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The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

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“A powerful book, a harrowing case study made all the more so by Madigan's skillful, clear-eyed telling of it.” Adam Nossiter, The New York Times Book Review

On the morning of June 1, 1921, a white mob numbering in the thousands marched across the railroad tracks dividing black from white in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and obliterated a black community then celebrated as one of America's most prosperous. 34 square blocks of Tulsa's Greenwood community, known then as the Negro Wall Street of America, were reduced to smoldering rubble.

And now, 80 years later, the death toll of what is known as the Tulsa Race Riot is more difficult to pinpoint. Conservative estimates put the number of dead at about 100 (75% of the victims are believed to have been black), but the actual number of casualties could be triple that. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, formed two years ago to determine exactly what happened, has recommended that restitution to the historic Greenwood Community would be good public policy and do much to repair the emotional as well as physical scars of this most terrible incident in our shared past.

With chilling details, humanity, and the narrative thrust of compelling fiction, The Burning will recreate the town of Greenwood at the height of its prosperity, explore the currents of hatred, racism, and mistrust between its black residents and neighboring Tulsa's white population, narrate events leading up to and including Greenwood's annihilation, and document the subsequent silence that surrounded the tragedy.

ISBN-13: 9781250800725

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group

Publication Date: 05-11-2021

Pages: 368

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Tim Madigan is an award-winning writer with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who in both 1996 and 1997 was named Texas Reporter of the Year in the state's most prestigious journalism competition. He is the author of See No Evil: Blind Devotion and Bloodshed in David Koresh's Holy War

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


On a warm May night in 1913, in the shadowy lamplight of Greenwood's First Baptist Church, Mrs. Lucy Davis read the audience a short essay on love, and the Rollison sisters nervously stepped to the altar to sing a lovely duet. Men wearing expensive suits and white gloves and women in their finest white dresses applauded politely. But those were only the quaint preliminaries to the primary attraction, one anticipated in the Greenwood community for days. Scarcely a spot in the pews was empty that night, for the principal speaker at the annual meeting of one of Greenwood's leading fraternal orders was none other than Captain Townsend D. Jackson—ex-slave, revered black lawman and militia leader in both Oklahoma and Tennessee, a man who had cast off the shackles of slavery and now looked the white governor of Oklahoma 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 the Oklahoma town of Guthrie, preceded by Jackson's considerable notoriety, and his new neighbors were certainly anxious to hear for themselves the man's thoughts on the great racial questions of the day. That night at the church, they would finally get their chance.

He was impressive enough to look at—a stately, six-foot fellow whose short, dark hair had gone mostly gray. Jackson was also what Negroes called a "light," a mulatto whose creamy skin color gave rise to suspicions that he had been fathered by his Georgia slave owner in the1850s, a common enough occurrence in those days. Little matter. As the Rollison sisters warbled their final note, Jackson rose and slowly stepped toward the pulpit, away from the front-row pew where his wife and youngest son, the handsome young physician Dr. Andrew Jackson, were sitting with him.

As he did, Andrew J. Smitherman removed a piece of paper and pencil from his breast pocket and leaned forward in his own pew near the front, poised to capture Jackson's every word. Smitherman, a bulldog-like man, was the irascible editor of the Tulsa Star, Greenwood's leading publication and its most authoritative public voice. In the eight years between that night in the church and the great burning to come, Smitherman doggedly chronicled all the local news, from street brawls to potluck dinners. But he also never missed a chance to rail in print against injustices perpetrated against his people, and had intervened personally in attempted lynchings in neighboring towns. An early banner headline summed up his belligerent disposition where race 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 an owner of a law degree in Indiana. He quickly had emerged as one of black Tulsa's most successful entrepreneurs, including among his ventures the famously luxurious, fifty-four-room Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue, one of the state's largest black-owned businesses. But like his friend Smitherman, Stradford's overriding concern was the Negro's plight in America, and like the editor, Stradford wasn't shy about saying so. Just ask the white deliveryman Stradford had beaten to within an inch of his life for a racist remark made within earshot.

Others in the First Baptist audience that night were less inclined toward racial militance perhaps, but were no less noteworthy. John Williams and his wife Loula owned a drugstore, an auto shop, and a movie theater, and were the first Tulsa Negroes to purchase an automobile. O.W. Gurley owned Greenwood's first hotel and grocery store. Dr. R.T. Bridgewater was black Tulsa's first physician; Barney Cleaver, the towering fellow seated near the back, was the first Negro deputy. Lawyers and schoolteachers were in the audience, too, people who memorized Shakespeare and read Latin.

On the issue of race, some no doubt shared the confrontational notions of Smitherman and Stradford. Others preferred a quieter course. But each in his or her own way had put the lie to the prevailing theories of Negro inferiority with which the whites of that time continued to justify so much of their cruelty. Indeed, to visit First Baptist on the night of Jackson's speech was to observe Greenwood's gentry in its proud entirety—educated, literate, affluent Negroes packed into the sanctuary, estimable folks curious about Captain Jackson, just the latest in a series of remarkable success stories that continued to unfold in the place called Greenwood.

