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The Burning

Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

by Tim Madigan

Paperback, 297 pages, St Martin's Griffin, List Price: $23.99 |


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The Burning
Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Tim Madigan

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NPR Summary

A compelling account of the tragic 1921 massacre at Greenwood recreates this horrific destruction of a prosperous African-American southern community near Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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Excerpt: The Burning

The Burning

Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921


Copyright © 2003 Tim Madigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312302479

Chapter One


On a warm May night in 1913, in the shadowy lamplight of Greenwood'sFirst Baptist Church, Mrs. Lucy Davis read the audiencea short essay on love, and the Rollison sisters nervously steppedto the altar to sing a lovely duet. Men wearing expensive suitsand white gloves and women in their finest white dresses applaudedpolitely. But those were only the quaint preliminaries tothe primary attraction, one anticipated in the Greenwood communityfor days. Scarcely a spot in the pews was empty that night,for the principal speaker at the annual meeting of one of Greenwood'sleading fraternal orders was none other than CaptainTownsend D. Jackson—ex-slave, revered black lawman and militialeader in both Oklahoma and Tennessee, a man who had castoff the shackles of slavery and now looked the white governor ofOklahoma straight in the eye without blinking.

    Or so Tulsa Negroes had heard. Just a few months before,Jackson and his family had moved to Greenwood from theOklahoma town of Guthrie, preceded by Jackson's considerablenotoriety, and his new neighbors were certainly anxious to hearfor themselves the man's thoughts on the great racial questionsof the day. That night at the church, they would finally get theirchance.

    He was impressive enough to look at—a stately, six-foot fellowwhose short, dark hair had gone mostly gray. Jackson was alsowhat Negroes called a "light," a mulatto whose creamy skin colorgave rise to suspicions that he had been fathered by his Georgiaslave owner in the 1850s, a common enough occurrence in thosedays. Little matter. As the Rollison sisters warbled their final note,Jackson rose and slowly stepped toward the pulpit, away from thefront-row pew where his wife and youngest son, the handsomeyoung physician Dr. Andrew Jackson, were sitting with him.

    As he did, Andrew J. Smitherman removed a piece of paperand pencil from his breast pocket and leaned forward in his ownpew near the front, poised to capture Jackson's every word.Smitherman, a bulldog-like man, was the irascible editor of theTulsa Star, Greenwood's leading publication and its most authoritativepublic voice. In the eight years between that night in thechurch and the great burning to come, Smitherman doggedlychronicled all the local news, from street brawls to potluck dinners.But he also never missed a chance to rail in print againstinjustices perpetrated against his people, and had intervened personallyin attempted lynchings in neighboring towns. An earlybanner headline summed up his belligerent disposition whererace matters were concerned: You push me, the headline promised,and I'll Push You.

    Seated next to Smitherman was John B. Stradford, a short,dapper, mustachioed man, the son of a Kentucky slave and anowner of a law degree in Indiana. He quickly had emerged asone of black Tulsa's most successful entrepreneurs, includingamong his ventures the famously luxurious, fifty-four-room StradfordHotel on Greenwood Avenue, one of the state's largest black-ownedbusinesses. But like his friend Smitherman, Stradford'soverriding concern was the Negro's plight in America, and likethe editor, Stradford wasn't shy about saying so. Just ask the whitedeliveryman Stradford had beaten to within an inch of his life fora racist remark made within earshot.

    Others in the First Baptist audience that night were less inclinedtoward racial militance perhaps, but were no less noteworthy.John Williams and his wife Loula owned a drugstore, an autoshop, and a movie theater, and were the first Tulsa Negroes topurchase an automobile. O.W. Gurley owned Greenwood's firsthotel and grocery store. Dr. R.T. Bridgewater was black Tulsa'sfirst physician; Barney Cleaver, the towering fellow seated nearthe back, was the first Negro deputy. Lawyers and schoolteacherswere in the audience, too, people who memorized Shakespeareand read Latin.

