Ep. 6: Black Wall Street Burning (Part 2) - A Descendant's Story
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Dr. A.C. Jackson: the most prominent person killed in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Photo courtesy: Ruth Sigler Avery Collection held at the Oklahoma State University - Tulsa Library Special Collections and Archives
The episode is Part 2 of a deep dive into the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred between May 31st and June 1st of 1921. Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed. Thousands were left homeless. And the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma - also known as Black Wall Street - was completely destroyed. Some witnesses and survivors reported seeing and hearing bombs dropped on the community of Greenwood or Black Wall Street. Some experts believe they were turpentine bombs. One of the most prominent people to be killed during the massacre was Dr. A.C. Jackson - a black surgeon who lived in Greenwood. He was called the most able Negro surgeon in America by the Mayo brothers (who founded the world renowned Mayo Clinic), and transcended the color line, servicing both white and “Colored” patients.
The Massacre of Black Wall Street did not just impact those who were victims. It also impacted their families as well as their descendants. Brenda Nails Alford shares her experience of learning about her own family's involvement later in life.
Multimedia Journalist and TV Reporter, Nia Clark, interviews: Dr. Scott Ellsworth, writer, historian and professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Listeners will also hear an audio recordings of interview of Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Wilhelmina G. Howell who was also the niece of Dr. A.C. Jackson. Finally, listeners will hear from Virginia Waters Poulton, who lived in Tulsa during the Tulsa Race Massacre and describes her parents attempts to save an African American domestic employee who worked for her family. A special thanks to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum for allowing the use of their archival audio recording in this episode.
Dr. Scott Ellsworth, writer, historian and University of Michigan Afroamerican and African Studies professor.
Brenda Nails Alford: descendant of Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors and grandparents James and Vasinora Nails.
The most prominent Tulsan killed in the massacre was Dr. A.C. Jackson, a 40-year-old surgeon living at 523 N. Detroit Ave. According to Jackson’s white neighbor, former police commissioner and retired judge John Oliphant, Jackson had raised his hands to surrender to a group of whites when two of them shot Jackson dead in what Oliphant called “cold-blooded murder.” ~Tulsa World Newspaper "Timeline: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre"
Thant, Jackson had raised his hands to surrender to a group of whites when two of them shot Jackson dead in what Oliphant called “cold-blooded murder.”
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Rough Episode Transcription
Well, I guess really what most impressed me was that race ride, but they had some time in the early 1920's. I was seven or eight years old at the time. And of course I was personaly involved because, um, the colored woman that had been doing our washing for years on Monday morning and doing our ironing on Tuesdays. Um, I'm showing up at our house on Wednesday and just scared death and my mother wanted to know one Lily, what is the matter? This isn't your day to come to work. She says, Oh, Ms. Waters, can you hide me? They're burning down the tail. And mother says, Oh, they wouldn't do that. What? What is it? She says, yes, this is in our district in town, or being set for her too. And mother didn't know whether to believe her mom, that she brought her in and order a cup of coffee and told her to sit down. And, and. Yeah, homes were South and she never did quit Chicky but they, as I talked, one mother figured out. I figured out that the only place that she was sure of that nobody would probably look if they came looking for Lilly, was down through a trap door that went into our basement, which was covered generally via a rug, and she didn't weight. And this little girl she had with her, um, some blankets and pillows and food and water, and they went down in this unfinished space, which was not only unfinished, it was dirt floor and just not even a room. And a brother went down, checked on her every now and then, and she stayed. Down in their place the whole day and about three or four talks in the afternoon, the doorbell rang and brother went to the door and there were two men standing there that second day were police officers and they wanted to know if it wasn't worked here, had come to work that morning. And mother says, she doesn't work here on Wednesdays. She only works here on Mondays and Tuesdays. And they said, well, I bet she's here. And mother said, well, why do you think that? Well, I bet she's here. I said, well, come in and look. So they came in and searched every closet and every room in the entire house. Then they went out and searched the garage. Then they came back and I was like, wow. He didn't want to come back in and search the morning. I said, no, yes, no. So they went on and mother call him dad. He was URI. He didn't believe in somebody telling you that searching his property when he hadn't done anything wrong. But he could figure it out so he can even know. And I remember that they got a call from the first Christian Church down at ninth