The Tulsa race riot is a particularly ignominious blot on American history.
Over an 18-hour period on May 31-June 1, 1921, a race-fuel siege destroyed the wealthiest African-American community in the United States, wiping out 35 blocks of a residential and business community known as the “Black Wall Street,” and leaving 300 known dead and 10,000 homeless.
Yet, it’s largely an unknown event, ignored by Oklahoma history books until quite recently, and unknown by many individuals both black and white.
Otis Clark, the last known survivor of the Tulsa race riot, died this week in Seattle at the age of 109.
He told a Tulsa television station in 1999 that he remembered being shot at while attempting to secure a car to help riot victims.
Clark’s family’s home was burned to the ground in the conflagration, and he believed his stepfather died in the riot because he was never seen again.
Shortly after the melee, Clark left Tulsa on a train bound for California.
He wound up getting married and finding employment in Hollywood as a butler, working for such film luminaries as Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and Joan Crawford. Clark’s wife lived at the Crawford residence working as the cook for the actress.
Clark later became a traveling evangelist, working his way across the United States on behalf of the Church of Christ.
That Otis Clark made it out to California at all is a minor miracle, given what happened in his hometown the late spring of 1921.
The area devastated by the Tulsa riot was the segregated neighborhood of Greenwood. It had been founded by O.W. Gurley, the son of two former slaves who moved to Tulsa in July 1906 and bought 40 acres to be sold exclusively to blacks.
This area was a completely black-owned and black-operated community. It housed many migrants fleeing the oppression in the Mississippi Delta and those in search of a better life despite the segregation mandates of the Jim Crow era that extended across much of the nation.
The riot left Greenwood devastated. The commercial section of the community was destroyed, including 191 businesses, several churches and the only hospital in the district. The Red Cross reported that 1,256 houses were burned and another 215 were looted but not burned.
Official calculations put the death total at fewer than 40, but Red Cross estimates put the figure at 300.
After many decades of ignoring the racial rampage, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act” in June 2001, 80 years after the event. It provided for the following:
- More than 300 college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents;
- The creation of a memorial to those who died in the riot, which was dedicated on Oct. 27, 2010; and
- Efforts to boost economic development in Greenwood.
A 2008 documentary, Before They Die, chronicles the Tulsa race riot and the survivors’ quest for justice.
(Above: Destruction wrought during the 1921 Tulsa race riot.)