Some Questions about the Race Riot of 1921

These are just some questions that have occurred to me during the research on this project.  These are not intended to attack anyone, or to damage anyone’s long held beliefs.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere,  the basic events are not in contention.   There are just some peripheral detail things that keep coming up.

How many people died?
No one knows.  To me, the question is not a relevant one.  Even if only one person had died, what happened was wrong.   If the official totals around forty are right, it’s horrible enough that to make up larger numbers to make it sound worse than it was, is a trivialization of the real suffering.  But that’s just me.   However, in order to get as accurate a picture of the events as possible, I have been trying to compile a list of people that can be reasonably proven to have died in the events.

Questions related to questions of the dead:
Can a human body be totally reduced to ash in a house fire, so that there’s nothing left?
I’m still looking for accessible documentation to support the following assertion, and will update this when I find it, but fire experts tell me that human bodies are rarely totally consumed in house fires, and there is some reason to believe that they can not be.

The River?
Several sources have suggested that the bodies were taken down to the river and dumped.  If we’re talking a couple of hundred corpses, where did they wind up?  Now, I’m no expert on the forensics of bodies in water, but let’s just think about this for a second.  Certainly, when they were dumped into the river, the bodies may well have sunk (although their lungs may have retained enough air to keep them from sinking completely).  In any case,  after a few days (particularly in June of a warm summer), decomposition of the bodies would have made enough gas that the bodies would have floated back up to the surface.  It would be reasonable to assume that if this were the case, at least some of the floating bodies would have been seen, or found by people downstream.  Granted, in the 65 or so miles the Arkansas River meanders down to Muskogee (more like 40 miles as the Crow flies), it’s probable that in the weeks to come, as decomposition continued, at least some of the bodies would probably have gotten caught in the undergrowth, on sand bars, become lodged in hollows in the bank, or whatnot, finally breaking up, sinking away (assuming that no one else bothered to pull them out), leaving their bones littered along the sandy (and nowadays frequently revealed) bottom of the river.  I’m thinking that people in Jenks and Bixby should have commented on it.

The Mass Burials?
To be fair, I have my doubts that, based on the fact that the Tulsa newspapers pretty much agree on the numbers of bodies found, and that no one reported mass burials at the time, there are such.  But legends have come down that there are such burials in Oaklawn Cemetery, New Block Park, and one in the old Booker T. Washington Cemetery (now part of Roaring Oaks Burial Park), as well as dumped into ravines in the Osage Hills, an abandoned mine shaft at 21st and Yale, and probably other sites I have missed hearing about.  But if we know where they are supposed to be, here is NO reason not to excavate, and prove the issue one way or another.  To do anything else is, to me, unforgivably irresponsible.  Asserting something to be true does not make it true.  And the people who died deserve the truth to be known – whatever that truth may be.

Oaklawn Cemetery:

Booker T. Washington Cemetery:

Rentie Grove, sometimes referred to as Rentie, was an all-black community that existed between 81st and 91st on Harvard. [Both Booker T. Washington and Rentie Grove Community Cemetery still exist, although the Calvary Cemetery fills most of the land between them.]

Abandoned Coal Mine Shaft:
This one’s easy.  This is supposed to be at 21st and Yale, at the Fairgrounds, someplace like that.  The following map is based on Hemish, LeRoy, A.  “Coal Geology of Tulsa, Wagoner, Creek, and Washington Counties, Oklahoma”  Oklahoma Geological Survey (Map GM-33).   Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1990:

There is such an abandoned mine shaft about a mile away from 21st and Yale, but nothing at the fairgrounds.  Not shown on this map, there are also a number of them a mile north of 11th (Just northeast of Admiral and Yale).

Note 14 March 2008: Recently I ran across a reference that the graves were in a mind shaft under a Sears parking lot.  There is actually a mine shaft there (that would be the one listed above), although I don’t know anything.  I do need to look deeper into this since the information that has surfaced since this was written makes it clear that they may also be talking about the 1921 Fairgrounds, which were closer to downtown and north of Admiral.

The Pictures?
If there were so many bodies, why would different photographers just take different pictures of the same bodies, instead of pictures of different bodies?

