By Fraser Kastner –
In September of 1921, a group of influential Tulsans formed the Tulsa Association of Pioneers to commemorate the founders of their city. Eventually, they installed a monument in Owen Park which stands to this day, a reminder of how they hoped to be remembered. A century later Tulsa’s true history has been obscured by the passage of time and old-boys-club omerta. The recent discovery of mass graves in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery and the newly-reaffirmed status of Eastern Oklahoma as tribal land invites us to take a deeper look at this city’s history. What is the true history of Tulsa? Who gets to tell it? And what did the PIoneers’ and their monument really stand for? An 8-foot slab of stone juts out of a small hill at the intersection of Edison Street and Maybelle Avenue, west of Downtown Tulsa. It’s easy to miss; it shares a parking lot with Owen Park, DiscoveryLab, and a few other local landmarks. The inscription commemorates a gathering of Tulsa’s “Old Timers,” those who had settled in the area in the first few years after the land rush. It reads, “This stone marks the ground where ‘Old Timers’ who had lived in Tulsa and vicinity over thirty years, met on Sept. 21, 1921, at a Barbeque given by Dr. Sam G. and Dr. Jim Kennedy. They all visited with old friends, reminisced, and organized the ‘Tulsa Association of Pioneers’ to Commemorate and Perpetuate the memory of those ‘Sturdy Pioneers’ who, by their sacrifice (sic) and effort helped to build a great Empire.” The inscription was composed by James Monroe Hall, himself an Old Timer who came to the region in 1882.
Attached to the upright stone are three horizontal additions, the largest of which contains a list of fifty families descended from those early settlers. The horizontal slabs were added sometime after the memorial was moved to its current location in 1950. This list reflects membership between 1935 and 1964. Many of the names are instantly recognizable to those familiar with Tulsa. The Kennedy, Vandever, and Thompson families lend their names to Tulsa’s most distinguished skyscrapers. Archer, Clinton, Bynum, Avery, Perryman, and Owens, are also recognizable. The Tulsa Association of Pioneers monument gives a distinctly rosy impression of those figures. It harkens back to Manifest Destiny, to the steadfast pioneer of American myth who tamed the unchurched prairie with grit, gun, and God. In truth, the Tulsa Pioneer Association was largely composed of Tulsa’s elites, a class which rose to prominence through the oil business and associated commercial apparatus and retained power through vigilante violence, yellow journalism, and all the associated dirty tricks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The monument bears the names of segregationists, war profiteers, land thieves, and at least two Klansmen. While not every name on the monument is directly connected to the violence of that era, it is likely that they knew about the activities of their peers and remained silent.
The city fathers took their secrets to the grave, and the silence stood for decades. Decades later we can begin to see a clearer image of Tulsa’s founders against the backdrop of mass graves near Greenwood and Tulsa’s continued occupancy of Native land. For a few people in Tulsa, 1921 was a good year. The region’s oil reserves were a source of massive wealth for a few, partially facilitated by the Great War. Dr. Samuel Kennedy was one such person. Kennedy’s name was on the city’s official charter, along with fellow “old-timers” J.M. Hall, P.L. Price, Tate Brady, L.M. Poe, G.W. Mowbray, B.E. Lynch, Captain Seaman, and Colonel Calkins. Kennedy retired from medicine in 1907 to manage his business interests, which had become considerable. He owned a large tract of property that covered much of what is now northwest Tulsa. A White man, Kennedy had married into the Osage tribe and much of his land was in Osage territory. He was also connected to the development of oil fields and served as an officer and board member at the first National Bank of Tulsa along with many others who would go on to make up the Tulsa Association of Pioneers. 1921would have seemed like a good time for Dr. Kennedy to throw a party. Just two years earlier he had completed work on his Kennedy Building, which a contemporary adulantly described as “the largest and finest office building in the state.” A few years later the Kennedy Manson would be complete at a cost somewhere around $75,000, about a million dollars today. Both buildings are still standing. He held office in the Osage nation, at one time advocating for the extension of their mineral rights, a move which likely would have enriched himself and other Whites who were invested in Osage oil reserves. Kennedy was well-liked and well-thought-of. His friend J. M. Hall wrote of him that he “practiced medicine here so long he probably knows more of the old pioneers than anyone in Tulsa. He can call the father and mother by their given names and all the children as he welcomed many of them into this world.” And so when Dr. Kennedy and his brother Jim threw a barbeque on his ranch, a great many people turned out. The party was advertised in the news and appeared on the front page of the next day’s Sunday Tulsa Daily World, which chronicled the meal: “Great was the joy of the old-timers in the occasion