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Tulsa Race Riot: Report looks at National Guard role

Tulsa Race Riot: Report looks at National Guard role

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It contends that state troops sided with whites rather than being impartial.

It's a question certain to be debated long after the Tulsa Race Riot Commission's work is done.

Did local units of the Oklahoma National Guard help angry whites burning and looting Tulsa's Greenwood district on the morning of June 1, 1921, as a report submitted this week to the commission contends?

Or, as others maintain, were the 50 or so members of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Infantry who could be mustered on short notice among the few sane heads during the 18-hour melee that left dozens dead and more than 30 city blocks in ruins?

The issue is significant. Agreement seems to be general that Tulsa's Police Department bore the greatest governmental responsibility for what happened. Its chief, notoriously corrupt and with no real qualifications for the job, was convicted of dereliction of duty over his handling of the affair. Widespread reports that police stood by and did nothing during the riot, or that individual officers actively participated in it, came from both whites and blacks.

National Guard complicity, however, seems to be crucial to those pressing for financial restitution. Without it, the two legislators on the commission have made clear, reparations have no chance with the Legislature.

Historians John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth rely heavily on the report of Capt. John McCuen in concluding that the local units "would not play an impartial role in the `maintenance of law and order.' "

McCuen commanded Company B, a small detachment sent into the northern part of Greenwood, where the OSU-Tulsa campus is now, on the morning of June 1. This area appears to have been more or less intact when McCuen and his men entered it at about 9 a.m.

Company B's orders were to stop snipers firing into an adjacent white neighborhood, round up black residents and not to fire unless fired upon.

According to McCuen, he and his men engaged in two gun battles with barricaded blacks who "refused to surrender" and killed a number of them. On the second occasion Company B joined with "white citizens" in subduing about 10 armed blacks.

Ellsworth and Franklin identify McCuen's "white citizens" as "a mob of white rioters" and write "No longer remotely impartial, the men of B Company, Third Infantry, Oklahoma National Guard, had now joined the assault on black Tulsa."

Ellsworth and Franklin also criticize the deployment of guardsmen on Detroit Avenue, where black and white neighborhoods adjoined and whites reported sniper fire from church belfries in Greenwood, and Guard involvement in the systematic detention of all blacks.

Certainly neither law enforcement officials nor the National Guard protected black property from vandals and looters once Greenwood residents had either fled or been detained.

Still, there are those who argue that local guardsmen performed with courage and discipline.

On the night of May 31 a few guardsmen faced down a surly crowd demanding access to the armory and its arsenal of 80 Springfield rifles, 16,000 rounds of ammunition and six Browning automatic rifles.

Later, after charges that soldiers sprayed blacks with "machine guns" -- weapons the local guard did not have -- officers vehemently denied the rapid firing, .50-caliber Brownings ever left the armory.

Maj. Paul Brown, commanding officer of the "sanitation detachment" -- a medical unit -- began treating wounded blacks almost immediately and arranged surgeries for the most seriously injured. The next day he reactivated an old hospital for use by blacks and commandeered beds in the Oklahoma and Tulsa hospitals for pregnant black women.

Maj. Byron Kirkpatrick, Lt. Col. L.J.F. Rooney and other guardsmen took on the mob that had broken into a hardware store, cleared them out and locked the place back up.

Charles Daley, a National Guard major as well as a police inspector, began disarming whites shortly after midnight on June 1 and organized a picket line along the Frisco railroad tracks in an ultimately futile attempt "to prevent any further firing over into the negro district."

"(T)he officers and men," Da ley wrote, "were exposed to rifle and pistol fire both from . . . blacks and . . . whites."

In 1937 Frank Van Voorhis, a National Guard captain in 1921, told an interviewer "Our idea was to drive the negroes back into their own district and urge them to surrender without bloodshed. . . . Realizing that the maddened armed whites were our worse problem, it seemed best to get between the two forces."

By mid-morning of June 1, said Voorhis, blacks "were through, gladly surrendering, (but) the whites were in a state of frenzy, killing negroes at random . . . keeping up the horror by burning and plundering." Voorhis claimed that troops from Oklahoma City, widely praised by the commission report and others, arrived after "the riot was already quelled and quiet restored."


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