Section 2: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
Image from the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society.
In 1921, one of the nation’s worst race massacres destroyed the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of Black Tulsans. The tragic events took countless homes and businesses and led to the destruction of one of the largest, most affluent and prosperous Black communities in America.
“Truth. The truth. Our truth. When we seek it, claim it, and recount it, we are far less likely, in this the realm of our racial history, to repeat it.”1
- Hannibal B. Johnson
“During the immediate postwar years, Tulsa—a city with a noteworthy reputation for lawlessness, lynching, and racial violence—became a tinderbox as a result of postwar social and economic dislocation. Rising racial tensions, fueled by white newspaper sensationalism and threats of an attempted lynching, resulted in an explosion of devastating violence that left some 35-40 square blocks of Greenwood’s residential area in smoking ruins, and nearly 9,000 African Americans homeless. Virtually every structure in the Greenwood commercial district was destroyed, and property damage was estimated at nearly $1.5 million. Although the exact number of riot-related casualties is difficult to determine, records indicate that more than 700 persons were injured and estimates of deaths ranged between 36 and 300.”2
1. Johnson, H. B. (2020). Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma (Illustrated ed.). Pages 1, 5. Eakin Press.
2. United States, Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconnaissance Survey. Pages 1-2. Government Printing Office, 2005.
The early 1900s “witnessed one of the greatest periods of racial violence in American history as whites sought to reestablish an ironclad system of white supremacy following the African American surge toward equality during Reconstruction.”1 It didn’t help that “racial tensions in Tulsa were aggravated by economic competition between whites and African Americans.”2 Despite all this, and increased KKK activity throughout Oklahoma, the events that unraveled in the spring of 1921 and the way they escalated were unprecedented.
By May 1921, Dick Rowland was 19 years old, had dropped out of Booker T. Washington High School and was working at a white-owned, white-patronized shoe shining parlor on Main Street. Not allowed to use the parlor’s restrooms, the white owner arranged for his Black employees to use facilities on the top floor of the nearby Drexel building. That is why Rowland entered the Drexel building’s elevator that day. The elevator operator was a white woman, 17-year-old Sarah Page.
Accounts of what happened next vary. The standard rendition is that a clerk in or nearby the Drexel building heard a scream shortly after Rowland entered the elevator, then saw Rowland flee. The clerk found Page, who appeared distressed, called the police and gave them a statement. Rowland was taken into custody the next day.
The elevator incident was quickly sensationalized by a white-operated paper, The Tulsa Tribune, which ran a front page article on May 31 with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” Several citizens also recalled a Tribune editorial explicitly calling for a lynch mob.
Even in segregated Tulsa, it was rumored that Page and Rowland were romantically involved. One survivor, Veneice Dunn Sims, lived near Rowland’s adoptive parents and knew the family well. Sims recalled Page visiting the house where Rowland lived: “After the riot, we heard that Rowland and Page met up and lived together as man and wife in Kansas City, Missouri.”3 In September, three months after the massacre, Rowland had his day in court; the complainant, Page, declined to appear. The district attorney dismissed the case.
Still, it’s clear white Tulsans were primed for mob violence in the spring of 1921, especially after Sheriff Woolley and Police Chief Gustafson did not reprove the violent lynching of a white man, Roy Belton, who confessed to the murder of a white cab driver one year prior. Though Woolley and Gustafson condemned mob violence, both openly stated that Belton’s murder was a benefit to society and the city.4
So, Black Tulsans knew the law would not protect Rowland. As a white mob mobilized to force Rowland from the courthouse where he was being held, Black Tulsan leaders convened and made plans to counteract the intended carnage.
Riot to Massacre
As new research, discussion and perspectives of Tulsa’s past circulate among the public, describing what happened as a “race riot” has been widely determined evasive and unclear. For one, it was not the victims who dubbed this event a riot but the perpetrators. Furthermore, many believe designating the riot as such meant insurance companies did not have to pay benefits to the Greenwood victims.
