I WAS BORN AND RAISED HERE, AND I HAD NEVER heard of the riot," Tulsa district attorney Bill LaFortune is saying. He is sitting in front of a massive desk on the fourth floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse.
by Jonathan Larsen
" On the edge of his desk is a manila folder stuffed with documents, old newspaper clips and grand-jury indictments relating to Tulsa's Race Riot of 1921, one of the worst in the nation's history.
LaFortune pulls out one of the few remaining copies of a self-published, eyewitness account of the riot, written by a young black woman named Mary Jones Parrish. A YMCA typing instructor, Parrish had included in her remarkable volume three wide-angle photographs of the destruction, taped and folded within the book like a triptych. Now LaFortune spreads open the panorama for his guest. "It looks like Hiroshima, or worse," he says.
The photographs are breathtaking: 35 blocks of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, reduced to cinder and rubble. On a single night, more than 10,000 armed and crazed whites looted and burned down the city's entire black section. In the pictures on LaFortune's desk, the smoke is still rising off the scorched earth, drifting between charred trees and the few jagged remains of brick walls.
For most of the past 75 years, the riot remained Tulsa's brooding secret. But on June 1 of last year, the 75th anniversary of the event, Tulsa held its first commemorative service and erected a memorial. And in October LaFortune performed his own role in the ritual healing.
During an emotional ceremony, he cleared a long deceased black man named J. B. Stradford of the charge of inciting the riot.
Stradford was one of Tulsa's most prosperous black entrepreneurs in the 1910's. He owned a 65-room hotel, a savings and loan, and other real estate in Greenwood. Having lost everything in the riot, Stradford escaped to Chicago, where he began life anew and became a successful lawyer. When he died in 1935, at the age of 75, the incitement charge still hung over him. With the riot's anniversary, the family wanted his name cleared. But first LaFortune and Assistant District Attorney Nancy Little had to uncover the details of the events of 1921.
"I would almost say I was staggered by what I learned," Little said.
"I had heard my parents talk about a riot by black people that came out of a rape." She was bewildered to find out that neither half of that equation had been true. In particular, Little was struck by a series of firsthand accounts, all by black victims of the riot, in the back of Mary Jones Parrish's book. "Those stories," said Little, "were among the most moving I have ever read." And the more she read, the more she thought, "This doesn't look like a riot. It looks like a war, an invasion of the area.
Little's dismay is shared by almost any Tulsan today who learns the truth about the riot. Tulsa, after all, had none of the bitter memories of the Civil War or Reconstruction. It was no sprawling northern metropolis plagued by poverty, unemployment and rotting tenements. Nor was it a Southern backwater where racial prejudice was endemic. Tulsa was full of pride and prosperity on both sides of the tracks. The city's black section was as remarkable as the boomtown of the white oil barons. Moreover, this riot happened during the Roaring Twenties: in modern times. The fact that a southwestern frontier town could experience such a paroxysm of hate, anger and violence seemed to speak to the very notions of equality and civility. And white Tulsa's denial of its own guilt remains a case study in cultural amnesia.
TULSA IN THE 1920S WAS A BOOMTOWN WITH a short fuse. Originally part of the sprawling Indian Territory, Tulsa had for years been beyond the reach of state or federal law, and after the discovery of oil nearby at the turn of the century, the town became a notorious haven for criminals. An otherwise boisterous history, ordered up by the city in the 1970's, speculated about those early boom years: "There seemed to be an unwritten law between the town and the outlaws in which Tulsa furnished them with asylum in exchange for being spared from criminal acts." Even after Tulsa fell under the American legal system, it remained unusually rough. The volatile mix of desperadoes, gamblers, prostitutes, cowboys, wildcatters, roustabouts and Ku Kluxers was enough to weaken the knees of the bravest law-enforcement officials.
Many a town father decided it was more prudent--and sometimes more lucrative--to join the miscreants rather than fight them. James Mitchell, a student at the University of Tulsa in 1950, wrote his master's thesis on the politics of Tulsa in the early 1900s. "A vice ring consisting of newspapermen and politicians, operated a protection racket for illegal enterprises," he concluded. "Many crusades against open town conditions by newspapers in Tulsa's boom years were said to result when the editors were denied their part of the payoffs."
