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Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre, chapter four: The story that set Tulsa ablaze
100 years later: The Tulsa Race Massacre

Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre, chapter four: The story that set Tulsa ablaze

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Editor's note: Tulsa World Staff Writer Randy Krehbiel's book "Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre" won the Oklahoma History Society award for Best Book on Oklahoma History and the Oklahoma Book Award for nonfiction. This is chapter four of that book, "The story that set Tulsa ablaze," reprinted with permission from the University of Oklahoma Press. It tells the story behind the story of what sparked the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Some of the language has been changed because of terminology used in the 1920s. 

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Later it would be said that Sarah Page and the young man called Dick Rowland were acquaintances and maybe quite a bit more. A half century after whatever happened on that downtown Tulsa elevator, a woman who claimed she was Dick Rowland’s adoptive mother would say he and Page had been lovers. Perhaps they were. But the story Damie Rowland told and Ruth Avery recorded, now another half century ago, contains just enough inconsistencies to make one wonder how much Damie Rowland knew firsthand and how much she acquired secondhand and thirdhand over the intervening years.

The fact is, remarkably little is known about these two central characters in the drama that was about to unfold. This is particularly true of Page. Unnamed in initial reports that referred to her as an “orphan” working her way through business college, she was later identified as a fifteen-year-old divorcée from Kansas City who had come to Tulsa while the dust settled on the ruins of a brief and unhappy marriage. Rowland is described by various sources as the biological son of David and Alice “Ollie” Rowland; the adopted son of Dave and Ollie; their biological grandson; and their adopted grandson. The only Richard or Dick Rowland in the city directories of the period was white, but Dave and Ollie did have a sixteen-year-old John Roland living with them at the time of the 1920 census. “John Roland” is listed as a grandson born in Texas. Damie Rowland, Dave and Ollie’s daughter, said in her 1972 interview that Dick Rowland’s real name was Jimmy Jones, that she had taken him off the streets in Vinita when he was a small boy, and that he was born in Arkansas. Alice Andrews, who had just turned nineteen that fateful morning, told interviewer Eddie Faye Gates in the 1990s that Dick Rowland — and she referred to him by that name — was the son of David “Dad” Rowland and was a “well-off boy” who “didn’t have to work” but did. Robert Fairchild told Gates that he “knew Dick when he was a star football player at Booker Washington High School. He had a reputation of being a ‘good-looking ladies’ man.’ ” Dick Rowland is generally identified as a bootblack (a person employed to polish boots and shoes), but sometimes as a delivery boy. There is a suggestion, but no more than that, that he may have also been engaged in less honorable pursuits. So elusive is the truth about Dick Rowland and Sarah Page that even the one thing history has been most sure of, that they were together in an elevator in downtown Tulsa on the morning of May 30, 1921, is sometimes disputed.

The story told by police and reported the next afternoon in the Tulsa Tribune is that Rowland got into the elevator operated by Page on the third floor of the Drexel Building at 319 S. Main St., and that somewhere on the way to the ground floor the two came into contact. Page screamed, attracting the attention of an employee of Renberg’s Department Store, which occupied the first two floors of the four-story building. The unnamed employee summoned police while Rowland fled. He was arrested the next morning.

Exactly when the elevator incident is supposed to have occurred is unclear. The Tribune says it was “early” in the day, suggesting the morning; it seems unlikely, though, that it happened during the Memorial Day parade, which passed right by the Drexel Building. In that case, there almost certainly would have been more witnesses. Also, Renberg’s was closed because of the holiday, which has caused skeptics to question the entire story. Why, they ask, would the unnamed store clerk have been present? For that matter, why was Dick Rowland in the Drexel Building, since most if not all of the offices on the upper floors were likely closed?

These questions play into a parallel narrative, one in which all that followed was not about race but about real estate; a scheme in which whites and blacks conspired to create a pretext for turning Greenwood into a warehouse district adjacent to the rail yards. Certainly, an effort was made to exploit the massacre for that purpose. Whether the massacre was planned and instigated toward that end is a more sinister mystery that may never be definitively solved.

