Transcript of T. J. Essley Interview, 1987.

Transcript of T. J. Essley Interview, 1987.
[Late First Sergeant, Company “B”, Third Oklahoma Infantry Regiment,
Oklahoma National Guard (later Company “L”, 180th U.S. Infantry Regiment)]

[Interviewer unidentified relative.]

Interviewer: OK, go ahead.

T.J. Essley: Oh, ah, when the race riots broke out, I was holding non-commissioned officers’ school at the armory, down on East 6th Street. Uhhh, we had just gotten one light Browning Automatic- that was the first one- and I was the only one who had been schooled on it. So, I was holding non-commissioned officers’ school and was, uh, teaching the, uh, uh, two sergeants and, and the corporals about this, uh, Browning light automatic, when the people began to, uh, crowd in there and asking for arms because of a race riot – race riot on.

So, I run out there and closed the door and told them that we was having school here, a-and, when they’re having military school, civilians are not permitted inside; but, if you’ll please step outside, I’ll get an officer over here in a hurry. They was wanting guns, they was wanting ammunition.

Well, uh, Major James A. Bell just lived across the alley and I sent a corporal across the alley after him and he come over there and he looked out there and by that time, the people had stacked up clear across to 6th Street over to, to Central Park, wanting ammunition. So, he promptly called Major L. J. F. Rooney and, Rooney, uh, a major, er, says, er, a colonel. He called Colonel L. J. F. Rooney.

Colonel Rooney said that, a, “Yes, the-the mayor has called me and asked me to call out the Guard. But I can’t call out the Guard. The governor’s the only one who can call out the Guard. And, I advised him to call the governor.”

Well, the governor told him that he couldn’t.call out the Guard until the sheriff of the county and a judge of the county had called him and told him that things were out of control and they needed, uh, (pause, exhalation) they needed, uh, the National Guard.

Well, uh, the-the colonel told the major to tell the sergeant to get his company together and also to get supply company together. Uh, Captain Frank Van Voorhis was a, was the captain of, of the, uh, uh, supply company. I think I was the first first sergeant of Company L, of the 180th infantry, 45th division after we’ve became part of the 45th division. Well, anyhow, I went out on the first patrol that went out. It, it – about 11: 10 at night. Do you really want me to tell about that thing?

Interviewer: Yeah.

T.J. Essley: Well, uh, we had the old depot down there, the Frisco depot- down – it sat across, uh, Boston Avenue, just south of the railroad track. Now, that is not the, uh, uh, last, uh, uh, depot. The last one was that there Union depot. This was the old, original Frisco Depot. And, uh, about- I went out on the first patrol with Major James A. Bell. He took me and five others in a, an old World War I, uh, army truck, a Liberty truck, sol-solid tire. And, we drove down to just south of the depot and the major said, “Sergeant, you’re the ranking non-commissioned officer. You take two men and go out and see what the, what the, uh, situation is.”

Well, at that time there was trains come through to Tulsa, uh, for St. Louis, headed for St., uh, for Oklahoma City and it had, usually had, from 11 to 13 cars and, it was setting on the tracks. And, on the north side, uh, was an old abandoned, uh, uh, uh, wagon yard and it was full of, of high weeds, way above your head, and the blacks were in that and shooting through that train. They were shooting right on through it. So, I decided the thing to do was to find the conductor and I mounted the train and I run the full length of that train. And, people were laying on the floor and everywhere else begging – Why don’t we stop the riot?- Why don’t you get the train out of here?

I said, “I’m hunting the conductor.” And I went the full length of the train and they, uh, porter told me that the conductor was in the depot. And I got out and went into the depot and he wasn’t sitting in the chairs where they mighta, uh,you’d a chance to get hit- he was setting on the floor with his back up against the walls. The walls on that building was about 14 inches thick. I went up to him- I don’t know where I thought I had the authority- but I asked him, uh, “Why don’t you get that train off the track? These people gonna get hurt and killed in there.” And he said, “Sergeant, I can’t; it’s against the, uh, uh, Interstate Commerce Commission’s rules to leave the station ahead of time without orders. I can leave at- if- If I’m late, I can leave without orders, but I can’t leave ahead of time without orders and it’s not time to leave.”

