A Long Wait for Justice

A Reparations Suit for a 1921 Race Riot

Tulsa occurred as the era of rioting was ending, and that city, like many others, never recovered. Rosewood, Florida, was the last major riot to take place during that era, and its survivors were paid reparations of $100,000 each, which the state of Florida assessed as the current value of the property these survivors lost.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, though, has become the rallying cry for the reparations movement with good reason. Alfred Brophy, of the University of Alabama law school, is perhaps the only author to uncover the reasons that events at Tulsa were so devastating. In Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, he suggests that greed over land might have played a significant role. "You never want to underestimate the power of economics, but in Tulsa, there was pure race hatred. Whites did not like an affluent African American community so close by," he says. "They wanted more distance between the races."

In 1921, the Oklahoma oil barons and businessmen needing more land for warehouses and factories were eyeing Greenwood's downtown location—and they didn't want to share it. According to Tulsa historian Jonathan Larsen, the Ku Klux Klan had a stranglehold on officials during the early 1920s. A few years earlier, the local paper, The Tulsa Democrat, had complained, "Tulsa appears to be in danger of losing its prestige as the whitest town in Oklahoma." The chance to rectify that came on Memorial Day when Sarah Page, a young white woman who was probably sexually involved with Dick Rowland, a black man, cried rape. He was arrested and a white lynch mob clashed with black war veterans at the jail.

After a few hours the riot dissipated, and then, as the state National Guard came in from Oklahoma City, the arson began. The record books have it that the guard tried to stop the burning. Eyewitnesses like Clark dispute that story. J.B. Stradford, a hotel owner at the time, wrote in his memoirs that the militia was responsible for much of the destruction. "The militia had been ordered to take charge of the affair, but instead they joined the rioters," he wrote. "The guard acted like wild men."

In the aftermath, white leaders offered a plan to help blacks rebuild. The catch was they had to move about five miles to the north. The surviving black leaders balked and, for months, while camping outdoors, they rebuilt.

Eighty years later, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa has a bustling campus encroaching on the rebuilt Greenwood section. The only building left from the pre-1921 era in Greenwood—the AME Baptist Church—was set to become a race riot memorial before the city halted the plans in reaction to this lawsuit. There is, however, still a large black population in Oklahoma—15 percent—which remains largely invisible. In Tulsa, African Americans keep pretty much to their side of Interstate 244, the dividing line that separates North Tulsa, where people struggle to survive, from South Tulsa, three miles away, where multimillion-dollar homes line the streets and Mercedeses dot the driveways.

Ogletree, Cochran, and the survivors have a long way to go. Unfortunately, most of the survivors, like Clark, are short on time.

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