A City’s Buried Shame
Somewhere beneath the gentle knolls and hospitable oaks that dot this prairie city, anthropologist Clyde Snow is preparing to find bones--and proof of tragedy buried for three-quarters of a century.
Snow, the world’s leading forensic anthropologist, has dug up remains from the world’s dirtiest wars over the last 15 years. He’s trained Argentine human rights workers to dig for their country’s desaparecidos. In El Salvador, he’s exhumed massacre victims. He has dug up the scarred bones of civilians from Ethiopia to Guatemala, Sri Lanka to Bosnia.
Now, however, Snow, an Oklahoman, is preparing to unearth victims of a dirty war on his native soil. As part of a state-sponsored investigation, he will, over the next few months, exhume bodies from possibly the worst race riot in the history of the United States: a 1921 blood bath that killed as many as 300 of Tulsa’s black citizens and left 1,000 houses burned to ash.
Once the killings ended, researchers are finding, authorities buried the victims in unmarked mass graves, refused help for the survivors and even tried to confiscate land from those forced from their homes.
Finally, they tried to wipe the disaster from public memory--an effort that largely succeeded.
Until, that is, two years ago, when Oklahoma’s Legislature--prodded by a black Tulsan--voted to uncover the truth. The state assembled an 11-member Tulsa Race Riot Commission to document the events, establish a death count, calculate the damage and give a recommendation on restitution.
After interviewing hundreds of white and black Tulsans and locating long-lost maps and documents, the panel has established a detailed chronology of the rioting, full of human nuances. Commissioners have confirmed oral histories and found scientific data showing the death counts were far higher than officially claimed.
“You might say it’s an Oklahoma truth commission,” asserts Snow, comparing the panel to those often mandated for countries emerging from civil wars, dictatorships or purges of their own people.
Like other truth commissions, this one isn’t universally popular.
Although it has gotten strong support from many Tulsans, the project stirs shame for other residents over events more comfortably lost to memory. That’s understandable; a city of 800,000 in a crook of the slow Arkansas River, Tulsa cherishes its mix of Bible Belt values, graceful architecture and boom-town boosterism.
To some, the findings the commission presents in January likely will revive a much less welcome image: of old Tulsa, violent and lawless. Others recoil at even the thought of tax-funded restitution.
But more troubling, the project has forced Tulsans to ask questions Americans more typically ask of others--of people who live in the faraway places where Snow usually plies his trade. Questions about how civic bodies turn criminal and how winners write history.
‘Don’t Set My House on Fire’
It was May 31, 1921, deep into Tulsa’s mild spring, a humid morning when oaks and elms nuzzled the eaves of the houses.
It was the morning when Kinney Booker’s world caught on fire.
He was 8 years old, crouching in the attic of his Tulsa home, his mother, sisters and brothers bunched around him. Downstairs, voices ricocheted through the frame house. “N . . . , do you have a gun?” intruders asked his father. Kinney couldn’t make out what came after. Then the older Booker, a prosperous chauffeur for a white Tulsa millionaire, spoke loudly enough to be heard two flights up.
“Don’t set my house on fire,” he said, slowly and clearly. There was silence. The group apparently had forced Kinney’s father out of the spacious wood house with its player piano and shiny Ford parked out front. Moments later, smoke began wriggling around Kinney, his mother and his siblings.
They ran, Booker remembers, and, 78 years later, the former English teacher is still astonished by what he saw outside. Every house was burning, and bullets hammered the rooftops. Hundreds of blacks were surging out of the neighborhood. Even the telephone poles were in flames.
“Kinney, is the world on fire?” his 6-year-old sister asked. But even the young Booker knew it wasn’t the whole world--only the black section of Tulsa called Greenwood or, sometimes, “the Negro Wall Street.”
Until that night, Tulsa had been a hopeful city for blacks, somewhere to flee from violence-ridden places such as Texas. Greenwood was home and workplace for the city’s black doctors, teachers and laborers.
And it prospered. Fifty blocks wedged north of downtown, Greenwood reflected both Tulsa’s segregation and the economic possibilities for its 15,000 blacks. First brought to Tulsa in the early 1830s by slave-owning Indians, blacks populated the area before whites, and by the 1920s constituted about 12% of its residents.
