in Oklahoma was more or less ignored alto- gether. Moreover, during the World War II years, when the nation was engaged in a life or death struggle against the Axis, history text- books quite understandably stressed themes of national unity and consensus. The Tulsa race riot, needless to say, did not qualify.

 

But in Tulsa itself, the riot had affected far too many families, on both sides of the tracks, ever to sink entirely from view. But as the years passed and the riot grew ever more distant, a mindset developed which held that the riot was one part of the city’s past that might best be forgotten altogether. Remarkably enough, that is exactly what began to happen.

 

When Nancy Feldman moved to Tulsa during the spring of 1946, she had never heard of the Tulsa race riot. A Chicagoan, and a new bride, she accepted a position teaching sociol- ogy at the University of Tulsa. But trained in so- cial work, she also began working with the City Health Department, where she came into contact with Robert Fairchild, a recreation specialist who was also one of Tulsa’s handful of African American municipal employees. A riot survivor, Fairchild told Feldman of his experiences during the disaster, which made a deep impression on the young sociologist, who decided to share her discovery with her students.

 

But as it turned out, Feldman also soon learned something else, namely, that learning about the riot, and teaching about it, were two entirely dif fer ent prop o si tions. “During my first months at TU,” she later recalled:

 

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 de- nied 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 sis- ter. 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 of fice and advised to drop the whole subject.

 

The next semester, I invited Mr. Fairchild to come to class. Several times the Dean warned me about this. I do not be- lieve I ever suffered from this exercise of my freedom of speech . . . but as a very young and new instructor, I certainly felt threatened.

 

For Feldman, such behavior amounted to nothing less than “Purposeful blindness and memory blocking.” Moreover, she discovered, it was not limited to the classroom. “When I would mention the riot to my white friends, few would talk about it. And they certainly didn’t want to.”

 

While perhaps surprising in retrospect, Feldman’s experiences were by no means unique. When Nancy Dodson, a Kansas native who later taught at Tulsa Junior College, moved to Tulsa in 1950, she too discovered that, at least in some parts of the white commu- nity, the riot was a taboo subject. “I was ad- monished not to mention the riot almost upon our arrival,” she later recalled, “Because of shame, I thought. But the explanation was ‘you don’t want to start another.’”
The riot did not fare much better in local history efforts. While Angie Debo did make men- tion of the riot in her 1943 history, Tulsa: From Creek Town to Oil Capital, her account was both brief and superficial. And fourteen years later, during the summer of 1957, when the city celebrated its “Tulsarama” – a week-long festival commemorating the semi-centennial of Oklahoma statehood — the riot was, once again, ignored. Some thirty-five years after it had taken the lives of dozens of innocent peo- ple, destroyed a neighborhood nearly one-square-mile in size in a firestorm which sent columns of black smoke billowing hun- dreds of feet into the air, and brought the nor-mal life of the city to a complete standstill, the Tulsa race riot was fast becoming little more than a historical inconvenience, something, perhaps, that ought not be discussed at all.

 

Despite such official negligence, however, there were always Tulsans through the years who helped make it certain that the riot was not for- gotten. Both black and white, sometimes work- ing alone but more often working together, they collected evidence, preserved photographs, interviewed eyewitnesses, wrote about their findings, and tried, as best as they could, to ensure that the riot was not erased from history.

 

None, perhaps, succeeded as spectacularly as Mary E. Jones Parrish, a young African Ameri- can teacher and journalist. Parrish had moved to Tulsa from Rochester, New York in 1919 or 1920, and had found work teaching typing and shorthand at the all-black Hunton Branch of the Y.M.C.A.. With her young daughter, Florence Mary, she lived at the Woods Building in the heart of the African American business district. But when the riot broke out, both mother and daughter were forced to abandon their apart- ment and flee for their lives, run ning north along Greenwood Avenue amid a hail of bullets.

 

Immediately following the riot, Parrish was hired by the Inter-Racial Commission to “do some reporting” on what had happened. Throwing herself into her work with her characteristic verve — and, one imagines, a borrowed typewriter — Parrish interviewed several eye- witnesses and transcribed the testimonials of survivors. She also wrote an account of her own harrowing experiences during the riot and, to- gether with photographs of the devastation and a partial roster of property losses in the African American community, Parrish published all of the above in a book called Events of the Tulsa Disaster. And while only a handful of copies ap- pear to have been printed, Parrish’s volume was not only the first book published about the riot, and a pioneering work of journalism by an African American woman, but remains, to this day, an invaluable contemporary account.

