From Tue Feb 13 07:40:21 2001
From: Abayomi Azikiwe <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Witness To Disaster
Precedence: bulk
Date: Tue, 13 Feb 2001 06:11:11 -0500 (EST)

Witness To Disaster

By Scott Richardson, Bloomington Pantagraph, 11 February 2001

Julia Duff grew up in the Twin Cities, earning an education degree from Illinois State Normal University.

Being black, she was not allowed to teach in white class- rooms in McLean County during the years surrounding World War I, so she became part of the migration of educated black men and women to larger cities where opportunities were greater.

Duff chose Tulsa, Okla., then a prosperous oil boomtown. Tall and charming with a gift for putting students at ease, she taught home economics at the all-black Booker T. Washington High School in the city’s segregated Greenwood section, named for the main street that ran through it.

While Bloomington-Normal taught Duff her earliest lessons about racism, Tulsa taught her about racial hate and violence.

She survived the Tulsa Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Riot, when armed whites invaded Greenwood on June 1, 1921. Estimates of the dead range from 38 to 300. More than 35 square blocks were burned. Black veterans who had just returned from war-torn Europe didn’t see as much destruction on the battlefield as they did that day in their own neighborhood.

Alverta’s letter

Why, oh, why do we have so much trouble, wrote Julia’s sister, Alverta, in a letter she penned to a relative after the badly shaken Julia returned home to Normal.

Julia is here, read the letter published in a black Midwestern weekly newspaper. (She) came yesterday ... all she had (was) in her traveling bag.

Her sister recounted in the letter what Julia said happened the day of the riot: She was driven out of Mrs. Smart’s with Mrs. Smart and another roomer there at the point of four guns. They were told to drop their traveling bags and Julia refused. They told her three times to drop it; the other women did and she told them she would not. One brute told her she’d drop it or he’d shoot her and she told him to shoot then. ... But she was so scared she didn’t have the sense to know she was in so much danger of losing her life.

A policeman intervened. Duff kept the bag.

He said ’March’ and she marched with the others with those dogs at their heels with guns drawn on them, the letter read.

Historical document

I consider this letter one of the great historical documents of the 20th century, said Paul Lee, director of Best Efforts Inc., a research service based in Highland Park, Mich. The firm, which specializes in the recovery, preservation and presentation of black history and culture, has provided research and consulting for major movies and television series, including Malcolm X by Spike Lee (no relation) and PBS’s The American Experience.

Duff’s letter is serving as the foundation for an upcoming article in Essence magazine and for a film documentary Paul Lee’s company is producing on the Tulsa violence.

America has long been scarred by disasters like the so-called Tulsa Race Riot, said Lee, who will speak later this month in the Twin Cities as part of Black History Month. Journalists, historians and social scientists have long struggled to meaningfully describe their scale and impact. This is why her story is so important—Julia put a human face on it.

The letter was signed only E.A. with a postscript from Julia. But Lee, with help from historian and riot expert Scott Ellsworth, identified a Julia Duff as a teacher on the staff at Booker T. Washington High School.

More investigation led researchers to Bloomington-Normal. Information provided by Greg Koos, director of the McLean County Historical Society, led to the conclusion the letter was written by Julia’s sister to an aunt who apparently made it available for publication. The editor, they figured, probably decided not to fully identify the authors to prevent reprisals.

Violence not isolated

Tulsa was not an isolated incident. But Ellsworth, author of Death in a Promised Land—The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, said it was the worst of many during the first 20 years of the 20th century. A similar event in Springfield gave rise to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1908. A riot rocked East St. Louis in 1917. Historians refer to the Red Summer to describe April through October of 1919 when white mobs assaulted black enclaves 26 times in cities from Charleston, S.C., to Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Urban centers had become powder kegs. Black men tasted democracy and equality in uniform overseas and were no longer willing to step aside, Ellsworth said. During the war, employment recruiters had traveled into the South to encourage blacks to move to northern industrial centers where labor was needed. When whites returned from the war, they found themselves—for the first time—competing with blacks for jobs and housing, he said.

The period also saw the nation swept by a wave of Americanism, a brand of anti-immigrant fervor that also affected relations with blacks. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival.

Meanwhile, Tulsa was riding high. Fueled by the discovery of oil, the city’s population soared from 1,000 in 1900 to 10,000 in 1910 and 100,000 by 1920. Ten percent was black. A vibrant, but separate, black society evolved. Duff lived in an upper-middle-class black area, where teachers boarded with black doctors and lawyers. Neighbors described her as a good Christian woman, said Ellsworth.