The presence of Rowland and the store clerk is probably easily explained. Something must have been going on in the building if the elevator operator was on duty — unless that was made up, too. The Tribune identified “Diamond Dick” Rowland as a delivery boy. The Tulsa World, on June 1, said he was a “bootblack.” Either occupation would have given him a legitimate reason for being on the third floor of the Drexel Building, even on a holiday. The third and fourth floors of the building were occupied almost entirely by offices of small oil-related enterprises.

So, Rowland, in fact, could have been delivering — or attempting to deliver, if the office was closed — a pair of shoes or boots or some other package. Another story, told by Robert Fairchild, is that Rowland had gone into the building to use the restroom. At least two of Gates’s informants, Fairchild and a white woman named Clara Forrest, said the Drexel Building elevator was notoriously difficult to operate, shaking and shuddering and often leaving an uneven step at the threshold that caused passengers to trip as they exited.

There is no record that anyone thought Page’s or the unnamed store clerk’s presence odd. Perhaps the clerk was stocking shelves or waiting for a delivery. Perhaps he was going over accounts. That neither newspaper reported the witness’s name may — or may not — suggest something else: that the witness was someone more prominent than a store clerk, perhaps even storeowner Sam Renberg, a major advertiser the newspapers may have been loath to identify.

Tulsans did not have a general knowledge of the incident until more than a day later, on May 31, when a short front-page story in the afternoon Tribune reported Rowland’s arrest that morning by two Tulsa police officers — one white and one black. Why it took a day to bring in Rowland is unclear, and he actually may have been arrested the night before. Chief John Gustafson, during his trial in July, said Rowland was arrested the day of the incident and spent a night in the city jail before being transferred. In any event, Rowland’s identity seems to have been known quickly, and perhaps immediately. On June 1, the World reported that Rowland had been hiding. Whatever the case, the alleged assault of a white girl by a black man should have been sensational news, yet it was not reported in the May 30 Tribune or the May 31 World. Whether the police kept the situation under wraps or the press did we do not know.

And then there it was, on the front page of the Tribune. It was not the lead story. The banner headline went to a wire service account of disarmament talks, and the largest element on the front page was a grouping of ten photographs and a story on a beauty contest promoted by the Tribune. The story of Dick Rowland’s alleged attempted assault and arrest was just five paragraphs at the bottom of the right-hand column. But the headline — “Nab (Black man) for Attacking Girl in Elevator” — was certain to grab attention.

(The Tulsa Tribune story reads): "A (Black) delivery boy who gave his name to the public as “Diamond Dick” but who has been identified as Dick Rowland, was arrested on South Greenwood avenue this morning by Officers Carmichael and Pack, charged with attempting to assault the 17-year-old white elevator girl in the Drexel building early yesterday.

"He will be tried in municipal court this afternoon on a state charge. The girl said she noticed the (Black man) a few minutes before the attempted assault looking up and down the hallway on the third floor of the Drexel building as if to see if there was anyone in sight but thought nothing of it at the time.

"A few minutes later he entered the elevator she claimed, and attacked her, scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes. Her screams brought a clerk from Renberg’s store to her assistance and the (Black man) fled. He was captured and identified this morning both by the girl and the clerk, police say.

"Tenants of the Drexel building said the girl is an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through business college."

The story was freighted with racially charged language, from the headline to the final sentence. In the circumspect code words of the day, it accused a young black man of attempting to rape an innocent white girl. Men had been murdered for less, from Atlanta to Duluth. 

Whether the story was intended to precipitate some sort of confrontation or merely grab readers’ attention cannot be said with certainty. Perhaps it simply reflects the sensibilities — and insensitivities — of the time. The Tribune’s publisher, Richard Lloyd Jones, belonged to the clique that brought Attorney General S. Prince Freeling and his assistants to town. Among their complaints were race mixing, vice, and crime they associated with Greenwood and the city’s black population. Jones’s circle also included the industrialist and oilman Charles Page, from whom Jones had bought his newspaper two years before, and the ubiquitous Tate Brady. Page — no relation to Sarah Page — and Brady sometimes worked toward the same ends, and had common financial interests in both the black and white sections of north Tulsa. The extent to which these moral, social, and economic factors may have influenced the Tribune’s judgment is a matter of conjecture. What is certain is that no reader, black or white, could have missed the story’s implications.

