by Steve Gerkin
We will never understand. How could we allow the racial brutality of slavery, the lynching of Blacks as legit Saturday night revelry or prime entertainment for Sunday afternoon family picnics, children and parents laughing as Klansmen strung up Negroes from the hanging tree in the park? How can we grasp the butchering of Ukrainians by the Russians? How can irrational actions be assigned a rational explanation? We try, but futilely.
American social justice is in the same boat. Since the Mayflower landed on the east coast, white men have sought to disenfranchise minorities—even slaughter them. The autocratic notion of Manifest Destiny within the early United States, perpetrated by D.C. legislators and their all-white constituency, created a no-holds-barred approach to claim what the white nationalists considered their just-due. Indians? Out of the way or else. And else happened through butchery and false promises with the naïve and desperate Native tribes, who wanted peaceful and respected sovereignty, who signed treaties disregarded then and now.
Post-Civil War, there was a glimpse of freedom for the enslaved Black Americans. They headed out of the Deep South to prairie states like Oklahoma to form dozens of all-Black enclaves by the late 1800s. Life was better for the newly unrestrained, perhaps, even good; like it seemed for the Greenwood residents adjacent to downtown Tulsa, a burgeoning city with a critical railroad system, the presence of Black gold in nearby oil fields, and industries to support business needs. Community leaders disdained yet welcomed the migration of formerly enslaved people to their city if they worked hard for their white masters—sound familiar?—and stayed on the north side of the tracks. Would a form of urban manifest destiny change Tulsa’s core? Would the Black community of Greenwood, the largest such in the United States, be allowed unfettered success? Or are they just marking time?
John the Baptist moved to Tulsa in 1899. The Stradford family called him J.B. (Their master named his slaves, calling J.B.’s’ Father Julius Caesar or J.C..) Stradford was a former Kentucky enslaved person who was not afraid to preach the gospel of equal treatment and racial solidarity for Black Americans. College-‐educated in Ohio at Oberlin College, Stradford received his law degree from Indiana University, practicing in Indianapolis and yearning to influence Black equality. Tulsa became his destiny. Leaders of the local white community yearned for his demise.
The late 1800s provided an unpainted canvas of opportunity for post-emancipation Blacks in America. They were free to relocate, free to join with other freshly freed Blacks and freedmen from Creek native enslavement, free to start communities separate from the white population. While racial distrust of the white’s intent remained, their new Tulsa beginning symbolized the expansion of minority-based entrepreneurship.
Over sixty percent of the U.S.Black population— census numbers show that the Black population in 1890 of 250,000 ballooned to more than 2 million by 1920—served the white community as domestics, restaurant cooks, bootblacks, and laborers. Wages were brought back to their new settlements and spent with Black grocers, lumberyards, saloons and gambling enterprises, theatres, and a cadre of like-skinned businesses.
Oklahoma’s future looked bright for Blacks. Led by the vision of Edwin McCabe, founder of the first Black community of Langston in 1890, the state became a mecca for Black towns and self-‐reliant communities—fifty by 1920. McCabe sent recruiters to the South, appealing to racial pride, and hoped to recruit enough Blacks to become the majority race forcing the whites to turn over the region. McCabe’s dream of a politically powerful, Black-friendly state lured Stradford from Indianapolis to the dirt streets of Tulsa’s undeveloped Greenwood area.
"What will you be if you stay in the South? Slaves liable to be killed at any time and never treated right. But if you come to Oklahoma, you have equal chances with the white man, free and independent."
The New York Times warned on March 1, 1890, that a Negro settlement is a camp of savages.
Buying up large tracts of undeveloped land northeast of the tracks that bordered downtown, thirty-nine-year-old Stradford sold his Greenwood parcels to Blacks only. The acknowledged founder of the new community, O.W. Gurley, did the same as Black Tulsa took shape.
