BILL WILLIAMS once asked his father why he had come to Oklahoma. "Well," the old man replied, "I came out to the promised land."
During the early 1900s, Oklahoma had become a land of opportunity for blacks. Tulsa in particular had developed a thriving black business district that had become so prosperous that in 1913 it was known nationally as the Negro's Wall Street."
The Williams family had played a major role in making that black business district successful. Bill's parents, John and Loula, had come to Oklahoma in 1902 when the area was still known as Indian Territory. They were looking for a place to settle and Tulsa seemed like a prime spot. Jobs were plentiful in the oil boom town. Fortunes were made and lost in a single day. By 1920, the Williams were among the richest black families in Tulsa. They owned a garage, confectionary, boarding house and the first movie house for blacks in the city. They called it the Williams Dreamland Theatre.
On the night of May 31, 1921, all that began to change. The land of promise turned ugly for blacks. Bill Williams, who was 16 at the time, remembers waking to the sounds of gunshots. His father was firing out their apartment window at a gang of white men who were trying to break into the building and loot it.
During the next 24 hours, Tulsa experienced one of this nation's worst race riots. An estimated 270 persons, including some of the city's most prominent blacks, were killed. More than 1,000 homes owned by black families were destroyed. The black business district was devastated.
Despite the destruction, little has been written about the Tulsa riot. If it is mentioned at all by historians, it is only recalled because during the fighting one exuberant white rioter commandeered an airplane and used it to drop bundles of dynamite onto the black section of the segregated city. That made Tulsa the first U.S. city bombed by an airplane.
Last spring, a 28-year-old Tulsan named Scott Ellsworth published a book about the riot, based on five years of research. The book, "Death in a Promised Land," is a useful reminder of America's tradition of race discrimination at a time when the nation clearly would rather ignore such unpleasant matters. Praised by black historians as one of the first objective accounts of racial trouble in the Southwest during the 1920s, the work also has revealed information about Tulsa that the city, too, has tried very hard to forget.
"In many ways, Tulsa tried to cover up what really happened during the riot," Ellsworth explained. "The Tulsa County Historical Society did not have any photographs or accounts of the riot. Newspaper accounts about the riot had been torn from the city's archives. City documents, including police files, had disappeared."
Ellsworth, who is a doctoral candidate studying oral history at Duke University, also discovered that he was one of the first historians to interview blacks about the riot that ended their prosperity in the promised land.
The first blacks arrived in Indian Territory during the 1830s. They were slaves owned by wealthy Cherokee and Creek Indians who were being forced by the government to abandon their homes in the Deep South and move into what would eventually become Oklahoma. The move was part of a forced migration that President Andrew Jackson hoped would segregate all Indians into one "Land of the Red Man." Translated into Choctaw, that phrase becomes one word: Oklahoma.
By the 1880s there was talk of expanding Indian Territory to include blacks, led by Edwin P. McCabe, a black Kansas resident, a grassroots campaign began to make Oklahoma into an all-black state.
That idea was squelched when the federal government began whittling the size of Indian Territory by opening it up in the late 1880s to the famed "land runs." Land was given to anyone willing to homestead on it, including blacks, and by 1890, a number of all-black communities had been founded. Enough so, that the territorial legislature began passing Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise blacks. Later, Oklahoma would be the first state to segregate its telephone booths.
In 1905, two years before statehood, a small oil well located 14 miles south of Tulsa ensured that Oklahoma would never belong to Indians or other minorities. The Ida Glenn No. 1 struck "the richest small oil field in the world." The year Oklahoma became a state, it was leading the nation in oil production, pumping one-fourth of all oil produced in the country.
Oil brought prosperity, but not racial equality. Jobs for blacks were plentiful, but they were limited to common labor and domestic help positions. Sings of prejudice were common. At one point in the early 1900s, Tulsa boasted a Ku Klux Klan chapter of 3,200, complete with a women's auxiliary and one of the only chapters for children in the nation. It was open to boys 12 to 18.
Blacks were not welcomed in the white businesses south of the railroad tracks, so enterprising black businessmen opened their own shops on the north side of town. When an organizer for the National Negro Business League visited the Greenwood district in 1913, he described it as a "regular Monte Carlo."
On the day of the riot, Tulsa was actually two thriving cities -- one black, one white.
