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Unearthing a Dirty Secret

The only neighborhood in Greenwood still standing

Who doesn't like a good mystery? I used to love the Encyclopedia Brown detective series when I was ten years old. I avidly watched "Murder, She Wrote" every week. As Nick and I headed for Tulsa, Oklahoma, our assignment was to unravel the mysteries of an event that's probably not in any of your textbooks. Solving this mystery was a more awesome challenge than I could ever imagine: to try and find out what exactly happened on May 31, 1921 that resulted in the worst bloodshed of Americans killing Americans since the Civil War, and the largest racial killings in American history. Did we mention that records are sketchy, no one was ever arrested, the bodies have disappeared, and that for almost eighty years, most Tulsa residents had no idea of what took place that tragic day?

Sounds like an impossible case to crack, but slowly and surely, information about one of the most horrifying events in our nation's history is emerging, and bringing with it lots of questions about the past and controversy for the future. Nick and I met with one of the lead detectives to learn more about the investigation of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. Eddie Faye Gates is a member of the eleven-person Tulsa Race Riot Commission, appointed in 1997 to officially unearth for the first time what exactly happened.

Eddie Faye Gates and Otis Clark helped us understand the Tulsa race riot.

The Commission's duty is to locate all living survivors and videotape their stories, come up with an accurate death count, assess the amount of property lost, and make recommendations on how best to rectify the sins of the past. The Commission's final report is due to come out this month and has already caused much soul-searching and heated debate in this quaint city. With Eddie Faye's expert testimony guiding us (which you can watch on video-SOON), this long-forgotten atrocity began to shed its mysterious aura.

After the Civil War, many blacks flocked to the Indian territory now known as Oklahoma. Some blacks had already come before as slaves of the Five Civilized Tribes during the Trail of Tears. Cowboys, Union soldiers, and free blacks made their way to Oklahoma because of its sparkling reputation as a "Promised Land" for African Americans seeking their piece of the American Dream that was being denied to them in the South with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. When Oklahoma was made a state in 1907, the first act of the legislature was to make segregation the law of the land. Because of this, African Americans were now forced to be self-reliant, since they couldn't go to white restaurants, schools, or churches.


Yum! / Celebrating the Carnivore in me

In Tulsa, African Americans started building their own community in a section called "Greenwood." The discovery of oil made Greenwood so prosperous that there were several black millionaires among its residents. Greenwood was hailed as the "Negro Wall Street" by Booker T. Washington . It had lawyers, doctors, teachers, businessmen, and contained movie theaters, churches, post offices, beauty shops, hotels, restaurants, etc. There are over sixty survivors still alive who remember Greenwood in the days before it was reduced to a heap of ashes. The one Nick and I met, Otis Clark, is going to be 97 this month, but doesn't look a day over 70. He told us, "We had everything the whites had. In fact, we probably had more, and they were jealous."

A memorial dedicated to the people who died in the riot.

Eddie Faye detailed to us the findings of the commission that showed the extent of white resentment towards the neighborhood they dubbed "Little Africa." A year before the riot, there had been a lynching of a black man. Tensions were mounting with the KKK. The minutes of Chamber of Commerce meetings leading up to the riot documented how much white businessmen coveted the land in Greenwood and wanted to build a railroad through it. Local newspapers derided "Niggertown" as a place full of filth and prostitution. Tulsa could be expected to explode at any minute.

On May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner, may or may not have stepped on a white woman's toe coming into an elevator. Her screams led to Rowland's arrest, and rumors spread rampantly through the white community that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. The next day, the Tulsa Tribune newspaper's front page screamed, "NAB NEGRO FOR ASSAULTING GIRL." On the back page was an editorial declaring, "To Lynch Negro Tonight." A crowd of white people began assembling outside the jailhouse, smelling blood. Over in Greenwood, stories about a possible lynching spurred a group of black men to go and try to protect Rowland. A scuffle ensued between the two groups, and a shot was fired. From then on, it was sheer mayhem.

Greenwood in the aftermath of the riot.

Over 10,000 whites descended on Greenwood, burning, looting, murdering everything and everyone in sight. Otis Clark recalled hearing the gunshots and then fleeing to a neighborhood town. His stepfather would not be so lucky. Witnesses remembered seeing bodies thrown into the Arkansas River and bodies piled up on the side of the street or being hastily shoved into unmarked graves. There were even airplanes dropping dynamite. The following day, the National Guard was called in to restore order, order taking on the form of hauling 6,000 blacks into internment camps set up at the convention center and parks. 1400 houses had burned to the ground, including Otis Clark's family home. The hundreds of businesses that African Americans had put their heart and soul into making successful were now simply rubble. Out of a population of 15,000, over half of Greenwood's people were now homeless.

In the immediate aftermath of the riot, many people fled town. Otis ended up in Hollywood and never looked back, serving as a butler to the likes of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. But for those who stayed, the riot represented just the first part of a nightmare which Tulsa is only now beginning to recognize.

Some said Greenwood looked like it had been hit with an atomic bomb after the riot.

Many complained that among those torching Greenwood were whites with deputy police badges. They said firemen never came to help. A few white good Samaritans, and later the American Red Cross, did house and support blacks during the whole ordeal. For the most part, though, the local, county, state and federal governments refused to lend any help to the riot victims, and indeed, they did everything they could to prevent the rebuilding of Greenwood. Local ordinances were passed requiring impossible special fire restrictions. Not a single black insurance claim was ever paid, but records neatly recorded the many whites who were reimbursed for lost property. No white businesses would lend money or supplies to blacks, save for the rare one or two. The city tried to construct their long-lusted for railroad tracks, but three black lawyers sued in court and blocked the construction. "It shows that evil didn't win," said Eddie Faye.

If evil didn't prevent Greenwood from rebuilding and thriving again within a few years, evil did put in place a conspiracy of silence regarding May 31, 1921. Initial reports put the death toll at thirty. But current estimates are that over three hundred African Americans died, as well as up to one hundred whites. The first report on the riot blamed violent blacks for the destruction. The infamous editorial "To Lynch Negro Tonight" was conveniently and neatly cut out of all newspapers before the paper was archived. No originals have been found, but both black and white witnesses swear they saw it. The records of the National Guard have vanished, as have those of the fire department and the roster of the Ku Klux Klan in 1921. Eddie Faye said she was shocked to discover that a 1932 roll of Tulsa Klansman still included people who had been the most powerful and important white citizens during the Tulsa riot, including the mayor, teachers, policemen, Boy Scouts, lawyers, and doctors.


As the Tulsa Commission wraps up its report this month, it promises to be only the beginning of a long debate over historical sins. Eddie Faye Gates is one of the strongest proponents of giving reparations to survivors and descendents of the riot. She believes what happened in Greenwood was not so much a spontaneous riot perpetrated by a few crazy whites, but a methodical conspiracy on the part of the white elite to drive out African Americans. Others on the Commission, who tend to be white, want to emphasize the riot as an unfortunate situation that got out of control. "That comes from different historical perspectives," said Eddie Faye. The arguments over the Tulsa riot show that history has lasting and deep effects, and it makes us reflect on how to right the wrongs of the past. What I learned most in Tulsa, though, is the urgent need to never forget.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Springfield's massacre: The 1908 Race Riots
Irene - Strung up, cut up, and set on fire
Stephen - "I'm African! No, I'm American! No, I'm African!" No, I'm American!
Stephanie - Poetry to stir the soul and inspire a nation
Nick - How the government ground down a community
Making A Difference - If you are dark of skin, you are guilty as sin
Stephen - Celebrating your heritage: the Black Renaissance
Stephanie - Two nations, one country