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  • Writer's pictureNia Clark

Ep. 9: Ashes And The Fight For Greenwood

Photo Courtesy: Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Title: Portrait of Buck Colbert B. C. Franklin, father of Mozella Franklin Jones and John Hope Franklin. B. C. Franklin was a member of the bar of the State of Oklahoma for fifty years. For forty years he practiced law in Tulsa.

Over the last nearly 100 years, there has been speculation about whether or not the Tulsa Race Massacre was a planned attempt to launch an attack on Tulsa's Greenwood district. While there is no direct evidence of this, experts point to why this claim may or may not have any validity.

Additionally, following the Tulsa Race Massacre there were concerted efforts to push African American property owners off of the land that they owned, on which mostly ashes sat. On June 2, 1921 - a day after the attack on Greenwood ended, representatives from the local Real Estate Exchange in Tulsa (which later became today's Realtors' Association, made a proposal to the Public Welfare Board: relocate Greenwood's black residents and turn parts of the burned district of what some referred to as "Little Africa" into a "wholesale industrial site." On Tuesday June 7th, the Tulsa City Commission took steps to guarantee that Greenwood would not be rebuilt. At the directive of the Real Estate Exchange, the body voted 4-0 to extend the city's fire code to all of the burned district south of the Sunset Hill brick plant and Haskell Street, making it nearly rebuilding "The Negro Wall Street" impossibly expensive for blacks in Tulsa. These efforts ultimately failed due - in part - to a group of African American attorneys, including B.C. Franklin (pictured above), who went to the Oklahoma Supreme Court to argue against a law that would allow African Americans in Greenwood to be stripped of their land.

In this episode listeners will hear from Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Olivia J. Hooker, Reuben Gant, Executive Director of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and Attorney and Hannibal B. Johnson, consultant and author of a number of books, including Black Wall Street.

Featured guest: Randy Krehbiel - Tulsa World Reporter and author of several books, including Tulsa 1921: Reporting A Massacre.

Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa Wold Reporter and author

“The full credit has to go to the black property owners and the black attorneys who represented them, and probably didn't get paid much of anything because nobody had any money, for standing up. They didn't know how many of their neighbors got killed. This, I mean this was a pretty serious intimidation. And they stood up and they said no we're not taking anything less than what we are owed." ~ Randy Khrebiel , Tulsa World Reporter and author .

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Rough Episode Transcription

They were waiting for an occasion that they could blame it on. So sure enough and young man carry two buckets of water going to the only bathroom downtown that blacks were allowed to use. So he stepped in the elevator, the elevator wasn't lined up. So he stumbled against the elevator operator. She screamed, and that was the incident they were waiting for it.

They said. Well, we're going to have them. Legit

that was Tulsa race massacre, survivor dr. Olivia J hooker. We heard from her in the last episode. And we'll hear from her again, a little later in this one.

In partnership with the Tulsa race massacre, Centennial commission. I'm Nia Clark. And this is black wall street, 1921.

Over the years, there's been some speculation as to whether the Tulsa race massacre was a premeditated or planned attack. Some of asserted that the allegations against a 19 year old Dick Roland, a black man accusing him of assaulting the white 17 year old teen Sarah Page was simply the excuse the mob needed to execute an operation that was conceived well before the massacre to expel black.

Towson's from Greenwood. Indeed. Yes. Some even go so far as to suggest that the massacre was really a scheme to run African-Americans out of Tulsa and use the land. They built black wall street on to rebuild more profitable property, whether or not this is the case remains and may always be a point of speculation.

But I thought it was important to shine a larger light on this theory, because it's been mentioned by a good number of voices you've heard in this podcast, including experts, survivors, and their descendants. So let's listen to what some of them had to say about this theory. First, dr. Olivia J hooker, who you heard from in the beginning of this podcast and in the previous episode, dr.

Hooker was a survivor of the massacre and went on to become. The first black woman to enlist in the coast guard before becoming a distinguished psychologist and later a psychology professor at Fordham university.