and tears sparkled as they clasped hands which they had not for long grasped in friendly salutation. The entertainment took place on the lawn of the Kennedy home, where on a long table was spread a veritable feast of choice barbecued meat, with the accompaniment of bread and butter, eggs, pickles, potato chips, lemonade, coffee, and watermelon. There was over 300 present, of whom about 25 were relatives or younger people.” J.M. Hall, who would later write the inscription on the Tulsa Association of Pioneers monument, was one of those 300 who had joined the festivities. He was personally familiar with many of those present, and the Tulsa Daily World wrote that he “led the informal raiding of the storehouse of memory.” His speech is preserved in the Sunday world praising city leaders for working to bring rail lines through Tulsa. “You laid the foundation for which has made Tulsa what it is today,” he told the crowd. That night they organized the Tulsa Association of Pioneers, so that future generations in the Magic City would remember the great deeds that had built it. Tulsa, the Magic City, was something less than the land of Oz in 1921, even if oil and the money that followed might have made it seem that way for some. In reality, Tulsa’s resources were a source of immense wealth for the city’s elites, who were deeply jealous of their treasure. The war, or more specifically war propaganda carried by many Oklahoma newspapers, had radicalized many. This culminated in a rash of vigilante violence that targeted labor organizers, Blacks, immigrants, and anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to the flag. Tulsa’s elites stood to make a fortune in the oil market created by the war and encouraged this process of radicalization. In some cases, this was done directly. This was the case with Tate Brady, who was a member of a Klan cell calling itself the Knights of Liberty. Brady was present for at least one act of vigilante violence against IWW members when 17 members of the party were tarred and feathered with the aid of police in a 1917 event that came to be known as the Tulsa Outrage. Brady also hosted the Association’s second meeting in 1923 at Arlington, his Confederate-inspired mansion. Other names on the Tulsa Association of Pioneers monument were connected to known acts of vigilante violence. Sheriff Willard McCullough is believed to have been a Klansman and supervised the organization of the Tulsa Law Enforcement Club in December of 1921. The Club conducted vigilante raids on alcohol and narcotics dens, mainly focussing on Greenwood and Black Tulsans.
Another member of the Association of Pioneers, Lilah D. Linsey, served as Treasurer of the Tulsa Council of Defense. The Tulsa Council of Defense was responsible for identifying and targeting insufficiently patriotic elements during World War I, helping establish the acceptance of vigilantism in Tulsa. A Tulsa World article about the Knights of Liberty from 1921 says that “it was generally rumored that they were prominent businessmen who decided to administer their own brand of punishment in times of emergency.” It is likely that Tate Brady was not the only member of the Pioneers’ Association to have taken part in the Knights’ activities, but we may never know for sure. It is certain, however, that other Pioneers Association members were complicit in vigilante violence and at least attempted to profit by it. After the Tulsa Race Massacre, the Greenwood area was placed within Tulsa’s fire district. This meant that Greenwood was placed under a new building code which made it much more difficult for displaced Black Tulsans to rebuild. The Chamber of Commerce established the Real Estate exchange to determine the value of stolen and destroyed property in the Greenwood neighborhood. The plan was to convert the area to an industrial sector, which newspaper reports claim would more than triple the value of the land. Black Tulsans would be further segregated onto “higher and more sanitary ground to the northeast,” separated from the industrial area that had replaced their neighborhood only by a “string of small parks.” Those who had lost property were advised by the exchange not to seek legal council, promising that “competent legal advice will be furnished free of charge.” The plan was abandoned because no one bothered to actually secure land for the displaced Blacks. The Chamber of Commerce also participated in the internment of Black Tulsans. During and after the Massacre, roughly half of Black Tulsans were rounded up by law enforcement and National Guard Troops and placed in internment camps. Conditions in these camps were bad, with one eye-witness account describing the sick and wounded being left untreated for hours. Black Tulsans who were not in the camps were forced to wear or carry a green “Police Protection” card which listed their name, where they worked, where they lived, and other information. The Chamber of Commerce and City Commission paid for these cards. The Chamber also helped organize the Business Men’s Protective League, a group that guarded the roads into and out of the city to prevent a rumored Black invasion. Merrit J. Glass was the president of the Real Estate exchange which hoped to profit by further segregating Tulsa. Even after it became clear that the dispossessed Blacks would have nowhere to go, Glass argued that