Yet, Stradford was not a real estate man by trade. He was a University of Indiana educated attorney who used his investment profits to aggressively litigate for Black social justice, who was never shy to voice his outrage, and who occasionally declared, “The day a member of our group was mobbed (lynched) in Tulsa, the streets would be bathed in blood.” The activist put himself on the line to prevent lynches. In 1918 he turned back a lynching mob in Bristow, Oklahoma. When Stradford suffered Jim Crow discrimination, he did not sit idly.
Walking along Greenwood Avenue, a white deliveryman made a racist remark about Stradford’s skin color. Nearly beating him to death, friends pulled Stradford off the bloodied iceman, telling him that if he killed the white man, he would be mobbed—a euphemism for lynching. Though prosecuted for violating Oklahoma Jim Crow laws, he received an acquittal. He persisted in his vigilance.
Riding a train from Kansas to Tulsa in 1912, nearly fifty years after the end of the Civil War, Stradford experienced the continuation of Jim Crow slave law in Oklahoma. When the locomotive reached the Oklahoma border, the conductor stopped the train, and Stradford was forcibly removed from the Black luxury car although he had paid the higher fare. Today, when a gun often does the talking, would he have survived? Oklahoma exempted railroads from the expense of such cars if it did not make economic sense. Stradford sued Midland Valley Railroad in state and federal courts for false imprisonment. All-white courts ruled against his demand for justice by law, angering Greenwood residents.
In 1916, Stradford railed against the Tulsa City Commission for its segregation ordinance that he claimed casts "A stigma upon the colored race in the eyes of the world; and to sap the spirit of hope for justice before the law from the race itself." The upside of segregation was the “white” dollars earned by Black Tulsans stayed in the district, giving Deep Greenwood merchants the spoils of their neighbors, while the Black print media continued to pull no punches. Like a heavy-weight boxing match, frustrated Black journalists got up off the mat before the ten-count.
The most militant Black voice in America and a founder of the NAACP fanned the embers during a Greenwood speech. Brought to the community by Stradford and newspaperman A. J. Smitherman, in March of 1921, the first Black Harvard Ph.D., W.E.B. DuBois lectured the crowds that the hatred in the white man's heart was still intense. The professor sometimes proposed that the only possible solution to hate is hate.
Du Bois argued in those times,
"We have suffered and cowered. When the armed lynchers come, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with sticks and clubs and guns."
The outspoken trailblazer was an early-day Malcolm X without an attachment of bodyguards nearby. Greenwood experienced a rising tide of passion and self-respect. Buoyed by the cadre of residents who fought courageously in World War I and enjoyed the freedom of non-judgmental living in Europe, Greenwood servicemen steeled themselves to forcefully defend the promise of equality under the law.
White Tulsa became less enchanted with the likes of J.B. Stradford. Tulsa leaders considered Stradford a legitimate businessman; many Tulsans despised him. Looking down on the pugnacious firebrand was the same as looking down on all of Greenwood. The bubbling cauldron became hotter.
Stradford and his close friend, Andrew J. Smitherman, the owner/publisher of the Black newspaper Tulsa Star situated on Greenwood Avenue, spoke out against the trio of leading civil rights causes in Oklahoma – lynching, voting rights, and the railroad segregation policy. The Black Dispatch, a Black Oklahoma City newspaper published by Roscoe Dunjee, regularly fired up Greenwood residents. He declared the courts were full of dead men's bones. He claimed the courts denied enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decision, guaranteeing Black Oklahoman's right to vote. He alleged local magistrates upheld Oklahoma’s railroad segregation statute. During vaudeville shows at the famed Dreamland Theatre on Greenwood, a frequently bantered slogan was “Don’t let the white man run it over on you, but fight.” Racial rhetoric primed Tulsa.
The Williams Dreamland Theatre in Deep Greenwood.
While inflammatory verbiage continued in district tabloids and on street corners, business was good. Stradford amassed a sizeable bank account. With fifteen rental houses, including a sixteen-room brick apartment building, he earned a real estate income of nearly $10,000 a month in 2022 dollars.