But, I don’t know where I got that authority, but, I told him to get that train over in the West Tulsa yard and keep it there if he had to, until time to go on. But, uh, uh, “get it outta here now!”

He jumped up and said, “Sergeant, I don’t know if I- you have the authority to tell me that or not. But, I’m not doubting your authority. All aboard- all aboard!” And I mean that train really left there faster than any train – it was a downhill grade anyhow – and it really cleared there fast. I went over to the ticket agent and told him that, uh, I believed you’d better turn out the lights or you wouldn’t have any windows, lights in that building. And, it hadn’t been two minutes till lights all up and down there went out. And, I went back and reported to the major and he said, “Sergeant, you done a, uh, uh, masterful job. Now, get in and we’ll go back down to the armory.”

So, well, about daylight, we had about 50 percent of our men present, but the two lieutenants were out of town. And, Captain John W. McCuen said, uh, “Sergeant, I’ll command A platoon and you command B platoon.” And, at daylight, we’re leaving to march up Main Street to, uh … What’s that street up there?

Interviewer: Uh, Archer?

T.J. Essley: Archer, Brady, Cameron, uh … I can’t think of it, then. There’s something in the telephone book, something that gives ….

Interviewer: Never mind, not important, go ahead.

T.J. Essley: Well, let’s see, uh, (blows into microphone) could be King. So, we march up to King Street, then go east and go down off a road where, uh, uh, go do-down off of a hill there to a- there’s a brick plant down below- and, uh, says, we’ll go … The, the orders from the governor was to not shoot the blacks, but to protect them, uh, the best you can and. and keep the whites out of the black, uh, what do they call it? Niggertown, then – but, it, uh, uh, we called it Negros- and uh send the blacks over to what is now, uh, to the old Convention Hall, which is now, uh, uh, the Brady theatre.

There’s been two different kinds on channel 11 of the race riots, but it was both by black people and nothing could be more misleading than what that was. Uh, we were, uh, told to send these people back to the Convention Hall and it was – held around 4,000 people and, uh, we would round up maybe 25 of them and they’d be whites over there by that time and in order to get them out of there, we’d ask them to please take these people over to the Convention Hall for us. And we’d send as many of them as we could with them. And, we didn’t know it, but we’d filled Convention Hall clear full. And, uh, the parties that told about the, uh, uh, riot on the, on the, uh, tv was telling how that they paraded the blacks up and down town on, on, uh, trucks. Well, it wasn’t till after the riot was over that, uh, we found out we filled the Convention Hall clear full and Mr. Cosden sent his trucks from the refinery over there and picked the blacks up, the surplus, and held them down – hauled them south to the First Methodist Church south, which is on the southeast corner, intersection corner of, uh, Boston and, uh, 5th Street. And we filled that place up, too.

And, finally, about three in the afternoon, when we had our last battle, uh, Captain McCuen told us that, uh, he had got orders to, take, er, send the blacks down to McNulty Park, which is on the northeast comer of 11th and Elgin. And that’s where we took ours to, from that last battle.

Well, from the time we left, uh, we’re down over the hill on King Street. We saw many things and, uh, and, uh, we-we were not to shoot at any of the blacks unless they had a gun and, and, and, wouldn’t uh, drop it when we ordered them to drop the gun.

And, we got down to the comer of Latimer and, Latimer and, uhhh, what was it? (break) Well, the comer of Latimer and Lansing where I was ready to, uh, uh, firing there.

The blacks were firing at us. And, we had quite a, a skirmish there. In the old days why, er, – when the oil fields was drilling around here, there was a boiler repair shop there. Joe, Joe Ord, you know, had a boiler repair shop and it was quite a few old, uh, fire boxes and things laying around there and we was hiding behind those for protection. And, just, uh, north of the intersection of, uh, uh, uh, Latimer and, and, uh, King, er, uh, Latimer and, uh . ..

Interviewer: Lansing?

