Mask of Atonement: The Plan to Rebuild the Homes of Greenwood

By Randy Hopkins–

The front page of the Witchita Daily Eagle on June 3rd, 1921

On Thursday morning, June 2, 1921, one of Tulsa’s many problems was that of optics. A large chunk of the city had been obliterated in a matter of hours and an embarrassingly large portion of the city’s population had a hand in the obliterating. How this was going to look to outsiders was far from an irrelevant concern for many Tulsans, especially the city’s elite for whom pride in the city’s accomplishments was keen. To a nation relentlessly steeped in images of knuckle-dragging Huns savagely rending their enemies asunder during the World War, how would Tulsa look now? Would businesses go elsewhere? Would other “better citizens” from other places look down their noses?


Fortunately for those most concerned with the city’s image, relief arrived the very next day in the form of nationwide publicity that placed Tulsa in a far more favorable light, even a heroic one. Bold, black headlines in Friday’s Daily Oklahoman told readers, ”TULSA WILL REBUILD HOMES OF NEGROES.” The Chicago Tribune headlined that $500,000 would be raised for the effort. The New York Tribune reported it was to be “done in part as an atonement for the harm done, and also as an example for other cities” and that no difficulty was expected in obtaining the money. Newspapers from Lawton to Los Angeles and Pawhuska to Philadelphia spread the news.[i]

Courtesy of The Daily Oklahoman

The Greenwood rebuilding “plan” was a major feature of the second full day of national newspaper coverage of the then-called Tulsa Race Riot. The first day’s coverage had dealt with the dramatic destruction itself. Day two would put matters in context for the now-intrigued national audience. The New York Times described how the home rebuilding plan came about, reporting that a “host of bankers, businessmen, and civic leaders assembled in mass meeting” on the morning of June 2.[ii] The meeting produced a “committee of seven,” said by the Associated Press to consist of “men who do things.”[iii] They were called the “reparations committee” by the Pittsburgh Daily Post, drawing on a report by Major Alva Niles, president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, who presided over the June 2 meeting.[iv] The committee selected former Tulsa mayor Loyal J. Martin, the most hawkish of all speakers in favor of complete restitution, as its chairman.[v] The committee named itself the Board of Public Welfare.

Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Daily Post

Courtesy of The Lawton News

Courtesy of The New York Times

The rebuilding plan was itself constrained. No businesses would be rebuilt and renters were out of luck. Only negroes who owned and occupied houses would be helped. The national newspapers did not always draw these distinctions. The New York Times was particularly wide of the mark. In a front-page article “Tulsa in Remorse to Rebuild Homes; Dead Now Put at 30,” the paper told its many readers that “the mile-square burned area would be rebuilt” and “a thousand business men will contribute to start a city-wide fund for the rehabilitation of the devastated district."


To better highlight the heroism of the effort or for other reasons, the Board of Public Welfare also determined to reject all aid from outside Tulsa. Precisely at the time that tens of thousands of dollars could have been raised by a campaign that would have been child’s play for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, the Board stepped on the throat of such contributions. Indeed, the order appears to have resulted from reports reaching the Board from “all over the country that money is being collected in many cities toward the $500,000 building fund to replace wrecked homes.”[vii] A thousand dollar check from the Chicago Tribune - who also urged others to give and promised to forward their gifts - was ostentatiously returned.[viii] The “orders” not to donate were transmitted by the Associated Press to all the major papers in the country.[ix] By Saturday, June 4, the Tulsa Race Riot was moving off the nation’s front pages and out of its attention, sent that way in part by the Board’s directive to move along.

Courtesy of the St Louis Post Dispatch

The Greenwood rebuilding plan did not survive its national birth announcement. After the national publicity blitzkrieg of June 3, the plan was never again mentioned in Tulsa newspapers. When the Board of Public Welfare listed its accomplishments on June 6, the rebuilding plan received nary a word. Instead, the Board suggested “conversion of the burned area into an industrial and wholesale district,” a scheme first advanced by Tulsa’s Real Estate Commission.[x]

The Tulsa Board of Public Welfare courtesy of the Tulsa Tribune

The $500,000 reconstruction kitty never arrived. No serious effort to collect it ever took place. During World War I, Tulsa’s elite had proven extraordinarily adept at raising money for all sorts of causes.[xi] By June 5, however, the Board of Public Welfare had collected less than nine thousand dollars, whereas temporary relief for the many refugees alone was estimated at $75,000. By June 6, the Board suspended all efforts to collect any money for reconstruction until “the legal status of the riot damages can be fixed.” On June 7, the Board’s Relief and Restitution Fund was $9,006. H. L. Standeven, a member of the Board and the man in charge of the Exchange National Bank’s Trust company, was listed as giving $525. Cyrus Avery, treasurer of the Board of Public Welfare, contributed $150, as did Major Niles of the Chamber of Commerce.[xii] There is no record of any other member of the Board of Public Welfare making a donation.