Stradford decided it was time that Black travelers of means should have accommodations as swank as downtown’s Hotel Tulsa. He envisioned this hotel as the pinnacle of his dreams, remarking, “The Stradford would be a monument to the thrift, energy, and business tact of the race in Tulsa (and) to the race in the state of Oklahoma.” It would symbolize hope in Greenwood, in Black Americans. It would stand the test of white ridicule and hatred as a fortress of freedom. The exuberant opening of his eponymous hotel on June 1, 1918, signified the realization of his promised land, adding credence to Booker T. Washington’s description of this district as Negro Wall Street, which morphed into Black Wall Street; the terminology used today.
The three-story edifice of pressed brick above the windows and stone slabs below would cost a glitzy $700,000+ today. The segregated Stradford, serving Blacks only, was the largest owned and operated Black hotel in America. While it fulfilled his dream, the hotel's construction created financial difficulties. Stradford borrowed $20,000 to stem the rising tide. Still, when a boxcar of beds, rugs, and chandeliers rolled into the station, the new hotelier could not pay the $5,000 bill. Stradford was out of money.
The furnishings for the fifty-four modern "living rooms," gambling hall, dining hall, and saloon languished on the rails within eyeshot of the hotel. Stradford negotiated a deal to pay a quarter of the total and the remainder in monthly payments. The Stradford Hotel at 301 N. Greenwood was open for business.
The Stradford Hotel Pre-Massacre
It was a gay time. A new form of music ricocheted up Greenwood Avenue from the dancehalls. With its gyrating rhythms and freedom to improvise, Jazz stimulated the dancers and frightened the white community, who considered the music style as vibrations for the half-‐savage—an improvement compared to the New York Times’ portrayal of fully savage. The piano in the Stradford Hotel pounded out Jazz for its distinguished clientele who tripped the toe-fantastic.
Amid the glamor of the Stradford Hotel, Greenwood residents tried to downplay the racial tension in Tulsa and suppressed the racial tension in the region. That changed as desperate events stoked emotions.
Greenwood celebrated the success of a group of Muskogee Black men in mid-‐April 1921 that stormed the city jail, liberated a Black man (John McShane), and shot a white deputy sheriff in the process. The local Black community justified the action, claiming they prevented a lynching. Their defiance energized Greenwood.
Stradford and Smitherman agreed that a community must be vigilant if a Black man were in danger of being lynched. It was justice—a legal right, they reckoned, to take aggressive action, and encouraged their community to support armed militancy towards lynching.
James Jones, then known as "Diamond Dick" Roland on the streets of Greenwood, from the Booker T. Washington High School yearbook.
In the afternoon edition of May 30, 1921, a front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune announced a "negro will be lynched tonight." The following day, a Greenwood teenager, Dick Roland, was arrested under the allegations that he attempted to rape a seventeen-year-old white girl, Sarah Page, in an elevator. Although a Grand Jury indictment against him was rendered several days later and then dismissed within three months for lack of a prosecution witness (Sarah, according to oral histories from Greenwood survivors, was his taboo lover), the yellow-journalism article fomented the deadliest and most destructive “riot” in the history of the United States. This event became labeled the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
A.J. Smitherman’s office of the Tulsa Star was the center of activity the night before the battle. Several carloads of passionate armed veterans made repeated trips from the newspaper’s curb to the jail holding Roland, repeated their resentment toward a growing white mob. Dedicated to stopping a lynching by any means, Stradford held court with the gathering Greenwood crowd. He repeated his oft-used statement about "blood in the streets." Within his memoirs, he declared to the nervous onlookers what he would do if there were a lynching: “If I can’t get anyone to go with me, I will go single-‐handed and empty my automatic into the mob and then, resign myself to my fate,” he roared. His comments encouraged men, including a tall, light-‐skinned veteran named O. B. Mann, to continue making trips to the courthouse.
Mann, a successful Greenwood grocer, returned from the War with inflated ideas about equality and sure he could take on the world, according to O. W. Gurley. During court testimony on an insurance claim relating to property damage from the Riot—now called a Massacre, he declared that the unintentional discharge of his handgun, when grabbed by a white man, activated the fatal chain of events.