On the other hand, some feel the word “massacre” implies an entirely one-sided fight, but Greenwood residents fought hard to defend their community. It was not a lack of resistance that lost Black Tulsans the onslaught, but their being outnumbered and outgunned.1
Still, when the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission updated their name to reflect the new language, other organizations and institutions followed suit. In March 2021, the Library of Congress responded to this discourse by changing the 1921 Tulsa Race “Riot” headings to “Massacre.”
Many of the resources used in this exhibit were published before any widespread conversation of changing the descriptor from “Riot” to “Massacre” entered the mainstream. Specific quotes naming the Tulsa disaster as a “riot” have been kept for reference and accuracy.
1. Marshell, K. (2020, May 31). Tulsa Race Massacre: For years it was called a riot. Not anymore. Here is how it changed. Tulsa World.
Timeline of Events
There is a timeline of events available in TCCL's digital collection and produced by the Oklahoma Historical Society and published in the report:
State of Oklahoma, Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Feb. 28, 2001.
Tulsa’s official response to the Massacre, recorded in the City’s Commission meeting minutes, placed blame on the victims. “Of eighty-eight indictments returned against alleged participants of the riot” when trials began in December 1921, “seventy-four were against Negroes.”1 Attorney B.C. Franklin’s office was burned during the Massacre, but he and his associates worked from a tent to defend Massacre victims.
Nearly 1,000 Black Tulsans lost their homes during the Massacre. Many remained homeless and living in tents through the winter of 1922. Without aid from the city and state, most relief efforts came from larger organizations. The NAACP established the Tulsa Relief and Defense Fund, which received contributions from all over the country. The association’s Oklahoma Committee worked with the Red Cross to rebuild homes for Massacre victims.
The National Guard, the American Legion, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and various churches provided help with post-disaster relief. The Red Cross workers, referred to as Angels of Mercy by the Massacre victims, spent nearly $100,000 on relief efforts in Greenwood.
1. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Annual report. 1921. Page 79. New York: The Association.
Firsthand Accounts: Fires
LaVerne Cooksey Davis
LaVerne Cooksey Davis, born May 25, 1904, in Royce City, Texas, worked as a maid for a white doctor in South Tulsa at the time of the Massacre. “Although safe in my maid’s quarters, I could see that red blaze in the sky over our beloved Greenwood. When I did get down to Greenwood after the riot, I was so hurt by what I saw. To wake up and see nothing but ashes and buildings burnt to the ground—I couldn’t keep the tears from falling.”1
James Durant was just 6 years old in 1921, but he remembers it like it was yesterday. “When Dad heard that inflamed mobs were headed into the Greenwood District intent on burning down the property of the Black people, and killing the people, he bravely tried to protect our family. He and my uncle barricaded the doors and windows of our house with mattresses from our beds and they told us to lie down on the floor.
“We could hear bullets hitting against the house. It was an awful experience that I will never forget. Our home and everything we owned was burned to the ground. Dad rebuilt us a home at 1144 N. Elgin St., but it wasn’t as nice as that home we had on [201 N.] Detroit. That is why I believe I am owed reparations. My family lost a lot. Things might have been different for me had that riot not happened.”2
Archie Jason Franklin
“I was only 5 years old when the Tulsa riot occurred, but I remember the awful feeling of not having a home to go to. For our house, which my parents owned, was burned down. We lost everything in that riot. There was so much grief in our family. Everywhere we looked in our Greenwood District, there was nothing but ashes, ashes, ashes!”2
Five-year-old George Monroe recalled hiding with his older sisters under a bed. When a white intruder stepped on George’s finger, one of his sisters stopped him from revealing their position by covering his mouth. The invaders set the home on fire as they left, and the children narrowly escaped.3
1. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Page 65. Eakin Press.
2. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Pages 66-67. Eakin Press.
3. Oklahoma Commission to Study the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. (2001, February). Page 74. Tulsa Race Riot.
Firsthand Accounts: Guns & Artillery
Almadge Newkirk was born Oct. 13, 1913. He lived with his parents and three brothers at 119 N. Greenwood Ave. Newkirk recalls his father leaving early the morning of June 1, 1921, with other men. The rest of his family headed for Berry Park, where African American victims were convening.
“I was just a nosy 8-year-old boy at the time of the riot. I didn’t understand the significance of what was going on. I remember that during the heat of the riot, my mother, my twin brother, and another woman were running down Greenwood just barely ahead of the mobsters. We were trying to make it to Berry Park to safety.
