Considering the Tulsa Riot of 1921 from a Black Writer’s Perspective

Seven years ago I began my research into the Tulsa Riot of 1921. The result of that study was the release of Fires of Greenwood, a novel that chronicles the barbarous attack on a prosperous Black community, leading to the brutal killings of over three hundred men, women and children, and the destruction of thirty four blocks of successful businesses and beautiful homes. As we have witnessed throughout our turbulent history in this country, the official reason given for the massacre was the alleged attack of a young white girl, Sarah Page, by Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old Black bootblack. However, the actual facts of what happened in the Drexel building elevator on May 30, 1921 between those two, do not support the alleged reason for the massacre. I was, therefore, determined to write a novel depicting the real truth behind the slaughter of three hundred Black Americans, at the hands of a white mob.

Besides the mysterious relationship between the Dick and Sarah, what I found most compelling was discovering just how prosperous Black Americans were in their segregated community known as Greenwood. In fact, when Booker T. Washington past through the city on his way to speak in Boley, Oklahoma in 1905, he was so impressed with the number of successful businesses in the Greenwood corridor, he coined the term “Negro Wall Street” (once the term Negro was no longer acceptable, it was changed to “Black Wall Street”) as the best way to describe the area. Years later, in March 1921, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was just as impressed with the number of successful businesses, when he visited the community and delivered a speech at the Dreamland Movie Theater, owned and operated by Black entrepreneurs John and Loula Williams.

Dreamland Theater Rebuilt

Stradford HotelMy research also brought to life the Gurley and Stradford Hotels, places of lodging for Black visitors to the city. Dr. Du Bois actually stayed at the Gurley Hotel during his visit there. However, it was not considered the better of the two; the Stradford was the finest Black owned hotel in the country, and easily matched the white hotels in Tulsa for convenience, luxury and comfort. John Stradford and O. W. Gurley were two of the richest Blacks in Tulsa. Both men had become millionaires before all was lost on that dreadful day in 1921.

In addition to the Gurley and Stradford, there were William Anderson’s Jewelry Store, Henry Lilly’s Upholstery Shop, A. S. Newkirk’s Photography Studio, Elliott and Hooker’s Clothing Emporium, H. L. Byar’s Tailor Shop, Hope Watson’s Cleaners and Lilly Johnson’s Liberty Café that served home cooked meals at all hours, while nearby Little Café is where people lined up waiting for their specialty chicken or smothered steak with rice and brown gravy. And there was the famous Little Rose Beauty Shop, run by the matriarch of the community Mabel Little.

Black Wall Street (Pre-Riot)The area possessed fifteen Black physicians and Dr. Andrew Jackson was recognized by the prestigious Mayo Clinic as one of the finest doctors in the country. The community also built its own hospital and the magnificently structure Mt. Zion Baptist Church, known to rival any other church in Tulsa or the entire state of Oklahoma. All this came crashing down, as the invaders dropped turpentine soaked firebombs that lit up the entire community and torched many unsuspected men, women, and children.

Riot Survivor in AshesThe tragedy that befell the prosperous Greenwood district, as well as other similar communities in this country, was that Black Americans were too successful, and a jealous and envious white community was determined to eradicate those businesses. That egregious attack on innocent citizens was not about a Black man accosting a white girl. It was about Black men and women who had bought into the Booker T. Washington position that hard work and a commitment to the American dream of capitalism would pay off handsomely. O.W. Gurley, a strong advocate of the accommodationist approach, found out just how much whites respected successful businessmen and women of the darker hue when they shot his wife and burned down his hotel.

Tulsa clearly points out that the only acceptable behavior whites would condone was for Blacks to be passive and subservient to them. “Uppity” became synonymous with Black men and women stepping out of the role as servants and field hands. However, the positive message that shines through the pages of Fires is that Blacks in Tulsa refused to condescend to the arrogance of the majority, and were willing to fight and die rather than allow an innocent Black boy to be lynched by the mob. Finally, this writer portrays the relationship between Dick and Sarah in a manner not pursued by the many other researchers, who have studied the causes of the riot. The portrayal of their involvement makes for an interesting and entertaining read, which should always be the goal of the novelist.