So I guess the powers that be on the other side of town. Felt we've got to get those people down here and get their consumer's money and they're buying everything in their own neighborhood. So we'd better move them out. So people keep kept whispering to my dad that their employers, people who worked in service said their employers were stuck, piling, all kinds of weapons and dynamite and stuff.

And so we knew something was fun happened.

Ruben Gant executive director of the John hope Franklin center for reconciliation, which is located in present day Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood. We heard from him in episode three of the podcast. This is what he says about the possibility of the massacre being a premeditated attack.

Then you start to see groups in Tulsa, like the Knights of Liberty and the American protectively, which were sort of like vigilante groups that were essentially sanctioned by local law enforcement to carry out the responsibilities of law enforcement officers. And then you start to see the emergence of the KU Klux Klan, which had a lot of power in Oklahoma and Tulsa.

And how did all of this contribute to the racial tensions that we saw boil over when the massacre occurred? Well, I would think that there was an excuse for the mask, which was the claim that a black man accosted a white woman in an elevator, but then it was all his attempt to grab land. It was a land grab.

Opportunity for white because of this prime real estate, that's in the middle of a robust commerce and trade that whites wanting to control the land. So rather than just pillage and come in here and unlawfully, so to speak, acquire the land, they thought they could do that by destroying it. And you believe that the Tulsa race massacre wasn't really based on the allegations against Dick Roland.

It was more an attempt to run black Tolsons out of Greenwood. That's great. The most important word that you used was an allegation, never proven charges, never filed the accused. Let out of jail free, but still yet this devastation destruction of 35 square blocks, 40 acres of land and displacement of 8,000 families occurred.

And man, immediately after that, the city passes an ordinance that says new construction had to be in fire retardant material. And that was an attempt to. Not allow blacks to rebuild their businesses in their homes, because it would be economically unfeasible to do it. Or that is what was thought. No insurance claims were honored because of the use of the word.

Right. And in insurance policies, there was an anti riot cough. So no, no insurance claims that were paid. So the, the entire thought being, you know, blacks are not going to be able to retain their properties in his fourth, we can come in and acquire it. We being white people, and that was the whole effort or intent behind the massacre was the land grab.

Has your organization ever addressed your assertion? That the massacre wasn't. Really about Dick Roland and Sarah Page, that it was more an attempt to run black people out of Tulsa and seize their land. Ha has there ever been larger discussions in the community about that? There is an ongoing discussion that always occurs, and that, that is one of the most important things that we stress when we have an opportunity to share the story of green.

It wasn't about. A interaction or, or an occurrence that happened between a black man and a white woman. It was about wanting to acquire the land in which black folk lift. We talk about that all the time. And that sort of contributes to, or is perhaps a result of the idea and the belief that black people should not be able to.

Own land should not be able to thrive in society alongside Caucasian people and should not be able to become prominent citizens. There was also this idea that black people should stay in their place, so to speak. Is that correct?

Now attorney consultant and author of a number of books, including black wall street, Hannibal B Johnson. We've heard from him several times in this podcast. Here's his take on the idea that the Tulsa race massacre was planned.

You also mentioned. The want for the land in Greenwood, by corporate interests. In fact, some researchers have suggested that the entire Tulsa race massacre was meant to run black. Towson's out of Greenwood. So that their land could be seized and used for various corporate interests. Is that something that you have found in your research?

That argument certainly has some plausibility and so one piece of evidence would be. The minutes from the Tulsa chamber of commerce from 1921, as it turns out just a few months back, the chamber held a press conference at which they donated their minutes from 1921 to the Greenwood cultural center, which is my chronic institution in the Greenville community.

And at the press conference, they acknowledge the various acts of commission and omission. That the chamber was associated with this leadership, this business leadership organization was associated with back in 1921, the chamber CEO apologize for the Chamber's role back in 1921, and then talks about acts of atonement, what the chamber is doing currently, both internally and externally to rectify that history.