“But right in the middle of the riot, my curiosity overtook me. I stopped to look all around to see where the commotion was coming from. But when bullets started falling near me, I was startled and I got the significance of the riot, and I lit out running to keep up with my mother!”1
Otis Clark was born Feb. 13, 1903, and lived with his grandmother, stepfather, mother and pet bulldog at 805 E. Archer. With Archer the dividing line between white and Black Tulsa, Clark was at the heart of mob activity on June 1, 1921. “Some white mobsters holed up in the upper floor of the Ray Rhee Flour Mill on East Archer, and they were just gunning down Black people.”2
Clark’s friend, who worked at the Jackson Undertaking Co. located on the north side of Greenwood Avenue, endeavored to drive the funeral home’s new ambulance to safety. “I went with him,” Clark recalled. “He had the keys in his hand, ready for takeoff. But one of the mobsters in the Rhee building zoomed in on him and shot him in the hand. The keys flew to the ground, and blood shot out of his hand and some of it sprayed onto me. … We both immediately abandoned the plan to save the ambulance and ran to save our lives.”2
The two men ran north up Greenwood, trying to get to Bertha Black’s Café just north of Pine Street, owned by Clark’s cousin. “But when we got there, the mob had beat us to it. It was burned down, and my cousin and her family had fled farther north.”2
1. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Pages 91-92. Eakin Press.
2. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Pages 63-64. Eakin Press.
Focus on the Williams Family
- John Williams opened the East End Garage along Greenwood Avenue, where he repaired automobiles.
- Loula Williams managed the confectionery and the Dreamland Theatre; she also owned a theater in Muskogee and one in Okmulgee.
- Bill Williams was a junior at Booker T. Washington High School in 1921.
- During the Massacre, their home was looted and the Dreamland Theatre was destroyed.
John and Loula Williams left Mississippi in the early 20th century for the promise Tulsa represented. Having worked for a railroad in Mississippi, John found employment at the Thompson Ice Cream Company. John and Loula quickly put down roots and contributed to the thriving district that was Greenwood. Mechanical-minded John, handy at repairing automobiles, was soon able to quit the Ice Cream Co. and open his own repair shop, the East End Garage, at 614 E. Archer. The Williams became the first Black Tulsans to own a car.1
The couple constructed a three-story building on the northwest corner of Greenwood and Archer. “On the first floor was a confectionery, complete with a twelve-foot fountain and table seating for nearly fifty people. If John had a mechanical mind, Loula had an entrepreneurial one, and the confectionery which she managed soon became a money maker.”2 There, customers could buy ice cream, candy and sodas. “On the second floor of the building was an apartment where the Williams family lived, while the third floor was rented out as office space to dentists, doctors and lawyers.”2
John and Loula went on to build another two-story building on Greenwood that became the famous Dreamland Theatre. There, people could view piano-accompanied silent movies and, occasionally, enjoy live entertainment.
On May 31, 1921, at the outset of the Massacre, 16-year-old Bill Williams, captain of Booker T. Washington High School’s football team, was busy helping other students decorate for the senior prom. A group of adults arrived and told the students to go home early. Bill met with his mother, Loula, at the Dreamland Theatre. The two went home to the confectionery, which John returned to around midnight. John sent his family and Hosea, a man staying with them temporarily, to bed while he kept watch with his rifle. “When white invaders exposed themselves, John would cut loose with his rifle, firing through the window screens…telling his son he was defending Greenwood.”2
The Williams family abandoned their house when white rioters realized where John was firing from, and Loula headed to her mother’s house on Detroit Avenue. John, Bill and Hosea split up, planning to meet farther down Pine Street. On his way there, Bill was detained by three armed white men and taken to Convention Hall. The only way Black detainees could be released was if a white person vouched for them. Bill’s release was secured by a white projectionist who worked at the Dreamland Theatre, whom he stayed with that night.
Bill was reunited with his parents the next day, and the Williams family returned to find their home above the confectionery looted and burned, their theater reduced to bricks and ashes.