and Boulder asking if they had any cops, army tops and blankets, and three. And any other bedding if they could take down there. So they got the only cost that they own, which I think was about four and took some food and blankets and bedding down to the first Christian Church. And I don't remember where I am. Literally, she wasn't at our house only just that one day, and I guess she must've gone with her dad down to the first Christian Church. But, uh, my grandmother lived across the alley. She lived on nice and lot and, uh, across the alley from the Oklahoma hospital. And, uh, they turned up all the hospital into the receiving area or for. Pregnant women in the killing section. And, um, so I sat on the back, um, stone fence behind my grandmother's house after they began to release the babies and their mothers and watch these little teeny tiny. Blankets wrap babies being sent home from Oklahoma hospital at the end of that week. I don't know how they made their word, but uh, I did enjoy. That was a recorded interview from years ago with Virginia Waters Polton courtesy of the Tulsa historical society and museum. Holton was a white woman who lived in Tulsa at the time of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 she was describing her family's efforts to save a black domestic employee who works for her family at the time the massacre occurred. In partnership with the Tulsa race massacre. Centennial commission. I'm Nia Clark and this is black wall street, 1921. If you've been listening to this podcast from the beginning by now, you've probably heard me mentioned several times that potentially hundreds of people that were killed in the Tulsa race massacre. As a journalist. I know from firsthand experience that sometimes when reporting on or covering a tragedy that has a massive number of casualties, those numbers can take the place of the identity of the victims themselves in that those victims become numbers without. ISAs means character, family, friends, careers, et cetera. So in the next few episodes, as we continue our deep dive into the actual Tulsa race massacre, I'm going to do my best to highlight some of the actual people who were killed in the massacre, not only describing the nature of their deaths, but who they were in life. In that vein, one of the most prominent people killed in the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 was a doctor by the name of AC Jackson. According to the Tulsa race massacre, Centennial commission, Dr. Jackson is described as a physician who quote transcended the color line. Servicing both white and colored patients in the Tulsa race riot report by the Oklahoma commission to study the Tulsa race riot of 1921 dated February 28th, 2001 describes more than a dozen black physicians in Tulsa in 1921 including Dr. Jackson. It reads, quote in nearby buildings where the offices of nearly all of Tulsa's black lawyers, realtors, and other professionals. Most impressively, there were 15 African American physicians in Tulsa at the time of the riot, including dr AC Jackson, who had been described by one of the Mayo brothers as the quote, most able Negro surgeon in America in pro. Just for historical clarification, the Mayo brothers mentioned in that passage, refer to brothers Charles horse Mayo and William James Mayo. Both American physicians and surgeons who led the development of the Mayo clinic into a world class center for medical treatment and research. The Tulsa world, the only daily newspaper in Tulsa, and the second largest newspaper in Oklahoma published a timeline of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 on October 24th. 2019 this is what it says about Dr. Jackson quote, the most prominent Tulsan killed in the massacre was dr AC Jackson, a 40 year old surgeon living at five 23 North Detroit Avenue. According to dr Jackson's white neighbor, former police commissioner, and retired judge John Ola font. Jackson had raised his hands to surrender to a group of whites when two of them shot Jackson dead and what Ollifont called quote, cold blooded murder, born in Memphis and raised in Guthrie where his father was a law officer. Jackson graduated from a hairy medical college in Nashville. Practice for a while, and Tulsa and Claire Moore then trained as a surgeon in Memphis has worked with such that he attracted the attention of the Mayo brothers. And in 1919 he returned to Tulsa as a specialist in chronic diseases and surgery for women. Jackson lived in what was one of the most exclusive blocks in all of Greenwood. His neighbors included Booker T Washington high school principal, EEW, woods, Tulsa star publisher, a J Smith or men and physician, R, T, Bridgewater, Y Jackson. One of the gentlest men would have been singled out is not known. Perhaps he was mistaken for the more outspoken Smitherman or Bridgewater. