In dealing with any historical event there are several sorts of evidence that need to be examined. All of these are important, since they tell us different things. However, what they tell us may not carry the same sorts of weight, for a number of reasons, which I will cover below. Before we look at the types of evidence, we really need to look at the assumptions we are going to make when looking at the evidence.
- The first of these assumptions is how you answer the question of whether there is an objective reality that we can ever know, or is history just an artful telling of stories that have some crucial meaning to the listeners.
- If there is an objective reality, then it may be possible to determine facts. If you’ve dug through the rest of this site, you may have come to the realization that I do believe that there is an objective reality, or true sequence of the events and while we may never know that truth, we can, by careful unemotional examination of the evidence, come close to understanding where that objective reality may lie).
- If there is no objective reality, then it is impossible to actually determine anything other than people’s subjective opinions.
- The second assumption is that you should have evidence for something before you can say it happened. Otherwise, it’s not history, it’s literature. Connected to this is the corollary that if you have evidence of something, that evidence means something. You may just have to root it out. If you believe something to be the case, but have no evidence, that’s an opinion; or a hunch. These are useful and good things, but they are not as useful as evidence.
- The third assumption is that the closer evidence is to the event, the more likely it is to be valid.
- The fourth assumption is that reason and logic are valid tools for examining evidence. Emotion is not. Another tool is what is sometimes referred to as Okham’s razor, which can be paraphrased as “the least complicated answer, the one that requires the least amount of outside intervention, the fewest coincidences, and so on, is the answer that is most likely to be true.”
- The fifth assumption here is that when you think you know what happened, you form a hypothesis. Then you test that hypothesis against the evidence that exists. If that hypothesis is contradicted by the evidence, or later evidence emerges that contradicts the hypothesis, you need to reformulate that hypothesis taking that new evidence into account. This is actually the hardest thing for most people to do.
- Finally, and again this is hard for many people, “We don’t know” is an acceptable answer.
Pretend for a moment that you’ve been arrested for a crime and are going on trial. Would you prefer that your freedom, or even your future life, be determined by opinion and emotions, or by evidence that has some proof behind it? And if the evidence changes so that what once looked like your guilt suddenly makes you appear innocent, wouldn’t you prefer to have that evidence considered? That’s all we’re doing here.
So what types of evidence do we have to look at regarding the riot? Oral History, Documentation, and Physical evidence.
Oral history is evidence comprised of “Eyewitness testimony” and “Hearsay” or “Second hand testimony”. Eyewitness testimony involves statements by people who were present at the time, and actually forms the basis of most other sorts of evidence. Even official reports, newspaper articles, and so on, are based on the statements of people who witnessed the event in question. Unfortunately there are some flaws with “eyewitness testimony” starting with the fact that different people will see things differently, with different emphasizes, based on their subjective views of reality. Also, eyewitness testimony has only a certain “window” in which it is at its most accurate — the longer the time between an incident and the testimony, the greater the amount of change in that testimony. This isn’t saying than anyone is lying — ‘lying’ assumes an intentional misrepresentation of the facts. I’m quite certain that most people are more than happy to tell the truth as they know it, but between one interview and another, or even between an event and testimony taken many decades later, their understanding of “the truth” will have changed (for examples, take a look at the differences in accounts on the Accounts page). The eyewitness testimony eventually becomes a story intended to convey subjective impressions, but where actual details can become lost, or altered to make the story more meaningful. A story where hundreds are killed, with bombing from the air, machine guns in the planes, or in tower, or on the hill better convey the horror felt by innocent people who are being shot at, driven and burned out, only coming back to rebuild and finding many never came back, even though the objective information may not support that more telling story. This is especially if it was told to you by someone who experienced those things.
So, are none of the firsthand accounts useful? Actually a number of them are very important, particularly those in Mary Parrish’s book, and in the evidence in the case of Redfearn vs. American Central Insurance Co. These accounts were taken within a few weeks in the case of the first, and a couple of years in the case of the second. But it must be remembered that gradually the purpose of such an account will change as time goes on.
One of the things that will start to effect a person’s interpretation of events is what they are told by other people. Second hand accounts, rumors, hearsay and such are really frowned on as evidence, so it’s surprising that they so often make an appearance in testimony and firsthand accounts. For example, the earliest account that describes aerial bombing of north Tulsa was in a newspaper article (described in Warner’s “Airplanes and the Riot”), then we have in Mary Parrish’s book, we have an account by “A.H” in which turpentine balls are dropped on buildings (although A.H. is apparently describing what he or she has been told), and an anonymous account describing planes passing over the business district, leaving them in flames. Finally we have a reference by White in the Nation that “according to some they [the airplanes] were used in bombing the colored section.” Whether it happened or not (for example, there are a several descriptions of the Greenwood business district being burned by people on the ground, with no reference to aerial bombing), it’s been repeated so often that it seems to be accepted as the truth.
Most rumors and urban legends are easy to believe, especially if we are told them by someone we trust, but that doesn’t actually make them true, and we return to people telling stories that convey an impression, rather than convey facts. They can tell us how the riot victims felt, be we have to be careful with them. For some examples of Legends here, as well as a great story that appears to have some subjective versions of the facts, but also is clearly repeating of what he’s been told.
So, then we turn to the documentation — newpapers, official reports, legal cases, and so on. So are these “better” than the eyewitness accounts? Of course not. Actually, most of them are nothing but firsthand accounts — accounts that have been frozen in time by being written down. They are as subject to misinterpreting the events, lack of understanding, or outright lying to cover things up as any other eyewitness account. But the act of freezing in time “what I saw” remains quite powerful.
We can also then examine other official documents, such as land records, directories, census sheets, weather reports, ephemerae, etc. These serve to help form the framework, and can help to clear up some questions, or expose some rumors.
Photographs serve much the same function as reports of freezing moments in time, although even these can be misinterpreted and misused. For example, all of the photos of dead bodies actually depict only eight dead people — two (and possibly three, although with the burned bodies, determination is a little harder to make) bodies were repeatedly photographed by different people, making it appear that rather than eight, there were 16 or more bodies photographed.
Then we get to physical evidence, which to be honest, we are a little weak on. The buildings were all burned, rebuilt, and then torn back down again decades later to build a highway and even later a university on. The bodies were all buried. Archeology might be able to help us with determining things like numbers of the dead, but until that happens, we have little real physical evidence.
Ultimately we have our evidence, and start looking for what is known as Convergence of the Evidence. This is where multiple sources are saying similar things; and we can work from that, to formulate a hypothesis that can be tested by comparing it to other evidence. For example, if one person says that his car was taken (As is the case with Henry C. Sowders), filled with nine armed black men, and they drove off towards the courthouse, we can assume that he saw the car filled up and assume that he heard the destination, although we don’t know from him whether they got there or not because he didn’t see it. On the other hand, if we have other sources saying that “”several carloads of armed blacks arrived at the courthouse” (Tulsa World); C.F. Gade describes “a carload of colored boys” on Boulder, with weapons, nine people in it, he got them to go back, but that later he saw three carloads of armed black men” we might draw the conclusion that the car Gade met might have been Sowder’s, and that it quite possibly was one of those at the courthouse when the riot broke out. Even better would have been if we had other documents reporting that Sowder’s car was actually taken from him, photographs of the car, and so on.
It is through gathering the evidence and comparing each piece with other pieces of evidence that we can begin to discern what actually happened. What is very difficult for many people is to allow the evidence to tell its story, rather than to impose a story on the evidence.