Story in Art and Mediation
Chapter 3 -- Stories of Tulsa
Following is the third chapter of a six chapter paper. Alice Lovelace is an editor of In Motion Magazine, co-editor of the Art Changes section.
My interest in the study of Conflict Resolution connects with my career as a narrative artist committed to art for social justice and community building. My research explores the telling and receiving of stories rooted in racial conflict. This section of my thesis provides information regarding my choice of the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a research project. Some historians would say 1919 was a pivotal year in the post war era of European American economic growth and land expansion. The depth of White bias resulted in over 80 Black men and women being lynched rioters and the persecution and deportation of over a hundred union and labor organizers. What makes Tulsa unique during this era is the combination of a high death rate and the willful destruction of an entire Black community with the intent of destroying their independent economic and political base of support.
In this chapter, the focus will be on the post World War 1 period to give the reader a sense of events that led up to "The Red Summer" mentality. I will begin in an earlier period in order to place the culture of the American West in context. This approach allows me to cite historical events that give background on the territory that bred the culture that gave rise to the Tulsa riot of 1921.
The Western Territory was home to numerous indigenous and mixed Native Nations. It is possible that some of them descended from the great continental migration of humans between 40,000 and 10,000 BC. Their ancestors would have been the ones to settle what is now Mexico, the Great Basin, or the Pacific Northwest (Miller and Faux, 1997, p. 2). A survey of the population conducted around the 1500's included the Nations of the Nez Perce, Shoshone, Ute, Navajo, and Kiowa. They shared the North America continents with a diverse number of nations and called their home Turtle Island. The Plains Nations had in common was a culture and economy rooted in the lifestyle of the hunter/gatherer. They also shared having conflict with European expansionists.
From the mid 1600's to the late 1700's, western Nations fought in vain to hold on to their land. In the 1800's, European Americans turned their attention to conquering the lands west of the Mississippi. In 1815, President James Madison (1809-1817) introduced the idea that the Eastern Nations be relocated to the western frontier (Miller and Faux, 1997).
As early as 1816, Eastern Nations were being forced by the gun or misled by treaties to cede their land. Nations like the Seminole, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee were unable to defend themselves against the desire for land and economic expansion. Indian Territory was a buffer zone to contain the defeated Nations and push back competition for land from France, Spain, and England. What it meant for the People of Turtle Island was the further, in many cases final, loss of Native cultures and economies. European Americans looked at the western frontier and saw "'free land'...the meeting place between savagery and civilization'" (Grolier, 1996, par. 2). So successful was the myth of free land that "by 1820, all the lands east of the Mississippi had been carved into separate states or territories~ (Grolier, 1996, par. 3).
One of Andrew Jackson's first actions as President [1829- 1837] was to push for passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
After 1848 and the discovery of gold in California, the frontier was extended to the Pacific Coast. In 1854, to accommodate the influx of White settlers, the government simply took some land back from resettled Natives. Free frontier land lured White farmers from the Mississippi Valley and cattlemen from Texas to the new territories. Before long cattlemen drove their massive herds of cattle across Oklahoma Territory to the packinghouses in Kansas. People farmed, practiced a variety of religions, over hunted the buffalo and beaver, and clear-cut the land. Others spread whiskey, disease and guns among the Native Nations, and dispensed their frontier justice (Grolier, 1996). Within Indian Territory, Indian Law only applied to Native people. Before long a situation existed in which Whites considered themselves free of all legal and moral restraints in conduct, politics, or business. In most of their affairs, there was a disregard for the rights of non-Whites (Gates, 1997).
With passage of the Indian Appropriations Act in 1871, no longer would the government negotiate with Native Nations before taking over their lands. With the legal and military victories against Native Nations came European American expansion onto their lands. The process of settling the American West carried with it:
In stories about the exploration of the lands west of the Mississippi River, the names of African explorers are obscure. Yet, their names are found in the stories of early European exploration.