T.J. Essley: Lansing, uh, there was a house there with a basement underneath it. And, uh, the, the entrance on the left side of the house faced the east and it was an outside entrance. And there was a black in there, uh, with a brick knocked out of the foundation and he was knocking off the white people. He, he, uh, had knocked off three that I, uh, saw.

And, then, uh, when we finally got the things quieted at, at the intersection of, uh, uh, uh, Latimer, and uh, a-and, what’s that again?

Interviewer: Lansing?

T.J. Essley: Lansing. Well, then, I took one private and went north to, to this house and, uh, put, put the private in front and said, “I’m going through this house and go back there and, and, uh, stop this man. And, uh, I had to – It was a duplex and I had to search every room before I went down there. I didn’t want them on both sides of me. B-By the time I got to the back of the house, three white people had come up, uh, to, to the, uh, god dang it! I can’t say it again.

Interviewer: Lansing?

T.J. Essley: Lansing. And, uh, told that little pr, er, young fella that I’d left here to get out from under there in front of the house or we’ll kill you, too. And he says, “Well, now my sergeant’s in there. Said he told me to not have anyone shoot in there until he got out.”

He says, “Get out of the way, or we’ll shoot you, too, you nigger-loving son of a bitch.” And boy, he got out of there.

Now, I’d left the company with, uh, with Corporal Lookeville (sp?), and he went, he went down after the corporal. We’ll I finally, I had to knock, on account of those, uh, those houses didn’t have plaster, it was wooden partitions and splinters was flying out of there; uh, some of them six to eight inches long. And I had to get outta there. So, I took my pistol and knocked the window glass out of the window just over where that man was and put my gun on him and told him, “Throw that gun away, or, or, you can’t live any longer. I’ll, I’ll blast you.” And, he threw that gun away and, uh, every one of them we, we was putting them out of commission. It’ll usually break the stocks on it but it will bend the barrel, uh, so it won’t be any good. So, uh, that’s what I done. I-I bent that that gun, ruined the gun.

And then, I run around the corner just as fast as I could so they’d be sure and see me. And they did and took a shot at me and they, uh, and they, what do you call it? Uh, it just skinned my neck; it, uh, it knocked me to the ground. It, uh, it- as hard as you’d hit me with a, with a ball bat and it was just as hot as any poker you ever felt. And, uh, the guy said, “I missed him.” And, uh…

Interviewer: Who was this that shot at you? A white or a black?

T.J. Essley: No, it was a white man.

Interviewer: White man.

T.J. Essley: And, uh, this in not being recorded, is it?

Interviewer: Yeah.

T.J. Essley: Oh, hell, no, you’ve got to get that off…. (break)

Interviewer: This is not going anywhere. I’m not going to publish this, so…

T.J. Essley: Well, uh, anyhow, 1-1 rolled right up on my knees and the guy says, “Well, I missed him.” And he started at me again and I hit him with a .45, .45, uh, uh, automatic with dum dum bullets and stopped him. And, the other two men didn’t shoot. And, that feller had shot at me with a .45-70 Krag-Jorgensen- that’s what knocked me to the ground. And, uh, we went up there and I took, uh, by that time, uh, uh, Corp … , uh, Lookeville (sp?) had got up there with the other men. And, uh, they were about to kill those two men for shooting at me. And, uh, he would if I’d been hit; they’d killed those two men right then and there. And, L we, uh, took their guns away from them and their revolvers. The guns we’d wrap them around that tree that was right there. And the revolvers – we’d take the pin out that the cylinder spin on- throw then gun one way, the cylinder another way, and the pin another way. And, they just hollered their beads off. “Oh, we’ll get killed, oh, we’ 11 get killed with nothing to protect us with.”

I said, They’re all up and down the railroad track with loudspeakers telling you not to come over here. Now, you just get back the way you got over here.” And, uh, then we went on east from there, on Latimer, crossed the Katy track …

And, just as we’s crossed it, er, one of the captain’s boys come a-arunning down to me; we’d got separated. And, uh, he says, uh, “The captain’s pinned down up there just, a, north of Pine Street and just east of Peoria.” Well, uh, I went on over to, uh, east to, uh, uh, to Peoria and there was one store built there and I climbed a shed and I climbed up on it and looked over and you could see it just as plain as could be. From the northeast corner of the intersection of Pine and, uh, and, uh, Peoria, they’s putting on a new addition there and the trees had been pulled over and there was a street just one, one block east of Peoria – was – McCuen was behind those trees and the blacks was be-between that street and the Santa Fe railroad.