During his research, Ellsworth discovered several events played a role in setting the stage for the great riot of 1921. "The first happened at 4 a.m. on Oct. 29, 1917," he says, "when a bomb exploded on the front porch of the home of J. Edgar Pew, a wealthy oil man."
No one was injured by that blast, but a few hours later, the chief of police in Tulsa suggested the bombing was part of a "gigantic plot to destroy the property of the oil companies and the residences of the leaders in the oil business."
Anxious for a scoop, The Tulsa World, one of the city's three major white newspapers, quickly claimed that it had evidence from "unimpeachable sources" that implicated the Industrial Workers of the World in the bombing. Saying the "danger cannot be exaggerated," the newspaper warned that IWW members had been sent to Tulsa from all over the world to create anarchy. The IWW even had threatened to blow up The Tulsa World, the story recanted.
In an editorial, the newspaper called for vigilante action. "Why should any discrimination be made between a horse thief and one of these cowardly vandals?" it asked.
One possible reason for the newspaper's strong attack is because the local IWW had affiliated itself with the Oil Field Workers Union, which had organized 300 workers in the Tulsa area. "That was an unpleasant thought to the pro-business newspaper," says Ellsworth. Even today, the newspaper remains strongly antiunion.
A few days after the bombing, police raided the IWW headquarters where they found 11 men playing cards and reading. All of them were charged with vagrancy and jailed. Delighted by the raid, The World proclaimed the police department had declared "War on IWW," whose members, the newspaper said, were "traitors."
"It is no time to waste money on trials and continuances like that," the newpaper said in an editorial headlined Get Out The Hemp. "Kill'em just as you would kill any other kind of snake. Don't scotch'em; kill 'em. And kill them dead."
At the trial, the all-white IWW members said they had joined the union to demand better wages, not create anarchy, but Judge T.D. Evans didn't believe them. The judge not only found all the defendants guilty, he also had five defense witnesses arrested, tried on the spot and declared guilty. He then sent all of them to jail.
Before they got there, 40 armed men dressed in long black robes and masks, who called themselves the Knights of Liberty, forced police to surrender the convicted IWW members. They were taken to a secluded ravine, stripped, tied to a tree and whipped. They were then doused with hot tar and feathers and told to leave town and never return.
The next day the World referred to the Knights of Liberty as "a patriotic body."
"That incident sent a clear message," Ellsworth said. "Vigilante justice was condoned and you didn't want to get one of the town's big newspapers against you."
Ellsworth says another incident, on August 21, 1920, emphasized that police authorities could not protect jailed suspects. Homer Nida, a 25-year-old white taxi driver, was shot in the stomach and thrown from his taxi during a robbery. Police quickly arrested an 18-year-old former telephone worker, Roy Belton, who confessed but claimed the revolver had fired accidentally.
A mob surrounded the jail, demanded Belton and drove him through town in Nida's taxicab. Then they lynched him. "Don't shoot. Don't anybody shoot. Let him hang and suffer like Nida suffered." the crowd yelled, according to the account in the next day's newspaper.
"I do not condone mob law," the Tulsa police chief said the next day, ". . . but it is my honest opinion that the lynching of Belton will prove of real benefit to Tulsa and vicinity." The sheriff and mayor agreed.
If a mob could lynch a white man, what protection would a black suspect have? The stage was set.
On the morning of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland left his Main Street shoeshine stand to enter the Drexel building which had a toilet on its top floor that blacks could use. The elevator was operated by Sarah Page, 17, a white girl. A few minutes after the 19-year-old black man entered the elevator, witnesses heard a scream and Rowland came running out. Page told police that she had been attacked. When Rowland was arrested the next day, he said he had accidentally stepped on Page's foot when he entered the elevator and had frightened her and torn her blouse while trying to keep her from falling.
The Tulsa Tribune printed two stories about the incident, one headlined, "Nab Negro For Attacking Girl in Elevator," the other entitled, "To Lynch Negro Tonight." The first story said Rowland's nickname was Diamond Dick, a title his friends and family say they had never heard before. The elevator operator was described as an orphan working her way through business college.
What the second story said may never been known. The pages of the newspaper were torn from the bound volumes at the Tribune's archives before they were microfilmed. Adjutant General Charles Barrett, who led the National Guard into Tulsa to suppress the riot, however, later said the riot was caused by "the fantastic write-up of the (Rowland) incident in a sensation seeking newspaper."