This novel re-creates the events that led to this slaughter and brings to life true heroes who stood up to the evil and fought back. It is imperative that Black writers begin to “tell our story our way,” and that is what I have done in the pages of Fires.  Eminent scholar and Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree noted that, “Frederick Williams has taken the 1921 Tulsa Riot to new heights and reminds us all that we cannot forget the African American community that battled to protect their dignity and respect. We will never forget what happened to the members of “Black Wall Street’ and will make sure that generations of people will forever remember the hard working men and women who fought to preserve their dignity.”

Prosperity Publications, the publisher has contracted to convert this work into a screenplay and will pursue producing a movie that will be as compelling as recent movies such as Selma, The Butler and Twelve Years A Slave. In the meantime I invite you to purchase the novel through Amazon or communicate with the company at www.prosperitypublications.com., or leave a message here on my writer’s blog.  A novel is always more comprehensive and thorough than the movie and that will be true with Fires. 

Greenwood MonumentYou can also visit the website of the Greenwood Cultural Center at www.greenwoodculturalcenter.com or the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park at www.jhfcenter.org both located on the grounds of the tragic events that happened on June 1, 1921, 95 years ago.

Assorted Photos (7)



Take a Trip Back in History and Visit Black Wall Street In 1921

...Called "Black Wall Street." Greenwood, North Tulsa c. 1917. As the Greenwood District began to emerge in the early 1900s, rigid segregation held sway. Image Credit: digital.library.okstate.edu
…Called “Black Wall Street.” Greenwood, North Tulsa c. 1917. As the Greenwood District began to emerge in the early 1900s, rigid segregation held sway. Image Credit: digital.library.okstate.edu

If you purchase Fires of Greenwood: Tulsa Riot of 1921, you will get to know some of the most successful, adorable and heroic African Americans in this country’s history. You will stand in the beautiful ballroom at the Stradford Hotel, with its luxurious chandeliers hanging from the ceilings and the shining hardwood floors welcoming you to step inside. While in the hotel you will meet the owner, John B. Stradford, the richest Black businessman in the most prosperous business community within the United States. If one luxurious hotel is not enough for you, cross over Greenwood Avenue and you can enter the Gurley Hotel, not quite as extravagant as the Stradford, but nice enough for Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois to lodge there when he visited the city in the spring of 1921.

You will be deeply immersed in the community when you walk into the Little Rose Beauty Shop and Mabel Little, one of the most revered and respected Black women in the city, greets you. You’ll feel as though you are a part of the conversation between the ladies getting their hair done and those waiting for their turn in one of the four chairs. The conversation gets quite interesting and not much different from what is discussed in beauty shops today.

Further down Greenwood Avenue, you will be invited into the offices of The Tulsa Star, owned by the fiery Andrew Smitherman. You will hear a heated debate between those supporters of Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist approach to dealing with segregation and Dr. Du Bois’ more aggressive protest approach. The discussion centers around whether the leaders should invite Dr. Du Bois to the city to deliver a lecture. The pro Du Bois forces win out but in the end of the novel you can decide if that was a good decision for the community.

Nearing the corner of Greenwood and Archer, you will duck your head inside the Dreamland Theater and join the other seven hundred moviegoers enjoying an Oscar Micheaux movie. You will also sit in the audience the night Dr. Du Bois delivers one of his riveting challenges to Black Americans to take up arms and fight back against the racists who refused to allow them equality in their own country.

Then, on May 31, you will stand with the veterans of World War I, whose leader is the brave O. B. Mann, when they pledge to fight to the death before they allow the racists to lynch Ms. Damie’s baby boy for a crime he did not commit. You will march with them across the Frisco Railroad Tracks and confront the mob demanding that the sheriff turn Dick Rowland over to them. And you will rejoice with those brave Black men, who fight a battle that they ultimately will lose, but a war they did win. They confronted evil and were victorious, and that makes them our heroes.