Diego el Negro was a crewman on Columbus' final journey, 1502-1504. Nuflo de Olano was one of thirty blacks with Vasco Nunez de Balboa when he reached the Pacific Ocean and Ferdinando de Soto is known to have brought blacks to the Mississippi River. In 1520 Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez had about 300 blacks in his company when he explored the area now known as Mexico, one of whom planted the first wheat in the new world....Estevanico (Little Stephen), a black with the Spanish expedition.... is believed to have been the first black to set foot in Oklahoma. (Gates, 1997, p. 32)
From the earliest days, Africans were part of the settling of the American West. The wave of African American settlers predates the arrival of Whites. Their immigration dates to the 1830's and in many cases, coincided with the removal of Indians from their ancestral lands in the South. For generations, African Americans had intermarried into Native Nations on both coasts. This was common among the Eastern Nations, especially the Cherokee and Creek, who both owned slaves (Scott Ellsworth, 1982). Many raised themselves to top positions in tribes as the negotiator, or as spokesperson.
During the Civil War and following Reconstruction, after Federal troops pulled out of the South; White violence accounted for the migration west of many Black Americans (Gates, 1997). They also came to Oklahoma from Kansas seeking economic opportunity and acceptance as equals. On the frontier, you might be a stranger, but because of the harsh life and threatening conditions you were not judged so swiftly only by the color of your skin. Instead, people were assumed to be a person of their word.
Oklahoma became know among African Americans as the promised land. At one time, Oklahoma was home to fifty-eight independent African American towns, more than any region of the nation (Gates, 1997).
The Creek Nation, was forced from their remaining lands in Alabama as early as 1816. The Lochapokas [Turtle Clan] of the Creek Nation found a new home in Indian Territory at a site near a large oak tree overlooking the Arkansas River. They named the location "Tallasi" or "Old Town" (Wise, 1997-98, par. one) in honor of their former home on the Talapoosa River. To promote the One Hundred-Year Celebration of the founding of Tulsa, the city published a magazine, Preview (1997) (6). The publication details how by 1836 the relocated Native Nations rekindled their ceremonial fire, the corn planted, and the cattle and horses tended. It is said that around that oak tree, the first council meeting was held and Chief Opothle [Archie] Yahola presided (p. 7 see also Wise, 1997/1998, par. 2).
By the time the Civil War came to Indian Territory, Native Nations were fighting each other, divided in their support of the Confederacy and the Union. Following a series of battles with Confederate troops and supporters, the Creek were forced to abandon Tallasi and seek refuge in Kansas. "A United States census taken in 1867 showed that the Tulsa area had a population of 264 Creek Indians" (Wise, Fall 1997-98, par. 3). Tallasi was incorporated as the City of Tulsa on January 17, 1897. The first permanent White settlements appeared in "the early 1880's" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 8).
For native people, this meant losing great tracts of land to Whites through marriage or corrupt laws. It was the dual blessing and curse of the railroad and the discovery of oil that eventually made Tulsa a boomtown.
People freely shared their stories with me about local history. I constantly sought insight from my host, Georgia Williams (7), about buildings, street names, or items in the newspapers. When I asked people to tell me about Oklahoma, two stories consistently came out. These two stories set the economy and culture of the American West in context. The first story was about the origins of Oklahoma's nickname, the Sooner State. The rush for land in Oklahoma Territory was set for noon, April 20, 1899. On the night before the land rush a group of White men sneaked out of camp in order to secure for them the best land. After hiding out all morning, they simply emerged at noon to register their claims legally.
The nickname stuck because they came sooner (8) than everyone else did. They cheated and won. To this day, the Sooner name is celebrated.
The second story was about how Oklahoma City became the State Capital around the time of the land rush of 1889; Guthrie was little more than a camp.
The status of government seat fell on Guthrie.
