Topeka Capital Journal
March 6, 2000
The state of Oklahoma was the site of one of the worst race riots in history in 1921, but for almost 75 years the chances are you wouldn’t have heard about it, even if you lived there, studied state history in its schools, or read newspapers and periodicals in its libraries. Oklahoma covered it up and treated it like it never happened.
On June 1, 1921, the riot erupted in Tulsa and resulted in 40 blocks of an upper class black neighborhood being looted and burned. The Oklahoma National Guard said 26 blacks and 10 whites died and 370 were injured, but eyewitnesses said at least 100 blacks were killed, and the correct figure probably was more than 300.
For 75 years, no memorial of any kind was erected, no city sponsored commemorative services were ever held, and not a single person ever was charged with the killings or the fires. In the library’s, every mention of the riot, the fires and the organized white lynch mob was deleted from the Tulsa newspapers.
I was one of the know-nothing’s in the riot’s aftermath, despite having taken two courses in Oklahoma history, one in high school in the late 1930s, and a forced repeat in college in the 1940s.
If there ever was a mention of the Tulsa riot in either course, I don’t remember it. In fact, from kindergarten to college diploma, all of it in Oklahoma, I don’t remember hearing a single word about it. I believe I would remember, because I like history, even down to taking an elective course called, “U.S. relations in the South Pacific,” or as I called it, “An Okie in Bora Bora.”
And, if I can remember Bob Wills doing “Take Me Back to Tulsa,” couldn’t I remember a riot?
I’m not alone in not hearing anything about the riot until recently. When Tulsa finally got around to remembering it, in 1996, the New York Times carried a couple of lengthy stories about it, and Susan Schaefer of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library resurrected them for me.
Tulsa mayor Susan Savage told the Times she grew up in Tulsa, but it was not until she was an adult that she learned about the riot. She said, “it just wasn’t something people discussed.”
The Tulsa County District Attorney in 1996 was Bill LaFortune, who said, “I’m 39 years old, born and raised in Tulsa, and I never really learned about the race riots until the last several years.”
The riot was sparked by a mistake. A 19-year-old black shoeshine man was arrested for supposedly assaulting a white teenage elevator operator. Police later would determine he stumbled into the girl accidentally, committing no crime, and charges were dropped.
But before that happened the afternoon newspaper headlines screamed, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and the story said angry whites were gathering in the courthouse to lynch the man. More whites joined the mob, blacks armed themselves, and the riot was on.
The Greenwood section of Tulsa was known as the as the “Negro Wall Street of America” because blacks who lived and worked there enjoyed a higher than average measure of prosperity. But many lost homes and businesses, and the city never paid a dime of reparations.
The final tally was 23 churches and more than 1,000 homes and businesses leveled. When it was over, witnesses said, trucks loaded bodies of black victims and took them to two local potter’s fields and common graves. Hundreds of black families fled Tulsa, never to return
One who survived was J.B. Stradford, who owned a hotel in a rooming house in the doomed area. When he heard that armed men, black and white, were heading for the courthouse, he went there to try to talk the blacks into returning to their homes. But shooting started, and Stradford was charged later with inciting the riot.
He jumped bail in Tulsa and went to Chicago, where he became a successful lawyer. His descendants include a lawyer who is a former U.S. ambassador, a Circuit Court judge, and a college professor.
When the judge, Cornelius E. Toole, Stradford’s great-grandson, heard Tulsa had decided to remember the riot, he contacted an Oklahoma legislator, Don Ross, and asked about clearing Stradford’s name. Lafortune took care of that, and in all, 62 blacks indicted by an inflamed white grand jury in 1921 were cleared.
So, 75 years late, in a ceremony in the Greenwood Cultural Center, across the street from the spot where Stradford’s hotel was burned down, he received an honorary executive pardon from the governor of Oklahoma. His descendants said, better late than never.
(Editor’s Note: This column is posted as written 20 years ago. In 2018, Tulsa World Managing Editor Mike Strain wrote: “In our newsroom, we have begun using the term massacre. We also will use the term riot, but it often will be in the context of explaining that the events of 1921 had commonly been known as the Tulsa race riot.”)