Tulsa’s Shame

Race riot victims still wait for promised reparations.

By Adrian Brune

FEBRUARY 28, 2002

Sitting in a small meeting room in a Unitarian Universalist church slightly north of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, people of different races and age groups have gathered. Between bites of doughnuts and sips of coffee, they strategize about their next move, every now and then scribbling ideas with red and green markers on white paper flip charts. “Tie riot in with September 11 as an act of terrorism,” reads one line on the “Objectives” list. “Circumvent local politicians and officials by filing a class-action lawsuit,” reads the line below it.

Members of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition had hoped they wouldn’t be at this place again–square one. After all, the State of Oklahoma had put together a commission to study the matter nearly five years before, and in 2001 it recommended that the state make reparations to the 130 survivors of what some call the worst race riot in US history–the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. More than 300 blacks were killed and 10,000 left homeless after a mob of white deputies and Oklahoma National Guardsmen descended on the all-black Greenwood section of Tulsa, burning everything in sight. “Reparations were promised by civic and city leaders of the time but did not come through,” says State Representative Don Ross, whose district encompasses Greenwood.

Instead, last spring the state decided to establish committees to establish a race riot memorial, as well as a scholarship and a community development fund for this underdeveloped, mostly black area known as North Tulsa. “Those were the concepts that were politically possible,” Ross says. But the state didn’t put any money into any of the committees, Ross confirms, adding that “some private funds have been raised.”

Subsequently, the state denied that the report assigned it any responsibility–even though the report made it clear that city sheriffs deputized people who participated and implied that a unit of the state militia was involved in detaining blacks. “I have carefully reviewed the finding of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and, contrary to the statement in your letter, I do not believe that it assigns culpability for the riot to the state,” wrote Governor Frank Keating in an October 2001 letter to the Tulsa Reparations Coalition. He further noted that a state law prohibits Oklahoma from making reparations for any past mass crime committed by its officials or on the state’s behalf.

What’s left to do? “Sue,” says Mark Stodghill, the head of the Reparations Coalition. To that end, Stodghill’s group has organized a legal committee, which is exploring the possibility of filing a lawsuit against Tulsa that would challenge the existing law and seek reparations. “Time has run out and the survivors are dying,” says Stodghill, a Tulsa native who works as an investigator in the city’s human rights office. He says that people in Oklahoma don’t talk about reparations, because it comes too close to broaching the topic of racism, one that many Tulsans stay as far away from as possible. But blatant racism is exactly what Stodghill and the group want to bring to the table. While members believe a memorial will help Tulsans remember the riot, they say it won’t pay the debt Tulsa owes the black survivors. Ironically, a memorial probably won’t help any of the white citizens remember the riot, because very few of them ever set foot on the north side of Interstate 244, the dividing line between the white and black parts of town.

Stodghill has an influential ally in John Gaberino, the head of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce and the Race Riot Task Force, a group wanting to raise private funds for reparations. The two do not necessarily see eye to eye on how to accomplish the goal, though. Gaberino wants reparations for the survivors of the race riot and scholarship money for their descendants. To that end, he supports raising funds privately and is not necessarily in favor of a lawsuit. But he also says he believes something must be done soon to force the issue. “I have learned so much this past year, not only about that horrific event but about the current state of race relations in Tulsa,” Gaberino says. He says that reparations are a way to try to make up for what happened “the same as private foundations and the government are making payments to the survivors and families of those killed in the 9/11 tragedy.”

An effort to reconcile race relations is under way, says Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage, pointing to the National Conversation on Race, Ethnicity and Culture, which is funded by the National Conference for Community and Justice, an organization designed to foster a healthy relationship between Christians and Jews. “Relations are improving because of these private efforts,” Savage says. She supports private reparations, to survivors only. The city, she says, does not have money to pay reparations. Asked why, Savage cites the state law referred to by Keating, which also prevents municipalities from setting money aside for reparations claims. She is unstirred by the prospect of a lawsuit. “People file lawsuits against the city for a variety of things every day,” Savage says. “I say, ‘Do what you think you need to do.’”

