JUNE 1, 1921 MASSACRE, ITS HISTORICAL RELEVANCE.
REYNALD ALTEMA, MD
The early part of the previous century saw a coordinated assertiveness by African Americans at many levels. The NAACP in 1909, then The National Urban League in 1910 as well as The Commission on Interracial Cooperation in 1918 represented efforts to fight a system openly advocating their disfranchising through politico-legal means. Carter G. Woodson, a preeminent scholar for whom we are indebted to have Black History Week, then Month, in February, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro started The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 19159. As we mentioned before, starting in 1915 and lasting till 1970, The Great Migration from the Deep South where 90% of African Americans lived, to all parts of the country, an exodus of immense consequences in the makeup of the society. This phenomenon is well chronicled by Isabelle Wilkerson in The Warmth of other Suns. She dubbed it “…it was the first big step the nation’s servant class took without asking10.”
The Great Migration would be fraught with dangers. The great displacement would pit two groups that had always lived separately and the encroachment of African Americans into areas long considered the domain of whites in jobs, housing would light the tinderbox across the nation. In 1919, in what the NAACP called the Red Summer, 30 urban riots took place. Therefore, the same divergence between the two different groups was brewing in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
As we mentioned before, there was a climate of intolerance among the populace at every level spreading in all spheres, irrespective of ethnic origin. For example, union activity was antithetic to the pro-business climate. There was a campaign to chase the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) out of the area using any means necessary1. To fan the fire, The KKK as mentioned above had a strong penetration in the area and included a female membership as well as one for teen boys.
The two white newspapers Tribune and World had a conservative bent. Both played a competitive advocacy role for racist ideas with the Tribune upping the ante, often referring to the black section of Tulsa as “Little Africa” or more commonly as “niggertown1,2,3.” Their editorials were pointed, sharp without any diplomatic niceties. Their venom could be raw, lethal and on numerous occasions, their positions against a group perceived as a threat resulted in dire consequences for such enemy, an indication of their outsize influence. Their pro big-oil business and antiunion stances held no prisoners; the IWW’s demise in the area is a proof of that. The section where African Americans lived abutted the rail yard and there was always a desire by certain investors to use the space as a warehouse. The existence of that neighborhood was a threat to some business interests. In 1921, the population of African Americans living in Tulsa had bulged to 11,000. It was also an affront to racial sensibilities because young white women were cavorting with black musicians at jazz joints. That was anathema. Miscegenation was a high crime and highly offensive. “Black Wall Street” referred to Greenwood Street, the main thoroughfare in the district. It included 2 movie theaters, 1 hospital, 2 newspapers, The Tulsa Star and The Oklahoma Sun, two public schools, including a high school, various professional offices, stores and other businesses. No bank or other financial institutions existed yet. Some of the adjoining streets offered an image of poverty and substandard housing familiar with was what commonly found in black quarters of many towns across the country. A lot of the businesses relied on customers doing menial work. Greenwood St as the nerve center attracted people from afar and could be considered the equivalent of other immigrant ghettos bustling with activities that eventually blossomed over time. The whole area was in its infancy. It included a surgeon trained at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. A. C. Jackson, and was considered the best African American in the nation1,2,3.
Whatever happened in the elevator became public knowledge on May 31 when the Tulsa Tribune stated “ A negro….was arrested…….charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl….an orphan who works as elevator operator to pay her way to business college1,2,3.” Such a sulfurous charge about a Negro assaulting a white woman would be followed later by an editorial “To Lynch Negro Tonight” according to many people. However, this editorial for unknown reason (or obvious reason) is not to be found in subsequent microfilms of the edition. Lest there be any accusation of spreading any falsehood, Krehbiel cites the Race Riot Commission report and further states, “When its files copies were microfilmed in the 1940s, the front-page arrest story and about half the editorial page had been torn out.” When the rival World reported the story the following day, June 1, it stated, “There was a movement afoot, it was reported, among white people to go to the county courthouse Tuesday night [May 31] and lynch the bootblack1,2,3.”