At dawn, the sound of an air horn commanded the heavily armed white armada, loaded with Klansmen, to step over the tracks. The zealots attacked an under-‐armed band of Black veterans in uniform and frightened Greenwood residents' intent to defend their families and homes. Hundreds died within a matter of hours, and homes and businesses were looted and burned as thousands of arrested Black Tulsans were herded into detention. Some ran north on the railroad tracks with as many possessions as they could hold. Some had no possessions. All feared an escape in vain.
A Black man killed by white mobsters lies on a Greenwood street.
Dick Roland was a forgotten man. Sheriff McCollough claims Dick spent a safe evening in the County Jail and was secreted out of town by 8 AM amidst the gunfire of the massacre, never, according to most, to return to Tulsa. The carnage continued throughout the day.
The June 1, 1921, evening edition of the Tulsa Tribune reported,
"A motley procession of negroes went down Main Street to the baseball park with hands held high above their heads, their hats in one hand, a token of their submission to the white man's authority. They returned not to their homes but heaps of ashes, the angry reprisal for the wrongs inflicted on him by the inferior race."
Some of that race-under-siege resisted the roundup. Attempting to hold the mobsters from advancing, Stradford and others fired from the second-‐story porch that fronted the hotel. The building represented Black equality, and he preferred death rather than losing it. A machine gun smashed the west-‐facing windows on the third-floor. Six men were wounded, and one was dead. The hotel became a haven for Black families. Most left, surrendering to the militia. A sobbing Augusta, Stradford’s wife, pleaded with him, “Oh, papa, let us go, too.”
A young J.B. Stradford and his wife, Augusta.
“If you want to go with the crowd, then go,” he said, “I intend to protect my hotel.”
Augusta stayed. A message of hope reached Stradford. The militia promised to keep the hotel from further destruction if Stradford surrendered. He agreed.
A short, slightly rotund man with a pencil-‐thin mustache perched above his squared chin, the now sixty-year-old Stradford was reportedly the wealthiest man in Greenwood with nearly 2 million dollars of investments in today's currency. He stood with his gun in the doorway of his hotel, waiting for his captors' car. His dark, piercing eyes surveyed the burning buildings in Deep Greenwood. Hundreds of the 8 to 10,000 Greenwood residents ran through the street before him. White enforcers marshaled columns of Blacks with raised hands to detention centers; shots fired at their feet and hopelessness on their faces.
Greenwood residents enter the Tulsa Convention Center for detention following the Race Massacre.
A man described by descendants as having the strength of a Mandingo warrior watched mobsters enter his building. They took him to the Convention Center, where city officials took $2,000 from his pockets. There is no mention of Augusta's whereabouts. Although not detained for long, Stradford was still in harm's way.
One day later, an order asked for the arrest of Stradford so he could face a Grand Jury. The contention was he had encouraged carloads of armed Blacks that organized and left from the Stradford Hotel. Without his presence, the jury indicted him for inciting a riot. The penalty for the charge was death or life imprisonment. The white community needed a definable villain, and they decided on Stradford. Could he get a fair trial after an incursion that needed a whipping boy?
The Tulsa white community well knew him. His railroad segregation lawsuit and his defiance of the segregation ordinance put him squarely opposed to their values. He named a hotel after himself, so they knew he was a man of ambition. As Greenwood's Republican Party leader, the local papers called him a "henchman." Since the media labeled the Riot a "Negro uprising," they reasoned that the wealthiest, most defiant, and outspoken man must be the ringleader, and he fled, so he must be guilty. Such was their logic and the thrust of their need to bring him back for justice. They reckoned that he was the perpetrator of the bloodbath, and the white mob merely protected the citizens of Tulsa. Tulsa’s positive image would remain untarnished, and business could continue as before; take the messy story off the nation’s front pages, leave it out of textbooks, and bury it forever. Simple. Done deal.
With authorities on his heels, Stradford leaned back in a segregated railroad car headed for Independence, Kansas. Stradford gazed up Greenwood Avenue through a gentle rain, spying his symbol of Black pride, reduced to smoldering ashes and charred brick. Oklahoma was no longer the promised land.
