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50 years ago, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was a taboo subject when Tulsan Ed Wheeler set out to write an article ‘to find out what happened.’ He had no idea the threats and resistance he would face just for trying.
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100 years later: The Tulsa Race Massacre

50 years ago, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was a taboo subject when Tulsan Ed Wheeler set out to write an article ‘to find out what happened.’ He had no idea the threats and resistance he would face just for trying.

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Hannibal Johnson talks about "The single worst incident of domestic racial violence in American history.

A captain at the time with a National Guard infantry battalion, Ed Wheeler wasn’t overly worried about his own safety.

He had a rifle and he knew how to use it.

But there was his wife and their little boy to think about.

“I ended up moving them in with my mother-in-law,” Wheeler said. “I didn’t want to take a chance on them being caught in any crossfire.

“Whoever was tracking me knew where I lived.”

Looking back today, it’s hard to say whether or not the precaution was warranted.

But at the time in 1970, in light of all the threats, it certainly felt like it, Wheeler said.

“I received notes on my windshield — at my home, threatening me,” he recalled. “My wife received phone calls late at night.”

So, just what was it about Wheeler that would make someone want to scare him off like this?

As unlikely as it might sound, it was an article he was researching.

An article on a subject that, clearly, some people did not want to revisit.

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Wheeler, today a retired Oklahoma National Guard brigadier general and former Tulsa Community College history instructor, reflected recently on the experience behind that writing project.

Published in Impact Magazine in 1971, his “Profile of a Race Riot” is considered the first serious contemporary look at the events of May 31-June 1, 1921.

At the time, Scott Ellsworth’s book “Death in a Promised Land” was still more than 10 years away.

When Wheeler undertook the project, which took him almost a year to complete, he didn’t grasp just how sensitive the subject was. But he would learn quickly.

Not only were there threats and a general lack of cooperation, in the end, the local magazine that had solicited the story turned it down.

So would several other Tulsa media outlets that Wheeler approached.

Today — 50 years later and on the eve of the massacre centennial — Wheeler, 83, doesn’t harbor any ill will, he said, toward any of them.

It was a sensitive subject, and at a tumultuous time for the country.

“We were a racially divided community, just like many others,” he said.

Wheeler considers Tulsa his hometown. But he’s originally from New York City. His father was a police officer, who, after being seriously wounded in the line of duty, went into oil contracting.

After moving around a lot, the family settled in Tulsa to stay. It’s been Wheeler’s home since ninth grade.

The job that would lead to him tackling the massacre started in 1963 while working his way through the University of Tulsa.

Wheeler, always interested in history, began doing a radio show on KVOO. Called “The Gilcrease Story,” it focused on historical events tied to pieces in the Gilcrease Museum collections.

Wheeler wrote and performed his own scripts, and it quickly grew to five shows a week, a routine he would keep up for 10 years.

His main goal with the popular shows, which brought Civil War battles and other events to life with realistic sound effects, was simple, he said:

“I wanted my listeners to feel like they were there.”

‘Don’t do that story’

One day in 1970, over lunch at the Tulsa Press Club, Larry Silvey, editor of Tulsa Magazine, put a question to Wheeler.

“Is there any subject in American history you would not cover on your program?”

Wheeler didn’t have to think about it.

He first become aware of the Tulsa Race Riot, as it was then called, in the 1950s after moving to Tulsa. It wasn’t taught in school, but most people knew about it, he said.

“Maybe they didn’t know the details — but it has been an undercurrent in Tulsa all of my life,” he said.

Answering Silvey, Wheeler said that the riot was a subject he would not cover. It was a tense era for race relations nationally; he feared his sound effects-laden productions would confuse listeners.

They might think an actual riot was in progress, he said, and “I didn’t want to be responsible for that.”

So Silvey made Wheeler a proposal: Write about the riot for Tulsa Magazine.

Wheeler jumped on it. It was the chance to finally satisfy his curiosity about the event.

“Nobody had ever been able to tell me exactly what happened,” he said.

He would approach the article as a historian, he decided, focusing only on what he could prove. “A good historian,” he added, “will never print anything that he can’t prove.”

It didn’t take long to realize, though, it wasn’t going to be easy.

For starters, the institutions he approached for help with records, when they learned what it was for, weren’t very helpful.

Not many people, it turned out, were fans of the idea.

And as word quickly spread about what Wheeler was up to, “I was told by at least a half a dozen men of various positions to drop the subject,” he said.

One admonition was issued via an encounter on the streets of downtown Tulsa.

“A guy came up to me, slapped me on the back and said, ‘Don’t do that story.’ Then he turned around and walked off,” he said. “I still don’t know who the hell he was.”

Most unsettling were the threats — the notes and phone calls that led him to eventually relocate his wife and son.

What was everyone afraid of?

Wheeler eventually figured it out, he thinks.

“I think they were afraid I was going to ‘name names.’ And it was going to be very embarrassing for some people,” he said. “In 1970, there were people in positions of influence in Tulsa that 50 years earlier had been in their 20s and were involved in some way in the riot.”

Exposing and shaming people wasn’t Wheeler’s goal, though.

