Authors: Scott Ellsworth
Death in a Promised Land
Death in a
The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Foreword by John Hope Franklin
Louisiana State University
Press Baton Rouge
Published by Louisiana State University Press
Copyright © 1982 by Louisiana State University Press
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America
Designer: Albert Crochet
Typeface: VIP Trump Medieval
Typesetter: G&S Typesetters, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Death in a promised land.
1. Tulsa (Okla.)—Riot, 1921. 2. Tulsa (Okla.)— Race
Relations. I. Title. II. Title: Tulsa race riot of 1921.
F704.T92 E44 976.6‘86 81–6017
ISBN 978-0-8071-1767-5 (paper) AACR2
“Take Me Back to Tulsa” words and music by Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan
Copyright 1941 by Peer International Corporation
All rights reserved including the right of public performance for profit
Used by permission
Louisiana Paperback Edition, 1992
14 13 12 11 10 09
15 14 13 12
The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.
To my mother and father
That which we do is what we are. That which we remember is, more often than not, that which we would have liked to have been; or that which we hope to be. Thus our memory and our identity are ever at odds.
“The Golden Age/Time Past”
In the spring of 19211 was only six years old, but the events in Tulsa in late May and early June were permanently etched in my mind. For some years my family had been living in Rentiesville, an all-Negro village some sixty-five miles south of Tulsa. I was born there, in the post office, where my father was postmaster, the justice of the peace, president of the Rentiesville Trading Company, and the town’s only lawyer. There was not a decent living in all those activities; and when my father left in February, 1921, to open a law office in Tulsa, the family was to follow in the summer. As my mother completed her teaching stint in Rentiesville that spring, I was as anxious as my brother and sister (our older sister was away in a Tennessee boarding school) to move to the big city.
Then it happened! Tulsa was burning! The news of the Tulsa riot reached the little village slowly and piecemeal. In 1921 there were no radios or television sets, of course. And Rentiesville had no telephones, or even a telegraph to connect it with the outside world. We had to depend on news of the riot that was relayed from Tulsa to Muskogee, where it was printed in the
which was dropped off at Rentiesville by the Katy Railroad mail and passenger train. Black Tulsa had been destroyed, burned out, we learned. Many blacks had been killed. But the paper did not say who they were, and we had no word from my father. Our mother put the best interpretation on the news, trying to allay our fears. It seemed like years before we learned a few days later that my father was safe.
In 1921 and for the next few years, the significance of the Tulsa riot to me was that it kept our family separated. The assets that my father had accumulated in those few months in Tulsa were destroyed in the riot, and our move there had to be postponed indefinitely. Meanwhile, my father was busy fighting city ordinances that seemed designed to obstruct black Tulsa’s efforts to rebuild. In that he was successful, but success in bringing the family together again came more slowly His clients were poor people, and it took time to collect the small fees they could afford. Finally, on Thursday, December 10, 1925, my mother, who had quit her teaching job, packed our belongings and moved to the home in Tulsa that my father had rented for us.
Everyone who experienced the race riot in Tulsa or was touched by it in some way, as I was, had his own view of what happened, what was the aftermath, and what were the long-range consequences. When I arrived in Tulsa, at ten years of age, the collective wisdom in the black community had made certain conclusions about the riot. One was that Dick Rowland, whose allegedly improper advances toward a white girl precipitated the riot and who was later acquitted, was, along with all the black Tulsans, the victim of “riot fever” raging in the white community. Another was that many more whites were killed during the riot than any whites were willing to admit. If one went to court regularly, as I did with my father in the late twenties, one would be interested to hear cases involving the estate of some white person who died on or about June 1, 1921. One was always tempted to conclude that the deceased lost his life in the riot. Another view was that whites looted the homes of Negroes before burning them. Rumor had it that following the riot, Negro women would encounter white women wearing clothing or carrying some item recognized by the Negro women, who would simply claim the property and take it.
These conclusions seemed necessary for the continued self-esteem of Tulsa’s black community. Whether or not the conclusions were valid, they had the desired effect. The self-confidence of Tulsa’s Negroes soared, their businesses prospered, their institutions flourished, and they simply had no fear of whites. After 1921, an altercation in Tulsa between a white person and a black person was not a
incident, even if there was a loss of life. It was just an incident. Such an attitude had a great deal to do with eradicating the fear that a Negro boy growing up in Tulsa might have felt in the years following the riot.
Scott Ellsworth has done a magnificent job both of researching the riot and writing about it. Sixty years have passed, and there are not many people alive who are able to recall the events with the reliability that the historian requires. One must be extremely careful, moreover, in using sources, oral or written, about an incident involving such deep emotions. Ellsworth has written with care and good judgment, appreciating the full dimensions of the tragedy, but resisting the temptation to be pretentiously maudlin or excessively moral. We all have our personal versions of the riot, but Ellsworth has written an account of the events that comes as close to being
definitive history of the Tulsa riot as I have seen. In doing so he has written a version for all of us, meanwhile warning us to be careful in the way we use our own version. On his behalf I invite the reader to take most seriously his account, which has both integrity and authenticity.
John Hope Franklin
Death in a Promised Land
Bill Williams once asked his father why he had come to Oklahoma. “Well,” he replied, “I came out to the promised land.” Indeed, when John Williams and his wife Loula came to Tulsa during the first years of the twentieth century, it was for them a place of promise. John was from Mississippi; Loula was a Tennessean. John had worked for a railroad in his home state, and his knowledge of steam engines helped him to secure a job in Tulsa at the Thompson Ice Cream Company, which used steam power to make its products. Although John and Loula Williams were by no means the first black residents of Tulsa, they came at a time when the city’s black and white populations, though growing, were still relatively small. There was not a black doctor in Tulsa, then located in Indian Territory, in 1905 when Loula gave birth to Bill. She chose to travel to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to a black physician there.
John’s work at the ice cream company paid well enough that the Williamses became the first black Tulsans to own a car. In those days, most automobile owners would repair their own cars, and John was very adept at working on his. As Tulsa’s population climbed and more and more Tulsans purchased automobiles, many of them took their cars to John Williams for repair work. This extra source of income soon became so lucrative that John quit work at the ice cream company and opened a full-time garage of his own, along Greenwood Avenue, which soon became the center of the city’s black business district.
About 1912, the Williamses built a three-story brick building on the northwest corner of Greenwood and Archer avenues. On the first floor was a confectionary, complete with a twelve-foot fountain and table seating for nearly fifty people. If John had a mechanical mind, Loula had an entrepreneurial one, and the confectionary which she managed soon became a money maker. She sold ice cream, candy, and sodas, and this confectionary was one of black Tulsa’s first commercial refreshment spots other than bootleg whiskey joints. On the second floor of the building was the apartment where the Williams family lived, while the third floor was rented out as office space to dentists, doctors, and lawyers. Greenwood, as the district was called, was fast growing into a thriving business center.