Well, if we woulda just went running straight down Peoria, we’d a got there the quickest, but we’d been in plain sight of, of the blacks and they woulda seen what few number I had. I had 22 men and myself. So, there’s a fence on each side of Peoria at that time and Nellie Bullette- I don’t know if you’d ever got acquainted with Nellie Bullette or not- she knew your dad real well and both the girls and John. Uh, she owned 80 acres over there. And, uh, they was a draw that run from there, uh, east and north, and it crossed, uh, Pine Street right at Utica. There’s streets there now and you’d never even notice it. But, uh, I-I told them, “Now, we’ ll climb over the fence and get over there and we’ll run down that thing till we get east of ’em.”

And, we did. When we got about where that, uh, uh, Buddy’s, Buddy’s, uh, Auto Salvage was, we turned north, climbed over the fences on, on Pine Street, turned north and we’d just about where Bill, Bill Bearden’s, uh, present, uh, Auto Salvage is, we went in there about maybe 100 feet and stopped and I said, “Now, we’ll a, we’s east of the Katy track.”

We, we was in a, a, in a cow pasture- what it was. There’s was a dairy there, Willard used to run it. I said, “Men, we’re getting low on ammunition. Let’s don’t do any shooting and give ourselves away. And, uh, let’s, uh, spread out in case we are seen, so they won’t be shooting into, uh, a crowd.” And, we run, bent over, till we get to the, to the, to the …

Interviewer: Katy pass?

T.J. Essley: fence along the track and this time we won’t climb over it. We’ll climb under it, while one of ’em hold’s it up. (break) and uh, (break) I commanded them right away to surrender. I said, uh, “The, uh, governor’s told us to protect you. Now, if you’ll throw your guns down, we’ll protect you, we’ll take you to safety.”

“Now,” I says, “We’ve got a machine gun and if you don’t, uh, if you don’t throw your guns down, you’ll all be dead within a minute.” So, uh, it didn’t all sound like one bullet (machine gun noise).

Interviewer: Uh huh.

T.J. Essley: It did sound like a machine gun and, uh, it, it took them by surprise and they, they, they throwed down their guns and some of them stood up and held their hands up and others went down praying and I shouted at McCuen to cease fire.

Boy, his head stuck out from behind a stump over there; I never was so relieved in my life. He motioned for his men to come on up. And, I got my men up there then. I said, “Now, keep your guns at ready. We’ll stay here and we’ll watch while McCuen and his men come in.” McCuen disarmed all of them and we moved on up, up the track just a little ways north and he’d send the men through and the women, too; they’ s women with them. And the women shooting just as good as the men was, too. And, uh, they’s standing on that track. They kept looking for that machine gun. (Laughs)

Ah, well, anyhow, finally I-I was talking to Sergeant, uh, Corporal Lookeville and I didn’t see McCuen when he come through the fence; he’s about as close to me as I am to you when I saw him. And, I went up to salute him and he said, “Sergeant,” said, “you pulled a brilliant maneuver.” And I said, “I pulled a Jeb Stuart.”

Conversation continues about General Jeb Stuart, Gettysburge, General George Custer, etc.

 

Muskogee Phoenix, 2 June 1921

BOY STARTED FIRE TO AVENGE MOTHER SHOT BY NEGROES

GUARDSMEN TELLS SENSATIONALLY GRAPHIC STORY OF ARSON MOBS AND AWFUL TERROR

WOMAN SAW CHURCH IN GREAT EXPLOSION

SNIPING PARTIES ATTACKED WHITES FOLLOWING TROOPS AND SHOOTING BECAME GENERAL IN ‘LITTLE AFRICA’

By Phoenix Staff Correspondent

TULSA, June 1 – Within a few blocks of the business heart of Tulsa, to the northeast just a little ways across the Frisco railroad tracks, a devastated battlefield smoulders and smokes tonight.  Here a small flame still flickers lighting the desolation, there a blackened chimney stands gaunt against the sky. Strewn about in the streets, untouched by the flames, lay shattered bits of furniture.