The Stradford Hotel, reduced to smoke and ash by marauders.
Like thousands of homes, businesses, and possessions stolen or burned, the Stradford Hotel never enjoyed reconstruction. The crown jewel of Black Tulsa shined a scant three years to the day.
On June 6, J.B. Stradford became the first person formally charged with inciting a riot. To be proven guilty, the county district attorney only needed to show he abetted the Riot that resulted in murder, looting, and theft. It made no difference that the white mob committed those crimes.
Shortly after arriving at his brother's house in Independence, local police paid a visit to Stradford at the request of Tulsa authorities. Asked if he would turn himself in, he replied, "Hell, no." Arrested and booked, he called his son in Chicago. Cornelius Stradford, a graduate of Columbia University Law School, took the first train to Kansas and posted the $8,000 bond (2022 value). The local lawmen told Stradford to stay put and appear in court on June 10. Convinced he would not get a fair trial if returned to Tulsa, Stradford and his son boarded the next train to Chicago. Incensed Tulsa litigators vowed to extradite and try him for the charge of inciting a riot.
Wrangling successfully against the extradition attempts, the aging Stradford settled into Chicago life with his wife, son, and numerous grandchildren. Trying to re-‐create his success in Tulsa, he practiced law and filed a suit in September against the American Central Insurance Company for $65,000 to recover some of his real estate losses. Stradford did not appear at the hearing. Due to the riot exclusion clause in insurance policies and local leaders defining the travesty as a "riot," all riot victims' claims, including the one by the gentleman considered by some as an outlaw, were knocked out in legal fights.
Desiring to re-create his real estate prowess, he formed a group of investors to build a luxury hotel like the Stradford. The project ran out of money, and the building's construction ended. He did, however, construct a candy store, barbershop, and a small pool hall. His modest business holdings in Chicago reminded him of what once was.
Stradford lost more than money in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. He lost his Black sense of place. In his unpublished memoirs, he wrote,
"It is incredible to believe that in this civilized age that a white man could be so void of humanity. My soul cried for revenge and prayed for the day to come when I could personally avenge the wrongs perpetrated against me."
He died in 1935 at the age of seventy-four. Sixty years later, family members extracted his atonement.
Cornelius E. Toole was a former NAACP lawyer and a Cook County, Illinois circuit court judge. He was also a great-grandson of J. B. Stradford. Toole harbored resentment for smearing his relative's name, destroying his properties and dreams. Through impassioned communications with Mayor Susan Savage and local Black leader Don Ross in 1996, the sixty‐three-year-old former judge insisted on dismissing all Stradford's charges. The decision rested on the shoulders of first-year District Attorney Bill LaFortune, who needed to render an opinion on a single legal question—did evidence support the notion that Stradford incited a riot?
Nancy Little was assigned the investigation. She performed a detailed inspection that revealed innocent Black families suffered a ruthless attack. She was shocked. While Stradford undeniably violated the law by jumping bail and refusing extradition, Little concluded he was innocent of inciting a riot. LaFortune vacated the charges.
In October of 1996, Stradfords from Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and New York set foot in Oklahoma; for the first time since June of 1921. The vindication ceremony at the Greenwood Cultural Center featured moving statements from Governor Frank Keating. Quite simply, District Attorney Bill LaFortune presented the motion to dismiss, and Judge Jesse Harris accepted it.
John the Baptist Stradford was the first Riot victim indicted, and the last alleged outlaw exonerated— first charged, last freed: carnage.
Steve Gerkin, is a Tulsa-based freelance writer with a Master's in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. He has authored three books and had two dozen essays published in This Land Press, where he was a Contributing Editor; nineteen of the Tulsa-focused This Land pieces composed the contents of his first book, "Hidden History of Tulsa", published by History Press in May of 2014. Nearly twenty of his works have appeared in The Iowa Review, The New Territory, The Frontier, and others. See his website at www.stevegerkinwriter.com.
Gerkin and his wife, Sue, live in Tulsa, OK.