For several weeks now crews from around the country have been in Tulsa with highly-specialized “ground-penetrating radar” searching for “mass graves” associated with the events of 1921. I and a few others doubted very much if any graves would ever be found. There is simply no historical evidence for their existence. Months ago the city deemed the events would henceforth be called “a massacre” instead of “Tulsa Race Riot” as it had been known for decades. Much earlier, in the 30s through 50s, the events were called the “Tulsa Race War.” But that terminology has fallen out of favor. And as the following essay indicates, what happened in Tulsa in 1921 was not a riot as that term is popularly understood today. But more importantly, these events were not a “massacre” either. “Race war” is repellent to the liberal consciousness, and “riot” is unacceptable. Only “massacre” fits the bill of liberalism – in it the Other is hapless and hopeless, defenseless in the face of aggressive racism and disorder.
Recently an HBO series, “The Watchmen,” premiered; the first minutes of the first episode portray the Tulsa short-lived civil war along the lines of “massacre” instead of “riot” or “race war.” Universally acclaimed for its realism, the sequence is largely ahistorical. In the episode, after the all-night street gun battles the black population of Greenwood is apparently strolling through the streets unconcerned as they are shot down randomly by whites in vehicles. An airplane strafes Archer street, its bombs and machine gun perhaps fitted in the oilfields(!?). There is a WWI vet with a rifle; he doesn’t assume a high position and put the gun to work, he gives it to his wife and they flee town with their son. In drama I am not too concerned with veracity. The real story though, has drama enough and is real American history.
The term “race riot” as it is used today does not adequately describe the events in Tulsa in early June, 1921. It was a pitched battle between black and white citizens, followed by the sacking and destruction of the Greenwood District, known as both “Black Wall Street” and as “Niggertown.” Maurice Willows of the Red Cross called the events, “A short-lived civil war,” and that is appropriate. The involvement of a black radical group, the African Blood Brotherhood, in these events has been veiled in mystery for decades. The initial newspaper reports about the Tulsa “riot” mentioned the ABB, but this has been attributed by many historians to press fear-mongering. There is however ample evidence that the ABB participated and perhaps directed black resistance to the white mob that attacked Greenwood.
The African Blood Brotherhood was formed in New York City in 1919. Its founder was Cyril P. Briggs, a West Indian who had worked as a journalist and editor on various Harlem newspapers. Part socialist and part black nationalist, the ABB sought to compete for members and influence with organizations such as the Communist Party and the Marcus Garvey movement. Never completely clandestine, the ABB was still considered a “Secret organization” by its leaders and members. The ABB’s formal membership probably never exceeded three-thousand, the majority of whom were in New York, but the ABB newspaper, “The Crusader,” grew to a circulation of thirty-three thousand, and became an influential voice in the circles of black radicalism that existed across the country.
The ABB was dedicated to black liberation and self-defense and entry into its ranks involved rituals – blood was drawn on fingers and shared. Members took an oath of loyalty, swearing on pain of death to never reveal the organization’s secrets. By 1921 the ABB was becoming more socialist and less nationalist. It is said the ABB was the first black organization in the United States to adopt Marxist principles. Many of its members were veterans of World War I and all were well aware of the wave of violent racial conflict that swept across America in the Red Summer of 1919.
ABB organizers travelled around the country, providing advice on local struggles and setting up chapters of the organization. Several times such organizers had travelled to Oklahoma and in the months before the 1921 riot an ABB group had formed in Tulsa. Most of its members were WWI veterans. In the days after the riot a local official told the New York Times, “Organizers of the ‘African Blood Brotherhood’ passed through Oklahoma about sixty days ago and organized a chapter of the secret society in Tulsa.” (1) Visiting Tulsa in those weeks before the conflict W.E.B. Dubois was well prepared to comment on the situation in the city. He told the Daily Oklahoman
I have never seen a colored community so highly organized as that of Tulsa. There is complete separation of the races, so that a colored town is within the white town. I noticed a block of stores built by white men for negro business. The have long been empty, boycotted by the negroes. With such a state of affairs, it only took a spark to start a dangerous fire. (2)
When Dick Rowland was arrested for an incident on a downtown elevator involving a white girl, many in Tulsa black community immediately feared a lynching. A year before, a white man had been lynched in Jenks and no one was prosecuted, even though deputies were present as well as newspaper reporters who wrote about the event. If a white man could be lynched, the black newspapers asked, why couldn’t a Negro get the same treatment? When the Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory editorial in its afternoon edition, a crowd of angry whites gathered at the courthouse. There was an expectation that Rowland would be lynched.