The desolation is all that remains tonight, save the deserted streets and the military patrols, to remind a visitor in Tulsa of last night’s debauchery of fire and murder.

3,000 Homes Razed

The ruins of today, yesterday were Tulsa’s negro district, ‘Little Africa.’  Three thousand homes are in ashes, many of them splendid residences.  Blocks of the negro business district are smoking piles of wreckage.

Out in that field of horror still remain the bodies of many of Tulsa’s unknown dead, the military authorities believe. Complete search of the ruins have been impossible for they have not yet cooled.

It is for this reason that the death list may never be accurately known.  Tonight it ranges from estimates of 500 given on the streets and little credited, to police estimates of 125.  Among them are blacks and whites, men, women and children, babies murdered in their mothers’ arms, women shot down as they sat in their homes, men killed as they sought to kill.

Burned After Daylight

“Little Africa” was burned this morning in th broad light of day by an infuriate mob of white men, many of them only boys armed, some say, by the police, whose way was unavoidably blazed for them by the local companies of the national guard.

Many stories were being told tonight of deeds of gallantry, of wilful slaughter, [stories … and pathetic].

The Temper of the Mob

The national guard armory, first stormed by a mob in quest of ammunition, tonight in a military camp, this morning was an emergency hospital for the negro wounded.  Three scores were treated and their wounds dressed by white nurses.  There a dozen died.

There this morning lay a negro woman of 92 years, shot three times by white rioters.  There an old man, deaf, dumb, and paralytic died of his wounds. It was the armory that a rioter, a rifle upon his shoulder, came this morning with a market basket in his hand. In the basket, wrapped in an old lace curtain, lay the body of a negro baby, not more than a foot in length.

“I don’t know who its people are.” The rioter told Major Paul R. Brown in charge. “I just found it lying out there in Africa and brought it here.”

“Such”, Major Brown said, “is the temper of the mob, a man, his hands red with murder, rendering a final deed of mercy.”

As the correspondent stood on King’s Hill this evening looking out upon the ruins of Little Africa, Mrs. A. Germine, a white woman, approached.

Saw Church Explode

“I saw them set fire to these homes.” She said.  “And they were pretty houses here along the street.  As the men searched the houses for arms and warned the people left the others, the riff-raff, came along and set them afire.

“I saw that church over there—the negro Methodist church ‘explode.’ It was a big explosion.  It was there they had their ammunition and rifles stored.”

In the ashes tonight lay the charred and burned stocks and barrels of many score of rifles giving the truth of her story.

The early rioting of the night from the time a negro fired point blank into a crowd of unarmed whites, and negroes in motor cars began to run down all the white people on the streets until daylight was bad enough, but the annihilation of “Little Africa” was almost unparalleled.

Let First Sergeant T. J. Esley of Company B tell the story.  Esley was attending a non-commissioned officer’s school at the armory when a crowd of several hundred white men attempted to batter down the doors, clamoring for rifles and ammunition, shouting that a mob of negroes was killing white men and women in front of the courthouse.

It was upon word that came to them in such a dramatic manner that the officers of the Tulsa guard, acting on their own responsibility, began to summon their men.  The mobilization in itself if an interesting story, but it must be passed over.

Shortly before midnight, Sergeant Esley and fifteen or more of the guardsmen who had assembled hurried to police headquarters./

“For blocks around the streets were dammed with people,” the sergeant said. “Everyone was in hysteria.  Motor cars loaded with a dozen or more men, their rifles sticking up in the air, dashed back and forth in and out of the crowds.

“For an hour we attempted to patrol police headquarters. Then a call came that the negroes, who had retreated across the tracks into their own part of town, were firing on the Frisco station.  Captain McCune took a detail of about twelve, of whom I was one, and we went to the station.  We stopped about a block away and marched to the depot.

Just Good Targets

“The negroes were firing all right. The captain sent me with three men around in front to make a report.  The Oklahoma City train was standing there, between the station and the negroes.  The blacks were pouring a regular volley through the train windows.