And so in those minutes, there are references to the desire to. Move the black citizens farther North so that the land could be used for better purposes. There's language like that in those minutes, which supports the argument that there may have been pre massacre, some sort of machinations going on to encourage an event that would move the community farther North.

And indeed wind Olson's decided to rebuild after the massacre. They did encounter legal challenges from people in the community, some corporate interests in the community who wanted to make it difficult for them to be able to do so. Can you talk about some of those things and some of the heroes that we saw kind of come to the aid?

Of Towson's. I believe some attorneys who set up shop in tents to represent some of these black Tolsons who were basically at risk of losing what they had left. The main hurdle immediately after the massacre was the city of Tulsa itself. The city work to extend the fire code into the Greenwood district, such that it would be cost prohibitive for most citizens to rebuild in their own community.

That effort was successfully challenged by attorney BC, Franklin BC. Franklin is the father of the imminent historian. Dr. John hope, Franklin. Who was professor university of Chicago and ended up as professor of Meredith at Duke university, but basically Franklin had his own office destroyed during the massacre, but he set up his office temporarily in a tent to provide legal redress for these kinds of burdens that were befalling Tulsa's black citizens in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, the other.

Point that I would make is that the Tulsa Tribune, I mentioned that daily afternoon newspaper that published a series of inflammatory articles and editorial. Well, just three days after the devastation of the massacre on June 4th, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune published an editorial about the prospect of rebuilding the Greenwood community.

And it was entitled. It must not be again, and it's a rather lengthy piece, but the first two lines are telegraphic in terms of the message. That's a district as the old nigger town must never be allowed in Tulsa. Again, it was a cesspool of iniquity and corruption. This is a leading newspaper in the city of Tulsa of which the Greenwood district is apart saying that that's a district as the old nigger town must never be allowed in Tulsa.

Again, scores of people have just been killed. More than a thousand homes have been destroyed. Millions of dollars in property damage has just been done yet. The attitude of some of the leadership in the community. Is that it's reflected in the Tulsa Tribune, editorial.

But not everyone was convinced of this. Dr. Scott Ellsworth, who we've also heard from previously in this podcast is a writer, historian, and university of Michigan Afro American and African studies professor. He's also the author of death in a promised land, the Tulsa race riot of 1921. This is his take on the theory that the massacre was a planned attack.

you mentioned earlier that there have been a lot of conspiracy theories. Surrounding the massacre. One of them is that all of this was from a very early point, even possibly before the massacre occurred. And so with that in mind, those people who were going to participate in this massacre were going to do so in your opinion, whether or not they read a newspaper article, do you think there's any validity to this idea that this was a premeditated attack?

No, I doubt. And you know, the conspiracy theories just go on and on a popular one that I've heard for 40 years is that actually Dick Roland wasn't even in the jail, the courthouse on the 31st, earlier that day, sheriff McCullough, who, I guess wasn't there either had a squirted, him and Sarah Page. To a railroad station where they wrote a train to Kansas city, then live happily ever after as man and wife and Kansas city.

I mean, this stuff goes on and on, but the thing is you can never disprove a conspiracy theory. If somebody believes in a conspiracy theory, you know, any piece of evidence that you can present, that questions that can be just seen as another leg and the conspiracy yet another layer of trying to do this, like other people, I just want to know the truth about this, and if somebody can present evidence.

That, Oh, yes. This was a preplan conspiracy, you know, please do so, because so far, none of that has shown him. Hmm.

Why does the idea that the attack on Greenwood was planned and the length. To which Greenwood was essentially cleared out matter for one, a number of credible voices have said as much over the years, so it must be considered. Secondly, if the Tulsa race massacre was a premeditated scheme, I believe that means those responsible could not have carried it out.

If not, without the help of law enforcement officials, then perhaps with the sanctioning of them. By virtue of their silence and inaction during the massacre itself. And indeed some witnesses to the massacre reported seeing uniformed men carrying out some of the crimes during the Tulsa race massacre at any rate, there were concerted efforts made following the massacre to do exactly what some have said was the real cause of it, which was to push black toxins off of their property.