In the Greenwood district men gathered at the office of the Tulsa Star, a black newspaper owned by A.J. Smitherman, an advocate of black militancy and armed self-defense. Just weeks earlier he had sponsored the lecture by W.E.B. Dubois in Tulsa.
Greenwood’s leaders had dispatched messengers to every corner of the negro quarter, putting out the call for men and arms, and volunteers arrived every minute, singly and in groups, carrying rifles, pistols, shotguns, garden hoes, rakes and axes. Young came with the old, rich men and poor (3)
According to an unsympathetic observer, “The real leader of the gang was a tall, brown-skinned Negro named Mann. This boy had come back from France with exaggerated sense of equality.” (4)
First, several car loads of these men armed with rifles drove around the courthouse in downtown Tulsa. Then a group travelled on foot from Greenwood to the courthouse with the intention of stopping any attempted lynching. Who were these men? Were elements of the ABB among their number? There is no real reason to doubt it. In the days after the “riot,” Cyril Briggs and the national ABB leadership claimed their involvement. And the Tulsa authorities immediately placed the blame upon them. Involvement though is much different from instigation. “The armed black men, whether ABB-affiliated or part of a smaller Informal network, served as a mobilizing structure, or a collective unit engaged in protest responding to a perceived injustice.” (5)
Oral historian Eddie Faye Gates had no doubt about the involvement of the ABB. In 2000 she wrote, “The handful of remaining Brotherhood survivors in Oklahoma maintain their secrecy in fear of retribution.” (6)
Arriving at the courthouse, this group of armed blacks, numbering about seventy-five, was greeted by a white mob numbering in the thousands. The level of tension and hysteria was rapidly rising. Representatives of the black group were allowed to enter the fortified courthouse where Sheriff McCollough assured them no lynching would take place. Apparently assured by the Sheriff’s defensive preparations they left the building and were preparing to go back to Greenwood when the spark was lit.
According to the version heard by Robert Fairchild, the white approached a tall black veteran who was carrying an Army issue .45-caliber and said
“Nigger, what are you doing with that pistol?”
“I’m going to use it if I need to,” came the reply.
“No, you will give it to me.”
“Like hell I will.”
The white man attempted to disarm the veteran and a shot was fired. Sheriff McCullough stated from that moment “the race war was on and I was powerless to stop it.” (7)
A prolonged gun fight broke out as the blacks withdrew toward Greenwood and Archer. Block by block the fighting continued into the wee hours of the morning. At one point the battle raged around the train station, which was held as a fortress by black defenders for an extended period of time. With the bodies of white attackers scattered through the streets, the blacks retreated into Greenwood. This overnight fighting is usually ignored or skimmed over in the stories of the Tulsa “riot.” Far from being helpless victims, Tulsa’s black population fought with brutal efficiency against the white invaders. It is not hard to imagine this defense was pre-planned, or at least theorized before the shots began firing. Regarding the “helpless victim,” mythology,
W.D. Williams has disputed this assumption, citing as evidence the large number of whites which he saw get shot by black snipers as they attempted to invade “Deep Greenwood.” The Oklahoma City ‘Black Dispatch’ of 10 June, 1921, reported it had received a letter from “a prominent Negro in the city of Tulsa” who stated that “from what he could learn on the ground, about one-hundred were killed, equally divided between the two races.” (8)
Scattered fighting occurred throughout the night as thousands of white men gathered at several points in the city. They exchanged and distributed ammunition among themselves and the word was passed on: they would attack at dawn. Some were too excited to wait and five men in an automobile tried spur the crowd to action in early morning darkness.
