Otis G. Clark, survivor of 1921 Tulsa race riot, dies at 109

May 26, 2012

For years, few people dared to speak about what happened on the night of May 31, 1921, during one of the most deadly and devastating race riots in the nation’s history. Otis G. Clark, who was 18 at the time, had grown up in Greenwood, a thriving African American section of Tulsa.

During a night that history almost forgot, Mr. Clark dodged bullets, raced through alleys to escape armed mobs and saw his family’s home burned to the ground. He fled Tulsa on a freight train headed north.

He would eventually move to Los Angeles, where he was the butler in the home of movie star Joan Crawford. He later turned to preaching and was known as the “world’s oldest evangelist.”

But for nine decades, he remained a living witness to a night of horror, when Greenwood died. Mr. Clark died May 21 in Seattle at age 109, family members told the Tulsa World newspaper. The cause of death was not disclosed.

“Oh, child, we had what you might say a little city, like New York or Chicago,” Mr. Clark told author Tim Madigan, recalling the life of Greenwood for the 2001 book “The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” “We had two theaters, two pool halls, hotels, and cafes, and stuff. We had an amazing little city.”


Otis G. Clark, who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, died May 21 at age 109. (BRANDI SIMONS/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Greenwood had 15,000 residents, a 65-room hotel, several banks and two newspapers. It also faced, on its border, growing racial resentment from an emboldened presence of the Ku Klux Klan.

On the final day of May 1921, white mobs were sparked into action by rumors that a young black man had improperly touched a white female elevator operator. Armed vigilantes were deputized by the local police, giving them the legal standing of a militia, as they gathered on the edge of Greenwood.

Mr. Clark had to flee his house.

“Gunfire and the blaze from the fire was getting closer,” he told the Tulsa World in 2000, “and all we had on our minds was getting out of the house before the ‘war’ got there.”

He went to a mortuary, where another man was planning to get an ambulance out of the garage to help victims of the violence.

“The man was just then about to open the door when a bullet shattered his hand into pieces, blood flying everywhere,” Mr. Clark recalled.

He ran through streets and alleys until he saw a cousin: “I jumped in the car and we hadn’t gone two blocks before we turned this corner and ran right into a crowd of white men coming toward us with guns.”

Running for his life, Mr. Clark eventually reached some train tracks, where he hopped on a freight car. He didn’t get off until he was in Milwaukee.

When the smoke cleared over Greenwood, 35 square blocks had been burned to the ground. More than 1,200 houses were destroyed, along with dozens of office buildings, restaurants, churches and schools.

“It looked like a war had hit the area,” Mr. Clark recalled in 2000. “Not a single house or building stood untouched. Greenwood was a huge wall of fire, the heat so strong I felt it down the block.”

The death toll was first placed at about 35, but residents recalled seeing bodies stacked in the streets or loaded on wagons. In the 1990s, when historians re­examined what is now known as the Tulsa Race Riot, they estimated that about 300 people — 90 percent of them African American — were killed.

“My home was burned down,” Mr. Clark recalled. “My bulldog — Bob — was killed. My stepfather was killed. We never did find him, never had a funeral.”

The property of black landowners was seized, and their claims for insurance or other reparations were generally denied. For years, the only new structures in Greenwood were tents and small wooden shacks.

Moreover, there was a climate of fear that enforced a code of silence on perpetrators and victims. No one spoke of the pillaging of Greenwood for fear of retribution.

As late as the 1970s, when Ed Wheeler, a Tulsa radio host and officer in the Oklahoma National Guard, tried to uncover the truth of Greenwood, no white-owned publication in Tulsa would touch the story.

He received threatening phone calls, and someone wrote in soap on the windshield of his car: “Best look under your hood from now on.”

A state commission finally issued a report on the riot in 2001.

Otis Granville Clark was born Feb. 13, 1903, in Meridian, Okla., four years before Oklahoma became a state. His father worked for the railroad.

In a 2009 interview for a Tulsa oral history project, Mr. Clark said one of his jobs as a boy was selling vegetables and groceries to a house occupied by what he called “sportin’ women.”

After settling in California, he worked as a limousine driver and later worked on the fringes of Hollywood. He lived in Joan Crawford’s house, where he served as butler and his wife was a cook. He knew Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin, and was a good friend of actor Stepin Fetchit.

“Step picked me to buddy with him,” he said, according to a 2005 biography of Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry. “We was on the wild side.”

Mr. Clark said he had a religious conversion while serving a jail sentence for selling bootleg liquor during Prohibition. He began preaching in the 1930s and, over time, would carry his message all over the world.

He was 103 when he made his first trip to Africa. He returned a year later, and in 2010, he led an evangelistic mission to Jamaica.

He was married four times and had one daughter, who predeceased him. In recent years, he and a goddaughter ran a ministry in Seattle.

Throughout his exceptionally long life, he remained in excellent health, took no medicines and did not use a walker or a cane. Yet Mr. Clark could never expunge the memory of what he had witnessed in 1921.

“Family and friends, missing,” Mr. Clark said in 2000. “Jobs gone. The city took my grandmother’s land and didn’t give us nothing in return.

“We suffered. But Tulsa has given us nothing . . . even to this day — nothing.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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