The failure to raise rebuilding funds locally dovetailed with the refusal to collect money from the outside. On June 9, the Board gave up completely and turned over all its funds, barely $12,000, to the Red Cross. Perhaps, it suggested in closing, some housing corporations could come along and allow negroes to buy homes at low payments.[xiii] Nothing came of that.

Some histories paint the Board of Public Welfare as having been rudely shoved aside on June 14 by the Evans administration’s decision to create its own, far more miserly “reconstruction committee.”[xiv] Far from a wrenching away of authority, it was a face-saving godsend for “the men who do things.” They were off the hook. The Board of Public Welfare’s final report made no mention of the Greenwood rebuilding plan, which had momentarily put the Board in the nation’s spotlight. Several Board members, as well as Major Niles of the Chamber of Commerce, simply shifted over to the new committee. The Chamber of Commerce was allowed to approve subcommittees of the new board.[xv] It was like a tag-team changing fighters. By June 17, the hatchets were buried and the Chamber of Commerce and the Evans Administration celebrated a “love feast” in the front page words of the Tulsa World.[xvi] Civic wounds healed easily in those days, at least on the south side of the tracks.[xvii]

The plan to rebuild the homes of Greenwood may not have lasted more than forty-eight hours, but for a critical moment when the nation’s eyes were fixed on Tulsa, it provided a newsprint-thin mask of atonement which helped to conceal Tulsa’s own mark of the Hun.[xviii]

Endnotes:

[i] “Tulsa Will Rebuild Homes of Negroes,” Daily Oklahoman (OK), June 3, 1921, 1; “Tulsa Plans Half Million Building Fund,” Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1921, 1; “U. S. Inquiry in Tulsa Race Riots Ordered,” New York Tribune, June 3, 1921, 1. See also, “Tulsa Organizes to Atone for Tragedy,” Muskogee Daily Phoenix (OK), June 3, 1921, 1; “Tulsa to Rebuild Burned Area.” Lawton News (OK), June 3, 1921, 1; “Tulsa Citizens to Rebuild Razed Negro District,” Wichita Daily Eagle (KAN), June 3, 1921, 1;“Tulsa to Rebuild Homes of Negroes,” New York Herald, June 3, 1921, 1; “Will Rebuild Homes for Tulsa Negroes,” New York Evening Post, June 3, 1921, 2; “Tulsa to Rebuild Houses Burned in Negro District,” Austin American (TX), June 3, 1921, 1; “Citizens Form Committee to Reconstruct Homes in the Burned Area,” Baltimore Sun (MD), June 3, 1921, 1; “Tulsa Business Men to Rebuild Negro District,” Houston Post (TX), June 3, 1921, 1; “Inefficient Police Held to Blame for Tragedy at Tulsa,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 1921, 1; “Tulsa Quiz Ordered - Homes of Negroes to be Rebuilt,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1921, 1;“Tulsa Will Erect Houses for Destitute,” Enid Daily Eagle (OK), June 3, 1921, 1; “Plans to Rebuild Negro Section of Tulsa Are Made,” Ponca City News (OK), June 3, 1921, 1; “City to Meet Demands Out of Own Purse,” Tulsa Tribune (OK), June 3, 1921, [ii] “Tulsa in Remorse to Rebuild Homes; Dead Now Put at 30,” New York Times, June 2, 1921, 1. The Board members were Harry C. Tyrrell, Loyal J. Martin, Grant R. McCullough, Dr. Samuel G. Kennedy, Herbert L. Standeven, Major Charles F. Hopkins, and Cyrus S. Avery. Also, “$2,000 To Start Fund for Relief,” Tulsa Daily World, June 2, 1921, 1 [iii] “Tulsa Committee Says It Can Raise All Needed For Relief,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 3, 1921, 1. [iv] “" Reparations Commission” Aiding Homeless Negroes,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, June 3, 1921, 1. For Niles’ speech, “Niles Blames Lawlessness for Race War,” Tulsa Tribune, June 2, 1921, 4 (Niles calls it a “plan of reparation in order that homes may be rebuilt and families as nearly as possible be rehabilitated” and “as quickly as possible rehabilitation will take place and reparation made.”). [v] “Tulsa Race Riot Will Be Probed,” Atlanta Constitution, June 3, 1921, 1 (per Martin, “As the final outcome, we must rebuild these homes, see that the negroes get their insurance, and get their claims against the city and county,” and also urging “outraged families of negroes to file their claims for damages at the hands of the mobs”). [vi] “Tulsa Will Rebuild Homes of Negroes,” Daily Oklahoman, June 3, 1921, 1. [vii] “Looters Give Tulsa Guards New Anxiety,” Evening Sun (Baltimore, MD), June 3, 1921, 1; “Tulsa’s Mayor May Lose His Job After Inquiry,” Evening World (NY), June 3, 1921, 2 (Wall Street edition). [viii] “Tulsa Plans Half Million Building Fund,” Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1921, 1; “City to Meet Demands Out of Own Purse,” Tulsa Tribune, June 3, 1921, 1. [ix] “Tulsa Committee Says It Can Raise All Needed For Relief,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 3, 1921, 1. [x] “Local Situation Well in Hand,” Tulsa Daily World, June 7, 1921, 2. The industrial district plan was first formulated by the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange’s own Reconstruction Committee on June 2. “Plan to Move Negroes Into New District,” Tulsa Tribune, June 3, 1921,1. By no later than June 6, the real estate men’s plan had prevailed. [xi] “Niles Blames Lawlessness for Race War,” Tulsa Tribune, June 2, 1921, 4. [xii] “‘Give at Once’ Avery’s Plea to Save City,” Tulsa Tribune, June 5, 1921, 1; “Need Relief Funds,” Tulsa Tribune, June 6, 1921, 1 ($75,000 for temporary relief must be collected before any funds for reconstruction can begin); “City Awakens to Fact That It Must Give,” Tulsa Tribune, June 7, 1921, 2; “More than $12,000 Now in Relief Fund; Must More Needed,” Tulsa Tribune, June 9, 1921, 4. The Board of Public Welfare’s efforts appears constrained to small, front-page ads titled “Tulsa Must Restore” and asking citizens to send money to the “Relief and Restitution” fund. These ran six times in the Tulsa Tribune from June 3 until June 8 and once in the Daily World on June 4. The Board’s efforts could not have been helped by the Tulsa Bar Association and Oklahoma Attorney General Prince Freeling who announced that neither the City of Tulsa nor Tulsa County were liable for race riot damages. “City is Not Liable, Says Legal Board,” Tulsa Tribune, June 8, 1921, 1. [xiii] “Welfare Board Drops Control of Relief Fund,” Tulsa Tribune, June 9, 1921, 1; “All Relief Funds Go to Red Cross,” Tulsa Daily World, June 10, 1921, 7. Chairman Loyal J. Martin appears to have pushed the housing corporation idea as a last-ditch effort to save the rebuilding effort. “Corporation to Re-build Homes, Plan,” Tulsa Tribune, June 8, 1921, 1. [xiv] “City Hall Breaks With C. Of C.,” Tulsa Tribune, June 14, 1921, 1; “Public Welfare Board Resigns,” Tulsa Tribune, June 15, 1921, 1, 11; “New Board on Tour of Burned Area,” Tulsa Tribune, June 15, 1921, 1, 11. [xv] “9 Committees Appointed to Help Negroes,” Tulsa Tribune, June 24, 1921, 10. [xvi] “Hunt Peace in City Hall Row,” Tulsa Tribune, June 17, 1921, 1; “Ouster Order of C. Of C. Rescinded,” Tulsa Daily World, June 18, 1921, 1. [xvii] One man cast aside was Loyal J. Martin. His maximalist claims that the city was responsible for the ruin and restitution had proved a public relations blessing, but he and his point of view became quickly out-of-date. It is possible that he was the only one who truly in favor of rebuilding something. No one else spoke out so directly. Following his resignation, he opted to retire from public life. “From Autobiography of Former Tulsa Mayor Loyal J. Martin,” Ruth Sigler Avery Collection, Special Collections, and Archives, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. [xviii] The masking may have paid dividends. Glen Condon, the former managing editor of the Daily World and current editor of the Vaudeville News in New York, happened to be in town and reported to a Tulsa Chamber of Commerce meeting that “the recent riot had not affected Tulsa with the outside world.” “C. of C. and Commission Meet Today,” Tulsa Tribune, June 17, 1921, 1.

The truth comes at a price.

The Center for Public Secrets exists to shed light on the the hidden, forgotten, and misunderstood stories from Tulsa's past so we can inform the present. We can't do that without the help of the community, and that means you. Make a tax-deductible contribution by becoming a member of CfPS today and be part of the Real Tulsa.