“Passengers in the train were lying flat on the floor on their faces.  The lights were on in the station, while on the other side it was dark and there were lots of signboards.  We were nothing but good targets, so we went back and I told the captain.  He then decided that we could do nothing until daylight.”

It was after the break of the day that the blackest of the great tragedy was enacted, for it was then that the white mob, their way blazed by the national guardsmen, “mopped” the negro section.

The best of the negro residence section-nestled in a valley at the foot of King’s hill.  Here yesterday stood splendid homes that tonight are smouldering ashes.  It was to this crest of King’s hill that Sergeatn Esley and his company were detailed. Down below, in their homes and in the shelter of their outhouses, the negroes lay entrenched.  From their windows rifles flashed and shots fell as hail upon the white section of the hill above.

Machine Gun In Action

At the break of day the battle opened from the hill, the guardsmen lying on their faces poured volley after volley into thehomes below.  A machine gun was brought into action “but it [?ald] “Now and then you could see and then the shots from negrow town grew fewer and fewer finally giving way altogether. I […] the signal for the […] advance.  Home after home […] sometimes […] found […] back behind […]

Vets Follow Troops

[…] They […] further out- […] came the […] or more […] looted the homes the guardsmen had searched carrying off every article of intrinsic value.

The advance into “Little Africa” had [little more than] begun than the flames [followed in] its wake.  There is no  […] fire to that first […] Esley told. It was a [?] year old boy.”

“The captain went back to remonstrate with him to ask him why.  And the boy told him. His name is Dreary or something like that.” The sergeant said.

“His home stands on the hill overlooking ‘Little Africa.’ His mother was sitting upon the front porch of her home last night, her husband at her side, when a negro slipped up behind her and shot her through the back. She died in her husband’s arms.  It was then that the boy joined the mob.  He saw red, he defied the captain and the whole state miltia.”

The spark had been kindled.  A hundred militiamen might be able to battle an army of negroes at their front but they could not rout two thousand heavily armed white men, their red blood lust aroused at their backs.

As the troops pressed forward every home was fired.  But it was not long before they again met armed resistance.

Let the story again be told as it came tonight from Sergeant Esley’s lips:

“You see,” he said. “We were getting out of the range of our first fire, we had passed the zone we had silenced. They began sniping at us from every house it seemed.

Fired at Negro’s Feet

“After we had gone aways I noticed Bame of the service company and another man trapped a little way off.  They signaled to me and I went with a civilian who had been helping me in searching the houses to help them. They were under a cross fire.  I could see that.

“I could see where the shots were coming from, but I couldn’t see the niggers.  Then I looked under a shack and saw the big feet of one nigger who was doing the shooting.  I shot at those with my .45 and I could tell I hit them by the way he first picked up one then the other.  He started to run and Bame got him.  We ran around the corner of the house and a big nigger, one of these who were in the twenty-fourth infantry, good soldiers, stepped in front of us and shot my companion in the stomach.

When he stepped out Bame could see him and he shot him twice, once in the shoulder, and once in the breast.  You know that nigger just kept on firing.

“I shout and hit him in the stomach and thigh, tearing half of it away and he started to run, shooting backward under his arm as he did it.

“Pretty son he came back from around a nearby house, his hands above his head.  I could see he was staggering.  He came up to us and said, “Well you boys give us more than we got overseas.  I’m from the twenty-fourth.  I just wanted to shake hands with you and tell you you’re there.”

And then, Esley said, “he dropped forty dollars, two tens and a twenty at my feet.  I picked it up and gave it to him. “You better take it, you might need it.”

“’No boys,’” he told me, “I’m afraid I’ll never need this money.” We carried him back and he died just about five minutes after my companion who had been shot in the stomach.

A little further on the sergeant said four negroes were sniping from one house.  They guardsmen fired at the puffs and then rushing the building broke in the door.

While the troopers were inside arresting the negroes, the white mob opened fire on the house, rending its walls with a terrific volley.  Esley jumped through a window pane, sash and all, and escaped with a “scratch” made by a bullet that seared the back of his neck.