1. Walker, R. (2014). The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street and The Seven Key Empowerment Principles. Page 5. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
2. Ellsworth, S., & Franklin, J. H. (1992). Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (8th Print ed.). Pages 2, 5. LSU Press.
Focus on A.J. Smitherman
- Moved to Tulsa from Muskogee in 1913, where he founded and ran the Muskogee Star
- Edited and published a weekly newspaper, The Tulsa Star
- Used the Star’s reach to stop local race-based violence and advocate for equal rights
- Reported mob activity to Oklahoma Governor R.L. Williams
- Was the only Black man invited by Governor Williams to meet President Woodrow Wilson upon his visit to Oklahoma City in 1919
- Worked with other Black Tulsa leaders, like J.B. Stradford and Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, to prevent racial violence in Tulsa and nearby towns
A.J. Smitherman edited and published the weekly The Tulsa Star newspaper. The Tulsa Star Publishing Co. was located at 118 N. Greenwood Ave. and worked with local authors to print books. In the first years of its printing, a one-year subscription cost just $1. Smitherman used the Star’s reach to stop lynchings, speak out against condemnation of the Black community and advocate for equal rights.
Smitherman investigated mob activity in Dewey, Okla., in 1917. Reporting to Oklahoma Gov. R.L. Williams, Smitherman’s investigation resulted in the arrest of 36 men, including Dewey’s mayor. Upon hearing of a lynching threat in Bristow, Okla., Smitherman sent a telegram to Williams. The would-be victim was moved safely to Sapulpa before any violence could occur.
The Tulsa Star’s plant was valued at over $40,000 and was one of the best-equipped printing plants owned by an African American in the country. Smitherman employed both white and Black workers. During the Massacre, Smitherman’s printing plant and home were destroyed.
Carol Smitherman Martin gave a testimony to Eddie Faye Gates about the strife her family faced. “At the time of the Tulsa riot, my father, Andrew Jackson Smitherman, owned the famous Black weekly newspaper in Tulsa, The Tulsa Star. Of course, his newspaper building was targeted by hate-filled mobsters, and they burned it to the ground the night of May 31, 1921. Dad was one of the most hated Black men in Tulsa because he owned much property and was so outspoken.”1
Many whites blamed Smitherman’s paper for inciting the events of May 31, 1921, and he was blamed specifically for organizing a group of Black men to resist the mob that wanted to lynch Dick Rowland. The charges against Smitherman forced him, his wife and five children into exile.
Neither Smitherman nor his family returned to Tulsa. However, when J.B. Stradford’s descendants gathered in Tulsa in October 1996, they worked with Oklahoma Rep. Don Ross to clear the names of those wrongfully indicted back in 1921, including A.J. Smitherman.
1. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Page 88. Eakin Press.
Focus on Mary E. Jones Parrish
- Moved to Tulsa from New York with her daughter, Florence
- A typewriting instructor with some reporting experience, Parrish wrote a detailed account of her experience during the Massacre.
- Recorded testimonials of survivors for the Inter-Racial Commission
- These interviews later became her book Events of the Tulsa Disaster: An Eye-Witness Account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, first published in 1923.
When Mary Jones Parrish first visited Tulsa from Rochester, N.Y., in 1918, she was struck by the success she saw in the African American community. She soon relocated to Tulsa, not only to care for her ailing mother but because she was drawn to the “harmony of spirit and action that existed between the business men and women”1 of Greenwood.
On the evening of May 31, 1921, Mrs. Parrish finished the typewriting class she taught and was relaxing with a book. When her young daughter, Florence, noticed men with guns from their window, the horror of the situation dawned on Parrish: “I had read of the Chicago Riot and of the Washington trouble, but it did not seem possible that prosperous Tulsa, the city which was so peaceful and quiet that morning, could be in the thrall of a great disaster.”2
Mary and Florence tried to sleep through the sounds of crackling flames, shouting and artillery. The next morning, the sound of buzzing brought Parrish to her front door, and a large cloud of approaching airplanes finally prompted her and Florence to flee.