Note 14 March 2008: Someone was mentioning to me recently that they had heard that the bodies were all incinerated, and that’s why there’s no trace of them.  Many were even supposed to have been burned in the coal fire incinerator in the Convention Center (Now the Brady Theater).  This is supposed to even be mentioned in the “ghost tour” of downtown Tulsa.  It’s interesting that the stories evolve over time.

Was there a bombing?

First, we do know that aircraft were used during the invasion of 1 June, and at the very least they were used to spot pockets of Blacks, and perhaps fleeing groups.  This is consistent with the primary role of aircraft in WWI.

There is no real contemporary evidence that any bombing occurred, beyond the single account of “A.H.”, and the implication in the account by “Anonymous”  in Mary Parrish’s excellent compilation of accounts.   “A.H.”‘s account is not clear that it is a first hand account of seeing such a bombing, and “Anonymous”‘s account doesn’t actually refer to a bombing.  Later accounts, such as B.C. Franklin’s, W.D. William’s, and Robert Fairchild’s were all taken many years after the event, and none of them are clearly first hand accounts, but may in fact be repeating things they were told by other people.

Granted, I’m not an expert on this, but I am told that the Race Riot Commission has reviewed evidence that it is difficult to hit a target accurately with an aerial bomb of any sort.  Perhaps this should be tested (a simple test would involve taking up a biplane and seeing if a house sized target could be hit from the air by a bottle of paint or something).

Of the reports, three are specific about what was supposed to have been dropped: “turpentine balls” (“A.H.”),   “kerosene bombs” (W.D. Williams), and “aerial bombs” (B.C. Franklin).  Since one of these was reported only three weeks after the events, I would be inclined to think that if anything was dropped, it would be flammable liquid.

The simplest (and hence most plausible) answer is that no, no bombs were dropped, and I’m inclined to assume, in the face of no evidence to the contrary, that this is the case.
According to the paper, the Race Riot commission has chosen compromise on this topic, noting both of the beliefs.  I suppose we’re just going to have to settle for that, rather than continue to search for a better answer.

Note 14 March 2008: There have been other accounts of fire bombing (and even “explosive devices”) that have come to light.  Most of these are still from long after the events, but not all.  The best may have been in the Chicago Defender, on the 11th of June.  There is also an account in the Smitherman materials (in his poem, specifically).  I’m still not entirely convinced, but the use of bottles full of flammables is at least within the realm of plausibility.

Why did they round people up?
This one bothered me for a long time, because it really doesn’t make any sense – unless you are wanting to make things easy for the looters.  If you just wanted to kill people, the easy way would have been to use the white mob to just shoot people when they surrendered.  Now, granted, most humans thankfully seem to find it difficult to murder in cold blood (although, considering the murder of  Dr. Jackson, and the shooting of Cpt. Walker, there was at least one young man among the Special Deputies on Standpipe Hill who obviously had no such trouble), but we have sufficient examples from places where “ethnic cleansing” was occurring, or massacres such as My Lai, to suggest that if the intent was just to kill people, rounding them up would not be needed.

It finally occurred to me that I was looking at it from the wrong perspective.   Looking strictly from a military perspective, rounding up a suspected hostile population, and detaining them until they can be disarmed, then releasing them as they are shown no to be hostile makes a certain amount of sense.   Moreover, the local Home Guard, under Leo Rooney, had some experience rounding up and detaining citizens (e.g The “Slacker Raid” of 17 Aug 1918, in which 2,000 suspects were rounded up and detained).  The activities of the local National Guard, as evidenced by their reports, as well as the large number of “American Legion” members who were placed in charge of various units, clearly indicate that the local military and veterans were in charge of the White forces, and that this was handled as a military operation.

Please note that I am not suggesting that this was the right thing to do in Tulsa.  By doing so well before the declaration of Martial Law violated the civil rights of the detainees.  Since Tulsa was not under Martial Law until after the Black population was detained, there was no legitimate basis for such detention.  Furthermore, doing so, without providing for some sort of defense of private property was clearly an illegal act (violating of articles 46 and 47 of the 1907 Hague Convention, to which the US subscribed).