By 1910, Black Tulsans made up 10 percent of the city's population. Most of these residents were immigrants from the East and South, but many others were native to the area, having been former slaves of wealthy Creek Indians. The Blacks in Tulsa, totally segregated on the north side of the railroad tracks, were building up a prosperous community that boasted the second highest black literacy rate among Oklahoma counties, and a neighborhood of shops, hotels, gaming halls and restaurants that was gaining a reputation across the Southwest. The Greenwood section of Tulsa bristled with such energy, prosperity and promise, that Booker T. Washington himself--so the legend goes--dubbed Greenwood Avenue "the Black Wall Street."
This Black prosperity caused resentment among poorer whites, and the city elders worried that it was bad for the city's image. In 1912, the Tulsa Democrat complained: "Tulsa appears to be in danger of losing its prestige as the whitest town in Oklahoma." The paper went on to ask: "Does Tulsa wish a double invasion of criminal Negro preachers, Negro Shysters, crap shooters, gamblers, bootleggers (sic), prostitutes and smart alecs in general?"
At the time of the riot, the Ku Klux Klan had something of a stranglehold on Tulsa. Mitchell found that during the early 1920s the Klan "operated as a phantom regime," putting its imprimatur on political candidates. In the year of the riot alone, 59 Blacks were lynched in border and Southern states. Just six months before, in Oldenville, Oklahoma, a young Black man accused of assaulting a white woman was taken from jail, strung to a telephone pole, and riddled with bullets. The fact that a white man had been lynched in Tulsa the previous summer only proved that skin color was no protection. Accused of murdering a taxi driver, Roy Belton had been "mobbed" by a group of whites while the police directed traffic at the lynching site, ensuring everyone a good view. A Black newspaper wrote at the time: "The lynching of Roy Belton explodes the theory that a prisoner is safe on top of the Court House from mob violence."
Since the end of World War I, Black leaders had begun to encourage resistance to "Judge Lynch." In 1919, Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had declared: "When the murderer comes, he shall no longer strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed." In Tulsa, the success of the Black community had only made this resolve more powerful.
The incident that set off the Tulsa riot was the same incident that set off so many other race riots before it: a report of an assault by a Black man on a white woman. In the case of Tulsa, a woman of little credibility and a story apparently trumped the report up, a combination of an allegation by a newspaper with even less. But those small details would not be fully understood before Black Tulsa burned to the ground.
Walter White, a NAACP official who arrived in Tulsa during the height of the riot, would offer a detailed account of the "assault" in The Nation later that month. According to White, a young Black messenger named Dick Rowland called for an elevator in a downtown Tulsa building. The operator, a young white woman named Sarah Page, on finding she had been summoned by a Black man, started the car on its descent when Rowland was only halfway in. To save himself from injury, Rowland threw himself into the car, stepping on the girl's foot in doing so. Page screamed and, when a crowd gathered outside the elevator, claimed she had been attacked. The police arrested Rowland the following day but with little enthusiasm, perhaps because they knew the reputation of his accuser. Page, a new arrival in Tulsa, had left her husband in Kansas City, and Sheriff Willard McCullough had served divorce papers on her just two months before. He was reported to have said later that if half the charges alleged in the petition were true, "she is a notorious character."
Nevertheless, her charge of assault gave Tulsa's most disreputable newspaper enough to work with. The Tulsa Democrat had been purchased two years before by Richard Lloyd Jones --a cousin of Frank Lloyd Wright's, and a man who shared the architect's irascible temperament. Jones had changed the paper's name--to the Tulsa Tribune--but not its behavior. He not only continued the newspaper's racist ways but raised them to a higher power, referring to the Black section of Tulsa as either "Little Africa" or Niggertown."
The Tribune's coverage of the alleged attack on Page clearly inflamed feelings in Tulsa. The adjutant general of Oklahoma would later blame the riot on "an impudent Negro, a hysterical girl, and a yellow journal." No original copies of the offending articles exist today, either in bound volumes or on microfilm, having been destroyed in the years following the riot. But a University of Tulsa student managed to find a copy for his 1946 thesis, and published it in its entirety.
