Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 | Juneteenth Today

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An Oklahoma lawyer details the attack by hundreds of whites on the thriving black neighborhood where hundreds died 95 years ago

The ten-page manuscript is typewritten, on yellowed legal paper, and folded in thirds. But the words, an eyewitness account of the May 31, 1921, racial massacre that destroyed what was known as Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street,” are searing.

“I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top,” wrote Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960).

The Oklahoma lawyer, father of famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), was describing the attack by hundreds of whites on the thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood in the booming oil town. “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.”

Franklin writes that he left his law office, locked the door, and descended to the foot of the steps.

“The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top,” he continues. “I paused and waited for an opportune time to escape. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”

Franklin’s harrowing manuscript now resides among the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The previously unknown document was found last year, purchased from a private seller by a group of Tulsans and donated to the museum with the support of the Franklin family.

In the manuscript, Franklin tells of his encounters with an African-American veteran, named Mr. Ross. It begins in 1917, when Franklin meets Ross while recruiting young black men to fight in World War I. It picks up in 1921 with his own eyewitness account of the Tulsa race riots, and ends ten years later with the story of how Mr. Ross’s life has been destroyed by the riots. Two original photographs of Franklin were part of the donation. One depicts him operating with his associates out of a Red Cross tent five days after the riots.

John W. Franklin, a senior program manager with the museum, is the grandson of manuscript’s author and remembers the first time he read the found document.

“I wept. I just wept. It’s so beautifully written and so powerful, and he just takes you there,”  Franklin marvels. “You wonder what happened to the other people. What was the emotional impact of having your community destroyed and having to flee for your lives?”

B.C. Franklin Ardmore law offices
B.C. Franklin and his associates pose before his law offices in Ardmore, Oklahoma, 1910 (NMAAHC, Gift from Tulsa Friends and John W. and Karen R. Franklin)

The younger Franklin says Tulsa has been in denial over the fact that people were cruel enough to bomb the black community from the air, in private planes, and that black people were machine-gunned down in the streets. The issue was economics. Franklin explains that Native Americans and African-Americans became wealthy thanks to the discovery of oil in the early 1900s on what had previously been seen as worthless land.

“That’s what leads to Greenwood being called the Black Wall Street. It had restaurants and furriers and jewelry stores and hotels,” John W. Franklin explains, “and the white mobs looted the homes and businesses before they set fire to the community. For years black women would see white women walking down the street in their jewelry and snatch it off.”

Museum curator Paul Gardullo, who has spent five years along with Franklin collecting artifacts from the riot and the aftermath, says: “It was the frustration of poor whites not knowing what to do with a successful black community, and in coalition with the city government were given permission to do what they did.”

“It’s a scenario that you see happen from place to place around our country . . . from Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, and these are in some ways mass lynchings,” he says

As in other places, the Tulsa race riot started with newspaper reports that a black man had assaulted a white elevator operator. He was arrested, and Franklin says black World War I vets rushed to the courthouse to prevent a lynching.

“Then whites were deputized and handed weapons, the shooting starts and then it gets out of hand,” Franklin says. “It went on for two days until the entire black community is burned down.”

More than 35 blocks were destroyed, along with more than 1,200 homes, and some 300 people died, mostly blacks. The National Guard was called out after the governor declared martial law, and imprisoned all blacks that were not already in jail. More than 6,000 people were held, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, some for as long as eight days.

AUDIO/READ: A Long-Lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian Magazine

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The manuscript, “The Tulsa Race Riot and Three of Its Victims,” by B.C. Franklin was recovered from a storage area in 2015 and donated to the African American History Museum. (NMAAHC, Gift from Tulsa Friends and John W. and Karen R. Franklin)

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20 comments

  1. I agree with the twitter post: the system isn’t broken, it was designed that way. Conclusion: it’s isn’t enough to defund and disband a system-protecting police but to defund and disband the entire system. First the politicians, they really are the biggest problem, not religion – though that would be my number two. Without governments, most of it would fall, including banks and corporations – they’ve been relying on politicians to maintain their stranglehold on the “economy” and inflict their injustices and crimes against the general populace since inception.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The white man claims to be the smartest mammal …
    But he is able to give himself the right to treat men of other colors with stupid cruelty.
    In fact, the white man isn’t more intelligent, he is just more greedy, dishonest, cruel …
    I am white, but I have eyes to see, a heart to love or to suffer, a conscience and a soul and I cry when I read what you have written, it hurts when I see how the white man behaves with Native Americans and Blacks poeple. I am ashamed and I suffer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. They covered the Tulsa massacre on BBC4 radio last night. Apparently Trump had to postpone his first campaign rally (since the lockdown) because his advisors told him he couldn’t hold it in Tulsa on Juneteenth.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you. This was more detailed and enlightening on this important day in history than anything I had read before. It’s a shame I was never taught this in school. We never were.