The evidence of Walter White:
Walter F. White was a very reputable author and journalist, who wrote a lot for the NAACP, and was hired by them in 1918 to investigate lynchings in the South.  In 1921, just after the Riot, he wrote an article for The Nation called “The Eruption of Tulsa” – not a bad piece, but aside from subtle suggestions that he’s actually spoken to some of the witnesses, there’s no statement that he actually was in Tulsa during the events. It contained a number of details regarding the atrocities committed during the subsequent events after the riot.  In 1929, he wrote an article for the American Mercury, “I investigate lynchings” in which he is discussing his career as a journalist. In this article, he explicitly states that he was in town to investigate the Riot. He claimed that “that evening” he signed up as one of the “special deputies” and so implying that his more lurid descriptions were first hand accounts.

The problem I’m having with this is the time frame. The sparking event (an encounter between a young black man, and white woman) occurred Monday Morning. The young man was arrested on Tuesday, and the article that is said to have triggered the lynch mob cam out around 4-5 pm on Tuesday. Ok, my question is — is it plausible that he heard about the lynch mob, and then made it down to Tulsa in time to join the Special Deputies?

The reason that I’m wondering is that his articles are crucial to the development of some of the mythological  elements. If they are first hand accounts, that means they have the authority of the other first hand accounts, most of which don’t describe the more extreme events. Or are they second hand accounts, and hence, no more authoritative than any of the other accounts?

Walter F. White

[More recently:  Since the publication of the Race Riot Commission materials, I have seen a reference that White had been invited to Tulsa before the riot to look into something else, and so he was here at the time.  I haven’t seen that corroborated in any of White’s material, other than the articles, but I can accept it as a working hypothesis while look more deeply at this.]

The machine guns.
Several of the first hand accounts by the Blacks state very clearly that there were two machine gun emplacements, one at Stand Pipe Hill and the other on the Grain Silo south of the tracks at Archer.

However, the National Guard has always maintained that they never let their machine guns or automatic rifles out of the Armory. Who is right?

The report of the National Guard commander, LTC Rooney indicated that a machine gun was supplied by MAJ Daley who indicated that “we dug it up”, and Rooney assumed it came from the Police Department.  It was “not in repair and could only be used only as a single shot piece.”  He had it placed on the back of the NG truck with a crew of three ex-service men, including CPT Wheeler.  The weapon was displayed at various sites through out the night (which might have led to the belief that there was more than one in use) before being set up on Sunset Hill (slightly to the NE of Standpipe Hill (an understandable error).

As can be seen in the following photographs (one from Halliburton, two from Hower – used without permission) that the weapon in question is an M1917 Browning water-cooled machine gun.  There is no ammunition in evidence, although Rooney said it had a single belt.  Nor is there any indication of the water cooling apparatus, which may be indicative of its poor repair.

Machine gun on truck at police station

Where did this weapon come from?  It is interesting that, as detailed as MAJ Daley’s report is, he makes no mention of “digging up” a machine gun.  If there was only the one, why was there a report of another on the Grain Silo?

LTC Rooney as a Captain (before 1919)

MAJ Daley (before 1919)

Note 22 May 2007: During a recent discussion with reporter Ben Fenwick about the machine gun pictures, we more closely examined the photos, and came to some basic agreements – there is a hose that comes out of each of the weapons, although it is not clear where it goes to.  The weapons should have a water tank mounted on the tripod, or otherwise nearby.  There is no tank visible, so it is not likely that these weapons were meant for a lot of action.  However, it may well be that there were more than one since the truck in the middle photograph is a closed cab, while the other two photos seem to be showing the same vehicle.  In all three images, there is a person kneeling near the left side of the weapons, as though prepared to feed ammunition (and the M1917 is a left hand feed).

“Black Sources versus White Sources”?
This came up several weeks ago from a quote in the paper from one of the Commission members.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was deeply offended by the comment.  There are no “black” sources or “white” sources.   At worse, there is a dichotomy between written documentation, and oral history, and to suggest otherwise is, to me, an insultingly racist comment – apparently intended to evoke an emotional response rather than a rational on.  And for me, clearly, it did.  I am a firm believer in the premise that a person, or people, should be considered innocent until proven guilty.  For a better look at written documentation versus oral history, check under Methodology.