On its front page, the Tribune had charged that Rowland had attacked Page, "scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes." The managing editor of the paper would, days later, admit that the scratches and torn clothes were fictions. The article stated that Rowland had been identified and arrested, had admitted grabbing Page's arm, and would be tried that afternoon. The final sentence was a guaranteed tearjerker: It stated that Page, whose age it gave as an improbable 17, "is an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through business college."
The Tribune also ran an editorial that day. No copies are known to survive, but people interviewed after the riot recalled an article that spoke of a lynching, and may have even encouraged one. Scott Ellsworth, who wrote the definitive book on the riot, "Death in a Promised Land" (1982), believes the headline read "To Lynch Negro Tonight." Whatever the Tribune said, the fuse was now lit. Shortly after the paper hit the newsstands, talk of a lynching was making its way around town. Within hours, hundreds of whites were milling in front of the courthouse--a common prelude to "Judge Lynch."
According to the unpublished memoirs of J.B. Stradford, the Tribune's stories "aroused the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan," and the KKK let it be known that they would "mob" Rowland that night. Stradford went on to say that Sheriff McCullough telephoned the office of the Tulsa Star, a Black newspaper, to warn "he expected an attack would be made on the jail that night." The sheriff promised that he would do all he could to protect Rowland, but that "if he found he could not cope with the situation, for us to get together and he would call us to help protect him."
A meeting was convened at the newspaper's offices. Stradford was sent for and called upon to speak. As he wrote in his memoirs, "I hesitated at first, for the situation was a perilous one; I advised the boys to be sober and wait until the sheriff called for us. I further said that I had expected something of that nature on account of the bitter feelings against our group and I said then as I had said before that the day a member of our group was mobbed in Tulsa, the streets would be bathed in blood." In the event of a lynching, Stradford left no doubt as to what he thought the community should do. "If I can't get anyone to go with me, I will go single-handed and empty my automatic into the mob and then resign myself to my fate."
In the end, the Black leaders assembled in the Star's office voted to go to the courthouse without waiting for the sheriff's summons. (Nor did they all heed Stradford's call to remain sober.) Fully armed, some 25 Blacks drove to the courthouse. Sheriff McCullough and Deputy Sheriff Barney Cleaver, Tulsa's first Black police officer met them there. The two law officers persuaded the emissaries to return to Greenwood, which they did peacefully. But the white crowd did not disperse. It continued to swell to ominous proportions, reaching 1,500 to 2,000. The Blacks returned, this time numbering between 50 and 75. Once again, McCullough and Cleaver tried to send the entourage home, but before they could succeed, an older white man made the mistake of confronting a young Black veteran of World War I. According to author Scott Ellsworth, the white man said, "Nigger, what are you going with that pistol?" The answer was as polite as it was direct: "I'm going to use it if I need to."
Within moments, a struggle for the gun ensued, a shot rang out and guns were blazing. The Blacks retreated toward Greenwood while the whites began to prepare for their revenge. In the next few hours, a dozen stores in downtown Tulsa that sold firearms--sporting-good stores, Pawnshops, and even jewelry stores--were broken into and looted. The National Guard Armory was spared only because a small band of guardsmen, warned in advance, held off the multitudes. The whites, now numbering 10,000, headed for Greenwood, as a smaller rear guard of Blacks tried to hold them off. Mary Jones Parrish, who had read about recent riots in Chicago and Washington, D.C., heard the firing in the distance and later wrote: "It was hours before the horror of it all dawned upon me.... 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."
The horror was also dawning on city officials. For hours Police Chief John Gustafson clung to the belief that local authorities could control the situation. In what was an act of either naivete' or depravity, he deputized as many as 500 white volunteers with "special commissions."
The NAACP's Walter White, being very light complexioned, volunteered for duty shortly after his arrival in town, and was given one of these commissions. "Now you can go out and shoot any Nigger you see," he was told, "and the law'll be behind you." White would spend a tense night riding about the city in the company of five members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Before long, even Gustafson realized events were out of his control. He signed a telegram, solicited by the governor, requesting the aid of the National Guard. The telegram was a model of concise communications: "Race riot developed here. Several killed. Unable to handle situation. Request that National Guard forces be sent by special train. Situation serious."