Greenwood should still be converted to industrial use. Tate Brady was the vice-chairman of the Reconstruction Committee which picked out Lansing Avenue as the new Black business distinct. Dr. Sam Kennedy was a member of the Chamber of Commerce which facilitated the entire affair. The actions of these men and the groups that represent them show a clear preference for racism and segregation while also demonstrating tolerance for violence and lawlessness. All three of these men’s names are on the Tulsa Association of Pioneers monument, and in many cases, they shared a fair number of other social and business connections to other members of that club. While some profited by the violence and chaos, others abetted it from the pulpit. Charles William Kerr, the pastor of Tulsa’s First Presbyterian Church and eventual TAPS member, blamed Black Tulsans after the Race Massacre in a sermon mere days after Greenwood had been attacked. Successful Blacks, he argued, couldn’t expect to be tolerated. Although he had tried to dissuade the lynch mob who had come for Dick Rowland and opened his church basement to refugees, his sympathy for Black people reached its limit when it threatened white supremacy. The eastern edge of Dr. Sam Kennedy’s former farm is roughly half a mile from North Detroit Ave, commonly held to be the westernmost frontier of Black Tulsa. If Dr. Kennedy had been on his property the day of the massacre he might have seen the fires rising from the burning Greenwood. He would have smelled the smoke and accelerants used by the White mobs to destroy the most prosperous Black neighborhood in America. He would have heard the hateful shouting of the destroyers and the cries of the victims. He would have known what kind of town he had helped build. Three months later, while many Black Tulsans were preparing to spend the winter in tent cities, Kennedy threw his “Old Timers” barbeque on his farm. Although the TAPS Monument claims that the picnic on Kennedy’s farm took place on the 21st of September, Tulsa Daily World Coverage places the event a few days earlier. In truth, the 21st was the day of a gathering of the Sons of Confederate Veterans held at the Brady Hotel. It made sense: Brady himself was a member of the Sons. Speakers such as Sen. Luther Harrison of Holdenville paid tribute to Confederate idols, including Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. Harrison’s speech contained many tenuous claims, including that the first shots of the civil war were fired by John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, rather than at Fort Sumter, and that Rhode Island had been the first state to secede in 1786. The noble Southern struggle came to an end, he said, because they had fought until they “hadn’t a round of ammunition for their guns, neither had they a day’s rations in their knapsacks.”
This was not the first time the SOCV had visited Tulsa, they hosted their twenty-eighth reunion in Tulsa just a few years earlier in 1918, an event commemorated by a special souvenir edition of the Tulsa Daily World which featured Klan Founder Nathan Bedford Forrest alongside Woodrow Wilson, General Pershing, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis and a special two-page spread advertising the city of Tulsa to the visiting Sons. 1921’s gathering was more low-key, although still a multi-day affair. Oklahoma’s Governor, James Robertson, sent a telegram regretting that he could not attend. While Senator Holdenville valorized the Klan’s founder at the Brady Hotel, the Klans presence was being increasingly felt in the area. By 1921 the Ku Klux Klan had a membership of roughly two thousand in the Tulsa area. In January of that year, members of Tulsa’s Joe Carson American Legion Post were openly speculating about reforming the Knights of Liberty in response to a possible visit to Tulsa from National Nonpartisan League founder Arthur C. Townley. The same day the Sons of Confederate Veterans met in Tulsa, the Tulsa Daily World documented 150 Klansmen riding through Shawnee and drawing weapons on locals who followed them. The very next page featured an editorial by Tulsan J. C. Anderson endorsing the Klan as “interested in the welfare of the community and of all persons worthy of consideration.” In the same column, an anonymous Klansman warns their fellow Tulsans, “I will say this: DO RIGHT, LIVE RIGHT, BE RIGHT and nothing will molest you. But we all know that the guilty of a crime must suffer.” A column by Nora Cole Skinner on the same page downplays the seriousness of the Tulsa Race Massacre. In her column, Skinner blames the presence of Black people in Tulsa for the violence and echoing Confederate grievances: “Why should ... northern cities upbraid Tulsa?” she asks. “They also have had race riots, and these clashes are apt to happen in any city where there are large negro populations.” Tulsans took cues from their leaders about what was acceptable.
As a result, the city appears to have been very open to racist ideologies and the associated violence. Although this cannot be generalized to everyone who lived in the city at this time, the lexicon of acceptable ideas skewed toward the extreme right-wing. Counterfactual historical narratives, like those espoused by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were embraced and spread in local media. White supremacy was the order of the day.