Sex-related lynchings in Oklahoma were rare, but newspapers regularly reported the gruesome vigilante justice visited on black men elsewhere accused of forcing or trying to force themselves onto white women. Just being in the wrong neighborhood could be dangerous. On January 2, a black man spotted “shuffling along” at Fifteenth and Baltimore, in the white section of town, raised an alarm that resulted in police firing more than twenty shots, all of which miraculously missed the suspect and everyone else in the vicinity. The man, when finally detained, was determined to have been minding his own business and was released.

Over the years, many people have maintained that the May 31 Tribune also contained another, even more inflammatory piece, an editorial that called directly for Dick Rowland’s lynching. In most accounts, this editorial was headlined “To Lynch (Black man) Tonight.” No example of this editorial is known to exist. In 1921, The Tribune’s editorials normally appeared on the back page of the newspaper.

When its file copies were microfilmed in the 1940s, the front-page arrest story and about half the editorial page had been torn out. When this happened, under what circumstances, and by whom are unknown. The arrest story had been reprinted in other publications, and so copies of it still exist, but not the supposed editorial. In 2002, an intact copy of a Tribune that appears to be identical to the May 31 microfilmed edition, except that it is dated June 1, was discovered.

This edition, apparently intended for mail subscribers, was probably printed on May 31 but dated a day later because that is when it would have been delivered in mailboxes. This no doubt explains why an early researcher, Loren Gill, cited the June 1 instead of the May 31 Tribune when he wrote about the massacre in the 1940s.

This June 1 edition, however, does not clear up the matter of the editorial. In the space missing from the microfilmed May 31 edition is an editorial about European disarmament. There is nothing about Rowland. The most common explanations for the fact that no copy of the offending editorial can be found is that it appeared in only one, limited-run edition that Tribune management suppressed, or that the presses were stopped and the “To Lynch (Black man) Tonight” piece was pulled before many copies were printed, with only a few of those making it onto the street. These explanations are certainly possible, but they also pose problems.

First, the assumption that only a few copies of the editorial made it into general circulation is contrary to the assertion that it incited widespread anger and violence among white Tulsans. Rumors or secondhand accounts of such an editorial may have circulated, but that is not the same as actually reading the piece as it is described.

That leads to a second, more difficult point to overcome: None of the Tribune’s most vocal critics — not the World, not Roscoe Dunjee’s Black Dispatch, not the NAACP’s Walter White, who arrived in Tulsa a few days after the massacre to investigate — ever mentioned a “To Lynch (Black man) Tonight” editorial. None of the three had reason to hold back knowledge of such a piece. Instead, they cited exclusively the front-page arrest story. The Black Dispatch reprinted the story under the headline “The Story That Set Tulsa Ablaze.” White, writing in the Nation, attributed the massacre to the Tribune’s careless use of the word “assault.”

The World, on June 2, quoted a police official blaming the Tribune’s “yellow journalism” for what occurred. It followed that story a few days later with a similar statement from state adjutant general Charles Barrett, and generally did all it could to cast as much blame as possible on its rival publication.

The missing editorial may not, in fact, have existed in the form often described, but that does not mean that it was invented from thin air. Clearly, the arrest story was inflammatory on its own. And readers, it must be said, often do not distinguish between news articles and editorials. That the arrest story could have been interpreted as an open call to violence, especially in the telling and retelling, would be understandable. The World’s June 1 report of Rowland’s arrest — also on page one — and how it contributed to the previous night’s violence could be read as supporting evidence for either conclusion regarding the editorial. “There was a movement afoot, it was reported, among white people to go to the county courthouse Tuesday night and lynch the bootblack,” the story reads. It is not clear what is meant by “reported.” This could refer to the missing Tribune editorial, it could refer to general rumor, or it could refer to Police Commissioner James Adkison’s statement that he was warned of such an attempt by an anonymous caller.

If the World story does not refer to the supposed Tribune editorial, it might, in fact, be a source of the editorial legend. In the confusion of that day and the days that followed, the World’s after-the-fact reporting could have become conflated with the Tribune’s earlier story into a single, cold-blooded call for Dick Rowland’s murder.