Shortly after the massacre, these efforts were masked by an offer to buy the land from black Towson's. And eventually a city ordinance was changed that would make it incredibly difficult for black Towson's to rebuild on their burns property. All of these efforts eventually dissolved in part from a lack of support to push African Americans out of Tulsa, but also due to the heroic.

Work of a number of black attorneys who also survived the massacre

in 2015, a previously unknown document was found and purchased from a private seller by a group of Towson's before it was donated to the Smithsonian museum. This document was a manuscript and its author was a man named buck Colbert. Franklin, BC, Franklin, as he was known among peers was an Oklahoma lawyer who survived the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, but lost everything in the attack just several months after moving to Tulsa.

Of Franklin's four children. John hope Franklin would become a prominent historian and civil rights advocate. Tulsa's John hope Franklin center for reconciliation is named in honor of him. Now the senior Franklin, his manuscript was donated to the Smithsonian with the support of Franklin's descendants.

The manuscript is now part of the collections of the Smithsonian's national museum of African American history and culture. According to the Smithsonian magazine. The manuscript, it begins in 1917. When Franklin meets an African American veteran named mr. Ross while recruiting young black men to fight in world war II, it then picks back up in 1921 with Franklin's own eyewitness account of the massacre.

The document ends 10 years later with the story of how mr. Ross, his life had been destroyed by the massacre. Two photos were donated along with the manuscript. One of them is a well known photograph of Franklin and his associates who had set up shop in a red cross tent. Five days after their belongings were burned to the ground and the Tulsa race massacre, not withstanding the destruction of black wall street residents of the district known as Greenwood were able to retain their land.

Despite efforts to relieve them of it and prevent them from rebuilding on it. This was in large part because of the efforts of BC Franklin, who went to the Oklahoma Supreme court to defeat a law that would have prevented them from doing so we'll explain this later with the help of Randy Krehbiel, but first here's an excerpt from BC Franklins manuscript.

Quote from my office window, I could see planes circling in midair. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office, building down East Archer. I saw the old midway hotel on fire burning from its top and then another and another.

And another building began to burn from the top. What an attack from the air too. I asked myself. The manuscript goes on to say quote, as I stood there in contemplation of these and other gruesome backs, I saw two sites that will live in my memory to my dying Gates. One was a woman on the opposite side of the street.

She was traveling South hair. Disentangled. And disheveled in the very path of whizzing bullets, she was calling wildly to a little tie that for a few moments before had dashed and panic before her and turned off Greenwood on Archer at the corner, I hollered at her turn bath woman for God's sake, turn back.

You will be mowed down, never turning her head. She answered as she hurried on. I must follow my child. And so she did follow her child and not a bullet touched her, although they literally rained down the street. This brave self-denying mother lives today here in Tulsa. With that top now a splendid young lady.

Whom she risked her life to save. The other site was occasioned by the PIRO building, catching on fire from the top. This was a frame building. Then the fire dislodged those in the building, a woman, two children, and three men. They emerged in wild confusion and came on in my direction, the little children, they were both girls.

Out ran the others and past the place where I was standing with the speed of the wind, the woman ran across the street and into the foot of the steps of my office building right where I was standing and fell upon her knees and commenced to pray totally oblivious of my presence. I don't think she ever saw me and such a prayer.

She asked God to save her and her children from whom she had just been separated. This prayer was uttered over and over. I am unable to say whether that prayer was answered or not. I have lived in Tulsa continuously, ever since that memorable morning, but I had never seen that woman since I know I would know her.

If I were to meet her. Even today, the three men, one of whom loved a heavy trunk on his shoulder were all killed as they were crossing the street killed before my very eyes. Now we'll hear from Tulsa world reporter and author, Randy Krehbiel. Again. He's going to walk us through the efforts of black Tolsons and their allies to recover and retain their land.