The Parrishes came across friends in an automobile, who drove them to Claremore. The next day, Red Cross trucks arrived to bring the victims who had fled back to Tulsa. However, Parrish and other survivors were hesitant to accept the help of the Red Cross because “after spending such a dreadful night and day and witnessing so much destruction, how could we trust a race that would bring it about?”3
Parrish describes the humiliation of being driven through the white section of the city where people openly stared, “some with pity and others with a smile.”4 This painful indignity continued as the trucks reached Exposition Park. There, Parrish saw neighbors who had worked hard to build beautiful homes and prosperous businesses “all standing in a row waiting to be handed a change of clothing and feeling grateful to be able to get a sandwich and a glass of water.”5
In the following days, Parrish visited the makeshift headquarters set up by the Red Cross and YMCA and the emergency hospital established in Booker T. Washington High School. In the emergency hospital, she was struck by sights she would never forget. “There were men wounded in every conceivable way, like soldiers after a big battle. Some with amputated limbs, burned faces, other minus an eye or with heads bandaged.”6
She was soon asked by the Rev. H.T.S. Johnson of the Inter-Racial Commission to do some reporting for the organization. This reporting would become Events of the Tulsa Disaster, an invaluable collection of timely eyewitness accounts of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Parrish, M. E. (2009). Events of the Tulsa Disaster: An eye-witness account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Tulsa, OK: John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.
1. Page 7 2. Page 8 3. Page 13 4. Page 13 5. Page 14 6. Page 19
Focus on O.W. Gurley
- Moved to Tulsa from Arkansas in 1906
- Purchased 40 acres of land and sold it only to other African American businesspeople
- Established a rooming house on Greenwood Avenue, thereby giving the street its name
- Went on to manage five residences and an 80-acre farm in Rogers County
- Founded the Vernon AME Church
O.W. Gurley was a wealthy landowner from Arkansas and is often credited as the founder of Black Tulsa after he purchased 40 acres of land in 1906, which he sold only to other Black businesspeople or families.
Gurley established a rooming house near the tracks of the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway. It became a refuge for African American migrants fleeing oppression in Mississippi. In addition to his rooming house, Gurley built three two-story buildings and five residences, bought an 80-acre farm in Rogers County and founded the Vernon AME Church.1
“Gurley stated that ‘early in the morning’ he looked out of a window of his three-story brick hotel and saw a few white men in khaki clothing set fire to it and other brick buildings along Greenwood Avenue. Upon seeing this, he and his wife [Emma] ran from their hotel. A Black man running ahead of them was gunned down by whites. Mrs. Gurley then fell and her husband, thinking she was dead, ran on alone a few blocks to the Dunbar School. Hidden in the basement, Gurley reported seeing over 1,000 white people pass by on the street. They set fire to the school, but he stayed in it until the roof caved in. ‘Then I thought it was death to stay and death to go,’ Gurley said, ‘but I finally crawled out and was taken to the ballpark by a white gentleman.’”2
“Some African-Americans experienced double-barreled devastation: the loss of a home and a business in the Riot. Among this number were O.W. Gurley and his wife, Emma. Theirs was the first business to locate on Greenwood Avenue. Disheartened by the loss of the home and business they had worked so hard for, the Gurleys did not rebuild.”3
1. Walker, R. (2014). The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street and The Seven Key Empowerment Principles. Pages 9-10. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
2. Ellsworth, S., & Franklin, J. H. (1992). Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (8th Print ed.). Page 57. LSU Press.
3. Johnson, H. B. (2007). Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Illustrated ed.). Page 30. Eakin Press.
Focus on Mount Zion Baptist Church
- The newly constructed building was just 40 days old when it was destroyed.
- Mount Zion was one of more than 20 houses of worship destroyed during the Massacre.
Mount Zion Baptist Church was organized in a one-room wood-frame school building in 1909, but the growing congregation soon prompted Mount Zion to acquire funds for a bigger location. The new foundation was laid in 1916, and the first service was held April 4, 1921, “but the triumph of the moment masked the tragedy in the making.”1 During the Massacre, “flames completely destroyed the new $92,000 Mount Zion Baptist Church,” which “had taken the church’s 600 members seven years to finance and build.”2
After the destruction, the congregation chose not to claim bankruptcy and instead started to rebuild. In 1942, under the leadership of the Rev. J.H. Dotson and 21 years after the Massacre, the new, $150,000 Mount Zion building was completed. As Tulsa World reporter Merle Blakey wrote, the building was “a monument to patient perseverance—and a quietly Christian rebuke to racial intolerance.”3
1-3. Johnson, H. B. (2007). Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Illustrated ed.). Pages 85, 87. Eakin Press.