    I butted heads and went to detention for shouting out in class that General Armstrong Custer was a murderer, not a hero to my teacher.

    I knew then in the late 50’s and early 60’s how corrupt out government is and always has been. I was forever questioning authority of any kind when I was young and still do today. It’s sad that I only first learned about it from a super hero comic book TV series called “The Watchman”. This only proves that any creative venue that teaches truth is a good.

    It is designed that way.

    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too

    • Steve, thank you. This story mentions planes dropping turpentine balls – no mention of this on the news – all of it homicide. So glad you read this post ❤

      Like

      • I agree. I tried sharing some of this on Face Book that horrible rag. The people there were so disappointing, racist. judgmental and living in the past I was overwhelmed by their hate. Hate is like a virus and they are all infecting one another with it.

        It’s dangerous. It was all ages too. Many quite young behaving like angry old white people who are living in fear like cornered rats and striking out against the overwhelming numbers against them.

        They are out numbered this time. I lived all through this in the 60’s. That war back then never really stopped and I’m so glad to see so many young people picking up the torch we lit all those years ago and burning it so brightly today.

        As Jim Morrison once said, “They have the guns but we have the numbers, going to win yeah we are taking over! Come on!”.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Steve, I thank you for trying. That is all we can do, share and hope they will understand. History is a real problem and I have blogged about my goal to share new versions of historical events as in “You are not supposed to know” – which makes some people upset or shocked. I love that quote by Morrison!

          Like

          • Yes it stirs my blood which in part is Native American as my great great grandmother was a Black Foot. It has always had me in trouble since my grade school teacher tried to teach the class that General Armstrong Custer was an American hero killed by savages. I corrected him in class and was sent to detention.

            My grandmother had taught me well about him and more. She had black hair and piecing eyes. She was quite the rebel and attended many of a protest against the Vietnam war and for the protection of the environment during the 60’s. She always told me to question authority, religions and our governments. Never to trust them and make my own path.

            Every year I watch “Little Big Man”. A movie that should be shown in High Schools as a history lesson. It taught me a new meaning for the word,”Human Being” as I strive to be one. The Earth, Universe and all that lives and breathes in it we are all deeply connected to but so many separate themselves from it which causes all the problems we have on this planet. All we have to do is decide to connect with nature and the universe and we will heel and prosper.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hi Steve, my question is how do people stuck in concentration camps they call “cities” meaningfully connect with nature? Visiting parks or walking through a botanical garden isn’t going to do it. There’s no depth to that because you’re not putting your life in the hands of nature. When one decides to eschew “Earthian” technology and trust in nature alone then it becomes real. I was raised on a homestead on the north of Canada (Alberta) and due to the harshness of that environment I grew up thinking of “nature” as my enemy. We were always at risk – from harsh weather that changed from one moment to the next; from hungry wildlife whose lands we had usurped; from diseases that could maim or kill because medical help was often too far and too late. There were mosquitoes and black flies or deer flies, droughts, floods, brush or wild fires, blizzards to get lost in, early frosts and swarms of insects that ate crops… We did not know or realize we were the enemy, pushing in a new way that nature was not prepared to accept or put up with. So it turned to a competition instead of cooperation. That’s been the story of man as he pushed his civilization upon nature world wide. The few millions who had escaped that destructive pattern were decimated by European imperial murderers and nature rapists.
              We can say whatever we want about these current times but I think we’ve surpassed our limits to growth and “civilized” man is on the way out. There exists no viable consensus on how to bring man’s technocracy to coexist in symbiosis with nature which seems to indicate that it isn’t even possible. Technology is used to subdue, not to enhance, nature.
              Before any meaningful healing can take place man’s entire civilization has to be destroyed, not just allowed to collapse, but deliberately and with full intent, brought down until nothing remains. Afterwards, what remains of earth man will have the opportunity to become fully human by choosing to interact humanely with all other surviving lifeforms.

              Liked by 1 person

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