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Although most historians and legal experts find both the state and the city culpable for the majority of the damage done to Greenwood, politicians refuse to follow through on the findings because paying reparations for past wrongs is such an unpopular idea. Some even say that Ross, the originator of the bill for a commission to study the riot, backed down on reparations. “I know [some people have said that],” he says. “There were only three votes for reparations in the legislature, however, and the entire concept of some kind of restitution would have been lost if it was included.” He adds, “Most lawmakers were searching for a good reason to do nothing. I am not only for reparations for Tulsa survivors, but for African-American victims of slavery as well.”

Stodghill says he doesn’t expect things to change in terms of support from politicians, even though Oklahoma will undergo a shift in leadership in 2002. In this ultraconservative state, a change at the top means that newer Republicans will replace older Republicans. For starters, Steve Largent, a former football star and until recently a US Congressman, is making a bid for Frank Keating’s seat as governor, as Keating exits because of a two-term cap on the position. Mayor Savage will also vacate her post in the next election, with a member of a wealthy old oil family, Bill LaFortune, looking to fill it. And just recently, Tulsans elected a former state legislator named John Sullivan to Largent’s old job in Washington. LaFortune is willing to support privately funded reparations. So is Sullivan. Largent declined to respond to a request for an interview, as did fellow former football star and Oklahoma’s only black elected federal official, Republican Congressman J.C. Watts. Keating also failed to return calls.

A recent poll found that only 26 percent of Oklahomans favored reparations even if no tax dollars were used, while 57 percent were against reparations regardless of funding. Elsewhere, sentiments are not much different, but in at least one case, a different decision has been reached. In April 1994 the State of Florida agreed to pay $150,000 to the nine survivors of the equally vicious Rosewood riot of 1923, in which whites demolished an entire town. Stodghill says he doesn’t care about his or the issue’s unpopularity. He has the backing of people who matter most to him–the survivors. “I have seventy-two signed letters from them saying they support what this coalition is doing,” he says. “And sixty-six of those seventy-two said they will sign on to a class-action lawsuit if we pursue it.” Survivor John Melvin Alexander, 82, is a vocal supporter. “I often think about that riot, and when I’m asked whether I favor reparations, I say, ‘Yes, I certainly do!’” he says. “If Japanese-Americans got reparations for their suffering during World War II, we black Tulsa Race Riot survivors deserve it for our suffering in 1921.” Oklahoma’s culpability is as strongly established as Florida’s.

In 1926 the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that the state was partly responsible for the riot in the case of Redfearn v. American Central Insurance Company. This case emphasizes that not only did Tulsa officials fail to take action to protect the blacks in Greenwood, they deputized men who burned Greenwood with the help of uniformed police. During the burning, city officials detained blacks in the convention center and fairgrounds while their homes burned. After the riot, they refused to allow blacks to receive aid from private agencies. The city tried to prevent blacks from rebuilding by passing a zoning ordinance that required the use of fireproof material that was too expensive for most to afford.

“Whatever interpretation one places on the origin of the riot, there seems to be a consensus emerging from historians that the riot was much worse because of the actions of Tulsa officials,” wrote attorney Alfred Brophy in his report to the state, Assessing State and City Culpability: The Riot and the Law. Only one question remains when assessing the state’s role: whether the Oklahoma National Guard assisted in the burning by firebombing from the air, as many of the survivors claim. Maj. Gen. Charles Barrett, in charge of the Oklahoma National Guard at the time, does not confirm this in his memoir, Oklahoma After Fifty Years, but he elaborates on the role of the Tulsa police. “Those special deputies were imbued with the same spirit of destruction that animated the mob. They became as deputies the most dangerous part of the mob–the first arrests ordered (after the riot) were those of special officers who had hindered the firemen in their abortive efforts to put out the incendiary fires that many of these special officers were accused of setting.” While some whites as well as blacks were rounded up after the riots, all the whites were freed on bond. In the end, no one, white or black, served time for murder, larceny or arson.

When slavery ended, freed blacks came to Oklahoma in droves. Many settled near Tulsa to take advantage of the oil boom, serving the oil barons as hired help–drivers, gardeners and maids. Black Tulsans envisioned a large city and even a state they could call their own, according to historian Scott Ellsworth, who has researched the riot extensively. “Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former states of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope, a place worth sacrificing for, a place to start anew,” he writes in the Race Riot Commission report to the state. Slowly, black Tulsans began establishing businesses and building large homes in Greenwood.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the first law it passed was to institute segregation. But black people thrived despite the Jim Crow laws, and poorer whites became jealous. White children would stand on one side of Third Street–back then the divide between North and South Tulsa–and throw rocks at their black counterparts, says one survivor.