The Tribune and World both reported that Rowland was arrested on South Greenwood, which seems odd but is likely accurate precisely because it is odd. It is the sort of fact that would be checked, certainly by one copy editor and probably by two. After his arrest, Rowland was taken to police headquarters at 109 East Second Street and jailed. At some point, he seems to have made a statement to the police, in which he said he accidentally stepped on Sarah Page’s foot.

Six weeks after the massacre, Adkison testified that he received a telephone call at three o’clock in the afternoon — some accounts say four — threatening Rowland’s life. “We are going to lynch that (Black man) tonight,” Adkison said the caller told him, “that black devil who assaulted that girl.”  Thus, in news reports of Adkison’s remarks, the phrase “to lynch that (Black man) tonight” did appear in print, but in a different context than ascribed to the missing Tribune editorial, and a month and a half after the fact. By then, stories about the supposed editorial seem to have already been in circulation. Druggist P. S. Thompson mentioned it in the account he gave Mary Jones Parrish, who had been hired soon after the massacre to take down the stories of African American witnesses.

After the call, Adkison hurried to the police headquarters, where he consulted with Chief John Gustafson and then ordered Dick Rowland moved to the Tulsa County jail. This was a reasonable decision. The city jail was easily accessible and none too secure. The county jail was on the fifth floor of the limestone Tulsa County Courthouse, and while embarrassingly easy to get out of — twelve men had escaped a few days earlier by sliding down a forty-foot rope made from bed sheets — it was undeniably difficult to break into if willingly defended. The jail could be reached only by a single elevator and a closed stairwell that could be locked from the inside. Nevertheless, after turning the prisoner over to Tulsa County Sheriff W. M. “Bill” McCullough, Adkison and Gustafson urged the sheriff to get Rowland out of town. This was a standard tactic for defusing such situations, but McCullough refused to go along with it. Rowland was much safer in the jail, he said, than on the open road. McCullough called in all of his deputies and vowed that no one would take his prisoner.

This was not a decision or a pledge McCullough took lightly. Ten months earlier, on the same weekend as the Oklahoma City lynching that had so outraged Tulsa Star founder A. J. Smitherman, a white prisoner named Roy Belton was taken from the Tulsa County jail and hanged from a billboard southwest of town, near the present intersection of Southwest Boulevard and Union Avenue. Belton was charged with shooting and beating cab driver Homer Nida as Belton and two companions, posing as passengers, relieved Nida of his cab near the Texaco tank farm on the road to Red Fork. Belton — who first gave the name Tom Owens — was captured after one of his accomplices, Marie Harmon, confessed and identified the man she knew as Owens as the actual killer. Dramatically, in a face-to-face confrontation in Nida’s hospital room, the taxi driver identified Belton as his assailant before dying of his injuries.

James Woolley, the Tulsa County sheriff at the time, would later say he did not take rumors of a lynching seriously. When twenty-five men entered the courthouse and took Woolley prisoner, he told the jailer to do all he could to protect the prisoner but to not get anyone hurt. Belton, in fact, was quickly handed over and taken in Nida’s taxi to the scene of the crime at the head of a long procession of automobiles, including an ambulance. Belton was hung from a Federal Tire sign on the Jenks road, just south of where it forked off the main thoroughfare from Tulsa to Red Fork and on to Sapulpa, a road that in a few years would become known as U.S. Route 66. Tulsa police, it was reported, helped direct traffic at the scene; Gustafson, on the job only four months at the time, denied the charge but admitted that officers stood by and watched the lynching because they did not want to endanger “innocent bystanders” with gunplay. “I do not condone mob law — in fact, I am absolutely opposed to it,” Gustafson said, “but it is my honest opinion the lynching of Belton will prove of real benefit to Tulsa and vicinity. It was an object lesson to the hi-jackers and auto thieves, and will be taken as such.”

Gustafson blamed the sheriff’s office for not asking for help sooner. “The county officers waited too long to notify us, and we got there a little too late,” said Gustafson. Outraged, Governor J. B. A. Robertson ordered an investigation and offered a reward for information on those responsible for Belton’s death, but no one was ever charged.