Local Newspaper Coverage
“The media has always played a vital role in society. In the American democracy, it has been so strong and influential that it was sometimes referred to as the fourth branch of government. Those who control the media, from positions of status and power, often protect and promote the status quo.”1
The newspaper headlines of May 31 and June 1, 1921, played a pivotal role in the events that followed; when The Tulsa Tribune “printed an inflammatory account of the elevator incident, already-tense emotions were further inflamed and the worst race riot in history erupted.”2
1-2. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Page 23. Eakin Press.
Additional Content Available Online Only
The following content is additional information that, due to space, is not included in the exhibit ongoing at Rudisill Regional Library.
Focus on J.B. Stradford
- Moved to Tulsa from Versaille, Kentucky, in 1899
- Built the first library for African Americans in Tulsa
- Owned the Stradford Hotel at 301 N. Greenwood Ave, which housed other Black-owned businesses
- Bought real estate in northeastern Tulsa and sold it exclusively to other African Americans
- Worked with other Black Tulsa leaders, like A.J. Smitherman and Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, to prevent racial violence in Tulsa and nearby towns1
J.B. Stradford was born a slave in Versaille, Kentucky. He moved to Tulsa in 1899 in his late 30s, already holding degrees from Oberlin College in Ohio and Indiana Law School. Like Simon Berry, Stradford bought large tracts of real estate in northeastern Tulsa, which he subdivided and sold exclusively to African Americans. He built the first library for African Americans in Tulsa, ran a rooming house and owned the 65-unit Stradford Hotel at 301 N. Greenwood Ave, which burned to the ground during the Massacre.
In the Stradford Hotel, African American Tulsans could “enjoy the amenities of the downtown hotels that served only whites. It had 68 modern rooms, a dining room and a café. This hotel quickly gained a reputation as the largest Black-owned hotel in the US at the time. In the same property, Stradford owned a Real Estate, Loan and Investment company, telephone number 3386.”2
There were other businesses in the Stradford Hotel, too. A.L. Ferguson owned what was advertised as “The Coolest Ice Cream Parlor in Tulsa,” but his business also sold medicines, cigars, tobacco, toiletries and medical prescriptions.
On May 31, the eve of the Riot, Stradford and other African American men, including A.J. Smitherman, went to the downtown courthouse because they heard talk of a lynching. Their valiant efforts to protect Dick Rowland from the white mob that had formed earned them an indictment for “inciting a riot.” On June 15, 1921, Stradford was charged, and though he fled Tulsa, he was arrested in Independence, Kansas a few days later.
Stradford’s son, C. Francis Stradford, was a lawyer in Chicago and secured his father’s freedom. Fearful of Tulsa’s justice system, J.B. Stradford fled Tulsa and never returned, leaving behind an estimated wealth of $125,000. “This heretofore upstanding, well-respected patriarch became a fugitive. Stradford eventually surfaced in Chicago. Starting once again from scratch, he emerged as a successful lawyer and entrepreneur.”3 J.B. Stradford died in 1945.
In October 1996, Stradford’s relatives gathered in Tulsa, including Stradford’ great-grandson Judge Cornelius E. Toole of the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago and Stradford’s granddaughter Ambassador Jewel Lafontant-Makarious, former official in the Nixon administration. These relatives worked with Oklahoma State Representative Don Ross to clear Stradford’s name.
“On motion of Tulsa County District Attorney William D. LaFortune, the charges against J.B. Stradford (and, by implication, against A.J. Smitherman and the other defendants in State of Oklahoma vs. Will Robinson, et al.) were dropped by order of Tulsa County District Court Judge Jesse A. Harris, representing the City of Tulsa.” The Oklahoma governor, Frank Keating, went on to issue “an executive pardon for J.B. Stradford, and proclaimed Oct. 18, 1996, ‘J.B. Stradford Day.’”4
1. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Page 23. Eakin Press.