    On the issue of race, some no doubt shared the confrontationalnotions of Smitherman and Stradford. Others preferred a quietercourse. But each in his or her own way had put the lie to theprevailing theories of Negro inferiority with which the whites ofthat time continued to justify so much of their cruelty. Indeed,to visit First Baptist on the night of Jackson's speech was to observeGreenwood's gentry in its proud entirety—educated, literate,affluent Negroes packed into the sanctuary, estimable folkscurious about Captain Jackson, just the latest in a series of remarkablesuccess stories that continued to unfold in the placecalled Greenwood.

They were the children of slaves, or, in a few cases, had beenborn into slavery themselves. Some of the Greenwood gentry, infact, remembered the dreary years after the Civil War, when fourmillion Negroes were emancipated but without the skills, education,and experience in public life to guide them in their newfreedom. In the decades after the war, tens of thousands of freedmenwere thus obliged to work as sharecroppers or as tenants fortheir former owners for pitiable wages or no wages at all, earninga standard of living a slim notch above slavery itself.

    Thousands of other emancipated blacks wandered confusedand homeless from place to place, one step ahead of starvation,or they congregated in the cities, depending on handouts fromthe Freedmen's Bureau, which had been created by the federalgovernment in the North to help tide them through.

    But federal assistance was short-lived. Government policiesduring what was called Reconstruction, policies designed to protectthe ex-slave and assist his transition into free society, evaporatedwithin a decade after the Civil War. Federal troops assignedto keep order were recalled from the South, placing Negroes oncemore at the mercy of the whites, men and women embittered bytheir defeat by the North, people who typically believed Negroesa wholly inferior species—as much animal as human. Thosewhites thought Negroes childlike at best, bestial at worst, a threatto the safety and dignity of Southerners, and certainly incapableof meaningful participation in self-government. So when theNorth looked the other way, white state legislatures across theSouth quickly moved to make sure that blacks would not havethe chance to participate in the democracy.

    State after state effectively disenfranchised them with votingrequirements most Negroes had no hope of meeting. Who knewhow many windows there were in the White House? That wasthe kind of question Negroes needed to answer to obtain a ballot.In 1870, Tennessee passed the South's first "Jim Crow" statute,mandating segregation in every facet of social and public life, andthe other members of the former Confederacy were quick to follow.In the years just after the Civil War, embittered Rebel soldiersjoined the Ku Klux Klan by the tens of thousands and raineddeath and terror on Negroes and their Southern sympathizers.Over the decades, thousands of Negroes were lynched by whitemobs, some for the crime of attempting to vote, or for tipping ahat to a white woman, or for failing to observe the "rituals ofdeference and submission," as one writer later put it.

    But by that night in 1913, something had changed. No. Thewhites seemed as hateful as ever. That wasn't it. The change hadcome instead in the hearts and minds of the former slaves andtheir offspring, and nowhere in America was that transformationin greater evidence than in the community on the north side ofthe railroad tracks in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    Many there had embraced the teachings of men like BookerT. Washington, the famous educator and businessman who, beginningin the 1880s, preached that the path to white respect andultimate equality ran through education and the acquisition ofuseful vocational skills.

    As years passed, others in Tulsa began to subscribe to a far lessaccommodating philosophy that took hold after the turn of thecentury with a new generation of Negro leaders. One of them,the Harvard-educated writer W.E.B. Du Bois, was among thefounders of the National Association for the Advancement of ColoredPeople, a man whose beautifully strident prose ignited firesin the hearts of oppressed Negroes everywhere.

    "We have east off on the voyage which will lead to freedom ordeath," Du Bois wrote in those years. "For three centuries wehave suffered and cowered. No race ever gave passive submissionto evil a longer, more piteous trial. Today we raise the terribleweapon of self-defense. When the murderer comes, he shall nolonger strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, wetoo must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose tomeet it with sticks and clubs and guns."

    Thus was the debate that went on every day in Greenwoodbarbershops, jazz joints, and confectioneries, as it did across NegroAmerica. Were equality and respect to be earned or not? Wasit to be the quiet achievement of Negroes, or sticks and clubs andguns? Was it the way of Booker T. Washington or of W.E.B. DuBois? That spring night in 1913, the issue lingered in the air ofFirst Baptist like smoke from the gas lamps that lit the sanctuary.Just where would the great Captain Jackson stand?