McCullough defeated Woolley in the general election later that year. The two were old friends who had traded the sheriff’s office back and forth for a decade, McCullough the Republican and Woolley the Democrat. A former cowboy with an impressive handlebar moustache and a pearl-handled revolver he seldom wore and even more seldom used, McCullough, in 1911, carried out the county’s only execution, the hanging of a black man called Frank Henson, who had been convicted of killing a deputy in the outlying community of Dawson. In a scene straight out of the Old West, McCullough built the scaffolding, tied the hangman’s noose, and dropped Henson to his death. Late in life, the man known as “Uncle Bill” would say that this was the most difficult thing he ever did.

McCullough was no fan of Gustafson, a private detective who had been fired from the Tulsa Police Department five years earlier. McCullough claimed to have advised against Gustafson’s appointment, and considered him to be of questionable character. Evidence gathered by Freeling, Van Leuven, and Short in their admittedly one-sided investigation supported McCullough’s conclusion.

This distrust between the two lawmen may have figured into McCullough rejecting the recommendation to sneak Rowland out of town. It also may have factored into the drama about to unfold.

The news that Rowland might be in danger reached Greenwood, or at least the Gurley Hotel, by way of Reverend Bryant, the same Reverend Bryant who had run for county commissioner the previous year, and who in the African American community was called “Doctor Bryant.” He delivered the lynching rumor to Gurley, and together they sought out Deputy Sheriff Barney Cleaver. Cleaver contacted McCullough, who insisted he had things under control.

By six or six-thirty, a crowd was gathering in the street outside Gurley’s hotel. Cleaver would later testify that he tried to disperse this “advance guard” gathering in Greenwood but was laughed at and threatened. Gurley, who had briefly been a deputy during one of McCullough’s previous terms, agreed to go to the courthouse with a man named Webb — presumably Staley Webb — to talk to the sheriff and assess the danger to Rowland. Cleaver also went to the courthouse at about this time, but it is unclear whether he and the other two men went together.

Men gathering at the Tulsa Star’s new printing plant on North Greenwood seethed with angry suspicion approaching certainty. Their confidence in the local authorities was nil. They were convinced that Dick Rowland would be taken, regardless of what anyone said. A man identified as Henry Jacobs, who said he was present, told investigators that J. B. Stradford told the men, “Boys, we will send and get the Muskogee crowd, and you go on up [to the courthouse] and lay there till they come.”

When Gurley returned with reassuring news, he said later, one of the men gathered at the Star’s new printing plant on North Greenwood loudly proclaimed him a liar and might have killed Gurley had lawyer Isaac H. “Ike” Spears not intervened. A larger group, this one numbering perhaps twenty-five or thirty, loaded into cars and trucks and headed for the courthouse. When they arrived, McCullough told Cleaver to “go out and see what they wanted.” “The boy is upstairs in the cage,” Cleaver told them. “He’s locked up and no one is going to get him.”

The white crowd around the courthouse grew steadily. Initially, it does not seem to have been particularly unruly or even hostile, and may have been more curious than violent. It had no identifiable leadership or organization and, as events would soon suggest, was not armed or equipped to the extent one might expect for a planned assault on a fortified position such as the courthouse jail.

And, no serious attempt to take Rowland seems to have occurred. But a lot of people, white and black, believed there would be, or that there was a good chance of it, and they acted accordingly. “Since the lynching of a white boy [Belton] in Tulsa, the confidence in the ability of the city officials to protect its prisoner had decreased,” wrote Mary Jones Parrish. “Therefore, some of our group banded together to add to the protection of the life that was threatened to be taken without a chance to prove his innocence.”

Parrish operated a secretarial school in a building on Greenwood. After her last class ended at about nine o’clock, her young daughter called Parrish’s attention to “cars full of people” and “men with guns” in the street outside. “I am told this little bunch of brave and loyal black men who were willing to give up their lives, if necessary, for the sake of a fellow man, marched up to the jail where there were already 500 white men gathered, and that this number was soon swelled to a thousand,” Parrish wrote.