2. Walker, R. (2014). The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street and The Seven Key Empowerment Principles. Page 10. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
3. Johnson, H. B. (2007). Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Illustrated ed.). Page 65. Eakin Press.
4. Johnson, H. B. (2007). Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District (Illustrated ed.). Page 66. Eakin Press.
Firsthand Account: Veneice Dunn Sims
Sixteen-year-old Veneice Dunn Sims, born Jan. 21, 1905, lived with her family at 1027 N. Kenosha Street. Their front yard faced Standpipe Hill. On June 1, she and her siblings were out in their front yard when bullets started raining down on them. “I was just terrified. When bullets are falling all around a person, you just don’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to drop down on the ground, or whether I should run.”1
Once her father noticed the sound of bullets against the house, he collected the children and decided the family needed to run. “The mobsters were getting too close. We could see cars full of white men going down Greenwood Avenue, guns blazing and bullets flying at running Black people.”2
Veneice’s family was rescued by her father’s employer, a white Tulsa businessman named Sandy McMullen. The McMullen’s housed the Sims family until it was safe for them to return to their home, though they had little to return to.
Veneice, however, experienced a particular kind of loss beyond that of her material possessions. “My greatest sadness was that us Booker T. Washington students missed our Junior/Senior Prom dance, which had been scheduled for the night of June 1. I had been so excited about that prom. The day of May 31, I had been to the hairdresser to get my hair done, and I had laid out my prom clothes. Blue is my favorite color, and there on the bed was the centerpiece of my prom wear—a peacock blue prom dress.”3
Although Veneice’s father didn’t allow her to date, she did have a boyfriend whom she planned to dance with until midnight when the prom ended. “But that riot occurred, and we never got to have our prom. I never saw my boyfriend again. I heard that he and his family fled to Detroit during the days immediately after the riot. That’s what happened. Some Blacks walked to safe places in Oklahoma, up to sixty miles by foot. Others hopped freight trains and went north, east, or west. Others were never heard of again and are presumed to have died in the riot and to have been hastily buried who knows where.”4
In the aftermath of the Massacre, Veneice and her friends wanted to help their fellow Tulsans. They went to the Booker T. Washington High School, which had been made into an emergency center for wounded Riot victims. Though the Red Cross sent supplies, there never seemed to be enough. “I remember that us girls tore out underslips to make bandages for the wounded. Oh, the wounded people just made me weep. People had bullet wounds everywhere—in their legs, arms, chests.”5 Though Sims recounts Black men as the majority of victims, women and children were wounded, too.
“When I am asked what I think about Tulsa today, I tell people that things are better now. The racial segregation by law is gone, but there are still differences between the races. North Tulsa, where most blacks live, is still unequal. It is underdeveloped. It is nothing compared to the great Black Wall Street we had before the riot of 1921.”6
1-6. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Pages. 96-97. Eakin Press.
Firsthand Account: Dr. Bridgewater
On June 1, 1921, Dr. Bridgewater was summoned to the hospital where he worked. He did not step foot outside his home before being shot at. Realizing the danger, Bridgewater and his wife locked the house and fled. Outside, victims noticed shots ringing from a machine gun on Stand Pipe Hill. “Airplanes began to ply over us, in some instances very low to the ground. A cry was heard from the women saying, ‘Look out for the airplanes, they are shooting upon us.’”1 With the rapid fire of high-powered guns at their back, the Bridgewaters did not stop until they were nearly two miles northeast of Tulsa.
