A New York professor and Tulsa DA helped clear records of Black men accused of wrongdoing in Race Massacre
May 31, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.
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That chapter of race massacre lore might have been closed if not for the efforts of Barbara Nevergold, a University of Buffalo professor and historian who researched and wrote extensively
A New York professor and Tulsa DA helped clear records of Black men accused of wrongdoing in Race Massacre
In 2007, Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris formally dismissed the original indictment against Black men who were alleged to have participated in violence during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
At 4 p. m. , an anonymous caller told Tulsa Police Commissioner J. M. Adkison, "We are going to lynch that negro, that black devil who assaulted that girl. " Adkison and Police Chief John Gustafson arranged to move Rowland from the city jail to the more secure county lockup on the top floor of the courthouse at Sixth Street and Boulder Avenue.
Responding to the growing crowd and fears for Rowland's safety, a group of Black men assembled at the offices of A. J. Smitherman's newspaper, the Tulsa Star, on North Greenwood Avenue.
During a cold winter day in Tulsa, the Greenwood Cultural Center was one of the few places in the city at the time that had working utilities. That’s because days earlier, on Dec. 8, 2007, a storm encased Tulsa in ice and snow that led to 80% of residents being left without power and the city losing an estimated 20,000 trees when it was over. Three days later, on Dec. 11, then-Tulsa County District Judge Jesse Harris, former Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris and others gathered inside the multipurpose space near downtown for a special court hearing that would right what some had long considered a historic wrong. Tim Harris filed a motion for dismissal of a then-86-year-old indictment related to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. It involved charges for various offenses against 56 men — all of them Black — issued by a Tulsa County grand jury nearly two weeks after the event. In addition to allegations of rioting, unlawful use of firearms and theft on the night of May 31, 1921, one of the more serious charges was murder stemming from the death of Walter Daggs, a white man who was among the first people confirmed to have died during the violence. After Tim Harris argued that he could not find evidence supporting the original indictment, Jesse Harris granted the overture to drop all the charges. “Justice delayed in this instance is not justice denied,” Jesse Harris said during the 10-minute proceeding.
“Justice at any time is an essential part of justice at all times. ”That chapter of massacre lore might have been closed if not for the efforts of Barbara Nevergold, a University of Buffalo professor and historian who researched and wrote extensively about A. J. Smitherman, one of the men later indicted by authorities. Nevergold’s campaign for Smitherman began in 2003 shortly after an interaction with Tulsa educator and activist Eddie Faye Gates. Gates, who devoted much of her life documenting the massacre, told Nevergold about Smitherman, then described as one of the “principal” figures during the event.
Her curiosity, said Nevergold, about Smitherman’s role in the massacre was piqued. “I really committed the next three years or so, and did a lot of research,” she told the Tulsa World during a recent phone interview. She and colleague Peggy Brooks-Bertram launched an Oklahoma Centennial Commemorative Project with an accompanying book titled, “Uncrowned Queens, African American Community Builders of Oklahoma” that contained a biography of Smitherman written by Nevergold. Smitherman, a crusading and fiery journalist who founded the Tulsa Star, was a prominent voice for Black empowerment and vehemently spoke out against lynchings and corruption. An accounting of the massacre identified him as a leader of a group of armed Black men who went down to the Tulsa County Courthouse on the belief that Dick Rowland might be targeted by a white mob. A confrontation at the courthouse then ensued, which sparked 16 hours of violence and destruction that left hundreds injured and thousands more homeless. The massacre, which occurred over May 31-June 1, 1921, when white mobs invaded the predominantly African-American Greenwood District in Tulsa, resulted in desolation of 35 blocks of the community. It also resulted in at least 37 fatalities.
The men, however, fell victim — like many others who faced charges — to general predispositions of who was responsible for the turbulence. Adjutant General Charles Barrett, in command of the Oklahoma National Guard at the time, was quoted in local newspapers saying that the riot was caused by “an impudent Negro, a hysterical girl, and a yellow journal reporter. ”Tulsa Mayor T. D. Evans, elected in April 1920, said in a statement published by the World that culpability rested solely on “armed negroes and their followers who started this trouble and who instigated it.