As courageous as these men and as honorable as their intentions no doubt were, their appearance alarmed and then angered the white population.

McCullough and Cleaver convinced the first party of African Americans to go home, and then a second. McCullough, though, had no such success with the increasingly abusive whites. He ordered, pleaded, harangued, and cajoled to no effect. So, apparently, did other prominent white citizens. They were greeted with boos and jeers from a determined knot “at the south entrance of the courthouse heckling speakers who attempted to disperse them.”

Between eight and eight-thirty, three white men entering the courthouse were met by McCullough and Ira Short, who had been elected county commissioner but had not yet taken office. When McCullough ordered them out, the men rather meekly complied and returned to their automobile. McCullough watched as a “crowd of 20 or 30” gathered around the car. McCullough told his deputies to run the elevator to the top floor, disable it, and barricade themselves in the jail. Then he crossed the street to the car containing the three potential troublemakers. “I was jeered by the men in the car and by persons standing around on the street and sidewalk,” McCullough told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “They called me a ‘n-----lover,’ but the men in the car drove off.”

This rather half-hearted attempt to reach Rowland may have quickly fizzled, but it fed the spiraling racial fear, anger, and hatred the way heat and air feed fire. It, and the whites’ refusal to go home, would bring yet another wave of concerned African Americans, this one even larger and better armed than the ones before. Word soon reached Greenwood’s two movie theaters, the Dixie and the Dreamland, and guns were passed around in at least one of them. Cars and trucks were commandeered. Some may have thought Sheriff McCullough asked for them. All were determined to make a statement, to stand up not just for Dick Rowland but for their race.

So the inability of McCullough, Gustafson, police captain George Blaine, and a few others to disperse the whites at the courthouse was crucial. Sheriff McCullough probably did not have the manpower to do it, and certainly not after ordering his available deputies to barricade themselves inside the jail. The city police did have the manpower — barely — had it been properly organized and deployed, but it was not. The local National Guard units, especially in conjunction with the police, would have made a difference had they been brought to bear during the early stages of the crisis, but no one asked for them until it was too late.

By ten o’clock, there were perhaps two thousand whites at the courthouse. Perhaps three hundred Black men — estimates of both groups vary widely — had joined them, with many more conspicuous on the downtown streets. “[A] (Black man),” noted someone looking out a window of the Tulsa World Building at 317 S. Boulder Avenue, two blocks south of the courthouse, “walked into the middle of the street in front of the office, carrying a long shotgun loosely under his arm ... in a few minutes a big car drew up beside. ‘Disarm?’ one of them was heard to say.

‘You bet I won’t disarm.’ ”

Gustafson and Adkison had essentially washed their hands of the situation after McCullough spurned their suggestion to take Rowland out of the city. Now they grew uneasy. Early on, when trouble first began bubbling to the surface, City Commissioner C. S. Younkman had found the police chief at the station and asked him what was going on. Gustafson said he did not know but he had heard that there was a crowd at the courthouse. Oddly, he seemed more worried that mob violence would be turned against police headquarters than he was about the county jail holding the supposed focal point of the seething ill will. But, as dusk approached and tension mounted, the chief and his boss, Police Commissioner Adkison, began to grasp the seriousness of the situation. In so doing, however, they did virtually nothing to break up or subdue the hostile whites.

Even Younkman’s order to turn fire hoses on the whites surrounding the police station was ignored. Instead, Gustafson and Adkison addressed only the black side of the equation. Adkison dispatched one of his Black officers, Henry Pack, to Greenwood on a reconnaissance mission, and sent “all available police” to “keep the (Black people) from coming to town.” Gustafson ordered Detective Ike Wilkerson, Sergeant Claude Brice, and Officer Sid Jackson to intercept a band of Blacks forming at Second and Cincinnati, about six blocks northeast of the courthouse and a block and a half north of the Frisco tracks; Gustafson himself went out with Captain George Blaine, probably the TPD’s boldest and most fearless officer. At the courthouse, Gustafson and Blaine observed the large crowd and concluded it would be “suicide” to try to disarm anyone. Driving on, they encountered “three carloads” of Black men about six blocks away at Fourth and Elgin. Gustafson and Blaine followed them back to the courthouse, then returned to the police station, badly shaken. Shortly after ten o’clock, Gustafson asked Major James A. Bell of the local National Guard for men to “clear the streets of (Black people).”