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

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

But federal assistance was short-lived. Government policies during what was called Reconstruction, policies designed to protect the ex-slave and assist his transition into free society, evaporated within a decade after the Civil War. Federal troops assigned to keep order were recalled from the South, placing Negroes once more at the mercy of the whites, men and women embittered by their defeat by the North, people who typically believed Negroes a wholly inferior species—as much animal as human. Those whites thought Negroes childlike at best, bestial at worst, a threat to the safety and dignity of Southerners, and certainly incapable of meaningful participation in self-government. So when the North looked the other way, white state legislatures across the South quickly moved to make sure that blacks would not have the chance to participate in the democracy.

State after state effectively disenfranchised them with voting requirements most Negroes had no hope of meeting. Who knew how many windows there were in the White House? That was the 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, and the other members of the former Confederacy were quick to follow. In the years just after the Civil War, embittered Rebel soldiers joined the Ku Klux Klan by the tens of thousands and rained death and terror on Negroes and their Southern sympathizers. Over the decades, thousands of Negroes were lynched by white mobs, some for the crime of attempting to vote, or for tipping a hat to a white woman, or for failing to observe the "rituals of deference and submission," as one writer later put it.

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

Many there had embraced the teachings of men like Booker T. Washington, the famous educator and businessman who, beginning in the 1880s, preached that the path to white respect and ultimate equality ran through education and the acquisition of useful vocational skills.

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

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

Thus was the debate that went on every day in Greenwood barbershops, jazz joints, and confectioneries, as it did across Negro America. Were equality and respect to be earned or not? Was it to be the quiet achievement of Negroes, or sticks and clubs and guns? Was it the way of Booker T. Washington or of W.E.B. Du Bois? That spring night in 1913, the issue lingered in the air of First 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 which he had neatly copied his remarks. He paused and cleared his throat in the anxious silence, then bid his new neighbors a pleasant good evening. Otherwise, his first words were not of confrontation, but of modesty and humility, reminding his listeners of Jesus's instruction to enter his kingdom "like little children." He extolled the virtues of the Negro who "shakes thrones and dissolves aristocracies by his silent example and gives light to those who sit in darkness."

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

"With money and property comes the means of knowledge and power," Jackson continued. "A poverty-stricken class or race will be an ignorant and despised class and no amount of sentiment can make it otherwise. If the time shall ever come when we possess in the colored people of this country a class of men noted for enterprise, industry, economy and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights; the battle against the popular prejudice shall have been fought."

What better example of his message could there be than the life of Jackson's own son, Dr. Andrew Jackson, who listened to his father from the front of the congregation? Dr. Andrew Jackson had rapidly become known as one of the finest black surgeons in the nation, respected by white and black alike. Whites even consulted the black doctor, seeking cures for their ailments. Would not such achievement be a shield against the mob? Would not such achievement disarm prejudice? That's precisely what Captain Jackson seemed to be saying.

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

If anything, it was a wonder that Jackson's faith had endured until 1913, for Jackson, as much as any black, had experienced firsthand the 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 family for generations. It was said that the trouble began on a day in 1889, when Townsend Jackson had the temerity to buy and smoke a cigar in a white store, the final insolent act to the many Memphis whites who hated him, one that begged to be dealt with in the traditional Southern way.

Jackson had always been uppity, those whites figured, had always insisted on standing apart from the rest of his colored brethren, going right back to slave days. His last days of slavery came not on his owner's Georgia plantation, but on the smoky, mist-dampened battlefield of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The husky mulatto boy was only seven when his father/master first hauled him into battle, only nine two years later, in the fall of 1863, when his owner's Rebel regiment withered beneath a bluecoat assault up the mountain and was forced to retreat.

What passed then between slave and master could only be guessed at later. Was there genuine affection between them, feelings that perhaps derived from parentage? Did the white man offer the boy any advice, any money? Did they embrace as they parted? Or did the young slave simply escape? All that could be known for sure was that shortly after the Rebel defeat at Lookout Mountain, Townsend Jackson was free.

It was Jackson's habit in the decades afterward to minimize the hardships and dangers he encountered then, and to downplay the fortitude and resourcefulness required for the boy to survive them. After all, he was not yet ten when he earned his freedom. His world was still at war, his people still in bondage, But an account of his life in the Tulsa Star years later, one based on an interview with Jackson himself, described those postwar years in just two sentences: "Secured his discharge after the battle of Mount 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 waiter at the famous Gayosa Hotel, serving the rich white man his grits and freshening his whiskey. But Jackson's new servitude would be brief. Another Negro waiter taught him to read, which allowed him to attend night school to study math and history, literature and Latin. He thus fortified himself for the affluent, intoxicating swirl that was black Memphis, a city whose population in the decades after the Civil War was nearly half Negro, a place where every manner of black commerce sprouted from the brown-brick buildings on Beale Street, that Negro hub of business and entertainment known across the nation for its vibrancy and the variety of its temptations.