Jackson squinted in the dim light at the piece of paper upon whichhe had neatly copied his remarks. He paused and cleared histhroat in the anxious silence, then bid his new neighbors a pleasantgood evening. Otherwise, his first words were not of confrontation,but of modesty and humility, reminding his listeners ofJesus's instruction to enter his kingdom "like little children." Heextolled the virtues of the Negro who "shakes thrones and dissolvesaristocracies by his silent example and gives light to thosewho sit in darkness."

    To think that those meek words came from a man who hadspent the better part of his life as a black law officer, facing downwhite mobs.

    "With money and property comes the means of knowledge andpower," Jackson continued. "A poverty-stricken class or race willbe an ignorant and despised class and no amount of sentimentcan make it otherwise. If the time shall ever come when we possessin the colored people of this country a class of men notedfor enterprise, industry, economy and success, we shall no longerhave any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights; thebattle against the popular prejudice shall have been fought."

    What better example of his message could there be than thelife of Jackson's own son, Dr. Andrew Jackson, who listened tohis father from the front of the congregation? Dr. Andrew Jacksonhad rapidly become known as one of the finest black surgeons inthe nation, respected by white and black alike. Whites even consultedthe black doctor, seeking cures for their ailments. Wouldnot such achievement be a shield against the mob? Would notsuch achievement disarm prejudice? That's precisely what CaptainJackson seemed to be saying.

    The speech was a bitter disappointment to the Greenwood militantsin his audience, and in the end, of course, the militantswere right. No black achievement would appease the white hatredof that time. How naive Jackson's words would seem eight yearslater, on the terrible spring morning when Greenwood burned.Jackson's optimism must have seemed horribly ironic then. Forin the great catastrophe of 1921, no one would lose more thanCaptain Townsend D. Jackson himself.

If anything, it was a wonder that Jackson's faith had endured until1913, for Jackson, as much as any black, had experienced firsthandthe bitter realities of racial hatred in America, dark passions that,in fact, had nearly killed him.

    The story of his escape from Memphis survived in his familyfor generations. It was said that the trouble began on a day in1889, when Townsend Jackson had the temerity to buy and smokea cigar in a white store, the final insolent act to the many Memphiswhites who hated him, one that begged to be dealt with in thetraditional Southern way.

    Jackson had always been uppity, those whites figured, had alwaysinsisted on standing apart from the rest of his colored brethren,going right back to slave days. His last days of slavery camenot on his owner's Georgia plantation, but on the smoky, mist-dampenedbattlefield of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga,Tennessee. The husky mulatto boy was only seven when his father/masterfirst hauled him into battle, only nine two years later,in the fall of 1863, when his owner's Rebel regiment witheredbeneath a bluecoat assault up the mountain and was forced toretreat.

    What passed then between slave and master could only beguessed at later. Was there genuine affection between them, feelingsthat perhaps derived from parentage? Did the white manoffer the boy any advice, any money? Did they embrace as theyparted? Or did the young slave simply escape? All that could beknown for sure was that shortly after the Rebel defeat at LookoutMountain, Townsend Jackson was free.

    It was Jackson's habit in the decades afterward to minimize thehardships and dangers he encountered then, and to downplay thefortitude and resourcefulness required for the boy to survivethem. After all, he was not yet ten when he earned his freedom.His world was still at war, his people still in bondage, But anaccount of his life in the Tulsa Star years later, one based on aninterview with Jackson himself, described those postwar years injust two sentences: "Secured his discharge after the battle ofMount Lookout, and went to Memphis a short while thereafter.Through correspondence, he found his mother at Trenton, Tenn.,to which place she had immigrated after the war."