This leaves the clear impression there was a consign that people were responding to. What happened that previous night?
Dick Rowland stayed at the city jail at first and the police moved him to the county jail, on the top floor of the courthouse, a more secure place. He stated he had accidentally stepped on Sarah Page’s foot. The Police Commissioner, Adkison, would testify later that in the afternoon of the same day (Tuesday), he received a call from an anonymous man telling him, “We are going to lynch that negro tonight.” The chief of police, Gustafson, authorized the transfer and suggested to the county sheriff, McCullough, to get the prisoner out of town for his safety but he refused. There was a precedent of mob lynching an accused white man, Belton, and that weighed into equation among the African Americans. They gathered around the courthouse where a crowd of whites were already milling. The sheriff and one African American policeman convinced the first contingent of African Americans to leave, but he didn’t fare so well with some unruly whites who even called him “nigger-lover,” the worst injury one white can spew at another. The continued presence of whites alarmed the African-Americans who came back better armed, ready to get into action as necessary; the ratio of whites to African-Americans was about 20:3. As with all other cases of riots, law enforcement officials usually paid attention to containing the African-Americans and remained lax about the aggressive behavior of the whites. No real effort to defuse the situation was undertaken. Supposedly there was an order to hose them down, but that order was not executed. National Guard was not summonsed until too late. Several hundred of whites went to the National Guard Armory to seek weapons but were rebuffed.
The melee that night started when a deputy constable named MacQueen attempted to disarm an African American who had no intention of letting him do so. It’s reported that the pistol discharged between ten and ten-thirty. Word spread that the Blacks were attempting to take over the city. The whites looted all hardware stores selling weapons. Tulsa World described it thusly: “Thousands of persons….including several hundred women, and men armed with every available weapon in the city taken from every hardware and sporting goods store swarmed1,2…” Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, events were interpreted differently; African Americans wanted to protect a fellow citizen wrongly accused, knowing full well there was a chance a mob of whites could come to lynch him was seen as an insurrection. The sight of them armed brought out whites’ worst fear and worst reflexive reaction. The authorities shared in that reflexive, visceral reaction. Had they defused the situation earlier, by making sure African Americans as well as whites have left the courthouse, a different scenario would have developed.
It’s reported that some participants in the black part of town were inciting people to go to the white part of town to start burning property to fend off burning of their own side by oncoming whites. No less than B. C. Franklin, lawyer and father of famed historian J. H. Franklin, who lived the event said so in his autobiography titled, “My life and an Era.”
Adkison, made a colossal decision in deputizing white volunteers and arming them, in fact giving them a free rein. The rationale was to put down the “negro uprising,” never mind the whole episode started with a white mob assembling in front of the courthouse and bent on punishing a negro who had the gull to assault a white girl. Allegation was synonymous with a guilty verdict and worthy of lynching. The deputies looted downtown Tulsa first and carried everything from two major stores, Bardon’s and Magee’s. This was reported by Tulsa World. A bricklayer, Laurel Buck, would later testify that a sergeant on duty at the police station egged him to “get a gun and get a nigger*.” The National Guard was deployed after the start of the shooting. About fifty men were available and were split to protect several edifices; fewer than twenty were sent to the police station. A power plant substation was under fire and the national Guard did reach it and suffered one casualty at the hands of African Americans.
The shooting went on all night with casualties on both sides. A grotesque incident developed. An African American attached to a car by his feet alive died after the trauma of being dragged through the streets in a mad display of hatred. Another witness, Mary Jones Parrish, would later write, “I had read of the Chicago riot and the Washington trouble, but it didn’t seem possible that prosperous Tulsa, the city which was so peaceful and quiet that morning, could be in the thrall of a great disaster,” in her book, Race Riot 1921.
The mayor of Tulsa, T. D. Evans, was not to be heard of during this entire time; he was the highest ranking official, but he allowed lower-ranking individuals to make crucial decisions. Besides the shooting and the looting, arson occurred. Report has it that the fire chief, R. C. Adler prevented helping any fire coming from the riot zone, cited by Krehbiel. On the other hand, Andrew Smitherman was a leader among the African Americans, and he helped organize the resistance with armed men.