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

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

A few years earlier, Jackson might have faced down the mob out of principle. He had done so many times before as a Memphis policeman, protecting Negroes accused of variously trumped-up charges. But a decade earlier, he had met and married another former slave, named Sophronia, and by 1889, he was the father to three fine children, two boys and a girl. Nothing was left for the family in the poisoned racial environment of Memphis in any event. When the mob arrived at their home in Memphis that night in 1889, they found it empty, Jackson, his wife and children, safely hidden in the homes of friends. A few days later, the family headed west aboard a car of the Rock Island Railroad.

At exactly noon on April 22, 1889, troopers of the U.S. Cavalry sounded bugles and fired their guns into the air, setting off a mad dash at the boundary of a Southwestern wilderness, which until that moment, had belonged to Indians. Thus began the Great Land Bush of 1889 in what would become the State of Oklahoma eighteen years later. Thousands of frenzied settlers, both black and white, people from every quarter of American life, rushed in on foot, by horseback, by wagon and railroad car, to stake a forty-acre claim to free land, needing only to register their claims in a crude wooden building hastily erected by the government on the prairie, the place where the town of Guthrie sprang up almost overnight.

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

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

Negroes, in fact, assumed important positions in Guthrie's new territorial government, and Townsend Jackson was one who stepped into the new community's leadership void. In addition to his job as jailer, Jackson was elected justice of the peace. Within a few years, he was appointed to the Guthrie police force, and as in Memphis, he organized the territory's first black militia, thereby becoming a well-known local fixture to politicians of both races. After statehood, the white governor of Oklahoma appointed Jackson to serve as an Oklahoma delegate to an important national conference on Negro education.

At home in Guthrie, his family also flourished. Jackson's oldest child, daughter Minnie Mae, met and married a bright young lawyer named H. A. Guess, soon to become one of the most respected Negro attorneys in the Southwest. But the proudest moment of Townsend Jackson's life undoubtedly came near the end of the century, when he and Sophronia embraced their youngest child, Andrew, standing with him on the crowded platform of the Guthrie train station. Andrew, always a quiet, solicitous, studious boy, held a ticket to Nashville and a spot in the freshman class at Meharry Medical College, the nation's finest medical school for Negro doctors. Tears poured down Townsend Jackson's face as he watched the train puff off, bearing his son to the east, remembering his own days of learning to read by candlelight and the long struggles to succeed that followed.

Yet Jackson's contentment was again impermanent. White hatreds caught up with the Negro in Guthrie, too. In 1907, when Oklahoma became the nation's forty-sixth state, the legislature passed its version of Jim Crow as one of its first acts. Five years later, the mayor of Guthrie ordered Townsend Jackson to limit his policing to the black sections of Guthrie. Jackson immediately resigned.

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

Just look at what was happening a hundred miles east, in the booming oil town of Tulsa. Jackson had heard that Negro prosperity without precedent was taking root there. Industrious blacks in Greenwood had finally succeeded in placing themselves beyond the reach of white malice. So in 1912, Townsend Jackson and his family boarded the train once more, this time for a shorter trip east, to the Promised Land. And on a warm May night a year later, Townsend Jackson's heart swelled as he stood at the pulpit, addressing new neighbors who had endured odysseys so similar to his, who had survived those struggles with optimism every bit as strong.

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

Barney Cleaver, the tall sheriff's deputy who patrolled Greenwood's streets, recalled his birth to ex-slaves in Virginia, working on a steamer that chugged up and down the Ohio River between Charleston and Cincinnati, then toiling in the West Virginia coal mines, before his odyssey landed him in Oklahoma. John Stradford's journey had taken him from Kentucky to Ohio, to Missouri and Kansas, danger and hardship stalking him and his family at every stop. A fellow named Fairchild had a story similar to Townsend Jackson's, of escaping from his home in Arkansas only hours before angry whites appeared at his family's door. And so on.

But of all the tales, few reflected more ambition, luck, and timing, if not outright peril, than O. W. Gurley's. He was born to former slaves on Christmas Day, 1868, and later moved with them from Alabama to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he studied in a public school and worked on his father's farm. He taught school himself 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 between monetary wealth and political ambition, a hunger that led him to an Oklahoma land claim in 1893, which he soon abandoned to run for county treasurer in the town of Perry. He served as a school principal when defeated, then changed course again, opening a Perry mercantile store that thrived for almost a decade.

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


Excerpted from The Burning by Tim Madigan. Copyright © 2001 by Tim Madigan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Author's Note

Prologue: Like Judgement Day
1. Beyond Hatred's Reach
2. Lincoln's Devotee
3. Diamond Dick and the KKK
4. The Sheriff's Promise
5. Down the Road to Apocalypse
6. Be Ready at Daybreak
7. The Attack on Greenwood
8. A Single Ruthless Organism
9. The Black Alamo
10. Are You Dr. Jackson?
11. Sick from What I See
12. Assignment of a Lifetime
13. Scorched Earth
14. A Christmas Carol
15. What Do You Say Now?
16. The Veil Lifted

Chapter Notes