Two lynchings on the last weekend of 1920 held important implications for Tulsa nine months later.
Lynchings in the early 1920s were still common — at least 61 in 1920, according to one source, and 64 in 1921. Most of the victims were Black.
In Tulsa, a white drifter named Roy Belton, also known as Tom Owens, was taken from the Tulsa County jail on Aug. 28, 1920, and hung from a sign along what is now Southwest Boulevard near Union Avenue. He was accused of fatally shooting taxi driver Homer Nida, who had identified Belton before dying.
One day later, Claude Chandler, a black moonshiner accused of killing two lawmen and wounding a third, was taken from the Oklahoma County jail. He was found the next morning hanging from a tree with two bullets in his head.
Belton’s lynching led to the defeat that fall of Sheriff James Woolley and further undermined already shaky confidence in Tulsa law enforcement. Tulsa Police Chief John Gustafson, in acknowledging his men did nothing to stop the murder, said, “in my honest opinion the lynching of Belton will prove of real benefit to Tulsa and vicinity.”
Tulsa Star editor A.J. Smitherman chided Oklahoma City’s African Americans for not protecting Chandler, and by force if necessary.
“No man or set of men have any right to conspire and arm themselves to desecrate the law, but any man or set of men may rightfully and legally take up arms to defend and uphold the law,” Smitherman told his readers.