“My only objective was trying to find out what happened,” he said. “That was the story I was writing.”

In the end, the people who tried to scare or dissuade Wheeler could have saved themselves the trouble.

“The more I ran into that kind of opposition, the more it aggravated me,” he said. “And I’m not the kind of person that can be put off easily when I have a mission.

“That’s not how I became a general.”

Fear

Employed in corporate communications by day, Wheeler worked on the article in the evenings.

It took him 10 months to finish. But after everything he’d been through, suddenly it looked like it might all have been for nothing.

Tulsa Magazine, a publication of the Metro Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, was known under the late Silvey for taking on tougher, newsier topics. But for Silvey’s bosses, the Race Massacre apparently was too hot a subject.

They refused to publish Wheeler’s story.

“Larry told me they were afraid it would start a riot. Those were the exact words,” he said.

From there, Wheeler tried other media outlets, including Tulsa’s two daily newspapers, the World and Tribune. They turned the story down as well.

“I’m not condemning all these people,” he said, adding that again, he understands the era.

Finally, on the verge of giving up, Wheeler found a taker. Impact Magazine, a Black-owned publication targeting Tulsa’s African American community, welcomed the article, publishing it the last week of May 1971 in time for the 50th anniversary of the riot.

For the first time, people could read an almost hour-by-hour breakdown of how the massacre unfolded, along with context about the era and the events leading up to it.

Wheeler relied on newspaper accounts and records he could access.

What readers wouldn’t find in it were excerpts from his interviews with eyewitnesses. Wheeler interviewed around 90, both white and Black, but ultimately didn’t use their recollections, because as a historian he couldn’t corroborate them.

“Keep in mind what my mission was: What happened. I didn’t want people’s opinions,” he said. “(The interviewees) were all in the riot, and/or saw it, but of the 90 nobody could verify anybody else.”

Still, the personal interviews made an impression on Wheeler. Clearly, 50 years had made no difference in people’s emotions.

Fear was the most prevalent one. All those interviewed, both Black and white, were afraid, Wheeler said — although for different reasons.

With the whites, he believes, it was out of embarrassment over the massacre. For African Americans, it was more a fear of possible repercussions for talking.

“Black folks were anxious to tell the story, but every interview was at their church with a minister present,” he said. “And they refused to allow me to use their names.”

Wheeler even interviewed members of the Ku Klux Klan, one whose words of hate he remembers to this day.

“He was an unreconstructed Klansman who actually came from someplace in Creek County but he happened to be in Tulsa when the riot occurred.

“He told me to my face — ‘the only mistake we made was we didn’t kill them all.’”

The casualness with which the man made the observation was shocking, Wheeler said. “It burned into my skull. I’ve never forgotten it.”

‘It’s history. It happened.’

The 1971 story would be Wheeler’s one and only time to write about the Race Massacre. But he feels a strong connection to the subject, and has paid close attention over the years to other writings.

He disagrees with more recent trends of how the story is presented.

Currently lying on his desk is a new article about the massacre in a national magazine. He’s pored over it, marking with an orange highlighter all the “wild, unfounded stuff” contained within.

“A historian is interested in only what he can prove,” Wheeler said. “That’s what my role has been throughout my life.”

Among the points on which he hasn’t wavered is the event’s death toll. While an unofficial total in the hundreds is now commonly cited, Wheeler stands by the official estimate of less than 40, which he believes is roughly accurate.

Also, the now commonly used word “massacre” is not a good fit, he said, given his understanding of how the event unfolded.

But Wheeler also understands that it’s an emotionally charged subject.

“I’m not passing judgment on anybody,” he said.

Wheeler has devoted much of his life to the past. Along with a bachelor’s and master’s in history, he taught the subject at TCC for 11 years, and lectured at many other universities.

He continues to believe that history, no matter how dark and unflattering, needs to be brought into the light.

To the people in 1970 who opposed his efforts to do that, Wheeler, if he could, would say: “It’s history. It happened. Do you deny your own history?”

As for the article, he achieved what he set out to do, he said, using the limited resources that were available.

“I recorded what happened to the best of my ability,” Wheeler said. “Fifty years have opened not only many minds and eyes, but access to papers, documents and a variety of other sources that were closed to me.”

One thing that was clear in 1921, 1971 and also in 2021:

“This was a horrible, horrible event for Tulsa,” Wheeler said.

“And it underscores the driving point that we should all remember whenever we’re dealing with anybody: Love one another as you love yourself.”


Photos: Vernon AME Church receives $200,000 donation from Tulsa Race Massacre Commission

“I received notes on my windshield — at my home, threatening me. My wife received phone calls late at night.”

Ed Wheeler, recalling his concern for his family's welfare while researching the Tulsa Race Massacre 50 years ago for a magazine article.

Ed Wheeler

“I think they were afraid I was going to ‘name names.’ And it was going to be very embarrassing for some people. In 1970, there were people in positions of influence in Tulsa that 50 years earlier had been in their 20s and were involved in some way in the riot.”

Ed Wheeler, explaining why he thought men of various positions in Tulsa were tellling him to drop the subject.

Ed Wheeler

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