The fighting, pillaging and burning continued all night and into the morning. The riot was now a war; being fought building by building, block by block. The white's rage was blinding: At one point, the advancing mob noticed a lone, unarmed pedestrian across the street. Mistaking him for Black, the rioters opened fire, hitting him some 25 times. "Death was instantaneous," reported the Tulsa World the following morning. "He was hit so many times his body was mangled almost past identification." Now and again the mob would string a Black corpse to the rear bumper of an automobile and drag the body around town. Whenever a fire engine appeared on the scene, the white mob refused to let the fire crew deploy its hoses, forcing them back to the station. Police and their "deputies," those who were not actively engaged in the looting and burning, rounded up Black noncombatants, the elderly, women and children, and trucked them to holding facilities. At least one of these prisoners, Dr. A.C. Jackson, whom the Mayo brothers had once called the "most able Negro surgeon in America," was killed while being held in police "protection."
Mary Jones Parrish, who was still holed up with her daughter at the edge of the fighting, later wrote: "Looking south out of the window of what then was the Woods Building, we saw car loads of men with rifles unloading up near the granary.... Then the truth dawned upon us that our men were fighting in vain to hold their dear Greenwood."
The National Guard finally pulled into town by train from Oklahoma City at 9:15 a.m. with Adjutant General Charles Barrett in command. "In all my experience," Barrett wrote years later, "I have never witnessed such scenes as prevailed in this city when I arrived at the height of the rioting. Twenty-five thousand whites, armed to the teeth, were ranging the city in utter and ruthless defiance of every concept of law and righteousness. Motor Cars, bristling with guns swept through [the] city, their occupants firing at will." Nevertheless, the guards' first official act was to prepare and eat breakfast. One man who had the temerity to question this indulgence was immediately arrested. The guardsmen themselves, once they finished their breakfast, proceeded to round up the remaining Black residents at bayonet point, often drawing blood and frequently showing no sympathy for the homeless Blacks who were supposedly under their protection.
When it was all over, the Red Cross would report treating almost 1,000 people. Classrooms at the Booker T. Washington School were converted into an emergency facility. Parrish wrote: "I can never erase the sights of my first visit to the hospital. There were men wounded in every conceivable way, like soldiers after a big battle. Some with amputated limbs, burned faces, others minus an eye or with heads bandaged. There were women who were nervous wrecks, and some confinement cases. Was I in a hospital in France? No, in Tulsa.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO JUDGE THE SEVERITY OF THE TULSA riot by its death toll. The official count was 36, but the earliest newspaper accounts ranged between 75 and 175, and Scott Ellsworth gives 100 as his best guess. (Many Blacks and some whites believe the actual number of deaths was much higher, with truckloads of corpses dumped into mass graves or into the nearby Arkansas River.) There were other riots around that time that had official counts almost as high, or even higher--the East St. Louis riot of 1917 (at least 125 dead), the Chicago riot of 1919 (at 38 dead); the Elaine, Arkansas riot of 1919 (at least 30 dead). But what had been lost in Tulsa was far more than lives. It was a community and a dream.
As bad as the riot was, what followed was in many ways worse. To the hot-blooded crimes of murder, pillaging and arson were added the cold-blooded crimes of false imprisonment, unusual cruelty and incredible hypocrisy. Richard Lloyd Jones would once again set the tone in his editorial in the Tulsa Tribune: "Acres of ashes lie smoldering in what but yesterday was 'Niggertown'." He went on to use the riot as a pretext for attacking his political opponents. Over the next several days the headlines told the story of how white Tulsa would choose to view the riot for decades to come: PROPAGANDA OF NEGROES IS BLAMED.
BLACK AGITATORS BLAMED FOR RIOT. PLOT BY NEGRO SOCIETY? BLACKS HAD LEADERS. BLOOD SHED IN RACE WAR WILL CLEANSE TULSA. NEGRO SECTION ABOLISHED BY CITY'S ORDER.
The attorney general of the state, during an address to the Tulsa City club two weeks after the tragedy, declared: "The cause of this riot was not Tulsa. It might have happened anywhere for the Negro is not the same man that he was 30 years ago when he was content to plod along his own road accepting the white man as his benefactor."