On June 1, 1921 at around five AM, a whistle blew, and folks remembered it as a clarion call for the assault that took place. Without recounting the gory details and minutiae, “…arguments over…details…obscure an irrefutable and essential truth: a terrible retribution was exacted upon Tulsa’s African American community, and the best that can be said of local authorities is that they did not do much to stop it2.” The onslaught included bombing from 6 airplanes**, machine gun, looting of stores, arson of homes and indiscriminate killing of African Americans by an angry mob of whites including law-enforcement officials. A lot of the whites looted first and carried away personal belongings of well-to-do African Americans before setting their homes ablaze. Among some of the victims was the famous physician, A.C. Jackson, gunned down in front of his house at point-blank range with his arms up in surrender. This murder is confirmed in the testimony of his white neighbor, John Oliphant***. A lot of the victims burned to death. Many of the dead included children, women. At the end of the day, an entire neighborhood disappeared, gutted in fire and numerous dead among African Americans. On the subject of airplanes, Parrish would say, “There was a great shadow in the sky, and upon a second look, we discerned that this cloud was caused by fast-approaching aeroplanes …. The enemy…was invading our district, the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium,” in the same book.
*This information is contained in the Oklahoma State Archives, box 25, case 1062.
**This is the only recorded case of a plane involved in a massacre in US history.
***His testimony is part of the Oklahoma State Archives.
In an editorial on June 2, 1921, World stated, “The colored section of the town was wiped out, and a long line of hopeless, destitute, pitiful refugees fled northward from the burning town. The German invasion of Belgium with its awful consequences was no more unjustified or characterized with any greater cruelty.” Adding insult to injury, survivors had to fend for themselves. Many escaped to surrounding cities and those who remained behind were taken by National Guardsmen that had come as reinforcement the morning of June 1 but who didn’t stop the looting and arson even though they could have, to either Convention Hall or McNulty Park. They would be released only if a white person could come and vouch for them. Otherwise, they were then sent to holding areas such as church, high school, fairgrounds.
In the aftermath of the massacre, racial sensibilities came to the fore with abrupt force and heavily influenced policy decision. The initial shock expressed at the loss of lives and the unbecoming act of looting and idea of lynching quickly veered to a narrative of blaming the victims from motley crew of venues: the local papers, preachers’ pulpit, national papers including the NY Times. A variation of the theme of troublemakers among African Americans (called “bad niggers”) disseminating the dangerous notion of equality and mixing of the races were to blame. Admission of Blacks in the military bore some blame for it familiarized them with a potential of parity. Brandishing weapons for self-protection in town was an unforgiven sin. Quickly the idea of reconstruction of Greenwood neighborhood was abandoned. Patricians had another idea. An ad hoc city ruling commission, Public Welfare Board, accepted the proposition advanced by the Real Estate Exchange of purchasing the properties and using the area instead as warehouse and relocating its population to a new area, distant from the whites to avoid mixing of the races, an unacceptable concept. In the end relocation took place but in a haphazard manner and insurance companies refused to pay homeowners for their losses, using a clause of no-coverage in case of riot. Clearly this was a massacre and for the longest period thereafter, the event was mostly not mentioned and if it were, it would be casually referred to as a riot. The event would have to wait seven decades before a commission would be set up to delve into it*.