During World War I, Oklahoma produced more than a third of the nation’s oil, 90% of it gushing from Tulsa alone. By 1921, the city swarmed with oilmen whose wealth helped create jobs for much of Tulsa’s black labor pool.
But it was also a time when race riots wracked the country. Many whites were panicked by the Bolshevik revolution, spiking inflation and the rapid vanishing of the agrarian economy. Fed by those tensions, the Ku Klux Klan thrived.
Black veterans who had trained in the North and fought overseas also had returned home. They were confident, used to defending themselves and unwilling to suffer egregious affronts.
So on the morning of May 31, when police arrested a 19-year-old black shoeshine man named Dick Rowland for allegedly assaulting a 17-year-old white female elevator operator, the fuel for violence was already stacked high.
In his 1982 book, “Death in a Promised Land,” historian Scott Ellsworth wrote that the woman never pressed charges, and officials later said Rowland had probably just stumbled when entering the elevator. But the information was either too late or too dull for an enterprising reporter at the Tulsa Tribune, who snatched a few fragments of the event and crafted his own version for the front page .
“Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” the Tribune article howled.
The story was excised from all copies of the newspaper before they were archived. A clipping was finally recovered this fall. But an even more incendiary editorial that reportedly appeared on the paper’s back page remains missing; all copies have vanished from public libraries and archives. Witnesses from the time, however, recall the words clearly: “To Lynch Negro Tonight,” the headline read.
Forty-five minutes after the paper hit the streets, historians say, police got word that Tulsans were talking lynching. By that night, about 2,000 whites had massed outside the courthouse, about five miles from Greenwood.
Hearing about the mob and worried for Rowland’s safety, 50 to 75 armed black war veterans approached police offering help. They were rejected.
Ellsworth says that the group apparently was leaving when a white man saw a tall black veteran with an Army pistol and demanded to know his plans. “I’m going to use it if I need to,” said the man, recently home after serving in France. The white man lunged to disarm him. Someone fired. Tulsa’s shooting war had begun.
Deadly Night Preceded Neighborhood Assault
On a drive through the hills that mark Tulsa’s perch on the edge of the Great Plains, historian and commission member Eddie Faye Gates traces the riot’s trajectory.
Here, on a downtown corner occupied by a bank, is where the courthouse once stood. The killings raged in the area through the night, blacks hunted down by gangs of whites shooting from cars.
The route from downtown to Greenwood was littered with bodies, the total number still unclear. But while some reports at the time estimated that nine whites and about 30 blacks had died, funeral home records and death certificates suggest that the number of blacks killed was between 150 and 250.
At dawn, an eerie whistle pierced the air. As if in response, as many as 10,000 whites are said to have fanned into Greenwood, torching houses and businesses with gasoline. Survivors said airplanes hummed above, dropping explosives. A black U.S. postal worker donned his uniform, apparently thinking it might protect him. He was shot dead in the street. Another man, wearing his World War I Army uniform, was killed as he stepped out his door.
On the afternoon of June 1, Oklahoma’s governor called out the National Guard. By then, about 700 families had fled the city looking for safety. A few found shelter at white-owned churches, others with white homeowners in outlying towns. At least 4,000 people, including the Bookers, were forced at gunpoint into hastily formed internment camps. Locked into the convention hall, the fairgrounds and the city ballpark, Tulsa’s blacks were forbidden to leave unless released by white employers.
“Going to the convention hall, that was a horrible thing--not knowing whether my father was dead or alive,” says Booker, now 86.
It took days for them to reunite. It took far, far longer for Booker’s family to rebuild a home and normal life, even though a friendly white employer paid Kinney’s father and sheltered the family temporarily.
About 1,000 other families passed the summer, fall and winter living in tents. “It really devastated us,” Booker says. “My father had worked so hard for what we had.”
A photograph taken at the time shows Greenwood men surveying their ruined neighborhood, bodies rigid with shock. One man, portly and impeccable in a dark suit and bowler, stares fixedly into the void.
More than 30 blocks of Greenwood had been leveled; 10,000 blacks were left homeless. But if Greenwood’s overnight liquidation challenged belief, what followed was in some ways more stunning.