Following the Tulsa race massacre.

some worries. Willows was put in charge of managing the relief. And over the next several months, Tulsa County allocated $60,000 and the city of Tulsa allocated $40,000 or what was described as relief efforts. Which included building materials, some other things there's about $30,000 of cash and supplies donated on top of that.

So he had about $130,000 and most of that was turned over to him. And initially there was a committee set up by the chamber of commerce. The chamber of commerce was so angry at the city officials, the elected officials. On June 2nd, they pretty much just told him, you guys go over and sit in a corner and don't say a word, and we're going to do this.

They were angry at the city officials for letting them massacre occur. Exactly. And their goal was we're going to make these people home. Talking about the African Americans who've been destroyed. Their lives had been destroyed, basically. Caucasian people, white people in Tulsa who believe that it is now the responsibility of the leaders in Tulsa business and otherwise to get this community back together.

Correct. So they're making two appeals. So the first one was that these people have to no fault of their own. They have lost everything. The second one, and I would say the bigger one. Okay. Was it, this is a terrible Mark against our city that we're so proud of. Tell us I had a really big ego in those days.

I like to think it was the best thing going anywhere. And so the other argument, and I think it was the main argument is it's a matter of honor that we make this ride that, you know, the, we show that we really are the superior white race and we make this ride. I'm sure it varied from individual to individual.

And it's hard to know what the real feelings of, of some of the key players were. I'm sure they varied. So this committee was put together and they were in the process of raising another hundred thousand dollars just to start. And a hundred thousand dollars would have been a lot of money and a house could be built for 500 to a thousand dollars.

And there was some interest with this group. And seeing about buying out black property owners, at least some of them, not all of them, but those who own property along the railroad tracks, buying them out and moving them to another location about a mile away, but pretty quickly the chamber of commerce group decided against this.

It seems like. And I think a lot of it had to do with, they would get a lot of bad publicity. The black property owners at first were somewhat open to this. Now, again, I'm not sure that any of them wanted to just say, no, we're not going to do it because they'd just been burned out and a bunch of people killed.

So, I mean, I think they were probably a little bit cautious about how they approached it, but the chamber of commerce group fairly quickly decided they weren't going to do it, but there was somebody who wanted to sell. Okay. But we're not going to make a big issue. Well, a lot of the, a lot of the African American landowners in Greenwood, they realized they were getting a raw deal.

That the price that whoever, that the group who wanted to buy them that was offering would not be fair to them. And ultimately this would not be good for them. Well, eventually, yes, but what happened in the interim was that the mayor and the city council. Got so upset about being pushed off in the corner, that after two weeks they basically evicted the chamber of commerce from their offices and city hall, and the mayor appointed his own committee.

In other words, a competing committee to the chamber chamber committee resigned in the cities committee took over and this committee. It was firmly behind the idea of the buyout and moving these people over. Well, it was pretty much at that point that it became apparent that there wasn't going to be the money to do what this group wanted to do.

And they essentially wanted to develop that land right. Into some sort of industrial area. Yeah. They wanted to convert it to warehouses and commercial. Area, because all these railroads run through it. And let me say that, especially as it pertains to what I call the original Greenwood, there were reasons from the black perspective to be interested in moving, because you think about it, they had four railroad lines going and right through the middle of their community.

So basically they live in the middle of a rail yard. And while there were some commercial advantages to that. I don't think many people want to live in the middle of a rail yard, you know, a lot of noise and all that stuff. And so several property owners said, if you will make us a good enough feel, we'll move.

Basically what they said was we want to be paid for everything we lost and we want to be paid. What our property is worth or what it would have been worth and not what it's worth now, after, you know, with a bunch of debris sitting on it and kind of a tip off to what, you know, what the difference might've been there was it at one point, one of the people who was kind of interested in the development said, well, the land right now is worth about $500 a lot.