Later, men dressed as soldiers told the Bridgewaters it was safe to return to Greenwood. Once there, Mrs. Bridgewater was led down Greenwood Avenue and the doctor to Convention Hall, where he was forced to march with his hands raised. “I reached Convention Hall about 10:30. On the way [there], possibly thirty minutes before the troops came, there was only one small fire north of the hill, but the next day when I viewed the devastated area, there were hundreds of houses burned.”2
Bridgewater was soon sent to Morning Side Hospital to treat riot victims. On his way, he stopped by his home for his medicine cases. “On reaching the house I saw my piano and all of my elegant furniture piled in the street. My safe had been broken open, all of the money stolen, also my silverware, cut glass, all of the family clothing, and everything of value had been removed, even my family Bible. My electric light fixtures were broken, all the window lights and glass in the doors were broken, the dishes that were not stolen were broken, the floors were covered with glass, even the phone was torn from the wall. ... My car was stolen and most of my large rugs were taken. I lost seventeen houses that paid me an average of over $425 per month.”3
When interviewed by Mary Jones Parrish, Dr. Bridgewater gave his own opinion of what caused this devastating Massacre: “Race prejudices and the national lack of confidence in law enforcement [were the causes]. This lack of confidence in law enforcement causes the Negro to feel that it is necessary to protect himself in most cases of threatened lynching. If the party is a member of our group, he is most generally lynched, even though promised the assurance of protection by law, and if of the other group, he is not lynched if given such protection.”4
1-2 Parrish, J. M. E. (1998). Race Riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa Disaster (Revised ed.). Page 33. Out on a Limb Publishing.
3. Parrish, J. M. E. (1998). Race Riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa Disaster (Revised ed.). Page 34. Out on a Limb Publishing.
4. Parrish, J. M. E. (1998). Race Riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa Disaster (Revised ed.). Page 30. Out on a Limb Publishing.
Firsthand Account: Leroy Leon Hatcher
Leroy Leon Hatcher, born May 23, 1921, was just nine days old at the time of the riot. Early on June 1, mobsters broke into the Hatcher home and set it on fire. Leroy’s father pushed Leroy and his mother out of the house through a window, instructing them to join the fleeing crowds and promising to find them. He never did. “I don’t know if mobsters grabbed him and killed him right there in the house or what. All I know is that he was missing.”1
Once the National Guard got control of Tulsa, Hatcher’s mother looked tirelessly for her husband. She never found him, and the loss haunted both her and Leroy for the rest of their lives.
As a teenager, Lerory continued the search for his father. By luck, he wound up in a California hospital for a small injury. A nurse there recognized his name on the roster. “She came to check on me. When she saw me, she looked into my eyes and I looked into her eyes, and we knew we were kin. We had the same gray ‘cat eyes’ that were typical in our family. At last, I had found my father’s people!”2
Though Hatcher was grateful to find some of the family he never knew, the emotional damage of the Massacre could never heal. “If my dad was killed in that riot, I wish I knew where he was buried. That riot caused us Black people so much grief. Nothing can ever repay me for the hurt that riot caused me. It caused me to grieve a lifetime for my lost father.”3
1. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Page 73. Eakin Press.
2-3. Gates, E. F. (2003). Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street (Illustrated ed.). Page 74. Eakin Press.
Firsthand Account: The Rev. C. Netherland
The Rev. C. Netherland was a Baptist minister who was also the proprietor of a successful barbershop at 210 N. Greenwood Ave. Both his barbershop and his home, which was located at 542 N. Elgin Street, were destroyed during the Massacre. In The Events of the Tulsa Disaster by Mary Jones Parrish, he recounts being marched with his hands raised to Convention Hall on June 1 by a group of white men. From there, he was taken to the Ball Park, where newly homeless men and women slept. The next morning Netherland left the park: “Then I purchased a folding chair, a strop razor and went down on Greenwood amidst the ashes and ruins and started a barber shop.”1
Despite this resilient behavior, Netherland was devastated by his losses: “From a 10-room and basement modern brick home, I am now living in what was my coal barn. From a 5-chair white enamel barber shop, 4 baths, electric clippers, electric fan, 2 lavatories and shampoo stands, 4 workmen, double marble shine stand, a porter and an income of over $500 or $600 per month, to a razor, strop and folding chair on the sidewalk. I feel that corrupt politics is the cause of the whole affair, for if the authorities had taken the proper steps in time the whole matter could have been prevented.”2
1-2. Parrish, J. M. E. (1998). Race Riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa Disaster (Revised ed.). Page 42. Out on a Limb Publishing.
TCCL Resources Used for Content in this Exhibit
Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District by Hannibal B. Johnson
Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma by Hannibal B. Johnson
Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Scott Ellsworth
Race Riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa Disaster by Mary E. Jones Parrish
Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street by Eddie Faye Gates