Over the following days and weeks white Tulsa put forth two ideas: Blacks had caused all the trouble, but the white community had opened its purses and hearts and rebuilt the burned neighborhood. The president of the chamber of commerce furnished press associations across the country with a broadside that stated: "The sympathy of the citizenship of Tulsa in a great wave has gone out to the unfortunate law-abiding Negroes who became victims of the action and bad advice of some of the lawless leaders, and as quickly as possible rehabilitation will take place and reparation be made."
In fact, at the same time the city fathers were busy passing new ordinances preventing Blacks from rebuilding in the Greenwood area. About the only intact structures left standing in the forlorn landscape were outhouses. Although awash in oil money during its boom years, Tulsa had never extended the city sewer lines to the Black north side.
And as the rioters emptied their cans of oil, they didn't bother with the outhouses, many of which were at some distance from the street. Now Tulsa wanted the north side of town to become a new industrial and transportation center. As for the Blacks, the mayor told his city commission: "Let the Negro settlement be placed further to the north and east." The courts overruled that ordinance four months later, but by then Blacks had lost precious time in rebuilding.
As to rehabilitation and restitution, there never would be any. Behind closed doors, Tulsa's white leaders plotted to do precisely the opposite of their proclamations. The Executive Welfare Committee in charge of "relief" efforts voted to solicit no money for aid, nor accept any donation, "financial or otherwise," to "reconstruct the Negro District." What money did come in to the Welfare Committee was used to reimburse the Red Cross for its Herculean efforts immediately following the riot. Scott Ellsworth pored over the official records while researching his book. "One myth that persists is that the white community created a generous relief effort and rebuilt Black Tulsa," he recently told a reporter for the Tulsa World. "The city fathers tried to keep Black Tulsans from rebuilding. They tried to swindle them out of their land. They refused donations from charitable organizations around the country, telling people they were going to rebuild the Black community." The winter of 1921-22 would find close to 1,000 Black Tulsans with nothing but tents to protect them from the cold and snow.
Hundreds of Blacks left Tulsa immediately after the riot, never to return. One of these was A.J. Smitherman, the editor of the Tulsa Star, whose business had been destroyed and whose name had been added to the grand-jury indictment. Gone too, was Stradford. The day after the riot, he and his wife had been held under "police protection" along with some 6,000 Black residents. But with the help of some white acquaintances, Stradford managed to leave town and eventually made his way to by train to Independence, Kansas, to stay with his brother. The day after his arrival, the Kansas police knocked on his brother's door and arrested Stradford, on the grounds of having incited the riot. The evidence: testimony that the first armed carloads of Blacks had left from in front of Stradford's hotel on Greenwood Avenue. Stradford was quoted as saying after his arrest: "They wanted me and now they have me."
There followed a law-enforcement soap opera. Tulsa wanted Stradford extradited. The attorney general of Oklahoma, along with the Tulsa County attorney, traveled to Topeka to plead with the governor of Kansas, bringing letters "from prominent men in Tulsa" assuring the governor that Stradford "would be given a fair trial and would be adequately protected from mob violence." The governor was convinced and ordered Stradford rearrested. But Stradford was no fool. Already out on bail, he fled with his son to Chicago.
As for Deputy Sheriff Barney Cleaver, he became the toast of Tulsa. Although the town's newspapers showed little remorse that the entire Black section had been burned to the ground, they were sympathetic about Cleaver's losses, which were considerable. Cleaver had amassed $ 20,000 (about $ 200,000 today) worth of real estate on a policeman's pay. If this were not enough to raise questions about Cleaver's conduct, an article about him in the Tribune strongly suggested that he was playing a double game: "In all of Tulsa today there was just one Negro who walked the street openly and unafraid, molested by no one and greeted with a cheery smile by all who knew him."
What had Cleaver done to deserve such good will? Whatever he had done before, he now sided with the whites in blaming his fellow Blacks for the riot. Two days after the riot, Cleaver was quoted as saying: "I am going to do everything I can to bring the Negroes responsible for the outrage to the bars of justice. They caused me to lose everything I have been accumulating and I intend to get them." Get them he did. It was largely Cleaver's testimony, in court and out, that helped convince white Tulsa that it was blameless.