In the story told to me, it was not long before a group of White men sneaked into Guthrie under cover of night and stole the artifacts of statehood-the seal of office, state constitution, and records. The next day, it was announced that the state seat was now Oklahoma City. The deed was accepted without action against the perpetrators. Both stories suggest Tulsa inherited a culture of might over right.
Native people are not the only group that has suffered because of Oklahoma's frontier mentality and culture of mob justice. At the end of World War 1, African American men arrived home from points along the European front. The headlines at home declared them heroes and in small towns throughout Europe they were hailed as victors. These soldiers came home with an awareness that all Whites did not feel towards them or treat them the way Whites did in the United States. In 1917, Black soldiers arrived home expecting respect and better treatment after fighting a war to free the European world. Instead, they were met with a series of vicious riots that resulted in the destruction of Black owned property and the lynching of African-American men. In the years before and following the First World War, newspaper and book publishers printed graphic tales about Black men as rapists and thieves (Reuter, 1970).
The release in 1915 of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation established an American narrative on race that cast African Americans as undesirable and depraved parasites. The more lurid the stories grew, the more often they resulted in violence. "Black homes in white neighborhoods were burned, and lynchings went from 38 in 1917 to 83 in 1919" (Granger, 1995, par. 1). Across the nation, over twenty-five riots were reported in 1919 alone (Bennett, 1982; Miller & Faux, 1997). Three hundred and six lynchings were recorded between 1915 and 1919 (Reuter, 1970). Veterans and their families were not the only ones being targeted by White violence. Nationally, African American workers were losing ground. Under President Woodrow Wilson [1913-1921], "many black postal workers lost their jobs....and the number of black police declined" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 18). Complaints of a tight economy and the added rhetoric of White supremacist literature like The Passing of the Great Race," (10) fueled emotions that resulted in riots in Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, and Pennsylvania (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 17).
"Black leaders warned of a race war; white politicians cried, 'Bolshevism!'" (Granger, 1995, p. 1). Labor organizers, especially those leading labor strikes, were attacked with inflammatory and false charge. Labor organizers, socialists and communists were indiscriminately rounded up, tried for sedition in secret court hearings, and then deported. The issues of race and economics were entwined (Granger, 1995).
The resistance to African American economic progress and the bloody riots were linked to the labor agitation improvements in wages and working conditions. Both became symbolized by the color red. Hence the wave of national violence came to be known as "The Red Summer" or "The Red Year" (Granger, 1995, p. 1).
During this time in Tulsa, oil was being discovered, and creating new millionaires, overnight. African American success in Tulsa did not come directly from oil or the railroad. Their opportunity came from taking advantage of the need to feed, clothe and house non-White workers, visitors, and tourists. African American entrepreneurship gave birth to an impressive array of business and success stories. In Tulsa, this was evident in an African American community known as Greenwood. Two such examples are J. B. Stradford, a lawyer, and Simon Berry. Berry introduced public transportation to North Tulsa by way of a jitney service that saved Blacks the difficulties of having to choose walking in the mud or walking along the railroad tracks (Gates, 1997).
The Greenwood community had shops and services that supported elegant lifestyles and homes. From dress and hat shops, banks and hotels, restaurants, movie houses, ice cream parlors, to drug stores Greenwood was a busy shopping district (Gates, 1997). Greenwood also boasted two newspapers, thirteen churches, two schools, a hospital, two theaters "and a black public library" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 14).
Scott Ellsworth (1982) is considered an expert on the 1921 riot. His research points to the Tulsa press as an instigator in the riot. Most notably the Daily Tribune, believed to be run by members of the Klan. The editor chooses to described Greenwood as "nigger town" or when he wanted to be especially insulting as "Little Africa" (Ellsworth, 1982, pg. 4 see also Larsen, 1997, p. 49).