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In the late morning of May 31, 1921, a young black shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland tripped and fell on a white elevator operator, Sarah Page, in the Drexel building. Rowland knew Page, and some speculate they had a romantic relationship, yet Page screamed. A clerk interpreted the scream as a cry of sexual assault and called the police. They arrested Rowland the next morning, June 1, and that evening’s headline of the Tulsa Tribune cried, “To Lynch Negro Tonight,” Ellsworth says. When a group of black World War I veterans descended upon the jail to protect Rowland, fighting broke out. The next day, a deputized mob arrived in Greenwood, looting and setting fire to the entire section. “My parents were awakened by the sounds of shooting, the smell of fire and the noise of fleeing blacks running past the house,” says Kinney Booker, 88. “My dad had awakened us children and sent us to the attic with our mother. We heard Dad pleading with mobsters who had broken into our house. We could hear him begging, ‘Please don’t set my house on fire. Please don’t burn my house.’ But, of course, that is exactly what they did.” Black people who escaped death were detained at the fairgrounds until a white person vouched for them.

Greenwood was eventually rebuilt, but things were never quite the same. The survivors and witnesses to the riot kept it to themselves for nearly sixty years–the whites out of embarrassment and the blacks out of fear of retaliation. North Tulsa is the most underdeveloped section of the city, with most money funneling into the south side of the city, where the middle class and nouveau riche tend to settle. None of the buildings in North Tulsa are more than two stories high, and there are no shopping centers and few supermarkets. Black Tulsans have to drive all the way across town to see a movie.

“With other terrorism, the enemy is from the outside. People can identify with that. In Tulsa, our enemies are our neighbors,” said Ernest Tiger, director of development of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. “September 11 brought one thing home to us. We are not just a local community; we are a world community. We need to bring the world in to see us how we are today–the same way we were eighty years ago.”

Everyone in the Unitarian Universalist church today knows the history of the riot. Most deal with it on a daily basis. In a rear meeting room, a medium-sized white man stands quietly in the circle of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition members, waiting to present his findings. To any stranger, he looks like a typical casual Tulsan, sunglasses perched upon his Nike hat. But a native will recognize him as Drew Diamond, the former police chief. Most would think him an unlikely ally of reparations, but Diamond is quite progressive in his thinking, and when he finally speaks, he brings up a valid point.

Five years after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Office Building on April 19, 1995, he says, Congress appropriated money for the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). Its mandate was to research the social and political causes and effects of terrorism and the development of technologies to counter biological, nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The MIPT received $15 million from the federal government in 2000 and $14 million the following year. Now, the MIPT runs on $4 million a year, all of which goes to research projects, according to deputy director Donald Hamilton.

Diamond proposed asking the MIPT for money to pay reparations and to donate money to create a living memorial to the survivors of the 1921 riot. Hamilton says he received such a letter and turned down the group’s request based on the MIPT’s mission. “Our work went slowly at first, but research has really picked up and we use most of that money,” Hamilton says. “I believe the survivors of the 1921 riot did survive a terrorist attack, and they deserve reparations. But the money can’t come from us. We do something totally different.”

Everyone in the room supports Diamond’s sentiment and pledges to write letters to MIPT in addition to pursuing the lawsuit. The Tulsa Reparations Coalition is going to need more than a few people interested in getting involved in the lawsuit and the fundraising, though. It has a legal research committee, but it doesn’t have an attorney to represent it, nor is there an attorney among the group. A coalition of churches, the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries, has raised about $20,000 toward reparations privately, but the coalition can’t touch this seed money. Finally, no other group in Tulsa, apart from the coalition, thinks reparations paid by the state will solve anything.

Tulsa attorney Gaberino says he thinks suing for reparations is a futile effort and the wrong way to go. On the national level, however, the reparations debate is getting a lot of attention, and in some instances enjoying success. The US government paid reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. And with regard to reparations for other race riots, Rosewood serves as a good example of how to go about it, according to supporters. Finally, US Representative John Conyers Jr. introduces legislation every year that seeks to require the government to pay reparations to the descendants of black slaves. “Reparations are the central issue of race relations in America for the twenty-first century,” Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree told a University of Oregon law panel last fall. “Until we address it seriously, we will continue to make only modest progress with some of the larger issues.”