Forty-five minutes after the Tribune hit the streets, apparently with a report that a mob of whites were gathering to lynch Rowland, a crowd did begin to form at the courthouse. A few hours later, there were more than 1,500 whites there, some armed. Rumors of a lynching quickly spread through the black section of the city. Finally, a group of armed blacks decided to go to the courthouse and investigate.
Sheriff Willard McCullough was able to convince the blacks that Rowland would not be turned over to the mob, but as they were leaving, several fights broke out. Shots were fired. The riot had begun.
There are many horror stories about what happened during the next 24 hours. Guns and ammunitions were looted from downtown stores. A group of whites tried to break into the National Guard armory only to be held at bay by a lone, pistol-packing guardsman.
An elderly black couple on their way home from church were murdered. Dr. A.C. Jackson, cited by the Mayo brothers as "the most able Negro surgeon in America," was killed by whites after he had surrendered to them for protection. A white man mistaken for a black was killed. An incoming passenger train was caught in a crossfire.
When the National Guard arrived, it deputized dozens of white men and women, who proceeded to go door-to-door in black neighborhoods where there was no fighting. They arrested the occupants and escorted them to one of three internment camps. After the blacks left their homes, they were looted and burned. One elderly black woman, who refused to move, was left alone. Her home was one of the few not destroyed.
The Red Cross later reported 1,115 homes destroyed, 314 other homes looted. Bill Williams' father defended his movie theater until the buildings around it were set on fire. He slipped out, dodging gunshots. Later he abandoned his weapons and surrendered to a gang of armed whites. The next time he saw the Dreamland Theatre it was nothing but blackened boards and rubble.
More than 4,000 blacks were interned during and after the riot. Eventually they were moved to the local fairgrounds where they lived in animal stalls. For nearly two months, blacks were not allowed to walk the streets unless they had a green card with the words Police Protection. Blacks at the fairgrounds who did not have jobs were ordered to help clean up after the riot. No whites were interned.
As news of the rioting spread across the nation, numerous relief agencies offered to send the city aid.
Alva J. Niles, president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, however, said that Tulsa would care for its own. "Tulsa feels intensely humiliated and standing in the shadow of this great tragedy pledges its every effort to wiping out the stain at the earliest possible moment and punishing those quilty of brining the disgrace and disaster to this city," Niles said.
But while the Chamber of Commerce was telling the nation's press that reparation and restitution would be made, Ellsworth has discovered it actually was planning just the opposite.
Tulsa needed a new train depot and since the city was divided racially by the railroad, the destruction of the black business district suddenly provided city officials with an excellent opportunity to build the new depot. Ellsworth has found little known documents that describe how civic groups and churches opposed building the station on what was described as "negro property." Even so, the city officials passed a law that made it impossible for blacks to rebuild their homes. During the winter of 1921-22, more than 2,000 blacks lived in tents. Meanwhile, the city zoned the land for its new rail station.
After the riot, a grand jury was impaneled by the governor to investigate. Although it condemned the "exaggerated and untrue reports of the press," it blamed black Tulsans who visited the courthouse for the riot.
The grand jury recommended that white policemen regularly patrol black areas of Tulsa and that "indiscriminate mingling of white and colored people in dance halls and other places or amusement be positively prohibited and every law rigidly enforced in the end that a proper relationship may be maintained between the two races."
A short time later, a secretary to the editor of the Tribune wrote a book about the riot which defended the newspaper and city leaders. It was considered a factual account by the city.
One footnote: Sarah Page, the elevator operator, refused to prosecute Dick Rowland, who had been escorted safely out of town by the sheriff during the fighting. She later left town.
Today, Tulsa's black business district is a ghost town. Not only did the city build a railroad station through the area, it later built a highway bypass through it.
Tulsa remains a largely segregated city. Realtors steer blacks toward property in North Tulsa and whites to homes that are south of the railroad tracks.
After the riot, the Williams family began rebuilding, but they never regained their wealth. Bill Williams graduated from the Hampton Institute in Virginia, returned to Tulsa and taught school for 40 years. When he retired, the Oklahoma Legislature bestowed upon him the honorary title "Historian of Oklahoma."
Yet until Ellsworth met him, no one had questioned Williams extensively about the riot. It was, he explained, something few people outside the black community cared about.
When his book was published, Ellsworth was criticized by several prominent Tulsans. However, Williams, now 77, organized a book-signing party in North Tulsa for the young author.
At last, Williams told Ellsworth, "The truth is out."