What is “Choc beer”?
Choc beer (“Choctaw Beer”) and “Choc joints” were mentioned at the time as having contributed to the riot.   The Tulsa World (10 July 1921) described it as a home brewed drink that rendered the drinker temporarily insane.  This seemed a little extreme, particularly since there is at least one establishment in Krebs that still serves a selection of Choc Beers.  Otis Clark, in his interview “Out of the Shadows” Tulsa World (8 March 2000) describes “Choctaw beer, a thick intoxicant, as white as milk, made from the Choctaw root.”  However, George Milburn, in his essay “Oklahoma” Yale Review (March 1946), pp.515-526, referred to it as “Choctaw Beer, made of water and corn meal, sometimes spiced with a native berry, once used by Indians to poison fish, which provides a narcotic ingredient in lieu of alcohol”.  Supposedly it was a favorite of Pretty Boy Floyd.  Now, I know that corn can be used to make a beer with a reasonable amount of alcohol, although it seems to be pretty low on the Beer connoisseur’s list of acceptable grains.  I wonder also if it’s possible that “Choc beer” is generic term, and that individual brewers made different recipes.  According to legend other ingredients might include tobacco, moonshine and so on.

Choctaw Root is, I suspect, Black Indian Hemp (also known as Canadian Hemp, American Hemp, Amyroot, Bowman’s Root, Indian Physic Bitter Root, Rheumatism Weed, Milkweed, Wild Cotton), but I can not imagine what use it would be in making beer.

I assume that the berries referred to above are Fishberry (also known as Levant berry, fish killer, hockle elderberry, Indian berry, picrotoxin, louseberry, poisonberry. Cocculus fructus, Cocculus indicus, Anamirta cocculus, A. paniculata, Menispermum cocculus, M. lacunosum, Cocculus suberosus and C. lacunosus) which has been known to be mixed into beer recipes in the past, although this berry is poisonous.  I am told that it does tend to make drinkers very emotional, and irritable.  OTOH, the “Indian” in the name seems to be “India”, so I don’t know whether it was used in Oklahoma.

Clearly more research is called for.

Who’s fault was it?  Who’s responsibility was it?
That’s a tough call.  If you have read my earlier paper on the topic, ten years ago I suggested that both groups of people were responsible for different things.  I think my earlier position on organized agitators on either side was probably more extreme than I intended.  While it is not impossible that there were Black political agitators, there is no more evidence for their presence in this case than there is for the presence of the KKK prior to the riot.  What was most likely, in my opinion, is that the KKK and the A.B.B. typified pre-existing political beliefs already in some of the participants of the riot.  In short, racism and self defense.

That there was racial antagonism is pretty clear, both in Tulsa in general, as well as the rest of the country,  Not only was it a culture where White dominant racism was not only tolerated, but in fact it was encouraged.  In Tulsa, this was evidenced by numerous cases of police abuse in the preceding months (as discussed in Gill, Ellsworth, and so on).  On the flip side of the coin, it is reasonable to assume that, as with anyone who has become sensitized to seeing and thereafter sees things through the lens of that sensitivity, Blacks, who are used to receiving racism – intended and unintended, major and minor, every day of their lives, may see a racial bias – whether it’s there or not.  This sort of perspective can ultimately lead to anger.

Anger existed on both sides of the situation.  Many of the Blacks were angry because of their treatment at the hands of the White.  Many of the Whites were angry at the Blacks although exactly why escapes me.  Perhaps it was frustration, fear – of change, of accepting that Blacks were equal to them – perhaps it was guilt.  I don’t know.  I do know that this anger was exacerbated by a number of economic reasons: unemployment, poverty, crime, and so on.

It is also clear that there was a perception of a weak authority, that’s why both the Whites and the Blacks who went to the Courthouse took the law into their own hands.  The decision to lynch Rowland, as well as the past vigilante mentality in Tulsa, and Oklahoma in general, showed a total lack of confidence in the legitimacy and power of the “Authorities”.  The past vigilante behavior in Tulsa, and the realities of the lynchings of Blacks across the country made it obvious that if the Whites would lynch other Whites, lynching a Black man for an alleged rape attempt, wouldn’t be that big a deal.  The Black perception that the Authorities might not be able to protect Rowland (much less willing to protect him) was a totally understandable one.