Dick Rowland was released from jail two weeks after the riot. Sarah Page dropped her charges three months later, and left town. Police Chief John Gustafson was found guilty on two counts: dereliction of duty during the riot and "conspiracy to free automobile thieves and collect rewards." Sheriff McCullough admitted to the press later that he had fallen asleep. "I didn't know there had been a riot until I read the papers the next morning at 8 o'clock," he said. Reminded that he too had signed the telegram requesting the aid of the National Guard in the middle of the night, the sheriff said he had not bothered to read it. Richard Lloyd Jones suffered a fitting fate for his role in triggering the riot. Eight years later he commissioned his cousin to build a house in Tulsa. It would be perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright's least successful house, a towering sprawling affair that resembled a penitentiary and leaked like a fishing trawler.
As for the Black community of Tulsa, it soon rebuilt Greenwood without the promised help. In the '30s and '40s, the area experienced something of a revival as one of the country's leading jazz centers. But in the decades that followed, Greenwood decayed. Dissected by highways, emptied by suburban drift and enervated by integration, the neighborhood finally succumbed to the bulldozer. Today, all that remains of "the Black Wall Street" is a single gentrified block of Greenwood Avenue, surrounded by new urban-renewal projects: a new university complex, a duck pond and a new cultural center that houses a jazz museum.
DREAMS OF A MEMORIAL TO THE TULSA TRAGEDY HAD long been popular in the city's Black community, where the riot had never been forgotten. Don Ross, a Black State representative, had been trying to put together some sort of commemoration since the 50th anniversary in 1971. And James Goodwin, a Black lawyer whose family owns the Oklahoma Eagle, had gone so far as to draw up elaborate plans for a memorial and museum.
What was missing was white participation and enthusiasm. Without white support, fund-raising would be far more difficult and the point entirely lost.
Enter Ken Levit. A young law graduate and former staffer for Sen. David Boren, Levit had the fragmentary knowledge of the riot usual among white Tulsans. "I knew that some racial incident of historic proportion took place," he says. "I didn't really understand any of the details--where, when, why, and how." While studying for the bar in the summer of 1994 he came upon Ellsworth's "Death in a Promised Land." Around the same time, a project for Yale Law School took Levit to Argentina, where issues of the past, of memory and reconciliation are as powerful as anywhere in the world. Levit witnessed the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo marching outside the Government House to protest that country's more than 10,000 "disappeared" and realized that Tulsa shared some of the same issues--if on a smaller scale.
When Levit returned to Tulsa, the city's legal community was embroiled in an acrimonious and very public debate about another painful piece of Tulsa's history: the city's cozy relationship with the Ku Klux Klan.
Levit belonged to one of Tulsa's two "inns"--fraternal organizations of lawyers and judges. The other inn was called the Robert D. Hudson Inn, named in memory of one of Tulsa's most accomplished and beloved attorneys. Robert Hudson was the son of Washington Hudson, who during the early 1920s was a prominent trial attorney, the majority leader of the Oklahoma senate and the titular head of the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa.
The Hudson-KKK connection had been vaguely understood by some members of the Robert D. Hudson Inn, but the feeling at the time was that the sins of the father should not be visited upon the son. That position became untenable in 1994, after some yellowing KKK membership rolls had been discovered in a Tulsa attic. Among the names listed around 1930 was that of Robert D. Hudson. A heated debate ensued that spilled over into the Tulsa newspapers.
"If we are to make clear that our view of equal rights and rule of law does not allow any compromise with vigilantism, racism or religious bigotry, we should change the name of this inn," said one of the members who had known and revered Robert Hudson as a brilliant lawyer, generous mentor and gentleman. Leading the forces to keep the name was the man who had suggested it in the first place, Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas R. Brett, founder of the inn and a former protege' and law partner of Hudson. Anguished by the proceedings, Brett wrote his colleagues: "In the process of being politically correct, we should not selectively attempt to rewrite history and condemn a few when the fact is our entire culture was the source of the problem." It was an elegant statement, but the 75 members of the inn cast their ballots, and the name change carried by a single vote.
Somehow that vote seemed to shift the tectonic plates of Tulsa. At a time when "the Hudson issue was beginning to bubble, but was not at a boil," Levit sat down with James Goodwin, a fellow inn member, to talk about the city's need to commemorate the riot. Those conversations eventually led Levit to Don Ross. Before long, Ross and Levit were busy formulating the plans for the 75th anniversary commemorative and raising money for a memorial.