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The massacre had all but died down. Olyphant said when Jackson quote came walking toward me with his hands in the air. Here I am. I want to go with you. He said, a body of about seven men all armed intercepted. Him and two young fellows fired on him. He fell to the ground and one of the men fired again into quote. Jackson's killers were never identified. The Tulsa race riot report by the Oklahoma commission to study the Tulsa race riot of 1921 published the actual testimony of mr Ola font. Again, a white attorney who lived in nearby Dr. Jackson. This is what it said, quote, the most infamous. Incident involving white civilians imprisoning African Americans, was that which concerned dr AC Jackson ptosis noted black surgery. Despite the increase in gunfire, Dr. Jackson had decided to remain inside of his handsome home at five 23 North Detroit along the shoulder of standpipe Hill. But when a group of armed whites arrived in his front lawn, Jackson apparently walked out the side door of his home with his hands up saying, here I am, boys. Don't shoot. What happened next was later recounted by John a Olafani, a white attorney who lived nearby in testimony he provided after the riot question about what time in the morning did you say it was? Dr. Jackson was shot. Answer, right. Close to eight o'clock between seven 30 and eight o'clock question. Dr. Jackson was a Negro answer. Yes, sir. Question. And he was coming toward you and these other men at the time he was shot. Answer. Yes, sir. Coming right between his house, right in his yard between his home and the house. Below his question, what did these men say at the time? He was shot. Answer. They didn't say anything, but they pulled down on him. I kept begging him not to shoot him. I held him a good bit and I thought he wouldn't shoot, but he shot him twice and the other fellow on the other side and he fell, shot him and broke his leg. Question one man shot him twice. Answer. Yes, sir. That is my recollection now, question. Then another one shot him through the leg. Answer. Yes. I didn't look at that fellow question. The same men that shot him carried him to the hospital. Answer, no, they didn't question what did they do. Answer. I've never seen them after that. I don't know a thing about what became of them. Dr. Jackson died of his wounds later that day up next. Someone who knew dr AC Jackson when he was living and working in Tulsa Wilamena guests. How is one of a number of survivors who've gone on record about their experience in the Tulsa race massacre before passing away. We heard from Mrs. Howell previously in this podcast, similar to many survivors, and this is how a school teacher for more than 40 years did not begin to talk about the massacre until much later in life, and she was 87 at the time of the recording. You're about to hear. Which was made during a documentary interview several decades ago with author and historian Eddie Faye Gates, Howell's relatives were pioneers in Oklahoma. She moved to Tulsa with her family when she was four years old and lived in the Greenwood district, also known as black wall street after they lost for three year old brother and a house. Fire at their previous home in McAlester, Oklahoma. I mean, this is how it came from a prominent family. That was what might come to mind when you try to imagine people who live in black wall street. She graduated from Howard university, just like her father. Some of her family members lived in Oklahoma and eventually Tulsa long enough to experience the economic growth spurred by the oil boom of the era for father was a lawyer and several uncles were doctors. Including dr AC Jackson. She was afraid for her brother. She had two younger brothers and my mother did a, they muddled Dr. Jackson by the way. I was pitching them the table. Um, man was, uh, I thought he was great as a physician. In fact, he saved me. I had taught for my legacy when I was about seven years old. I lived down on Elgin street, three 70 North Elgin, and he lived next door. And that man was over these eight. And me, and I appreciate that very much. But unfortunately, he was murdered during the breaks. Right. He didn't tell son. Um, he was coming down his house. He'd work late that night and they had started burning up on Detroit street. They've got, they'll be drug street and they, um. Start burning. And so he, um, he had coming late over the case. He was a house doctor and uh, yeah, cure, keep the lay of the house and then it's an army. I smell smoke. And of course the house was on fire and it was 74 hundreds of houses. The Mark was at that time. So they came out the back door and came up to the front CAPA Helio. I phoned the dark Detroit street. I mean, it was a. Six, five or 600 block and it was cross streets. Oh, that's Dr. Jackson Obama, him in at that time, that's momma young boys had shot guns, shot into him and uh, we took him to Guthrie where he had grown up after they left Memphis, Tennessee and buried him in Guthrie where my grandparents were buried. And, um, that was my mother's brother hammered ready for everybody because as I said, he saved me when I had talked when I was young. Not only that, uh, it was good position on me. As mentioned previously, many survivors of the massacre did not talk about the attack. Afterwards, whether they stayed and rebuilt in Tulsa or whether they left for good. There were a number of reasons for this. For some, it was too traumatizing. Others remained mom about the massacre because they saw their silence as a way of protecting their children and children's children from experiencing. The potential horrors that they lived through and still many were forced into silence by bad actors who threatened their jobs and even their lives. We'll explore this more later in the podcast for now. Suffice to say, because of the decision many survivors made to remain largely silent. For much of their lives about the Tulsa race massacre. Many descendants of survivors lived for years without any or much knowledge of the massacre, let alone any knowledge that their own ancestors and relatives survived the experience. This was the case for Tulsa native Brenda nails Alford. So. Brenda yells, Alford, you are a native of TOSA, Oklahoma. Your