Bell had learned of the courthouse disturbance sometime earlier, not from law enforcement or city authorities, but from two of his men, a Private Canton and a Sergeant Payne. At about nine, the pair “came to my door and reported that a crowd of white men were gathering near the Court House and that threats of lynching a (Black man) were being made, and that it was reported the (Black people) in ‘Little Africa’ were arming to prevent it,” Bell wrote about a month later. “As I had heard rumors of this kind on other occasions that did not amount to anything serious I did not feel greatly worried,” Bell continued.

Nevertheless, Bell sent Canton and Payne back to the courthouse to get more information, then called McCullough and Gustafson. McCullough told Bell everything was under control, but Gustafson was less confident. “The chief reported that things were a little threatening, that it was reported that (Black people) were driving around town in a threatening mood,” Bell wrote.

Bell suggested that city officials contact Governor Robertson and ask him to authorize use of the National Guard. Next, Bell notified the commanding officers of the three National Guard units based in Tulsa to “quietly” assemble as many of their men as possible. As Bell was changing into his uniform, a messenger arrived with the news that whites had shown up at the National Guard Armory, across the alley from Bell’s house, demanding rifles and ammunition. The armory was about a half mile east of the courthouse on Sixth Street, across from what was then Central Park. Summer training camp at Fort Sill, in the southwestern part of the state, was only a few days away, and some of the men were at the armory preparing for the trip.

Bell recounted, “Grabbing my pistol in one hand and my belt in the other I jumped out of the back door and running down the west side of the Armory building I saw several men apparently pulling at the window grating.” After chasing those men away, Bell went to the front of the building and found “a mob of white men three or four hundred strong” clamoring for admission.

“I asked them what they wanted,” Bell recalled. “One of them replied, ‘Rifles and ammunition.’ I explained to them that they could not get anything there.

Someone shouted, ‘We don’t know about that, we guess we can.’ ”

Backed by National Guard captain Frank Van Voorhis, TPD motorcycle officer Leo Irish, and “a citizen named Williams,” Bell told the crowd the armory was full of armed soldiers who would “shoot promptly” anyone trying to get inside. This finally did the trick. The mob dispersed, and Bell ordered a guard around the armory with “one man on the roof.” It was at this point that Bell called Gustafson the second time and Gustafson asked for men “to clear the streets.”

Bell said he had to have an order from the governor and “urged haste” in doing so “before it was too late.” That point had already been reached. Wilkerson, Brice, and Jackson had intercepted the group of Black men at Second and Cincinnati and had almost talked them into withdrawing when Deputy Sheriff John Smitherman arrived.

“ ‘What the hell are you trying to do here?’ ” Wilkerson later testified Smitherman asked. When Wilkerson said he was assuring the Black men that Rowland was safe, Smitherman replied, “Yes, damn you, you’re one of them. Come on, boys!”

This remarkable exchange, assuming Wilkerson recounted it accurately, hangs in the air a century later. What did Smitherman mean by “You’re one of them?” One of what? One of whom? Those planning harm to Dick Rowland?

Who could not be trusted? Wilkerson said he did not know, and if Smitherman ever explained himself, it is not recorded.

Led by Smitherman, the men pushed past the three white officers and headed for the courthouse. There, some white citizens had taken it upon themselves to disarm the Black men arriving in ever-greater numbers. Somewhere in the roiling tumult, E. S. MacQueen decided to be a hero. A former investigator in the county attorney’s office, MacQueen had finished a distant second in the 1920 Democratic sheriff’s primary. A man of less-than-sterling reputation, by the spring of 1921 MacQueen was reduced to the dubious position of deputy constable for a justice of the peace. Perhaps intent on demonstrating that he, not Bill McCullough, should be in charge, MacQueen confronted an African American man, identified in some sources as Johnny Cole, and demanded Cole’s pistol. Cole refused in no uncertain terms. MacQueen grabbed for the gun; Cole resisted.

The pistol discharged.

All hell broke loose.


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