As commercial space would be worth $1,500. Uh, the group doing the development, they wanted to pay the property owners the $500, not the $1,500 and they weren't going to pay him for any of their, you know, stuff that got burned. So the property owner said, well, okay, we're not going to sell. And, you know, apparently there were some white people in the community who agreed with that position because the group that wanted to move them was never able to raise the money to do it.

I have a feeling that if the quote right, people had been. Really behind the idea of moving the community, the money would have been found. And one of the people who was on this original committee and I realized this is confusing, but it's what happened. One of the people who was on the original committee, the chamber committee, when they were basically kicked out, he said, well, there's some good people on this new committee and there's some not so good people.

There's a certain amount of money that has to be raised and they can't raise it. So this split in the white community resulted in the group that wanted to buy out the black property owners, not being able to raise the money. The city commission tried to help the people who were behind this scheme. By extending the city limits and with it, the fire code.

So in other words, more of Greenwood would be covered by the fire code and that man, if you were going to rebuild, you had to rebuild according to code. And the theory was that why folks would not be able to come up with the money to rebuild according to code. And this was talked about fairly openly, but this was the reason that this was done.

Well guess what, apparently these African Americans had more access to financial resources and then the white community maybe imagined because pretty quickly some African American merchants began rebuilding. They got building permits and began rebuilding according to code. And then there were others that just started building.

I just started building and they said, okay, come and tear it down. And nobody did that. And eventually at the end of the summer, in 1921, the three state district court judges in false County meeting together in a single hearing rule that this fire code ordinance. Was illegal and they threw it out, but there were some people integral in the ruling from Greenwood, some black attorneys who were fighting the fire code while the city was trying to enforce it.

Well, that's exactly right. And that was the case that the judge has ruled off. There were at least two lawsuits, both had been brought by black. Property owners and both of them represented by black attorneys. Now the one that ultimately prevailed the attorney that's listed as the lead attorney was white and he was sympathetic to the, the African American property.

But I suspect that all of the real work was probably done by these African-American lawyers. They got a white attorney to go argue it in front of the white judges. And this is surmise on my part. In other words, it would be easier for the white judges to rule in favor of white attorney. And it would be for them to rule for a black attorney.

And again, that's just my opinion, but at any rate, No, the full credit has to go to these black property owners and the black attorney. She represented him and probably didn't get paid much. If anything, there's, nobody had any money for standing out. They didn't know how many of their neighbors had been killed.

I mean, this was a pretty serious intimidation and they stood up and said, no, we're not taking anything less than what we were owed. Now in the end. I mean, I didn't get what they were owed, but they did get their property and they won their right to remain on their land on their term. I just wanted to say the names of those attorneys, they set up.

Camp in a tent, in a red cross tent because their office had been burned out. So there BC Franklin and his partner, I H spheres and their secretary Effie Thompson, they set up camp outside and literally just worked rather under a tent to help a lot of people in Tulsa keep their property. Well, they were like, everybody else they'd lost everything.

I mean, BC Franklin had just come to Tulsa a few months earlier and hadn't even moved his family. So he lost everything. He lost his office, whatever clients he had, they might still be there. They weren't in business any longer. Some of them were getting paid, I guess, if they were working somewhere, but. I dunno, what, if anything, they ever got paid for their work on these lawsuits?

It shouldn't be pointed out that they didn't just do these two lawsuits that I mentioned. I mean, they were filing claims against the city for claims, and then they eventually would be filing lawsuits against, in some cases, insurance companies, in some cases, the city or other, they basically, they sued everybody.

They could think of hoping one evermore would be allowed. So all of these people just did no amazing work for little or no money. You know, Franklin, his family, his wife was teaching school at a little town, probably 50 or 60 miles from Tulsa. So they needed her to, you know, keep going and she didn't move to Tulsa and, or.

I think it was seven or eight years

in the next episode, we'll explain the legal fallout from the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, including what, if any efforts were made to hold those responsible for the massacre accountable. Be sure to check out our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages by searching for black wall street in 1921. And make sure you also visit our website wall street, 1920 where you can sign up for our newsletter and keep up with all of our episodes.

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