It is the judgment of many wise heads in Tulsa, based upon observation of a number of years, that this uprising was inevitable. ”Some later faulted Tulsa newspapers — the World and Tulsa Tribune — for publishing stories and editorials before and after the massacre that sparked the attack on Greenwood. Despite Black Tulsans in Greenwood suffering the brunt of damage and witness testimonies stating that law enforcement actively assisted white mobs in damaging the thriving community, authorities shifted blame heavily on African American actors instead. An all-white grand jury summoned the second week of June to investigate the massacre concluded only the armed Black men at the courthouse — not any whites who participated — were the direct cause of the uproar. “We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921, for the purpose of protecting one Dick Rowland,” according to a statement found in the June 26, 1921, issue of the Tulsa World with the headline, “Grand Jury Blames Negroes for Inciting Race Rioting.
Whites Clearly Exonerated. ’’After bonding out of jail and his business and property left in ruins, A. J. Smitherman exited Tulsa for stops in St. Louis, Boston, then Buffalo. In between, there were attempts by Oklahoma authorities to extradite Smitherman back to the state to stand trial on charges of inciting a riot but officials elsewhere in did not capitulate. In retaliation for the lack of cooperation, members of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma reportedly attacked and cut off John Smitherman’s ear as an act of intimidation. Except for a few cases and a trial that resulted in the suspension of Tulsa Police Chief John Gustafson for dereliction of duty, there were no real criminal charges levied against anyone related to the massacre. It was western New York, in 1925, where Smitherman, his wife and children finally settled.
He would later rename it the Empire Star. Along the way, he achieved prominence in the Black community by running for the city council and was heavily involved in the local YMCA. It was Smitherman’s lifelong valor and impact in Buffalo that prompted Nevergold to call and write Tim Harris for nearly a year to make a case for expungement. “I laid out the fact that I thought he was a person who led an exemplary life,” Nevergold said.
“And even having lost everything, he rebuilt his life and became an outstanding citizen in Buffalo with very few people knowing about his background. ”At her request, Harris studied the records and other information released by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission as what he described “a legal duty to dig deep. ” Among the items discovered was an affidavit requesting a change of venue on the behalf of Smitherman over concerns he couldn’t get a fair trial due to the racial make up of the jury, and that they would be influenced by grand jury statements reported in local newspapers. In examining documents, Harris concluded that the evidence presented did not support the guilt of Smitherman or any other person accused by law enforcement, especially after authorities failed to aggressively pursue prosecution in the months after the massacre. A relative of Smitherman also pressed Harris to dismiss the charges, too. “I couldn’t really find any strong evidence to support the allegation,” he said.
“And I said, ‘You know what, I think one part of what Tim Harris might be able to do as healing for this community is to clear your family’s name and take this outstanding indictment that hangs over A. J. Smitherman and all the other defendants. ’”Charges against J. B. Stradford, one of many indicted along with Smitherman, were dismissed by then-Tulsa County District Attorney Bill LaFortune in 2000. Reflecting back some 14 years later, Nevergold — with no other ties to the massacre other than chronicling a singular character in the incident — was pleased that her work resonated enough to clear the records of otherwise innocent men and help uncover another untold portion of history. “For me, this was a significant individual whose story was significant,” said Nevergold, who will host a webinar detailing her investigative work.
Timeline: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
About 9,000 were black, with most of them living in the community centered on Greenwood Avenue northeast of downtown Tulsa.
Tulsa and Greenwood
Less than two weeks before the massacre, Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Katherine VanLeuven led an investigation of the Tulsa Police Department that revealed a poorly trained and sometimes corrupt force so ill-equipped it did not have a single reliable automobile.
An open proponent of vigilantism and unabashed racist, Cooke complained bitterly of blacks and whites drinking and dancing together in road houses and speakeasies, and of black porters in cheap hotels acting as agents for white prostitutes. In Tulsa, as in the rest of Oklahoma and throughout the United States, race was an important issue.
The Tulsa Star, a lively weekly newspaper edited by A. J. Smitherman, promoted independence and unity, and exhorted blacks to stand up for their rights. Three weeks before the massacre, a middle-aged black couple was arrested in Tulsa for refusing to sit in the back of a street car.