family has a long history in Tulsa. And we're talking today about your family that survived the massacre and sort of what, if anything, they could tell you about it. And so one of the things I think is important. For this project is to hear from people who have either firsthand accounts or secondhand accounts, but are connected to somebody who was there that day, that tragic day. We've got a lot of recordings that were done with some of the survivors, but I think it's important to talk to people like you who are descendants of survivors as well, because you can really feel . Feel what was passed down in tangible things that were passed down over the generations. So why don't you just tell me a little bit about yourself and how your family even came to live in Tulsa. Okay. My name is Brenda nails Alford, and I am the granddaughter of James ambassador, knower nails sr, who along with my great uncle Henry, knew. We're the owners of the nails brothers shoe shop and record shop located at one 21 North Greenwood Avenue. My family migrated to Tulsa in the early 19 hundreds from Texas as many others did. They basically had heard that there was an opportunity to do well in Oklahoma, and so like so many others, they migrated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, some of our families settling in McAlester, Oklahoma, and then the rest coming on to Tulsa, Oklahoma. So they, they were part of that land run, I guess, wave of folks coming in. Yes. Yes. Our family was here doing the early 19 hundreds as I said, and migrated to Tulsa from McAlester, Oklahoma. Yep. Gotcha. So they were business people. They were entrepreneurial in spirit. Yes, they were. They were the owners of the shoe shops. We had several locations in the Greenwood community. They were also the first owners of what is now Lacey park. We're in the nails dance to bullion and skating rink was located and they also operated I chauffeur and taxi service. So they were very, very entrepreneurial minded people as most of the people were during that time. And my understand that they did very, very well. Did your family ever tell you about what it was like before the race massacre happens to be a black entrepreneur in Tulsa at the time, who was doing very well for themselves. Unfortunately not. I grew up knowing about our family businesses that had the kid, but I did not find out the race massacre aspect of our family history until about 2003 when I would receive a yes, when I would receive a notice. Vacation from a legal entity here in Tulsa and notifying myself and many others that the survivors and descendants of survivors for being included in a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa regard new reparations stemming from the 1921 race riots, as it was termed at that time. That's how I found out about the race massacre and our family history, and it was pretty devastating. Did you have any knowledge of the race massacre before that at all? You know, I had heard about the race massacre. You started hearing about it in the late, mid to late nineties is when I started hearing about it. And as I contemplated, as I began my journey to find that the rest of our family story regarding the race masker as I fell back, I thought of stories. I used to hear as a little kid. They were quote unquote grown folk conversation. But. I remember knowing that my grandmother had to hide in a church for some reason, but I didn't know why. I was very, very young and I didn't, of course know the questions to ask at that time. I wish I had, but I remember that vaguely, and I remember that when we'd ever, we passed by the Oaklawn cemetery. On Fiorina and 11th street, especially when we would have family members come home to visit and we'd be going passing by beer. As a little kid, I'd hear the grown folks say, you know, you know, they're still over there referring to the cemetery and everybody in the car. They would. Agreed, yes. They're still over there and they kind of shake their heads and we'd go on. And I always had a thing of that, that cemetery as a little girl growing up, because I was like, you know, wondering what's over there. And of course, many years later I will understand exactly what they were talking about. Was it a real cemetery or was it sort of done in Haiti? Cemetery effect. We all are on a committee of basically overseeing the . Mass graves where people were buried after the race. Baskar were basically doing monitoring, and we're basically studying certain cemeteries where in bodies are said to have been buried after the race massacre. Gotcha. So you learned about this horrific event. Later in life as you are obviously an adult at the time you've gone your entire childhood and adulthood until that point. What was your reaction in 2003 when you learned about your family's involvement in the massacre? I remember reading the document five times wondering to myself, why was I receiving it and what does actually did it mean. It was just a, it was devastating and it was heartbreaking to know that people that you loved and who loved you and who gave you their best were treated in this manner. It was very hard, but it's very heartbreaking. Yeah. Yeah. I can't really imagine as I've interviewed all these people and listened to all the recordings. It's still really hard to imagine, if you don't mind, if I can ask you about it. There was a different socioeconomic classes of people right in Tulsa at the time, your family was one of those families that did really well. Had your family, even in Texas, have they always been sort of