 

It took another twenty-five years, however, until the first gen eral his tory of the riot was writ- ten. In 1946, a white World War II veteran named Loren L. Gill was attending the University of Tulsa. Intrigued by lingering sto- ries of the race riot, and armed with both considerable energy and estimable research skills, Gill decided to make the riot the subject of his master’s thesis.

 

The end result, “The Tulsa Race Riot,” was, all told, an exceptional piece of work, Gill worked diligently to uncover the causes of the riot, and to trace its path of violence and de- struction, by scouring old newspaper and magazine articles, Red Cross records, and government documents. Moreover, Gill interviewed more than a dozen local citizens, in- cluding police and city officials, about the riot. And remarkably for the mid-1940’s, Gill also interviewedanumberofAfricanAmericanriot survivors, including Reverend Charles Lanier Netherland, Mrs. Dimple L. Bush, and the noted attorney, Amos T. Hall. And while a number of Gill’s conclusions about the riot have not withstood subsequent historical scrutiny, few have matched his determination to uncover the truth.

 

Yet despite Gill’s accomplishment, the riot remained well-buried in the city’s historical closet. Riot survivors, participants, and ob- servers, to be certain, still told stories of their experiences to family and friends. And at Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, a handful of teachers made certain that their students — many of whose fam i lies had moved to Tulsa after 1921 — learned at least a little about what had happened. But the fact remains that for nearly a quarter of a century after Loren Gill completed his master’s thesis, the Tulsa race riot remained well out of the public spotlight.

 

But beneath the surface, change was afoot. For as the national debate over race relations intensified with the emergence of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Tulsa’s own racial customs were far from static. As the city began to address issues aris- ing out of school desegregation, sit-ins, job bias, housing discrimination, urban renewal, and white flight, there were those who believed that Tulsa’s racial past — and particularly the race riot — needed to be openly confronted.

 

Few felt this as strongly as those who had survived the tragedy itself, and on the evening of June 1, 1971, dozens of African American riot survivors gathered at Mount Zion Baptist Church for a program commemorating the fif- tieth anniversary of the riot. Led by W.D. Williams, a longtime Booker T. Washington High School history teacher, whose family had suf- fered immense property loss during the violence, the other speakers that evening included fellow riot survivors Mable B. Little, who had lost both her home and her beauty shop during the conflagration, and E.L. Goodwin, Sr., the publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle, the city’s black newspaper. Although the audience at the ceremony — which included a handful of whites — was not large, the event represented the first public acknowledgment of the riot in decades.

 

But another episode that same spring also re- vealed just how far that Tulsa, when it came to owning up to the race riot, still had to go. The previous autumn, Larry Silvey, the publications manager at the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, decided that on the fiftieth anniversary of the riot, the chamber’s magazine should run a story on what had happened. Silvey then contacted Ed Wheeler, the host of ‘The Gilcrease Story,” a pop u lar his tory pro gram which aired on lo cal ra- dio. Wheeler — who, like Silvey, was white — agreed to research and write the article. Thus, during the winter of 1970-71, Wheeler went to work, interviewing dozens of elderly black and white riot eyewitnesses, and searching through archives in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City for documents pertaining to the riot.

 

But something else happened as well. For on two separate occasions that winter, Wheeler was approached by white men, unknown to him, who warned him, “Don’t write that story.” Not long thereafter, Wheeler’s home telephone be- gan ring ing at all hours of the day and night, and one morning he awoke to find that someone had taken a bar of soap and scrawled across the front windshield of his car, “Best check under your hood from now on.”

 

But Ed Wheeler was a poor candidate for such scare tactics. A former United States Army infantry officer, the incidents only angered him. Moreover, he was now deep into trying to piece together the history of the riot, and was not about to be deterred. But to be on the safe side, he sent his wife and young son to live with his mother-in-law.

 

Despite the harassment, Wheeler completed his article and Larry Silvey was pleased with the results. However, when Silvey began to lay out the story — complete with never-before-published pho to graphs of both the riot and its aftermath chamber of commerce management killed the article. Silvey appealed to the cham- ber’s board of directors, but they, too, refused to allow the story to be published.

 

Determined that his efforts should not have been in vain, Wheeler then tried to take his story to Tulsa’s two daily newspapers, but was rebuffed. In the end, his article — called “Profile of a Race Riot” — was published in Impact Magazine, a new, black-oriented publication edited by a young African American journalist named Don Ross.

 

“Profile of a Race Riot” was a hand-biting, path-breaking story, easily the best piece of writ ing pub lished about the riot in de cades. But is was also a story whose impact was both lim- ited and far from citywide. For while it has been reported that the issue containing Wheeler’s story sold out “virtually overnight,” the magazine’s readership, which was not large to be gin with, was al most ex clu sively African American. Ultimately, “Pro file of a Race Riot” marked a turning point in how the riot would be written about in the years to come, but at the time that it was published, few Tulsans — and hardly any whites — even knew of its existence.