History is written by the victors, and the history of Tulsa is no exception. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were rife with conflict, and if anyone can be said to have come out on top it would be the families listed on the TAPS monument. The Tulsa Association of Pioneers sought to establish a historical narrative for the city that placed white settlers, missionaries, and industrialists at the center and overlooked or outright denigrated Native Americans, Blacks, labor activists, and other groups important to her history while ignoring the violence, racism, and structural inequality that facilitated the “Pioneers’” success. In 1933 James Hall wrote a history of Tulsa for the Association of Pioneers. In many ways, he was the perfect man for the job. Hall had come to the region early in the city’s history and knew many of the city’s most powerful people on a personal basis as customers at his general store. His book, “The Beginning of Tulsa,” covers the years from 1882 to 1900 and contains many wild tales from the tenuous and often violent frontier days. Men became rich and influential overnight. Others were gunned down in the streets or died deaths of despair out on the lonely prairie. Oil was struck, buildings were constructed, and the M.K. and T. line brought ever more commerce and fortune. Behind it all were benevolent personalities represented by the Association of Pioneers: those captains of industry for who had transformed a little trading post on Arkansas into the Magic City within a lifetime through grit, guile, and perseverance. As with the monument, something more complicated is buried in the narrative. Hall admits that “perhaps too much has been written about some things and some men, and not enough about others. If this is true, it's because the author is more familiar with the persons and events mentioned.” Indeed, Hall’s narrative centers almost entirely on the activities of white settlers who came to the area during the Land Run in the late nineteenth century. Hall credits his own brother as the “Founder of Tulsa,” because he built the first store building and had some influence over the location of the town. H.C. Hall, the author’s brother, suggested to a railroad engineer in 1882 that a sidetrack for a new town be added in Creek territory, rather than Cherokee because Creek laws were more permissive about allowing White settlers to do business. While it is probably true that Hall was one of the first white settlers to begin doing business in the Tulsa area, the area had been populated for years by Native American tribes. In truth, Tulsa was founded in 1836 by Creeks who had been expelled from their homelands by the Indian Removal Act when Chief Archee Yahola selected a prominent oak along the Arkansas River as a meeting place for their council. Hall’s text generally glosses over the presence of Native Americans in the region, except when they represent an obstacle to “progress,” a nebulous concept that stands in for the designs of White settlers. With few exceptions, Native Americans are depicted as irresponsible and unintelligent, and the positive contributions of Native American personalities are dwarfed by those of relatively obscure white settlers and industrialists. In reality, Native Americans were frequently taken advantage of by white settlers. Making matters worse, settlers often abetted each others’ wrongdoing. Hall relates that his brother, the supposed founder of Tulsa, arranged with some Native American families to enclose a pasture covering what is now East Tulsa and Broken Arrow. One third was cultivated as a farm, with the remaining acreage used as pasture. Traveling cattlemen would pay to pasture their cows, with profits being shared between the Native American families and Hall.
Ultimately this arrangement worked against the families who owned the land. Hall writes that “This proved a paying investment for the Tulsans for several years. Later the cattlemen usually had a number of head that were not fat in the fall. They would sell these to the Indians, charging high prices, deducting the amount due for pasturage, and taking notes for the balance. The Indians often lost not only the pasture money but also were unable to pay the additional obligations and had to turn back the cattle.” In other instances, the text takes a patronizing view of Native Americans. Hall assures the reader that “more than one Indian became a good farmer during this time,” adding that “one little Cherokee who clerked in the J.M. Hall store is an example.” The Hall brothers enclosed 300 acres and promised to turn it over to him once they had made their money back, which Hall is happy to relate he did in only a few years. African Americans are treated even more unfairly in the text than Native Americans. Portrayals of Black people in Hall’s text range from dangerous criminals who swiftly meet justice to the butt of jokes and mishaps. In one story, a group of supposed Black robbers are nearly lynched in Vinita only to be tried and hanged shortly thereafter in Witchita. In another Tulsa’s first barber, a half-Black man by the name of Sorrell is a noted drunk who flees town after breaking into a whisky warehouse and putting his hand on the face of a drowned cowboy whose body was being kept there. As Hall puts it, “There was fun as well as tragedy and mystery in the early days.” Violence against Black people was accepted as a matter of course. Hall reminisces about Old Timer Bob Childers, a mixed-blood Creek who had once served as a judge in Coweta. During his tenure as a judge, a jury returned an innocent verdict against a Black man charged with horse theft. Childers ordered the man punished anyway, saying that “‘If that negro didn’t steal that horse I know one he did steal and we will whip him anyway.” Hall goes on to relate that Childers was a fine poker player and had large hands; as if the abuse of power were merely a colorful occurrence in the life of a lovable character. Later Hall remembers settler Joe Truitman, noting his German heritage and trade as a coffin maker before revealing that Truitman allegedly shot and killed a Black woman over a dispute concerning a clothesline. Hall assures the reader that the deceased Truitman could not have been guilty “he was so cross-eyed.” In a story about Bass Reeves, the famed Black U.S. Marshall allegedly disarmed a man in Hall’s store by ordering him to turn his weapons over to the writer, since a White man wouldn’t want to give his weapons over to a Black lawman. This is the only positive portrayal of an African American in the text, and Hall manages to lionize himself by association with Reeves.