The real number of dead is still not known for sure and lately there’s renewed interest in finding mass graves. It’s now accepted that up to 300 people died as an estimate. Greenwood street never regained its luster. Some reconstruction took place, but it paled in comparison. A highway built later has split it conveniently, a known measure to restrict economic growth in minority areas. The biggest loss was of talented people because quite a few resided there. A preeminent doctor was killed. For a population of around 11,000, the existence of a hospital was a significant asset. The presence of a very talented physician over time would have resulted in further advance in medical care for society’s benefit. Two very prominent attorneys survived the massacre: B. C. Franklin** and P. A. Chappelle***. Both had stellar careers as residents of Tulsa and their progeny is famous. In the case of B. C. Franklin, his son, John H. Franklin was a renowned scholar, the best coming out of Tulsa, hands down; his resume is very impressive. Since the 1940s, JH Franklin has been writing the very famous encyclopedia, From Slavery to Freedom,
*The state legislature authorized a commission in 1996 for the sole purpose of investigating the riot. Tulsa Race Riot Commission came into existence in 1997. Its final report was published in 2001. Its name was officially changed to Tulsa Massacre Commission in November 2018. John H. Franklin and Scott Ellsworth served as advisors. Commission report is available at: okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf?referringSource=articleShare
**B. C. Franklin and P. A. Chappelle were very instrumental in helping African Americans fight a lot of racist policies in Tulsa, including some outlandish zoning laws.
***P. A. Chappelle has a very successful lineage. One grandson, Carlos Chappelle, became Tulsa’s first African American presiding judge. A great-grandson, Dany Williams, rose to the title of U.S. attorney for Oklahoma Northern District.
cited as reference number 9, now in its tenth edition. He is the type of scholar whose work and life story one ought to be acquainted with. JH Franklin’s son, John W. Franklin, played a very significant role in the development of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D. C.
Other survivors of significance include Olivia J. Hooker11*, the first African American woman to become a Coast Guard. She received a MA from Columbia U., a PhD. from U. of Rochester in Psychology and she served on the faculty of Fordham U. from 1963 to 1985 and was a founding member of American Psychological Association. She died at age 103 in Nov 2018. The last survivor of this massacre died on August 18, 2020, at age 100, the sax player Hal Singer. He was especially popular in Europe and in 1974, he received the distinction of “Chevalier des Arts” awarded by the French government.
Several entrepreneurs lost their investments that they never recouped, nipping a nascent economic engine in the bud. All of this because they were African Americans. The wholesale destruction was blatant, with the seal of impunity in a lose-lose formula. Society would have been better served had this neighborhood been allowed to thrive. Racial animus was so strong that it blinded decision in policy making. The very idea of equality generated such a fear that it overtook common sense.
This massacre joins a long list of similar nefarious events dating back to days of slavery. Hardly a month passes by without a publication and reassessment of another massacre. The names read like an alphabet soup: Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873 during Reconstruction, Elaine in Arkansas in 1919, Rosewood massacre of 1923 to name just a few. They all share the same characteristics, razzia of a black neighborhood, maiming of innocents, looting, burning of their properties with impunity without any intervention of law enforcement authorities to help. Almost invariably the victims are blamed, “They brought it on themselves.” The saddest part of the June 1 massacre is the fact that so many people died for a made-up reason. Sarah sent a letter to the authorities in September of the same year stating she was not pressing charges and Dick was released.
Exploration of past misdeeds is not an exercise to sow discord. It’s rather a way to understand current events since history tends to repeat itself. It’s a very worthwhile attempt to avoid repeating past mistakes and to protect ourselves against modern-day potential ethnic cleansing by exercising the most powerful weapons we have: a proper education and going to the polls. We also need to be careful and not sweep a whole group as villains but learn about coalition-building based on shared interests.
REYNALD ALTEMA, MD
*Olivia J. Hooker, PhD., and several survivors of the massacre founded the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997
- Ellsworth, Scott. Death in a Promised Land: the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
- Krehbiel, Randy. Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre. University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.
- Bobb, Russell. The Great Oklahoma Swindle. University of Nebraska Press, 2020.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. Oxford university Press, 2007.
- Lane, Charles. The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. Henry Holt, NY, 2008.
- Franklin, JH, Higginbotham, EB. From Slavery to Freedom, 10th edition. McGraw Hill, NY, 2021.
- Wilkerson, I. The Warmth of other Suns. Vintage Books, NY, 2010.
- 12. Johnson, JC. Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation. Pegasus Books, NY, 2020.
REYNALD ALTEMA, MD