    After the reunion, Jackson found work in Memphis as a waiterat the famous Gayosa Hotel, serving the rich white man his gritsand freshening his whiskey. But Jackson's new servitude wouldbe brief. Another Negro waiter taught him to read, which allowedhim to attend night school to study math and history, literatureand Latin. He thus fortified himself for the affluent, intoxicatingswirl that was black Memphis, a city whose population in thedecades after the Civil War was nearly half Negro, a place whereevery manner of black commerce sprouted from the brown-brickbuildings on Beale Street, that Negro hub of business and entertainmentknown across the nation for its vibrancy and the varietyof its temptations.

    Jackson's ambitions, however, did not lie in entrepreneurship.He aspired instead to a career as a lawman, perhaps because ofhis early memories of military life. As a young man, he helped torecruit and organize a black militia, and in 1878, it was Jacksonand his officers who stayed behind to maintain public order whilewhite police fled a deadly outbreak of yellow fever that killedthousands in Memphis. When the fever abated, the bravery ofJackson and fourteen of his militiamen earned them permanentpositions on the Memphis police force.

    But such Negro prosperity was both illusory and fleeting in theSouth after the Civil War. Negro affluence invariably triggeredescalating jealousies and fears among the whites, and in Memphis,one consequence was that Jackson and his Negro officers lost theirjobs to a group of racist Irishmen. Then, in 1889, Jackson's cigarfinally triggered the ire of a white mob.

    A few years earlier, Jackson might have faced down the mobout of principle. He had done so many times before as a Memphispoliceman, protecting Negroes accused of variously trumped-upcharges. But a decade earlier, he had met and married anotherformer slave, named Sophronia, and by 1889, he was the fatherto three fine children, two boys and a girl. Nothing was left forthe family in the poisoned racial environment of Memphis in anyevent. When the mob arrived at their home in Memphis that nightin 1889, they found it empty, Jackson, his wife and children, safelyhidden in the homes of friends. A few days later, the familyheaded west aboard a car of the Rock Island Railroad.

At exactly noon on April 22, 1889, troopers of the U.S. Cavalrysounded bugles and fired their guns into the air, setting off a maddash at the boundary of a Southwestern wilderness, which untilthat moment, had belonged to Indians. Thus began the GreatLand Bush of 1889 in what would become the State of Oklahomaeighteen years later. Thousands of frenzied settlers, both blackand white, people from every quarter of American life, rushed inon foot, by horseback, by wagon and railroad car, to stake a forty-acreclaim to free land, needing only to register their claims in acrude wooden building hastily erected by the government on theprairie, the place where the town of Guthrie sprang up almostovernight.

    Thousands of voracious new settlers contested every squareinch of the free land, while thousands more poured into Guthriehoping to capitalize in other ways. New stores, restaurants, hotels,and banks transformed the Guthrie landscape from one day tothe next. Just four months after the land run, Guthrie was hometo sixteen barbers, sixteen blacksmiths, two cigar makers, sevenhardware stores, fifteen hotels, eighty-one lawyers, nineteen druggists,five photographers, thirty-nine doctors, forty restaurants, sixbanks, five newspapers, and at least one Negro jailer, CaptainTownsend Jackson.

    What a perfect place for that stubborn Negro optimist. Guthrie'schaos made Memphis seem tame by comparison. But a largepercentage of the new arrivals were black, having fled Jim Crowof the South and the same racial hatreds that had driven Jacksonand his family from Memphis. In this place, at least initially, thenew arrivals of both races were too caught up in the promise ofinstant wealth, too distracted by the thrills of the raucous boomtown,to give bigotry much heed.

    Negroes, in fact, assumed important positions in Guthrie's newterritorial government, and Townsend Jackson was one whostepped into the new community's leadership void. In addition tohis job as jailer, Jackson was elected justice of the peace. Withina few years, he was appointed to the Guthrie police force, and asin Memphis, he organized the territory's first black militia, therebybecoming a well-known local fixture to politicians of both races.After statehood, the white governor of Oklahoma appointed Jacksonto serve as an Oklahoma delegate to an important nationalconference on Negro education.