 

One of the few who did was Ruth Sigler Avery, a white Tulsa woman with a passion for history. A young girl at the time of the riot, Avery had been haunted by her memories of the smoke and flames rising up over the African American district, and by the two trucks carry- ing the bodies of riot victims that had passed in front of her home on East 8th Street.

 

Determined that the his tory of the riot needed to be preserved, Avery begin interviewing riot survivors, collecting riot photographs, and serving as a one-woman research bureau for anyone interested in studying what had happened. Convinced that the riot had been deliberately covered-up, Avery embarked upon what turned out to be a decades-long personal crusade to see that the true story of the riot was finally told.
Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society
Along the way, Avery met some kindred spirits — and none more important that Mozella Franklin Jones. The daughter of riot survivor and prominent African American attorney Buck Colbert Franklin, Jones had long endeavored to raise awareness of the riot particularly outside of Tulsa’s black community. While she was of ten deeply frustrated by white resistance to con- fronting the riot, her accomplishments were far from inconsequential. Along with Henry C. Whitlow, Jr., a history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, Jones had not only helped to desegregate the Tulsa Historical Soci- ety, but had mounted the first-ever major exhibi- tion on the history of African Americans in Tulsa. Moreover, she had also created, at the Tulsa Historical Society, the first collection of riot photographs available to the public.

 

None of these activities, however, was by it- self any match for the culture of silence which had long hovered over the riot, and for years to come, discussions of the riot were often cur- tailed. Taken together, the fiftieth anniversary ceremony, “Profile of a Race Riot,” and the work of Ruth Avery and Mozella Jones had nudged the riot if not into the spotlight, then at least out of the back reaches of the city’s historical closet.

 

Moreover, these local efforts mirrored some larger trends in American society. Nation- wide, the decade of the 1970s witnessed a virtual explosion of interest in the African American experience. Millions of television viewers watched Roots, the miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s chronicle of one family’s tortuous journey through slavery, while books by black authors climbed to the top of the bestseller lists. Black studies programs and de- partments were created at colleges from coast-to-coast, while at both the high school and university level, teaching materials began to more fully address issues of race. As schol- ars started to re-examine the long and turbulent history of race relations in America — including racial violence the Tulsa riot began to receive some limited national exposure.

 

Similar activities took place in Oklahoma. Kay M. Teall’s Black History in Oklahoma, an impressive collection of historical documents published in 1971, helped to make the history of black Oklahomans far more accessible to teach- ers across the state. Teall’s book paid significant attention to the story of the riot, as did Arthur Tolson’s The Black Oklahomans: A History 1541-1972, which came out one year later.

 

In 1975, Northeastern State University histo- rian Rudia M. Halliburton, Jr. published The Tulsa Race War of 1921. Adapted from an arti- cle he had published three years earlier in the Journal of Black Studies, Halliburton’s book featured a remarkable collection of riot photo- graphs, many of which he had collected from his students. Issued by a small academic press in California, Halliburton’s book received little attention outside of scholarly circles. Nonethe- less, as the first book about the riot published in more than a half-century, it was another important step toward unlocking the riot’s history.

 

In the end, it would still take several years — and other books, and other individuals — to lift the veil of silence fully which had long hovered over the riot. However, by the end of the 1970s, efforts were underway that, once and for all, would finally bring out into the open the history of the tragic events of the spring of 1921.

 

Today, the Tulsa race riot is anything but unknown.

 

During the past two years, both the riot itself, and the efforts of Oklahomans to come to terms with the tragedy, have been the subject of dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, radio talk shows, and television documentaries. In an unprecedented and continuing explosion of press attention, journalists and film crews from as far away as Paris, France and London, Eng- land have journeyed to Oklahoma to interview riot survivors and eyewitnesses, search through archives for documents and photographs, and walk the ground where the killings and burning of May 31 and June 1, 1921 took place.

 

After years of neglect, stories and articles about the riot have appeared not only in Oklahoma magazines and newspapers, but also in the pages of the Dallas Morning News, The Economist, the Kansas City Star, the London Daily Telegraph, the Los Angeles Times, the National Post of Canada, the New York Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, US. News and World Report, USA Today, and the Wash- ington Post. The riot has also been the subject of wire stories issued by the Associated Press and Reuter’s. In addition, news stories and television documentaries about the riot have been pro- duced by ABC News Nightline, Australian Broadcasting, the BBC, CBS News’ 60 Minutes II, CNN, Cinemax, The History Channel, NBC News, National Public Radio, Norwe- gian Broadcasting, South African Broadcast- ing, and Swedish Broadcasting, as well as by a number of in-state television and radio stations. Various web sites and Internet chat rooms have also featured the riot, while in nu- merous high school and college classrooms across America, the riot has become a subject of study. All told, for the first time in nearly eighty years, the Tulsa race riot of 1921 has once again become front-page news.