Originally described as a 17-year-old orphan working her way through business college, it later developed that she may have been as young as 15 and had come to Tulsa from Kansas City while waiting for a divorce to be finalized. Some, including Damie Rowland, have fostered the notion that Page and Rowland were romantically involved.
This editorial condemned lynching but included the phrase “a story starts that a negro in the county jail was to be lynched. ”Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the Tribune’s three loudest critics – the rival Tulsa World, the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch and the NAACP – never mentioned an editorial in their attacks on the newspaper.
The NAACP’s Walter White blamed the Tribune’s use of the word “assault. ” The Black Dispatch reprinted the May 31 arrest story under the headline “The False Story which set Tulsa on Fire. ” The World, on June 1, tweaked the Tribune for its “colored account” of the elevator incident. Page, who seems to have fled the city on June 1, subsequently wrote to the county attorney, asking that the charges against Rowland be dropped.
At 4 p. m. , an anonymous caller told Police Commissioner J. M. Adkison, “We are going to lynch that negro, that black devil who assaulted that girl. ” Adkison and Police Chief John Gustafson arranged to move Rowland from the city jail to the more secure county lockup on the top floor of the courthouse at Sixth Street and Boulder Avenue. Whites, attracted by the rumors, began gathering at the courthouse until they numbered an estimated 2,000. Adkison and Gustafson wanted Sheriff Willard McCullough to take Rowland out of town, but McCullough refused.
McCullough, Deputy Barney Cleaver and County Commissioner Ira Short remained behind, with McCullough and Cleaver, a black man with a long career in Tulsa law enforcement, trying to disperse the crowd outside. Interestingly, no police seem to have been in evidence at the courthouse.
During World War I, citizens had been harassed and beaten in the name of patriotism, often under color of the local Council of Defense or the Home Guard, a local militia organized to replace National Guard units called into active duty. Mary Jones Parrish, a young black woman who would record her recollections and those of others in a little book called “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” said she went outside on the night of May 31 to find “that some of our group were going to give added protection to (Rowland). ”At least two earlier contingents of concerned blacks had already visited the courthouse.
In any event, McCullough said the only effort to get at Rowland occurred at 8:20 p. m. , when three unidentified white men entered the courthouse. “I … told them there had been some talk of a lynching and that they might as well get out for no one was going to get the negro,” McCullough said.
Oklahoma National Guard Adjutant Gen. Charles Barrett told Col. L. J. F. Rooney, senior office in Tulsa, to make his troops available to local authorities, even though it would be hours before they could be officially called to duty. The first few Guardsmen to arrive at police headquarters found the street choked with men in uniform – American Legion members, assembled in formation.
Fortunately, the newspaper said, “no one was hurt. ”According to the World, shooting continued for two hours “over the city and centered in the north part of the business district,” until the last of the blacks had retreated into Greenwood.
Although the fighting never completely stopped, it did die down during the early morning hours, causing many to believe the massacre was playing itself out. Col. L. J. F. Rooney, the senior officer among the Tulsa National Guard units, wanted to establish an armed perimeter around Greenwood but gave up the idea as impractical. “We didn’t have enough men,” Rooney said.
Squads were sent to guard the city power plant and water works, while the police, ex-servicemen and the special deputies roamed the city in “auto patrols,” rounding up blacks living in servant quarters outside Greenwood and looking for the supposed invaders. Rooney and about 30 men and officers established themselves along Detroit Avenue, on a rise called Standpipe Hill, where gunfire had been exchanged between adjoining white and black neighborhoods.
To people in Greenwood, it looked more like an invading army. “It then dawned upon us that the enemy had organized in the night and was invading our district, the same as the Germans invaded France and Belgium,” wrote Mary Jones Parrish, a Greenwood resident who recorded her experience and those of some of her neighbors in a pamphlet called “Events of the Tulsa Disaster. ”Authorities, still operating on the premise of a “Negro uprising,” maintained they wanted to get control of Greenwood, not destroy it.
The few who stayed behind to fight were overwhelmed. The National Guard reported engaging in several short skirmishes as it moved down from Standpipe Hill – the hill just west of the present Oklahoma State University-Tulsa campus – and one longer battle in which about 50 blacks “fought like tigers. ” The last organized resistance came from gunmen in the Mount Zion Baptist Church tower.
