The Plot to Kill "Diamond Dick Rowland" and the Tulsa Race Massacre - Part Three

By Randy Hopkins–

A scene from the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 courtesy of the Tulsa World


Part 3 - War comes to Tulsa

James Hirsch, writing in Riot and Remembrance, reports that by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, May 31, 1921, Tulsa police officials “feared the explosive combination of forces” resulting from the news of Diamond Dick Rowland’s arrest.[i] If so, the police did a good job of concealing their fears. Besides allowing the off-duty police to stay in bed, they neglected to summon a force that could have easily prevented trouble - the Tulsa contingent of the state’s national guard which that very day was preparing for summer encampment. In his after-action report, Byron Kirkpatrick, later Tulsa County Attorney, wrote that he was “well acquainted with both Tulsa police and county officials,” who failed to say anything about mobilizing the guard at a time when “we could have mobilized a sufficient force to have handled the situation.”[ii] Brigadier General Barrett claimed that the presence of a mere six uniformed guards would have prevented the riot.[iii] Certainly, six uniformed guardsmen outside the courthouse, bayonets gleaming, would have dampened everyone’s ardor. Without the possibility of a show, the audience would have little reason to stay, and the disastrous chain reaction less likely to ensue. It was not the only time Tulsa city authorities catastrophically slow-played the national guard.

When the police did venture out that night, they may as well have been blindfolded. Gustafson claimed that he and Patton drove to the county courthouse around 7:30 p.m. and found a “not very large” crowd.[iv] He offered the first of a series of excuses that the audience was not a mob, but merely curious and not ill-spirited. This was not a good sign, as Gustafson well knew. Nine months earlier another curious crowd was treated to a devil’s passion play near Red Fork. Some attendees stripped Roy Belton’s lynched corpse bare for souvenirs. Now, an encore appeared in the offing. Adjutant General Barrett described it as the hope for a “Roman Holiday.”[v] Gustafson and Patton left those who had assembled to their anticipations, returning to the station “without stopping.”[vi] At least in its initial stages, the growing audience might have been viewed as placing pressure on McCullough to run from the courthouse with his prisoner in tow.

James Patton, Chief Detective of the Tulsa Police Department courtesy of the Tulsa Tribune


In his 1922 deposition, Gustafson explained that about 8 p.m. a “Dr. Cook called me on the phone and told me he had had a report that they were going to try to take the nigger out of the county jail at eight-thirty.” Gustafson ordered Patton to call McCullough and remind him “if he needed any help to let us know.”[vii] The off-duty police remained at home.

Possibly in response to Cook’s call, Gustafson decided to retest the waters, testifying that “about 8 o’clock” or “sometime after eight o’clock,” he and Patton returned to find the still peaceable assembly had grown to two to three hundred. Remaining “just a few minutes,” they again returned to the station.[viii] Their passivity was fatal and again Gustafson knew the risks. Nine months earlier, he stood “a few feet” from one masked Belton killer when he ordered the police to stand down for fear, he said, of causing harm to innocent men, women, and children. The growing crowd also triggered a risk absent in Belton - the arousal of an armed constituency opposing mob rule and “the actions of Judge Lynch.”[ix] By placidly driving away, Gustafson and Patton condemned Greenwood without lifting a finger.

Dr. Cook’s warning was well-given. Around 8:20 p.m., three men, apparently unarmed, entered the County courthouse for their famous confrontation with McCullough and his shotgun-wielding sidekick Ira Short. McCullough testified in 1922 that he recognized one of them.[x] More clues are provided by state District judge Redmond S. Cole. Assuming that a federal investigation would ensue, Cole reported to former associates in the U. S. Justice Department that:

"Beyond peradventure of a doubt the same group of rough necks and hoodlums who mobbed Belton last September planned this outrage. As nearly as I can get it some 15 or 20 of them went to the Court house; it was known throughout town what they expected to do." [xi]

Cole also named a name:

"There is a party in Tulsa known among the underworld as Yellow Hammer who is supposed to have been the leader in the Belton mob and who was whitewashed by the Belton grand jury. It is common talk around Tulsa that he was one of the ring leaders in this bunch; his correct name is Cranfield."

Yellow Hammer Cranfield was listed in the attorney general’s file as a ringleader in Belton’s execution, along with his older brother William. It was William Cranfield who assured the Tulsa assistant county attorney that “the police had agreed them to help them lynch this boy (Belton) and that they had some good citizens in addition to that.” Of the hundreds that Adkison and Gustafson specially commissioned, only two names have survived. One is Cranfield.[xii]

Dick Rowland, in the center holding the ball, courtesy of Booker T. Washington High School


The three-man invasion was a last, forlorn throw of the dice to get McCullough to run or cave under pressure. The police had failed to roust Rowland; the street gang took its turn, such as it was. Their meek performance notwithstanding, the closing act of the plot to kill Dick Rowland was the first overt act of the Tulsa Race Massacre.[xiii] Rumors flew. The crowd grew. After the three were shown the door, they rejoined their allies outside and engaged in a shouting match with McCullough, who had followed them. Hooting and hollering spread to the no longer just-curious assembly.[xiv]

None of this phased the police. Not until 9 p.m., a full hour after Dr. Cook called, did Gustafson, accompanied by captain George Blaine and detective Doc Mondier, venture back to the courthouse, still just four blocks away.[xv] The occasion for this visit was the blockbuster news that armed men from Greenwood were mobilizing and even driving past the police station. Gustafson “found a great crowd of spectators surrounding the courthouse, including women, men and children.” Blaine quantified this as two thousand people “packing the street.” Joining the mix now were “many armed negroes on foot and in cars,” said by Blaine to be in an “ugly mood.” The foul temper was shared by the whites, as “each (negro) car was followed by 200 or more whites who screamed and shook their fists.”[xvi]