A Long Wait for Justice

A Reparations Suit for a 1921 Race Riot

Otis Clark is a man who doesn't expect much. In fact, he is grateful for everything he gets, whether it's a small apartment in Tulsa public housing—where he has lived since coming home from Los Angeles 10 years ago at the age of 90—or a medal from the state of Oklahoma signifying him as a survivor of the Tulsa race riot of 1921.

When asked what he would do with money from a reparations lawsuit filed last month on his behalf by Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree Jr., Clark says he would write a book based on what he calls his "good, long life," in which he served as a butler for the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Stepin Fetchit.

Given his good health, even at 100 he might get his chance despite the length of the legal process. The complaint filed by Ogletree and Cochran in federal court in the Northern District of Oklahoma basically alleges that in 2001, the Oklahoma State Legislature, through the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot, admitted city and county officials failed to take actions to calm or contain the riot and, in some cases, became participants in the violence, which took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921. These officials, according to the complaint, even deputized and armed many whites who were part of a mob that killed 300 African Americans, looted, and burned down the black-owned Greenwood area, leaving 3,000 people homeless. There are now fewer than 100 known survivors.

"Almost two years have elapsed since the commission's report was filed. Nonetheless, the state of Oklahoma and the city of Tulsa have failed to compensate the victims of the riot," Ogletree says. "We are asking the court to require the state and the city to honor their admitted obligations as detailed in the commission's report."

On April 14, the court agreed to give Ogletree's team 120 days to determine whether or not the state and city misled or otherwise prevented riot victims from filing lawsuits in 1921. The complaint charges that both governmental bodies did so.

At the time, Clark was 19 and living with his grandparents. When the trouble broke out he was asked to drive a hearse and pick up the dead. A friend who was helping him was shot and injured.

"I used to be an angry young man, full of hate for what happened to me on that day," says Clark, who lost his home and his beloved dog on June 1, 1921. "That anger stayed with me for many years, but I have forgiven those people. I do think I am entitled to something for what I went through, though."

Should Otis Clark win his day in court, the state will most likely appeal, which could delay a final judgment by a year. While Ogletree and Cochran have stated this is the beginning of a larger reparations quest, part of the difficulty is that survivors like Clark are few. Most of those victimized by police and state militias during the 15 other major race riots across the country from 1898 to 1923, which were equally bad or worse than Tulsa's, died before they could tell their stories.

During this period, the 1908 riot in Springfield, Illinois, led to the formation of the NAACP, and dozens were killed in a similarly destructive riot in East St. Louis in 1917. The 1919 Chicago race riot began the ultimate decline of the South Side. That year, black communities were attacked by mobs in Omaha, Nebraska; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and Elaine, Arkansas.

Very few people in this country realize that less than a century ago an American holocaust—with acts so barbaric they rival medieval terrorism measures—took place. This is likely to change as Cochran and Ogletree pursue their reparations lawsuits. Their goal is for every descendant of a slave, along with race riot survivors or their descendants, to receive compensation for what was endured.

Between the late 19th century and World War I, tens of thousands of former slaves left the South for better lives in the industrial economies of northern cities. A nationwide recession gripped the country just before WW I and blacks and immigrants competed for jobs. As the newspapers of the times attest, many blacks bore the brunt of the poverty and the blame for the tight job market.

While lynchings and massacres became the weapons used against African Americans, one element makes what happened to them fall into the arena of a holocaust—the participation of militias and law officers sanctioned by state and city governments. Starting in the 1890s, these riots suppressed rising black political power and destroyed whole communities.

"The level of blood lust of the rioters in some cases was surprising," says Mark Bauerlein, author of Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906. "When rioters start carving their initials in the backs of their victims with knives, that's surprising. Even with a lynching, you at least have a target who is alleged to have committed some crime, so there is some sense of community 'justice,' however twisted and maniacal it is." Many black WW I veterans, coming home to an unprecedented level of racially motivated violence, opted to organize armed self-defense groups.

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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