Daley said he repeatedly sent for help from the police, but was told they were “busy elsewhere. ”“Finally the crowd broke away from Daley,” reported The Tulsa Tribune, “and the invasion of the negro district began. ”
As Tulsa’s black population was rounded up and taken to detention centers at the Convention Hall (present-day Brady Theater), McNulty Park (10th Street and Elgin Avenue) and later the fairgrounds (Admiral Boulevard and Lewis Avenue), looters and vandals descended on the Greenwood district, setting fires and stealing and destroying residents’ possessions. Some of those involved were the very people who were supposed to bring order to the chaos.
Col. L. J. F. Rooney, the senior National Guard officer in Tulsa, complained that “there were many men in the negro district wearing khaki clothes (i. e. uniforms) who were not members of the national guard. ”
Washington High School survived. “Nothing,” the Tulsa World’s Tom Latta wrote the next day, “that the mind is capable of conceiving permits a word of defense or excuse for the murderous vandalism” inflicted on Greenwood.
Detroit Ave. According to Jackson’s white neighbor, former police commissioner and retired judge John Oliphant, Jackson had raised his hands to surrender to a group of whites when two of them shot Jackson dead in what Oliphant called “cold-blooded murder. ”Born in Memphis and raised in Guthrie, where his father was a law officer, Jackson graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, practiced for awhile in Tulsa and Claremore, then trained as a surgeon in Memphis.
Tulsa-based National Guardsmen, soon reinforced by units from Oklahoma City, Bartlesville and other communities, began securing the Greenwood area.
Some, on examination, are more plausible than others; none, at this late date, can be proved or disproved. On June 3, 1921, just two days after the massacre, the Tulsa World reported that 13 black victims of the massacre were buried in Oaklawn cemetery “in separate graves and in plain caskets,” a description that suggests a suspicion of something otherwise even then. In 1999 and 2000, a commission authorized by the Oklahoma Legislature and the Oklahoma Geological Survey probed for mass burial sites at several locations in Tulsa, including Newblock Park, Oaklawn Cemetery and the former Booker T.
According to later testimony and notes found in the papers of Gov. J. B. A. Robertson, hotel owner John Stradford had exhorted the men at the Tulsa Star office with the promise to “send and get the Muskogee crowd” – that is, reinforcements from the nearby city of Muskogee.
The African Blood Brotherhood, an arm of the Communist Party based in New York, claimed to have had a chapter in Tulsa organizing armed resistance to racial oppression. Stradford and Smitherman were arrested after the massacre, posted bail and left Oklahoma forever.
Brady St. Most of the area destroyed in the massacre is occupied by campuses of Oklahoma State University and Langston University. The old Tulsa County Courthouse, where Dick Rowland was held and the shooting began, was demolished in 1960 to make way for a 32-story bank building.
The formerly bustling business district was reduced to a single block. In 1997, the Oklahoma Legislature authorized a special commission to investigate the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The recommendation was never acted upon. In 2003, a federal lawsuit was filed against the state of Oklahoma, city of Tulsa and the Tulsa Police Department on behalf of about 200 survivors and descendants of blacks living in Greenwood at the time of the massacre.
In 2007, Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris formally dismissed the original indictment against alleged massacre participants. For many Tulsans, the massacre remains a sensitive and controversial issue.
Pictured are Tulsa race massacre survivors Alice Presley (left), Hazel Jones, Juanita Booker, and Booker's daughter Jacqueline Booker-Achong. They, along with other survivors of the 1921 massacre, attended a documentary premiere 'Before They Die' about the Tulsa race massacre at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center on Oct. 19, 2008. "I have realized that many of our attitudes have changed among all peoples and I hope we will become united, not divided," said 91-year-old survivor Jewel Smitherman Rogers, of Perris, California.
Pictured are Tulsa race massacre survivors Wes Young (left), Otis Clark, and Julius Scott during a reception for the film documentary premiere 'Before They Die. 'The documentary premiered in Tulsa on Oct. 19, 2008, but would also be shown in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and several other cities to raise awareness and also to raise money for the survivors. "They didn't compensate anyone," said survivor Julius Scott, 87, of Tulsa.