Throughout Tulsa, there were attacks on workers and a growing wave of White supremacy that led to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. "The Klan was very strong...particularly in Tulsa, which boasted by the time of the riot a 'thriving chapter'" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 20). Regardless of these attitudes, by 1921, North Tulsa was a boomtown of social and economic accomplishments by the African American community. The events of 1921 left in their wake a community shattered by fire, murder and looting. Whites perpetrated these acts in and around Tulsa against the community of Greenwood.
Tension had been building for some time, then came the catalyst for the riot, a story in the Daily Tribune which accused nineteen year old Dick Rowland of attempted rape of Sarah Page, in the elevator at a downtown business. The article was peppered with inflammatory, and untrue statements that charged Rowland "had attacked the girl, scratched her hands and face and tore her clothes (Ellsworth, 1982, pg. 46 see also Larson, 1997). The paper also ran an editorial of the opinion that Rowland ought to be hanged.
African American men, many veterans of the First World War, responded to the threat by going to the police station with the intention of aiding the small police force to fend off lynchers. The Black veterans knew that the jail was not immune from lynching given the many incidents in the years leading up to 1921. They were holding young Rowland in the same jail cell that held Roy Belton only one year earlier. Belton was spirited from the jail atop the Courthouse and lynched by a White mob. The fact that Belton was White only deepened the Black communities fear for young Rowland for if they could get so overheated to lynch their own, what would they care about young Rowland (Ellsworth, 1982 see also Larsen, 1997).
At the station, the Police refused their assistance. Shouts were traded between the groups of Blacks and Whites who had assembled at the police station. Next, someone fired a shot and the riot was on. The local police force was insufficient to exert control as truckloads of White men began to arrive in Tulsa until the mob grew to "more than 10,000 armed and crazed whites" (Larsen, 1997, p. 46).
The head of Tulsas National Guard was reported to have telephoned the Oklahoma National Guard to report that things were bad, before any violence broke out. Meanwhile, the Police Chief assured the Governor that his people "could manage the situation" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 53). Following a series of confused communications between the Police, Mayor, and Governor, it was finally decided to send in the Oklahoma National Guard. While the City awaited their arrival, thousands of armed Whites ransacked downtown stores for guns and weapons and set about torching and looting the African American community.
A few Tulsa Guardsmen began to make their way to the Courthouse around 11:00 P.M. on the night of May 31. The Guard arrived "by train at about 9:15 A.M." (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 61) on the morning of June 1. Adjunct General Charles Barrett was in command. Years later, he would write about that day.
In spite of this image, the Guard did not stop White looters, instead they set up camp, prepared their breakfast. Next, "they also began to imprison any black Tulsans who had not yet been interned" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 61).
The riot resulted in a reported four thousand African American men being detained for three days in internment camps (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 71). Thirty-five blocks of Greenwood were destroyed, starting with the business district and winding down though the poorer neighborhoods. The number of dead has always been difficult to place because of the dumping of bodies in the Arkansas River and the prohibition on funerals following the riot. Estimates of the dead ranged "from 27 to over 250" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 66).
According to Ellsworth (1982) eyewitness reports support a higher count of those dead. A magazine article written by Walter White [as cited in Ellsworth] (11) reports that during an interview with officials at the Salvation Army he was told they had fed thirty seven grave diggers on two days and twenty on two others.
Another eyewitness reported that someone positioned a machine gun atop of a building and set about firing into the African American community causing people to flee into the hills. Private planes were reported flying over the community "dropping fire from the sky" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 63). The only -newspaper to validate this eyewitness story was The Chicago Defender which "reported that black neighborhoods in Tulsa were bombed from the air by a private plane equipped with dynamite" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 63).
No European American was ever arrested for the devastation to life and property during the riot in Tulsa. The only individual ever indicted was J. B. Stradford, an influential African American businessperson who went to the police station that day as a peacemaker. He was forced to flee and never returned to Tulsa. Just as Whites refused to accept responsibility for the death and destruction caused by the riot, they also could not admit the degree to which Black Tulsans stood up to the violence. Evidence supports that many more Whites died during the 1921 riot than were reported. Some Whites were killed by their own, others by African American men defending their family and community (Ellsworth, 1982).
