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Date: Wed, 8 Sep 1999 22:43:36 -0500 (CDT)
From: Bob_Monroe@Mountainlake.pbs.org (Bob Monroe)
Subject: Seventy-eight years later, Tulsa re-examines deadly race riot
Article: 75419
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.26812.19990909091643@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

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Seventy-eight years later, Tulsa re-examines deadly race riot

By Rick Montgomery, Kansas City Star, 7 September 1999

TULSA, Okla. -- Nobody knows how many died.

Was it three dozen or 300?

In 1921, when 35 blocks of a black district burned in what may have been America's worst race riot, the shamed city of Tulsa settled on the lower body count. Today, some people re-examining the riot lean toward the higher.

Tulsa is looking back, with pained expressions, at that week in which hatred, horror and denial overtook a booming oil town.

An 11-member Tulsa Race Riot Commission, formed by the state of Oklahoma, is fielding testimonials from dozens of persons who fled the fires that wiped out what Booker T. Washington called the Negro Wall Street, Tulsa's vibrant Greenwood district.

Clyde Eddy, 88, stands in the sunshine at the paupers' section of Oaklawn Cemetery. He sweeps his arm across an expanse of green. This is where he saw the hole, the retired engineer says. And over there, the big crates.

"It was three days after the riot. A hot day, like today," says Eddy, who was 10 at the time. "My cousin and I were walking to my aunt's house. Right in through here, we saw these big crates. They were randomly spaced; I'd say six or seven....

"We raised the lid of the first box and saw three bodies inside. We went to the next and saw four bodies. They were black men."

For 78 years, Eddy, a white man, told his story to friends and family. But the Tulsa establishment would hear none of it. Schoolteachers rarely even mentioned the riot, much less the rumors of mass graves or of black corpses supposedly stacked on trucks. "It was a hush-hush deal," Eddy says.

Until now. As Eddy paces through the cemetery, Eddie Faye Gates of the Race Riot Commission follows closely to catch every word. Another volunteer records Eddy on videotape.

He continues:

The largest crate was the size of an upright piano. Eddy and his cousin tried to look inside, but a worker told them to beat it. So the boys watched from behind a fence as laborers continued to dig the hole. After a few minutes the boys walked away.

"We hope to take this episode out of the category of something to be ashamed of, and to face it, and to see it as a lesson for us all," Gates said.

Questions the commission hopes to answer:

Who was responsible for the riot? A grand jury in 1921 pinned blame on black militants and a lethargic police force. Today the evidence points to trigger-happy white mobs, even the local power structure.

Are the black survivors who rebuilt their community entitled to financial reparation?

And, finally, how many died?

That question brought state archaeologist Bob Brooks to Oaklawn Cemetery earlier this summer. Using three electronic detection devices, Brooks scanned the ground where Eddy claimed to have seen the big crates.

Two of the detectors picked up something. Four to 6 feet deep. Below an unmarked patch of grass covering 1,000 square feet.

"We can't say they're individuals," Brooks said. "But something's down there."

Pending approval from the city, excavation of the site could begin before 1999 ends.


It is fitting, historians say, that the city's soul-searching would come at the close of a century in which Tulsa became Tulsa.

In 1900 it was a ramshackle village of only 1,340 residents. They called it Tulsey town. But the discovery of oil in 1901 changed everything. The population erupted to more than 18,000 by 1910 and nearly 75,000 by 1920.

Oklahoma became a state in 1907, a "promised land" for whites and blacks alike. But lawmakers immediately decreed that the races be segregated. For Tulsa, that meant blacks would shop, go to school and live in the district just north of downtown.

For a time both races prospered. Oil-rich Tulsa touted one of the highest per-capita incomes in the nation. And the Greenwood district -- Little Africa, as whites dubbed it -- more than held its own. Its storefronts, law firms, theaters and clubs were run by African-Americans serving African-Americans.

Dick Rowland lived there.

In the early 1920s, he dropped out of high school to shine the shoes of white men downtown, where the tips were known to be extraordinary.

On May 30, 1921, Rowland, 19, left his shoeshine stand to go to a rest room for blacks on the top floor of the Drexel Building. A white girl, Sarah Page, 17, operated the elevator.

What happened between them still is unclear.

Scott Ellsworth, author of Death In a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, cites accounts suggesting that Rowland probably stumbled or stepped on Page's foot. Police thought otherwise and arrested him for attempting to assault Page.

The front page of the May 31 Tulsa Tribune carried the headline "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator."

This article and a mysterious back-page editorial in the late edition, which allegedly called for a lynching, have become central to the riot probe. Both were neatly torn out before the Tribune microfilmed its back issues for posterity. Researchers uncovered the front-page story years ago, but they never found the inflammatory editorial, if one existed.

"It's the Holy Grail of the race riot," says Heath Henry, Tulsa Historical Society archivist.

Minutes after the afternoon paper hit the streets, a white mob showed up at the courthouse, where Rowland was held. Turn him over, they said. Sheriff Willard McCullough refused.

Black residents gathered on Greenwood Avenue to discuss how they might protect Rowland. They armed themselves. They, too, appeared at the courthouse. A black police officer, Barney Cleaver, assured them that Rowland was safe. Go on home, he said. And for a moment, the crowd began to disperse.

Nobody knows who fired the first shot.

There was a scuffle. A burst of gunfire. Panic. "The race war was on, and I was powerless to stop it," McCullough later said.

