Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’ Victims Still Waiting for Justice
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA National Correspondent
Originally posted 5/16/2005
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Nine-year-old Hazel Franklin was awakened from her sleep by the sound of her father’s loud voice around 5:30 A.M. June 1, 1921.
“He told my mother, ‘We’ve got to go.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to get out now. They’re burning up the town.’”
For a moment, her father, Jackson W. Franklin, tried to convince her mother, Francis, to take the children and leave as he stayed to defend the family home with a pistol.
“But she stood her ground, ‘If you don’t go, we don’t go.”
Within minutes, the Franklin family, three children and their parents, with nothing more than a change of clothing in a sack, fled their Tulsa home, which was later destroyed by an angry White mob.
What has been called the worst riot in American history was triggered by an accident. Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old African-American, accidentally stepped on the foot of Sarah Page, a White elevator operator in a downtown Tulsa office building. She attempted to hit Rowland with her purse and he quickly fled.
After being told by Page that the young man attempted to assault her – a story that was later changed to his having grabbed her – police arrested Rowland.
Word spread among Whites that Rowland had attempted to rape Page and more than 400 Whites intent on lynching the Black teenager gathered at the county jail. Meanwhile, two waves of armed Blacks showed up at the jail, offering to help protect the prisoner. The second wave of Blacks, like the first, was told their services were not needed. As they began to depart, a White man, possibly a deputy, attempted to disarm one of the African-Americans and a shot was fired. Other shots followed, leaving more than a dozen dead.
Within hours, mobs of Whites converged upon the Black residents of Tulsa’s Greenwood Avenue district, a 40-block showcase of Black businesses and homes, known as the Black Wall Street.
The governor activated the Oklahoma National Guard and two companies of soldiers from nearby Fort Sill were called to duty.
Machine guns were used to shoot any Black person in sight; airplanes dropped nitroglycerin on the neighborhood. When it was over 16 hours later, at least 300 Blacks were dead, 1,503 residences had been destroyed and more than 600 businesses had been closed, including two Black newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun.
Now, more than eight decades later, victims of the White riot are still seeking justice. A Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday means they will have an even longer wait.
Without comment, the court upheld lower court rulings that the statue of limitation had expired to file claims in the case.
''The justice system has once again denied the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots what they so richly deserve: After 84 years of concealment and suppression of evidence, their day in court,'' says Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, one of the attorneys for the victims. ''We will continue this fight in every venue imaginable.''
In addition to the court defeats, more than 100 insurance claims and lawsuits have been filed seeking damages, but not one has been successful.
Although they have faceD legal setbacks, survivors were heartened by
a decision by Black members of Congress to hold hearings last week.
“The fact that the Congressional Black Caucus was able to hold hearings on the Tulsa race riots of 1921, although there have not been floor hearings on HR-40 (a 16-year-old reparations bill sponsored by Rep. John Conyers of Detroit), gives the sense that we’re not forgetting survivors of the tragedies of the 20th Century,” explains Ogletree.
The city of Tulsa has refused to honor claims, asserting that the statute of limitation for filing claims has expired. Furthermore, officials add, insurance does not cover damage caused by riots.
Last year, a federal district judge sided with the city and dismissed Alexander’s lawsuit. The Tenth U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling. In March, Ogletree asked the Supreme Court to review whether the survivors have the right to file claims with the city and state. On Tuesday, the court said no.
Earlier, a state-ordered commission concluded that Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa participated in the death and destruction and therefore should be forced to compensate surviving victims. Ogletree argues that victims were reluctant to file claims in a timely fashion because of fear and intimidation.
“The Tulsa police chief deputized between 250 and 500 men, commandeering local gun shops and pawnshops in order to arm the new deputies,” the suit states. “The police department ordered members of the mob to ‘go home, get a gun, and get a nigger’…When the State National Guard arrived to assist the police, the guardsmen joined in the destruction and fired at will at African-American Greenwood residents.”
Ogletree and other attorneys working on the case recognize knew that the Supreme Court's decision would turn on narrow legal issues. They were hoping for a trial so that victims could share their powerful personal testimony.
Otis Clark, now 102, told the Black Caucus in the House Judiciary Room that he witnessed a funeral home employee getting shot in the hand as he tried to open the door of an ambulance.
Clark, then 18, says he arrived home later only to find it burned to the ground.
Families not only lost their homes, but also their land, he said. “They never did do anything about our property. One of the railroads, they just ran over my grandmother’s garden spot.”
Olivia Hooker, 6 years old at the time of the riot, told the CBC that she heard what she thought was hail on the roof of her mother’s house that day.
“My mother told me to come here. Then she said, ‘Look up through there. There’s a machine gun with an American flag on top of it.’”
In a telephone interview with the NNPA News Service, Hazel Franklin Hackett, now 93 and living in Valley Springs, Calif., says she will never forget the degradation of coming home back home after staying nearly a week in a tent on the fair grounds.
“It was really heart-breaking. There was nothing there but just ashes where there had been homes, beautiful homes. Black people, we were doing so well. We had businesses, even our own drug stores,” she said.
Retired Oklahoma State Sen. Don Ross, who sponsored the bill that established the special commission, says: “Until Nine-Eleven, that was the worst civil disturbance in the U. S. since the Civil War. Blacks, who were placed in concentration camps, were ordered by state government, without pay, to clean up the debris,” he says. “So that says to me that they were put in servitude. So, it suggests to me that there were issues that neither courts nor political figures dealt with at the time. In my view, those issues are still outstanding. They went through the entire remedy that they could and there was no justice there.”
The local White-owned newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune, had another name for Black Wall Street: “Niggertown.” It published an editorial on June 4, 1921, saying, “…Such a district as old ‘Niggertown’ must never be allowed in Tulsa again. It was a cesspool of iniquity and corruption…In the old ‘Niggertown’ were a lot of bad niggers and a bad nigger is about the lowest thing that walks on two feet.
Give a bad nigger his booze and his dope and a gun and he thinks he can shoot up the world. All of these four things were to be found in ‘Niggertown.’…”
The case against the Black teen, Dick Rowland, was dismissed after the elevator operator said she did not want to press charges. However, Police Chief John Gustafson was convicted for failure to control the situation.
Former Senator Ross says there was a reason to be suspicious of law enforcement officials.
“Part of the credentials of becoming a policeman was that you had to be a member of the Klan,” he stated. “Everybody was a member of the Klan… People were just scared to death. The Klan didn’t wear sheets. They wore pin stripe suits.”
And Hackett believes they should be made to pay.
“I feel that justice will have been done when they pay us for all that we had to endure and for burning our homes,” she says. “We had no place to go. No banks would even lend us any money. We had to start from scratch.”