The underlying attitude of the text, and of the Tulsa Association of Pioneers, is that the land belonged to White settlers by right and that all others were interlopers. Hall’s praise toward
Native Americans is restricted to those who integrated into White society, and sometimes that wasn’t even enough. The few Natives who are spoken of warmly, such as Chief Pleasant Porter and A. Lombard, are only mentioned briefly. Hall It is clear that if Hall knew these men at all he did not know them as well as he knew many of his White peers, pointing to the tacit segregation of the two groups. In the introduction to this book, Hall writes that a committee was appointed by the Pioneer Association “to confer with the author as to what disposition to make of the story.” It seems fair to conclude that the resulting text reflects the beliefs and attitudes of the membership of the Tulsa Association of Pioneers. Members of the Tulsa Association of Pioneers helped establish the Tulsa Public School system, and J.M. Hall even served as the president of the first school board when Tulsa was incorporated. Schoolteachers were hand-picked by the school board, a majority of whom were Association of Pioneers members. The Tulsa Association of Pioneers monument was moved to its current location in 1950. A few dozen feet away stands the Indian Memorial, commemorating the nearby spot where the Cherokee, Creek, and Osage Tribes shared a common boundary. The Pioneers saw fit to place their monument slightly uphill from the Indian Monument as if to assure that true history would always stand in the shadow of the Pioneers’ White settler narrative. This outlook is best described in Hall’s book when he’s praising Dr. Kennedy and the rest. “[Kennedy], with the other pioneers, had the courage to put their hard-earned money into buildings upon the land that they didn’t possess until the townsite act was passed.”
The beliefs and attitudes held by these people would continue to shape the fabric of the city in the next century. Tulsa is still a largely segregated city, North Tulsa is still over-policed, and White men who made their fortunes on Native land continue to dominate local politics. Life expectancy in North Tulsa is shorter than in South Tulsa. The Race Massacre disappeared from local discourse, and didn’t appear in curricula for nearly a century. Inequality is so pervasive within the fabric of Tulsa that it appears to be normal and goes unquestioned by many, a legacy more resilient than any column of stone. Right now a local group calling itself the People of Tulsa is moving to have the monument removed. Their petition has 326 signatures as of writing. One of those signatures belongs to Dan Hahn, Middle Grades Principal of Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences. Dan also teaches a class on the Race Massacre at TSAS, which shares Owen Park with the Monument. He sees the TAPS Monument as part of a dark legacy which Tulsa still needs to reckon with. “We'd like to put them on trial, but they're not here anymore. We're the ones left and we're the ones that are conducting our existence in the shadow of some of these things which they left,” says Hahn. “I think we have a historical, a civic, and a moral duty to right those wrongs. And I think removing monuments is a small but powerful way to honor the history while still advocating for the descendants of people who were historically disenfranchised."
The Pioneers’ monument is not commonly known or visited. The Tulsa Association of Pioneers itself no longer exists. Instead, the beliefs and ideals of that group were carried on in Tulsa’s school system, local politics, and business world. The smug White-supremacy that interned Blacks for their supposed protection while White mobs burned their homes is still present in the city, especially in the over-policed, mostly Black north side. Economic inequality fostered by anti-labor violence continues to affect the city, manifesting in the forms of increased poverty rates, underfunded public schools, shoddy public transportation, and an over-reliance on private philanthropy to fill gaps in social services. The fictions spun by the founders of Tulsa continue to shape the character of the city. Today, as archaeologists unearth mass graves underneath the city and more information comes to light regarding the unlawful acquisition of Native assets by White settlers, we are confronted with the reality of our city’s beginning. Tulsans must decide between beautiful lies and the ugly truth. By facing our city’s legacy for what it is, we can better understand and address the problems that affect us today. The “Pioneers,” if they truly loved the city they built, would surely want it that way.