entrepreneurial or Sort of self sufficient in that way, or was it something of necessity that they had to do? Because like a lot of people, a lot of black people in Tulsa, they really couldn't engage in the larger economy because of discrimination and segregation. So what was their motivation behind all of their businesses? My grandfather was a very proud college educated shoe maker, and there's a quote in one of the books and one of the first accounts after the race massacres that was written by a lady named mrs Mary Paris. Mrs. Mary Jones parish. She wrote the book a dense of the Tulsa disaster. And one of the things that she wrote in her book. Was a little paragraph where she basically talks about Tulsa, the Greenwood area before, during, and after the race maskers and one of the things she says about my family is the following. This just Henry and J H nails or two of Tulsa's leading businessmen before the disaster, they owned a modern shoe shop. Dick with all machinery needed to conduct a high class shop. Their loss was estimated at over $4,000 since the disaster. They have reopened in their quarters at one 21 North Greenwood at, in addition to having a well-equipped shop, they carry a full line of black Swan records. that was written in 1921 This is parish wrote this book several days after she was interviewing various members of the community and writing accounts of this days after the race massacre. This was one of the first accounts other than race massacre. That's amazing. And did she say in, did she say in the book what happened to your family's businesses during the massacre? She basically talked about very many people in the community. What happened? You know, she gave an account of what happened. Those two days that there was just a cottage. She basically is just saying that the mobs were going through the community. Bernie making people come out of their homes and gun parts, shooting at them. Planes were flying overhead, dropping what amounts to a Molotov cocktails. You know, some people survived the carnage, some people didn't. And it was just a horrendous occasion. It was. It was horrendous. Yeah. And your family, you mentioned their survivors, your grandparents. It was my, on my father's side, his mother, my grandmother, and My great grandmother was also a survivor. She is buried at Oak lawn cemetery, which is one of the focuses of the mass grave. She, uh, did not perish in the massacre. Uh, she died in 1925, let's a few years after the race massacre, but she is buried at Oaklawn cemetery. Very radically. Many were buried after the race massacre and mass graves. And we're trying to find, you know, evidence. We have the evidence of that. We're trying to find those mass graves to bring some justice to those people who were buried in those grapes and give them the due respect that they deserve. And your grandmother, your father, your grandmother, what about your grandmother's husband, which would be your grandfather? Did he survive. Yes. My grandfather survived. My grandparents survived along with my great uncle Henry also there. Then two year old daughter, the late dr Sicilian nails, Palmer, who I said was the first black professor would become the first black professor at the university of Tulsa in lady years. But it's really amazing that people who survived such a horrible occasion, so they stayed, they rebuilt, they raised off the families to be positive and to, you know, to keep moving forward in spite of what they endured in life. I have the granddaughter, my grandparents raised lots of other too, to be that way, and. Basically a raised my sister and I that way, and I'm just, I'm grateful because they had been to do do otherwise. Right, exactly. Actually, I just wanted to ask, does your family or do they ever talk about how they manage to survive the massacre, how they managed to. Live to tell about it. My grandparents, basically in the book, they keep searching by Eddie fake Gates. There was an interview done and her book by my late uncle, uh, wherein, um, they document that my grandfather had shared that. Our family, neighbors and friends ran for their lives, from the Greenwood community to a park that was located miles away from where they lived, only to return to find their homes and their businesses looted and burned to the ground. Gotcha. And in the days that followed, how soon after did they start to pick up the pieces? Six through the rubble and try to rebuild their lives. As soon as they were allowed to be able to come back to the community, they were gathered up, uh, along with many others and taken to internment camps, if you will, where they were treated like second, third class citizens. They retreated globally. So I'm sure that the process of getting back to restarting their businesses, it took a while because there were, you know, other situations that were going on within the community at that same time. In the next episode, we'll hear from more descendants of survivors of the Tulsa race massacre as we work through one of the most violent racial events in the nation's history. Be shorter rate review and subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Don't forget to follow us on social media. That includes our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages. Just search black wall street, 1921 and make sure you visit our website. Www.black wall street, hyphen 1920 one.com where you will find more resources about the Tulsa race massacre and where you can subscribe and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on all of our episodes.