Into the Maelstrom: (TAS Pt. 4)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 4: Into the Maelstrom

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

To recap the events of the Tulsa Holocaust as they stood at the end of Part 3 in this series:

It’s May 31, 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dick Rowland, a 19 year old black shoeshine boy, is in police custody at the Tulsa Courthouse jail as the result of vague charges related to some sort of encounter in an elevator with a 17 year old white female elevator operator. Given the frequency in recent times across the US and in Oklahoma of incidents of lynching of negroes by white mobs, especially if the accusation has to do with a sexual encounter of ANY kind with a white female, the local black community called Greenwood in north Tulsa is deeply concerned about the young man’s safety. Rumors of plans for a lynching among white Tulsans have raced across “white Tulsa” and led to a large white crowd gathering for several hours in front of the Tulsa County Courthouse (shown here in 1941):

courthouse 1941

According to records retrieved by later researchers…

By sunset — which came at 7:34 p.m. that evening — observers estimated that the crowd had grown into the hundreds. Not long afterwards, cries of “Let us have the nigger” could be heard echoing off of the walls of the massive stone courthouse. [SOURCE: unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this entry are from this source.].

Around 9:00 PM, a contingent of about 25 armed blacks from Greenwood show up at the courthouse concerned that the police will be unable to protect Rowland from growing pressure by the crowd.

Their purpose, they announced to the no doubt stunned authorities, was to offer their services toward the defense of the jail — an offer that was immediately declined. Assured that Dick Rowland was safe, the men then returned to their automobiles, and drove back to Greenwood.

… The visit of the African American veterans had an electrifying effect, however, on the white mob, now estimated to be more than one thousand strong. Denied Rowland by Sheriff McCullough, it had been clear for some time that this was not to be an uncomplicated repetition of the Belton affair. The visit of the black veterans had not at all been foreseen. Shocked, and then outraged, some members of the mob began to go home to fetch their guns.

As we left off the story last time, Scott Ellsworth, an official chronicler of the events (part of a blue-ribbon team of researchers tasked in the 1990s with “re-constructing” the events of that time from documentation, photos, old interviews with eye-witnesses, and much more) put it succinctly:

With each passing minute, Tulsa was a city that was quickly spinning out of control.

Indeed, it was about to enter a maelstrom. A fiery maelstrom.


So…to continue the story:

By 9:30 p.m., the white mob outside the courthouse had swollen to nearly two- thousand persons. They blocked the sidewalks as well as the streets, and had spilled over onto the front lawns of nearby homes. There were women as well as men, youngsters as well as adults, curiosity seekers as well as would-be lynchers.

Police Chief John A. Gustafson later claimed that he tried to talk the lynch mob into dispersing. However, at no time that afternoon or evening did he order a substantial number of Tulsa policemen to appear, fully armed, at the courthouse. Gustafson, in his defense, would later claim that because there was a regular shift change that very day, that only thirty-two officers were available for duty at eight o’clock on the evening of May 31. As subsequent testimony — as recorded in handwritten notes to a post-riot investigation — later revealed, there were apparently only “5 policemen on duty between courthouse & Brady hotel notwithstanding lynching imminent.” Moreover, by 10:00 p.m., when the drama at the courthouse was approaching its climax, Gustafson was no longer at the scene, but had returned to his office at police headquarters. [SOURCE: unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this entry are from this source.]

Two thousand people gathered in front of the courthouse late at night, some or many of them chanting that they wanted to put to death a 19 year old boy? And the Chief exits the scene?? (The county sheriff, Willard McCullough, was meanwhile inside with his men on the roof, guarding Rowland.)

In the city’s African American neighborhoods, meanwhile, tension continued to mount over the increasingly ugly situation down at the courthouse. Alerted to the potentially dangerous conditions, both school and church groups broke up their evening activities early, while parents and grandparents tried to reassure themselves that the trouble would quickly blow over. Down in Deep Greenwood, a large crowd of black men and women still kept their vigil outside of the offices of the Tulsa Star, awaiting word on the latest developments downtown.