When the crowd did not budge the men tore off alone toward Deep Greenwood. A few hours later, when the attack finally came, their five bodies were found slumped inside their car, rifles still pointed out the windows, the bullet-riddled carcass of the Franklin smoking in the middle of Archer street. (9)
A large number of casualities among the white invaders is very much in line with what the ABB Tulsa post Commander wrote in “The Crusader”: the majority of black deaths were noncombatants, people who burned to death in their houses or the unarmed who were shot by the white mob. On the “front,” however (which is approximated by the train tracks at Greenwood and Archer), it was another dynamic entirely. The Commander wrote:
But on the battle line the story was a different one. There the losses of the white attackers were so great that to cover up the losses they have resorted to burying their dead at night, lest the Negros should know of the extent of the blow inflicted upon the thing called “White prestige.” The whites claim that our losses were greater than their’s. But the truth is that their casualty list – losses suffered in battle – is a longer list than our own. Many score of them were sent on a long journey. Especially in the attacks on the negro church held by a handful of ex-soldiers. (9)
Mount Zion Baptist Church sat on a prominent hill. With its belfry acting as a “snipers nest,” the “handful of ex-soldiers” the ABB claimed as their own would have held the tactical high ground. A heavy machine gun was brought in at dawn to riddle the church until the defenders were forced to withdraw. “The church” also figures in the unnamed source’s comments to the New York Times. This individual reported, “It was said also that there was a suspicion that a store of ammunition, which exploded with the burning of the new church in the Negro district, was suspected to be the arsenal of this society.” (10)
The defense of Greenwood may be overlooked in the history books, but it has entered black folklore. The story is told how “Peg-Leg” Taylor, another veteran of World War I, had spent the afternoon shoplifting ammunition from downtown hardware stores. Armed with a .30-30 rifle and a shotgun he had assumed tactical positions throughout the night -fighting, keeping the white combatants at bay while stores were looted for arms and ammunition by his comrades. As dawn broke and a whistle sounded, a mass of white attackers charged across the tracks into Greenwood. While the ABB snipers shot it out with the white mob around the church, Taylor held a defensive position on a hill, six blocks from First Street on the north side. “He shot round after round of bullets for six hours. He did so much damage that the whites figured the Negroes had reinforcements.” The story of Taylor is still well-known in north Tulsa, and completely forgotten in the rest of the city.
In the days after the Tulsa “riot,” the ABB held a mass meeting in New York City with Tulsa members of the organization in attendance. Cyril Briggs spoke on the recent events and said,
“The Negro citizen-warriors of Tulsa saved the legal machinery of that
city from a breakdown – an all too frequent occurrence in Southern american cities. All honor to those Negroes! All honor to the new Negro who fights back! Better a thousand race riots than a single lynching says the African Blood Brotherhood!” (11)
Writing in the ABB newspaper the Commander of the Tulsa post disputes the ABB began the “riot,” but does not deny involvement:
As to the accusation that the Tulsa Post of the African Blood Brotherhood “fomented and directed” the Tulsa riot, the first part is a lie, and whether we directed Negros in their fight in self-defense is certainly no crime in Negro eyes, and is left for the white Oklahoma authorities to prove. For Ourselves. We neither deny it nor affirm it. (12)
As part of the provisions of martial law that reigned over Tulsa in those days, funerals were forbidden. So the exact bodycount will never be determined. Research done in the handful of funeral homes that existed in Tulsa in 1921 has determined the number of black deaths only slightly exceeded white ones.
(1) NYT, June 3 1921
(3) Madison, 92
(4) Madison, 278
(5) Messner, 101
(6) Gates interview,
(7) Ellsworth, 52
(8) Ellsworth, 69
(9) Madison, 124
(10) NYT, June 3, 1921
(11) The Crusader
(12) The Crusader
‘American Negro Folklore,’ J. Mason Brewer, editor Quadrangle Books 1968
‘The Crusader,’ July 1921, Briggs, editor
‘Death in a Promised Land, The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921’ by Scott Ellsworth Louisiana State University Press 1982
‘Black Bolshevik, Autobiogaphy of an Afro-American Communist,’ by Harry Haywood Liberator Press 1978
‘They Came Searching,’ by Eddie Faye Gates
Eddie Faye Gates interview with Binckley Wright, 2000 www.angelfire.com > tulsa > interview2
‘The Oklahoma Commission To Study The Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921’ by Eddie Faye Gates, Harvard Black Law Journal Vol. 20 2004
‘First Charged, Last Freed’ by Steve Gerkin in ‘This Land’ 03/20/2014
‘Tulsa Race Riot, A Report By the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,’ Compiled by Danny Goble, State of Oklahoma 2001
‘Black Wall Street – From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, by Hannibal Johnson Eaken Press 1998
‘The Burning – Massacre, Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921’ by Tim Madison Thomas Dunne Books 2001
New York Times, June 3 1921
New York Times, June 4 1921
‘The Tulsa Race Riot Of 1921: Determining It’s Causes And Framing,’ by Chris Messer, master’s thesis Oklahoma State University 2005