 

What has not made the headlines, however, is that for the past two-and-one-half years, an intensive effort has been quietly underway to investigate, document, analyze, and better un- derstand the history of the riot. Archives have been searched through, old newspapers and government records have been studied, and so- phisticated, state-of-the-art scientific equip- ment has been utilized to help reveal the potential location of the unmarked burial sites of riot victims. While literally dozens of what ap peared to be prom is ing leads for re li able new in for ma tion about the riot turned out to be lit tle more than dead ends, a significant amount of previously unavailable evidence — including long-forgotten documents and photographs — has been discovered.

 

None of this, it must be added, could have been possible without the generous assistance of Oklahomans from all walks of life. Scores of senior citizens — including riot survivors and ob- servers, as well as the sons and daughters of policemen, National Guardsmen, and riot participants have helped us to gain a much clearer picture of what happened in Tulsa during the spring of 1921. All told, literally hundreds of Oklaho- mans, of all races, have given of their time, their memories, and their ex per tise to help us all gain a better understanding of this great tragedy.

 

This report is a product of these combined efforts. The scholars who have writ ten it are all Oklahomans — either by birth, upbringing, residency, or family heritage. Young and not-so-young, black and white, men and women, we include within our ranks both the grandniece and the son of African American riot survivors, as well as the son of a white eye- witness. We are historians and archaeologists, forensic scientists and legal scholars, university professors and retirees.

 

For the editors of this report, the riot also bears considerable personal meaning. Tulsa is our hometown, and we are both graduates of the Tulsa Public Schools. And although we grew up in dif- ferent eras, and in different parts of town — and heard about the riot, as it were, from different sides of the fence — both of our lives have been indelibly shaped by what happened in 1921.

 

History knows no fences. While the stories that black Oklahomans tell about the riot often differ from those of their white coun ter parts, it is the job of the historian to locate the truth wher- ever it may lie. There are, of course, many legitimate areas of dispute about the riot — and will be, without a doubt, for years to come. But far more significant is the tremendous amount of information that we now know about the trag- edy — about how it started and how it ended, about its terrible fury and its murderous vio- lence, about the community it devastated and the lives it shattered. Neither myth nor “confu- sion,” the riot was an actual, definable, and describable event. In Oklahoma history, the central truths of which can, and must, be told.

 

That won’t always be easy. For despite the many acts of courage, heroism, and selflessness that occurred on May 31 and June 1, 1921 — some of which are described in the pages that follow — the story of the Tulsa race riot is a chronicle of hatred and fear, of burning houses and shots fired in anger, of justice denied and dreams deferred. Like the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building some seventy-three years later, there is simply no denying the fact that the riot was a true Oklahoma tragedy, perhaps our greatest.

 

But, like the bombing, the riot can also be a bearer of lessons — about not only who we are, but also about who we would like to be. For only by looking to the past can we see not only where we have been, but also where we are going. And as the first one-hundred years of Oklahoma statehood draws to a close, and a new century begins, we can best honor that past not by burying it, but by facing it squarely, honestly, and, above all, openly.
State Representative Don Ross
Don Ross, 79, served in the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1982 to 2002 and in 1997 cosponsored legislation to establish the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which conducted the first serious investigation into what happened in 1921. His grandparents survived the race massacre. Ross also worked to develop the Greenwood Cultural Center, which is located in the historic Greenwood district. An Air Force veteran, Ross began his career as a journalist in 1963 at The Oklahoma Eagle. He would serve as a reporter, columnist through 1972. During his time with the Eagle, Ross started also a regional magazine, Impact, which published retired Oklahoma National Guard Brigadier General Ed Wheeler’s seminal historical research, “Profile of a Race Riot,” on the 50th remembrance of the Tulsa race massacre of May 29 to June 1, 1921. In 1972, Ross also was named assistant managing editor at the Gary (Indiana) Post-Tribune, becoming one of the first African Americans to work on the management team of a major metropolitan newspaper. At the Post-Tribune, Ross was a celebrated columnist who formed an alliance with syndicated columnists Art Buchwald, Russell Baker, Erma Bombeck and Andy Rooney to create an unofficial club, the “Academy of Humor Columnists.” In 1977, Ross returned to Tulsa to serve as vice president and general manager at the Eagle. Before entering public office, he also managed his own public relations firm, Don Ross & Associates, and owned Ebony Partners. He is retired and working on a memoir.