Thrust into the national spotlight, Tulsa’s boosters quickly commandeered the riot narrative.
A statement from the city’s white pastors declared: “The fair name of the city of Tulsa has been tarnished and blackened by a crime that ranks with the dastardly deeds of the Germans during the Great War, provoked by the bad element of the negroes, arming themselves and marching through the streets of our city.”
The Tulsa World newspaper said that “Tulsa must restore that which has been taken.” Eager to cleanse Tulsa’s image, both the Tribune and civic leaders echoed the sentiment.
In fact, Ellsworth wrote, “white Tulsans did not rebuild black Tulsa. Indeed . . . the city government and other white groups tried to prevent the rebuilding.”
All offers of outside aid were rejected, save for contributions from the Red Cross. Tulsa would redress its own sins, town fathers said. But the rhetoric had almost no relation to action. Soon after the riot, the City Commission passed a fire ordinance outlawing new building on several Greenwood blocks, proposing that the black community resettle to the north and east of its original site.
City officials also began action to build a railroad depot on Greenwood’s razed land, forestalled only by a lawsuit in district court.
But other legal motions--more than 1,000 insurance claims, as well as several suits against the city of Tulsa--failed. Finally, relying almost solely on loans and determination, Greenwood’s blacks began to rebuild their community by themselves. Slightly more than a decade later, benefiting from Tulsa’s relative immunity to the Great Depression, Greenwood miraculously had regained its former vibrancy.
And silence about the event fell over the black and white communities like a muffling snow.
‘Neighbors Never Talked About It’
In 1956, when a teacher at Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High told a teenaged Don Ross about the riot, Ross was furious. At his teacher. “I said, ‘You’re a liar,’ ” recalls Ross, who is black. “I could not believe that anyone would do what he said they had done. I’d never heard about it. . . . My family never talked about it. My neighbors never talked about it,” says the burly, outspoken Oklahoma state representative, now in his 50s.
Convinced, however, when his teacher showed him an album of clippings and photographs, Ross grew obsessed with prying the story open.
The persistent and reassuring teen coaxed spoken accounts from dozens of survivors in his community, accosting them in barbershops, frontyards and restaurants. Ross began to see why some had stayed quiet.
“They would be crying, beating the table” as they relived the disaster, Ross recalls. “They’d be afraid someone in the Klan would somehow find out about their telling me and would get them.”
But not all kept silent out of fear. Eldoris McCondichie, 88, says she never spoke of the riot because she needed to look forward.
So terrified during the Greenwood exodus that she hid in a chicken coop, McCondichie never asked her family questions about the riot afterward.
“I felt they didn’t have to tell me what I saw,” she says. “We were just happy to rebuild.”
Tulsa’s establishment had its own reasons for silence, says 45-year-old historian Ellsworth, who is white.
“When the riot happened, the white city fathers realized they had a big PR problem,” says Ellsworth, a Tulsa native. “So they very soon put out the notion: Tulsa is shamed by that event, and we’ll put it right. But what really occurred, for 50 or 75 years, was, if not a conspiracy of silence, a culture of silence.”
After a short period of coverage, the event evaporated from Tulsa’s newspapers: Schools did not teach about it nor was it spoken of publicly. In the 1970s, after commissioning writer Ed Wheeler to report on the riot, Tulsa’s Chamber of Commerce refused to print what he produced.
A decade later, when Ellsworth wrote his book, the University of Oklahoma Press refused to even look at it. Published in Louisiana in 1982, the book seemed to press open the city’s logjam of denial. Ellsworth said scores of whites helped him with his research.
For some, Ellsworth thinks, “there was a little bit of a sense that helping was an expiation of guilt.” Many, he said, recounted family members’ returning excitedly after the killing spree--and their own feelings of shame.
Still, the breadth of the silence amazes Tulsa filmmaker Mike Wilkerson, who spent half a decade shooting a riot documentary, which is scheduled to come out this winter.
“I spent many years as a criminal investigator,” Wilkerson says. “And I would have said--before five years ago--that you couldn’t cover up a crime of this magnitude.”