    At home in Guthrie, his family also flourished. Jackson's oldestchild, daughter Minnie Mae, met and married a bright younglawyer named H. A. Guess, soon to become one of the most respectedNegro attorneys in the Southwest. But the proudest momentof Townsend Jackson's life undoubtedly came near the endof the century, when he and Sophronia embraced their youngestchild, Andrew, standing with him on the crowded platform of theGuthrie train station. Andrew, always a quiet, solicitous, studiousboy, held a ticket to Nashville and a spot in the freshman class atMeharry Medical College, the nation's finest medical school forNegro doctors. Tears poured down Townsend Jackson's face ashe watched the train puff off, bearing his son to the east, rememberinghis own days of learning to read by candlelight and thelong struggles to succeed that followed.

    Yet Jackson's contentment was again impermanent. White hatredscaught up with the Negro in Guthrie, too. In 1907, whenOklahoma became the nation's forty-sixth state, the legislaturepassed its version of Jim Crow as one of its first acts. Five yearslater, the mayor of Guthrie ordered Townsend Jackson to limithis policing to the black sections of Guthrie. Jackson immediatelyresigned.

    But the latest affront only briefly discouraged him. Jackson hadsurvived slavery, the Civil War, and the dangerous years afterward.He had insisted on making a name for himself, first inMemphis, then in Guthrie. His son by then was a doctor. Jackson'sstubborn hopefulness had become a habit. It would endure.He would continue to believe that resourcefulness would triumphover hatred in the end.

    Just look at what was happening a hundred miles east, in thebooming oil town of Tulsa. Jackson had heard that Negro prosperitywithout precedent was taking root there. Industrious blacksin Greenwood had finally succeeded in placing themselves beyondthe reach of white malice. So in 1912, Townsend Jackson and hisfamily boarded the train once more, this time for a shorter tripeast, to the Promised Land. And on a warm May night a yearlater, Townsend Jackson's heart swelled as he stood at the pulpit,addressing new neighbors who had endured odysseys so similarto his, who had survived those struggles with optimism every bitas strong.

Those remarkable life stories were told again and again beneaththe striped green awnings of the Greenwood barbershops andpool halls, at the church socials, and on wooden benches alongGreenwood Avenue where men lingered to pass the days. Everyman worth a nickel had a story.

    Barney Cleaver, the tall sheriff's deputy who patrolled Greenwood'sstreets, recalled his birth to ex-slaves in Virginia, workingon a steamer that chugged up and down the Ohio River betweenCharleston and Cincinnati, then toiling in the West Virginia coalmines, before his odyssey landed him in Oklahoma. John Stradford'sjourney had taken him from Kentucky to Ohio, to Missouriand Kansas, danger and hardship stalking him and his family atevery stop. A fellow named Fairchild had a story similar to TownsendJackson's, of escaping from his home in Arkansas only hoursbefore angry whites appeared at his family's door. And so on.

    But of all the tales, few reflected more ambition, luck, andtiming, if not outright peril, than O. W. Gurley's. He was born toformer slaves on Christmas Day, 1868, and later moved with themfrom Alabama to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he studied in apublic school and worked on his father's farm. He taught schoolhimself as a young man, then caught on with the U.S. Post Office,a coveted position for a Negro of the time.

    But young Gurley was restless, his dreams vacillating betweenmonetary wealth and political ambition, a hunger that led him toan Oklahoma land claim in 1893, which he soon abandoned torun for county treasurer in the town of Perry. He served as aschool principal when defeated, then changed course again, openinga Perry mercantile store that thrived for almost a decade.

    It was early in the new century when the familiar yearningseized him again. Gurley began to envision even greener pasturesfor himself in the little town fifty miles away, a place that until1905 had been a no-account cattle outpost and Indian tradingvillage. But on November 22, 1905, wildcat oil drillers, workingthe land of a man named Ida E. Glenn, hit the first gusher ofwhat became the Mid-Continent Oil Field, the most bountifulproducer of petroleum in the nation for years to come. GlennPool No. 1 gushed only fourteen miles south of the village calledTulsa, almost instantly transforming the place into an oil capital.White oilmen and speculators flocked there by the thousands,many becoming millionaires overnight. Gurley rightly reasonedthat somehow, Negroes could also cash in.