Much of the blame for the riot was directed at the African American men who were forced to try to protect their community because they had tried to protect young Dick Rowland from being lynched.
What followed in the aftermath of the riot in Tulsa was in economic and political ways more damaging than the actions of the rioters. The City, according to the evidence, appears to have entered a conspiracy to institutionalize economic and political instability in Tulsa's African American community. The unofficial word went out to individuals working for the City that while the Red Cross could accept cash donations for the refugees of the riot, no contributions were to be accepted by the City on behalf of the African American community (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 83).
Efforts by individuals and organizations outside of Tulsa to assist the African American community were met by City officials with a "we are taking care of our own" attitude. The all White Chamber of Commerce and the Executive Welfare Committee spoke of the obligation to help restore the Greenwood community to financial and economic independence it enjoyed before the riot. After making sympathetic statements to the press, both organizations decided that no "'help, financial or otherwise, be accepted to reconstruct the Negro district'" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 84).
Restrictive laws and punitive building codes were passed in an effort to thwart redevelopment in Greenwood.
Others thought the site would make a good place for a central train station. Even in ruin, Greenwood, located at the axis of three railroads, was prime development property.
The minutes of the Tulsa City Commission meetings from June 14, 1921, to June 6, 1922, reveal that in excess of $1.8 million in claims against the city were filed with - and subsequently disallowed by - the city commissioners" (Ellsworth, 1982, p. 70)
In the days following the riot, White charity extended to bringing coffee and sandwiches to the prisoners and the donation of luggage for the homeless.
Adding insult to injury, the refugees of the riot were issued green cards.
Relief efforts were minimal after the first few days following the riot. Only "the Red Cross and the 'Colored Citizens relief Committee and East End Welfare Board'" looked after the victims legal needs and comfort "to the best of their ability" (p. 79). In addition, the City insisted that those most affected by the riot be used as forced labor to assist in the clean up and maintenance of the camps (Ellsworth, 1982).
The extensive damage, the loss of physical and intellectual resources, and the additional cost of reconstruction resulting from restrictive fire ordinances, weakened Greenwood's economic stability. Despite these roadblocks, Black Tulsa did rebuild with assistance from other African Americans and some Whites. "Black Wall Street" opened for business again.
A few eyewitnesses lived long enough to see their re-building efforts destroyed by the construction of an interstate highway through the middle of the neighborhood. The urban renewal programs of the 1960's and 1970's would destroy the remaining business in Greenwood. (Ellsworth, 1982,pp. 108-109).
Tulsa is the county seat of Tulsa County. The City had a population of 404,431 in 1997. Tulsa continues to have a strong economy, despite the oil crash of the 1980's, with health care being a leading factor. The situation of Greenwood today is reflected in figures provided by the Internet site Tulsa City Data.
Tulsa had a violent race history preceding the events of 1921. Nevertheless, it is this encounter that people point to as the destruction of an economically independent community. The riot and subsequent actions of the rioters who held economic and political power over Tulsa robbed Greenwood of a sense of safety, economic independence, and wealth, long after it was over. The result was to disrupt the cohesion and stability of the community. Even more disturbing, was the invented history that sprung from the White community to re-tell the riot story. Ellsworth (1982) points out that in the "local white oral tradition" there was an effort to 'remember' their history...as that which they 'would have liked to have been'" (p. 105).
In the next chapter, I will discuss the design of my research project. From the beginning, I made it clear to the community in Tulsa that part of my research was to explore the stories and attitudes of Black and White Tulsans, as they related to the riot of 1921. Tulsa offered me an opportunity to test concepts I was developing in my conflict resolution studies about the telling and receiving of stories and how we use story in our culture.
Published in In Motion Magazine January 20, 2002.
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