How the riot started

The fuse to the riot was lit May 30, 1921. Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoeshine, was accused of accosting 17- year-old Sarah Page, a white girl who operated an elevator in a downtown building. Ellsworth said no one is sure if Rowland merely stumbled into Page while boarding her elevator, or if they had a secret relationship that had soured. Regardless, police jailed Rowland the next day. The Tulsa Tribune ran a front page story proclaiming a black man had tried to rape a white woman and an editorial hinted of a lynching at the courthouse that night.

No black had ever been hung by a mob in Tulsa, and several black men, including veterans, vowed Rowland would not be the first. Armed, they went to the courthouse to offer assistance to police to protect Rowland from 1,000 white men gathered outside. Words were exchanged, a shot was fired, and a running gun battle ensued as the blacks retreated. By dawn the next morning, thousands of armed whites encircled Greenwood. There were drive-by shootings. Arsonists set fires. Blacks were herded into the streets.

She (Julia) said she was awakened about 4 a.m., the letter reads. Mrs. S. came to her room and told her to dress—there was something wrong for there were soldiers all around, and she looked out her window and saw them driving the men out of the houses in Detroit (Avenue). ... before she got everything (packed) they heard footsteps on their steps and there were six out there and ordered Mr. Smart to march, hands up, out of the house. ...

All women ... were first driven out and over to the high school ... Later, after all the men were rounded up they were taken up to Convention Hall. ... One poor woman who was pregnant had tried to walk out of Tulsa and was ten miles out when some of the dogs marched her and the others back and up to Convention Hall and when she got there she had the baby right at the entrance. Just think of it! ...

It looks that He (God) permits awful sorrows and sufferings to befall us. But at that He is merciful. She didn’t know of any women or children being killed or mistreated badly. And in the (East) St. Louis riot they say they took babies and small children and brained them against telegraph posts.

The aftermath

In the riot’s aftermath, blacks had to have a white person vouch for them to win their freedom. A white school super- intendent arrived to speak on behalf of the black teachers, including Duff.

Pictures taken in the first hours after the massacre depict charred remains of black men. About 1,000 homes were destroyed. Only the shells of a few commercial buildings still stood. The high school was spared. The American Red Cross erected tent cities for the survivors.

The Tulsa Tribune editorial that talked of a lynching disappeared from copies in the newspaper’s morgue.

In the end, Rowland was released after Page refused to press charges. No charges were ever filed against whites in connection with the violence.

When the high school reopened in the fall, Duff was there. A young man who would soon be a student was John Hope Franklin, the distinguished black historian who chaired a national committee on race under President Clinton. Franklin was 6 when the massacre occurred. His father, a lawyer, was in Tulsa establishing a law practice and preparing to move the family there from the all-black town of Rentiesville, Okla. It was a month before he made it back to Rentiesville. His office destroyed, he had stayed in Tulsa to work from a tent to file lawsuits against the city on behalf of riot victims.

In an interview, Franklin, of Durham, N.C,, recalled years of rallies to raise money to resurrect the upper floors of churches, and rebuild businesses and homes.

Race relations calmed quickly after the violence, which Franklin interpreted as a very serious manifestation of guilt.

I don’t think the white people wanted this to occur again, he said.

Years later, after the NBC Today show carried a segment on the 75th anniversary of the riot, the Oklahoma legislature named a commission to decide if reparations were needed. Its final report is due this month.

A commission consultant, Ellsworth said unconfirmed reports still circulate of blacks buried in mass graves.

Duff returns to Illinois

Eventually, Duff returned to Illinois. She taught at the Geneva School for Girls until she retired and returned to the home her father built at 107 Poplar St. in Normal. She lived there with Alverta, who had been a housekeeper in the boyhood home of Adlai Stevenson II, the former Illinois governor, two-time Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Alverta Duff died in 1968.

Julia lived until age 89, dying in 1984. In a 1972 oral history interview, she only mentioned that she had once taught in Tulsa. Other than in the letter, she apparently never talked about what she had seen.

I don’t know what would be best for me—to express my feelings, running like someone mad or screaming, read one of two postscripts she added to the letter written so many years earlier. All I can say is that it was horrible. ... I’ve got not a thing left but my bag and suit. All my clothes were destroyed or stolen. I can’t write any more. ... although I saw so many horrible things.

It was signed, Love to all, Julia.