What lingered were rumors. Many whites thought the city had rebuilt black Greenwood and thus atoned for the tragedy. Blacks told each other of Pegleg Taylor, said to have held off marauders for hours with a World War I Gatling gun.
The most persistent stories held that many more blacks had died than officially stated, their bodies stacked in great boxes and interred in mass graves.
Although Ross didn’t write down what he heard as a teenager, he bore the survivors’ collective anger for decades. Elected to the state Legislature 18 years ago, he vowed somehow to make Tulsa get at the truth. In 1996, inspired when survivors of a similar but smaller riot in Rosewood, Fla., were awarded reparations by the state, Ross pushed through a bill forming the 11-member Tulsa Race Riot Commission.
Key Evidence Still Buried
In the years since, investigators have located 65 riot survivors, some in their 100s, and meticulously videotaped their accounts.
But one essential resource remains to be mined: the bland prairie surface of Tulsa itself. And Snow is patiently waiting to dig.
Already, documents and interviews seem to confirm the rumors of a large body count. This fall, an 88-year-old white man told commissioners of the huge crates he saw standing by an unmarked pit in the grassy pauper’s corner of the city cemetery. Peering into one box before being shooed off, he saw the bodies of four black men.
State archeologists are testing the site with the same ground-penetrating radar used to find mass graves in Kosovo. If bodies lie underneath, Snow’s team will start the painstaking routine of sifting, scratching and brushing for bones.
“Good, solid forensic evidence is hard to argue with,” Snow says. “It puts it on the historical record that these things did happen so that revisionists can’t come along a generation from now and say no.”
Whether in El Salvador or Oklahoma, he adds, exhumations also quiet communal ghosts.
“I haven’t found a culture yet where people don’t have this feeling that they want their dead back,” Snow observes. “Even if it’s just a cardboard box of bones.”
There is, however, a keen difference between Tulsa’s riot commission and truth commissions in places such as El Salvador, where Snow once exhumed members of an entire village slaughtered by the army. There, he points out, the country’s military and political leadership only discouraged the commission’s research.
But in Tulsa, though the findings won’t reflect well on the city’s history, the mayor, newspaper and many citizens are backing the project.
The mission, however, does prompt some unease. The idea of restitution, in particular, raises hackles for many. It’s fine to acknowledge the past, they complain in letters to editors and over their breakfast tables, but there should be a line between taxpayers and their errant ancestors.
David Jones, grandson of the Tulsa Tribune editor who presided over the infamous May 31 edition, carves that line deeply. A former reporter who now runs a modest bookstore, Jones rarely heard about the riot while growing up or working at the now-defunct paper.
“I wish they had done this investigation 20 years earlier, when more survivors were living,” he asserts. But restitution? “I’m not one of those people who says, ‘Oh, my God, my family may have done wrong 70 years ago. Let’s get out the sackcloth and ashes.’ I have enough of my own sins to account for.”
Yet reparation supporters, such as commission member and author Eddie Gates, say the riot robbed black Tulsans not only of money but also of the chance to educate and assist their children. The illegal acts of city leaders and the police--who deputized hundreds of men who then rampaged through Greenwood--left behind a community debt, Gates insists.
And then there are the survivors, who at 80, 90 and 100 years old are experts not just on Greenwood but on the whole business of traveling from past to present. Most say they just want the Greenwood story known. When asked, their views on restitution reflect their unique experiences.
McCondichie is charming, fluttering a tissue while she considers the question. She recalls the men splashing gasoline on her church, adults running in nightclothes and bare feet, the body of her family pastor laid out in a bombed-out funeral home.
Restitution is pointless, she says, sighing. The pioneers who built Greenwood, who should have been recompensed, are all dead.
A few blocks away, her childhood beau, Kinney Booker, feels the past differently.
“I’m doing my best to try to forgive what happened, but it’s difficult,” Booker says.
Booker has an excellent memory. Hobbling to his piano, he still can plink out a ragtime love song, written for the wife he met nearly 70 years ago. But Booker also remembers the player piano his father bought for his mother. The shiny Ford, pride of the neighborhood, bought by a self-made black man and repaired with his own hands.
And Booker still has nightmares about his father’s house, burning around him.
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