Tulsa may get an unusual amount of attention in 2021, the 100th anniversary of the city’s deadly race massacre.
It’s not exactly cause for celebration, but city leaders would like something constructive to show the rest of the world. “We can’t rewrite the past, but we can build a brighter and more prosperous future,” state Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, said Friday at the formal announcement of a Tulsa Race Riot Centennial Commission. U. S. Sen. James Lankford and Mayor G. T. Bynum joined Matthews and other state and local leaders at the press conference announcement at the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. Click here to read more.
It doesn’t really get to what actually happened, which I argue was an attempted expulsion of the black community from Tulsa,” Hill said. “I think blacks and whites have a different relationship to this history.
The city will begin with Oaklawn Cemetery, which has been searched before for unmarked graves, Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum announced in October 2018. Mayor Bynum and former City Councilor Jack Henderson met with former state archaeologist Bob Brooks in about 2012 to discuss his excavation work more than a decade earlier on behalf of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. “I always thought, if I am ever mayor and in a position to have executive authority, that I would do something about it,” Bynum said.
May 2019: Mayor G. T. Bynum sets 1921 Tulsa race massacre graves investigation into motion
Mayor G. T. Bynum knows well that a thorough re-examination of the sites of possible mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre won’t be easy and won’t be without controversy. But as he explained Thursday at City Hall, the city of Tulsa has some work to do to address the “well-earned lack of trust” many African Americans feel toward the city because of its unwillingness to get to the bottom of the issue. “For me, as someone who loves this city, it was unimaginable that in a city in the United States of America people could potentially be living around a mass grave and not be trying to find out if it truly was there or not,” Bynum said. Click here to read more in this May 2019 article.
Plans for a $9 million renovation and expansion of the Greenwood Cultural Center to coincide with the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre were unveiled Thursday night at the center. The project, a collaboration of the Race Massacre Centennial Commission, the John Hope Franklin Center of Reconciliation and the Greenwood Cultural Center, includes a reconfiguration of the existing facility and the addition of a museum, administrative offices and a gift shop. Preliminary drawings show the four-story museum just south of the Greenwood Cultural Center, with the offices and shop along Greenwood Avenue.
Saying it is committed to making amends for a dark chapter in the city’s history, the Tulsa Regional Chamber will release its minutes related to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. “We at the Tulsa Regional Chamber are committed to an inclusive Tulsa.
Many residents of the near-downtown district can see neighboring Tulsa Arts and Blue Dome districts flourish around it with upscale restaurants and entertainment venues while the Greenwood District, particularly Black Wall Street, struggles to regain the prominence it enjoyed before and after the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Click here to read more of this June 2019 article.
July 2019: Tulsa Race Massacre commission picks firms to design exhibit center in Greenwood District
A proposed project to house a permanent memorial in the heart of the Greenwood District to recognize the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is coming to fruition after architecture firms were chosen to design a museum-grade history center. On Thursday, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, along with Lt. Gov.
September 2019: New book, 'Tulsa 1921,' is product of years of research into Tulsa Race Massacre
For the last 20 years, not a day has gone by that Tulsa World writer Randy Krehbiel has not thought about the events of May 31-June 1, 1921 — what is now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. “I don’t want to say it was an obsession,” Krehbiel said.
Preliminary exhibit plans for a $20 million Greenwood District museum elicited lots of questions, comments and suggestions but no voiced opposition Thursday night during the first public presentation. “I like it,” said Cynthia Townsend of Tulsa.
Now head of the Special Collections Department at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library, Marc Carlson is displaying a warehouse full of items associated with the massacre he’s compiled for a special two-day open house. The “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the Aftermath” exhibit features rarely seen photos, maps, books and documents related to the event housed on the fifth floor of the campus library. Click here to read more of this October 2019 article.
The search for unknown burial sites from Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre enters a new phase on Monday at a not-so-unknown location. The Oklahoma Archeological Survey will begin subsurface scanning at 1:30 p. m. Monday afternoon in Oaklawn Cemetery, 1133 E.
Why the Tulsa World uses "race massacre" now instead of "race riot"