Violence raged all night and through the next day. Angry whites descended on the Greenwood district. The first fire broke out an hour after midnight. By dawn white men filled cars that roared down the streets, "guns blazing indiscriminately," writes Ellsworth, who is white.

Gov. James Robertson dispatched the National Guard and declared martial law. By noon all of Greenwood was in flames, including the new Mount Zion Baptist Church, where armed blacks were barricaded. One thousand surrounding homes, 31 restaurants, 24 groceries and eight medical offices burned to the ground.

The Kansas City Star sent a reporter as soon as the first reports hit the wire services. "Races at War," the newspaper's early afternoon edition declared June 1, 1921. "Death Toll is 50?"

A later edition: "Death Toll Reaches 74," nine whites and 65 blacks.

The Star's final edition that day told of a city "blood-drenched and blackened by incendiary fires."

"Major Charles W. Daley of the police force this afternoon estimated the dead at 175. He believes a number of Negroes were burned to death when their homes were swept by fire."

Confusion over the casualty count persists.

Official sources eventually set the death toll at 36. Local history books have cited figures ranging from 33 to "some nine whites and 68 blacks." Several books on Tulsa history ignored the riot altogether.

Ellsworth and others working with the riot commission now think the toll may have reached 300. They base this on a variety of incomplete records and unconfirmed reports. They are dealing with nearly eight decades of hearsay and horror stories.

Even in the days after the riot, the Tulsa World acknowledged rumors of widespread carnage and cover-up:

"There are people who will always believe that truck loads of Negro bodies were dumped into the Arkansas River or buried in a mythical trench or piled into a building which was later set on fire....There is not a shred of truth" to the rumors.

This much is certain: In the riot's wake, thousands of black Tulsans were rounded up and interned at sites throughout the city, ostensibly for their own safety. Countless others jammed into trains or automobiles and fled for good.

The black exodus included the family of Joyce Walker Hill, who has lived in Kansas City, Kan., ever since. She was 11 when the riot occurred.

Her father's six-bedroom home was destroyed. Her mother was seven months pregnant.

Last month the son her mother was carrying traveled to Tulsa with Hill to attend a public meeting of the riot commission. "I wondered why it took so long to find out these things," Hill said.

"We just never talked about it. All we knew is that the house burned down. I guess my father thought that talking about it would just frighten us."

Rowland, the young man whose arrest sparked the melee, was said to have moved to the Kansas City area, as well. The assault case was dropped when alleged victim Page declined to press charges.

Fretful months

Essie Beck, 85, eases herself into a Victorian chair beneath a chandelier at the Greenwood Cultural Center. She gently sets her cane against her thigh.

The camcorder begins taping. Beck's testimony, along with accounts of 64 other known survivors of the riot, will be reviewed by the commission.

"Being a little girl, I was frightened," Beck tells interviewer Gates. "We had to run to try to stay out of the way (of the violence). We'd hide behind trees...hide behind gardenia bushes, hide behind little rocks....

"There were airplanes in the sky that seemed to be shooting and dropping things on the rooftops.... We were ducking and dodging to get to the park. My mother was able to keep five children together. Of course, we were crying."

Her account of aircraft is echoed by other survivors. Historian Dick Warner says it is not known who manned the planes. Also uncertain is whether they were attacking or just flying reconnaissance.

Beck recalls the fretful months that followed, when her family lived in a Red Cross tent on the ashes of their neighborhood.

"Yes, yes, there were nightmares. Lots of nightmares."

Kinney Booker is 86.

"My mother and four brothers and sisters were up in the attic," the retired English teacher says. "We knew there was shooting and killing going on outside.

"We heard some men come into the house and say to my father, `...Do you have a gun?' "

The next thing Booker says he heard were Papa's pleas -- "Please don't set my house on fire" -- as he was taken away and led to an internment camp.

The intruders torched the place, anyway. Booker and his family managed to escape.

"Soon as we got outside, my sister said to me -- she was 6 -- `Kinney, is the whole world on fire?' I said, `I don't know, baby, but we're in lots of trouble.' That scene I'll remember forever. Pretty horrible to see."

Tulsa's story isn't all horrible.

Sympathetic whites, especially those in the Red Cross, fed and dressed the wounds of black refugees. A white oil tycoon who employed Booker's father as a driver helped reunite and shelter the family.

"Those kinds of things help you understand that all white people weren't evil," Booker says.

The people of Greenwood proved resilient. Hundreds rebuilt, with no help from the city. In fact, city officials tried to convert the burned-out area into an industrial park. The Tulsa Tribune in 1921 reported that, because of the proposed building requirements, "it is believed impossible that the Negroes will again build homes there."

The Greenwood district is still alive in 1999. Ironically, the Tulsa Tribune is out of business.

And the rest of the city is finally talking about an event that past generations -- white and black -- declined to discuss aloud.

In 1971 the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce refused to publish a 50th anniversary story about the riot. Author Ed Wheeler gave the article to a regional magazine, Impact, co-owned by a black Tulsan named Don Ross. According to Ross, "both blacks and whites got on my case for causing trouble. I had violated the conspiracy of silence going on for 50 years."

Ross, now a state representative, in 1996 drafted the bill creating the riot commission. He says the response has been "overwhelmingly wonderful." A story told only in whispers when he was a Tulsa teen in the 1950s has drawn worldwide press.

"If nothing else comes of this, the most laudable thing is that we're willing to confront the past," he says. "It was my generation that had to tell the story."

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