The anniversary ceremony took place last year on June 1. It began with singing, prayers and speeches at Greenwood's Mt. Zion Baptist Church, itself a powerful symbol of the riot, having been torched only two months after its completion, and then lovingly rebuilt over the next 31 years. A crowd of 1,200 overflowed the church. On hand were Benjamin Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP, former senator David Boren, now the president of the University of Oklahoma, Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage and Scott Ellsworth. At one point Rep. Don Ross rose to say that over the last 75 years, no public official had ever apologized for the riot, so therefore he, an elected official, would do so. The irony that a black man was taking on the white man's burden of expiation was lost on no one. The guests then walked a few hundred yards to the dedication of a Maya Lin-style granite slab called the Black Wall Street Memorial.
The day's events left many a Tulsan, black and white, near tears. "That service was something of significance and real power," Levit recalled later. "For me, it was probably one of the most intense moments I have ever experienced. Don Ross was electrifying."
Plans for the commemoration of Tulsa's race riot made the Today Show. And watching Bryant Gumbel on the morning of May 31 happened to be J.B. Stradford's great-grandson, Chicago Circuit Court Judge Cornelius Toole. The judge thought that the Stradford family should be included in any commemoration of the riot, and he called the mayor's office and the Greenwood Cultural Center to lodge his protest. No one returned his call.
The judge then fired off letters, explaining J.B. Stradford's central role in Black Tulsa before the riot. Along with a photographic portrait, he sent this description of the patriarch of the Stradford clan: "He was magnificent, and had the courage and physical strength of a Mandingo warrior." Toole finished by mentioning the memoirs, which are still in the family's possession. "We are of course writing our own story of this era and his life.
Toole's letter set in motion a series of conversations that would lead to another moving ceremony. On October 18, Toole and 20 other members of the extended Stradford clan, who traveled from Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and New York, standing a stone's throw from where the Stradford Hotel once stood, listened as Bill LaFortune formally dropped the charges, and Oklahoma governor Frank Keating granted an honorary executive pardon.
At the request of the family, J.B. Stradford's name was added posthumously to a list of those allowed to practice law in Tulsa.
"It's regrettable that we have come here to recognize an embarrassment, a historical event that never should have happened," said Keating. "Our tragedy as Oklahomans is that [the Stradfords] are not [living] here." And he wasn't overstating the case: No Stradford had ever set foot in Tulsa since J.B.'s hasty departure, but the family had flourished. Stradford's son became a prominent Chicago lawyer and a founding member of the National Bar Association, arguing and winning Hansberry v. Lee, a crucial civil-rights case, before the U.S. Supreme Court. His granddaughter Jewel LaFontant-Mankarious, born one year after J.B.'s escape from Tulsa, would go on to become a deputy solicitor general and U.S. ambassador-at-large. Her son, John Rogers, Jr., is founder and president of Ariel Capital Investment in Chicago, and was named by Time magazine in 1994 as one of the country's most promising leaders under the age of 40. Another granddaughter, Letitia Toole, would become a stage and film actress and a member of the American Negro Theater, acting with Ossie Davis and Sidney Portier. and arrayed in front of Keating during the ceremony were four generations of Stradford's extended family, including a cardiologist, a tennis professional, a sculptor, a ballet dancer, and a movie director.
For his part, Judge Toole was delighted. "It was a wonderful ceremony," said the judge. "The governor spoke and made an apology to the Stradford family; he said something happened that should not have happened, and we know that, but I have never seen such a forceful apology." As for Don Ross, he seemed of two minds. On the one hand, he said, "The African American community of Tulsa can now say we were the victims and not the criminals in this racial upheaval." On the other, Ross still believes reparations are in order. He is thinking of introducing a bill that would pay out a total of $ 6 million to the families that lost everything in the riot. Nancy Little, too, doubts that Tulsa's season of remembrance and contrition can yet come to a close. "There is a time to leave the past behind," she mused. "I think that time is not when something has not been dealt with. Most people still do not know about it."
Perhaps the newsletter sent out by the Greenwood Cultural Center following the Stradford reception said it best. Under a photograph of the new memorial was a bit of verse that went:
"Things ain't what they oughta be, Things ain't what they gonna be, But thank God things ain't like they was."
End of Story...............Or is it?
© 1997 by Jonathan Larsen
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