So, these things, added together led to two angry mobs meeting, a lightly armed, or unarmed White mob and an armed Black mob.   Both groups, in taking the law into their own hands, share some responsibility.

After the Riot had begun, the para-military response, led by the the National Guard, the veterans in the American Legion, and the police force, while understandable, was really inappropriate since there had been no declaration of Martial Law.  Moreover, the rounding up of the civilian Black population allowed the looters free reign, which led to the destruction of 35 blocks of a North Tulsa neighborhood.  The fact that this was not stopped by the “authorities” in charge before the arrival of General Barrett and his troops, as well as the failure of Barrett and his soldiers to stop the looting and burning when they arrived further implicates the military authorities.

This leads to the obvious question “was there a conspiracy”?

Was there a Conspiracy?
There is a belief among some modern Blacks that there was an organized conspiracy among the White “Elites” to burn out the Blacks, and then rezone the district for industrial purposes.  In support of this, they cite the aircraft, the bombing, the burning, and the post riot attempts to buy up the land, to rezone it, and to institute construction codes that made it difficult for some Blacks to rebuild, not to mention the failure of the Insurance Companies to pay off, and the apparent attempts later to cover up the fact of the Riot.  And, on the face of it,  the circumstantial evidence is suggestive.  Unfortunately, as with most Conspiracy Theories, there is no smoking gun, no real evidence.   Moreover, all of those details can be explained in other ways.

There is clear evidence of an inappropriate military response, including the use of spotter aircraft — all the details of which strongly echo the veteran’s all too experience in Europe.  The incompetence of the authorities in charge to deal with the looting and burning, while probably criminal, fails to prove an organized plan.  Instead, it seems more to have been the pathetic blundering of men who had forgotten that they were not at war, and others who failed to do their duty to stop the looting until it was far too late.

I can not say why there were not more arrests and prosecutions (the only person prosecuted for the Riot was that of a Black man who was arrested for carrying a weapon, and his sentence was fairly light), unless it was an attempt to try and put the events in the past, or perhaps a realization that such prosecutions would harm more people, both Black and White, than just letting it go and risk tearing the city further apart.

There is plenty of evidence of an attempt to take advantage of the situation, an attempt that failed if we judge by the later success of the Black community to rebuild and surpass their previous condition (something that should be honored and not forgotten).

The presence of the “riot clause” in insurance policies in Oklahoma at the time is many things, unfortunate, perhaps criminal, but not a clear sign of a conspiracy.

The silence regarding the Riot is an interesting phenomenon, in that it doesn’t appear to have been an immediate response, and to a great extent something that existed on both sides of the Race line.  The destruction of the articles that describe the riot seem more to me an attempt of a person or people who were ashamed of what had happened, and were trying to obscure something that could make the city look bad.  The “Culture of Silence” that seems to have existed for many years has faded (unless you count the failure of the Race Riot Commission to dig up the mass graves rather than risk harming their credibility).  I assume this will continue as the the people who could be most harmed by examining the events, those who lived through them, continue to pass away.

All things considered, I’d have to say no, there is no real proof of a conspiracy.  Obviously some people will continue to believe in one, but with luck and time, it can be hoped that this too will fade.

6 thoughts on “Some Questions about the Race Riot of 1921

  1. You are a fool. A misinformed, deluded fool. ONLY a white man could dare to say “Both groups, in taking the law into their own hands, share some responsibility.” And, FYI, I’m not black, and I would NEVER dare to make such an asinine claim after studying this episode as much as I have. Obviously a bit more than you.

    One source you have obviously missed:
    It’s the story of a TRUE Christian White Man of Tulsa.

  2. Sir, I cannot say that I have enjoyed reading your Race Riot works, as such a subject is not something one can enjoy, however your careful study and the quality of your work is notable and laudable. I read a great deal of mankind’s history and there are far too many poor writers. Thank you for your efforts to properly document this event.

  3. One thing that I am surprised you did not mention as to why the blacks were detained would be one that seems obvious to me. Even with the rampant racism, what if they rounded them up to protect them from further harm? There was no way to stop the rioting with out removing at least one group from the situation and there was no way the whites would have been accepting of the situation so the best idea was to remove the blacks. Just an idea.

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