…In the midst of all of this activity, rumors began to circulate, particularly with regards to what might or might not be happening down at the courthouse. Possibly spurred on by a false report that whites were storming the courthouse, moments after 10:00 p.m., a second contingent of armed African American men, perhaps seventy-five in number this time, decided to make a second visit to the Courthouse. Leaving Greenwood by automobile, they got out of their cars near Sixth and Main and marched, single file, to the courthouse steps. Again, they offered their services to the authorities to help protect Dick Rowland. Once again, their offer was refused.

It would seem that a crowd of 2000 milling about in front of the courthouse at 10 PM at night, even if they weren’t “storming” the courthouse, might seem pretty threatening…

Then it happened. As the black men were leaving the courthouse for the second time, a white man approached a tall African American World War I veteran who was carrying an army-issue revolver. “Nigger”, the white man said, “What are you doing with that pistol?” “I’m going to use it if I need to,” replied the black veteran. “No, you give it to me.” Like hell I will.” The white man tried to take the gun away from the veteran, and a shot rang out.America’s worst race riot had begun.

Skipping forward for a moment… The smoke had barely settled on a completely destroyed community across the tracks not far from this scene at the courthouse, when a grand jury was convened—about a month after the event—to decide “what had caused” the holocaust. They concluded that the total responsibility for the entire affair lay with the negro men who had come to the courthouse armed. The armed white men who were filling the streets in front of the courthouse because they wanted to lynch a 19 year old young man incarcerated there had nothing to do with it. The armed white men who stormed the streets of Greenwood and torched hundreds upon hundreds of buildings occupied by and owned by totally innocent bystanders bore no responsibility. The armed white men who gunned down totally innocent bystanders on the streets of downtown Tulsa, and later in the homes and streets of Greenwood, bore no responsibility. No, it was “those negroes” who brought it all on themselves.

As the details of the events unfold in the rest of this series, see if this is the conclusion you would have come to based on the evidence. Over 75 years later, cooler heads in the Tulsa community considered “the facts” again, under an order from the Oklahoma government to establish a research committee to investigate the 1921 Riot. The blue-ribbon team gathered for this purpose amassed a huge amount of meticulous documentation, along with photos and records of first-person interviews with both blacks and whites that had been collected by private researchers over the years. Their conclusions turned the conclusion of that original grand jury on its head. It is that research that is the source of most of the material in this blog series. Including the continuing saga below, as recounted by Ellsworth…

While the first shot fired at the courthouse may have been unintentional, those that followed were not. Almost immediately, members of the white mob — and possibly some law enforcement officers — opened fire on the African American men, who returned volleys of their own. The initial gunplay lasted only a few seconds, but when it was over, an unknown number of people — perhaps as many as a dozen — both black and white, lay – dead or wounded.

Outnumbered more than twenty-to-one, the black men began a retreating fight toward the African American district. With armed whites in close pursuit, heavy gunfire erupted again along Fourth Street, two blocks north of the courthouse.

Dr. George H. Miller, a white physician who was working late that evening in his office at the Unity Building at 21 W. Fourth Street, rushed outside after hearing the gunshots, only to come upon a wounded black man, “shot and bleeding, writhing on the street,” surrounded by a group of angry whites. As Dr. Miller later told an interviewer:

“I went over to see if I could help him as a doctor, but the crowd was gathering around him and wouldn’t even let the driver of the ambulance which just arrived to even pick him up. I saw it was an impossible situation to control, that I could be of no help. The crowd was getting more and more belligerent. The Negro had been shot so many times in his chest, and men from the onlookers were slashing him with knives.”

Unable to help the dying man, Dr. Miller got into his car and drove home.

Do note that all evidence points to the fact that during none of the situation did the negroes move from the courthouse area to the neighboring white business areas to rampage, nor to white neighborhoods to threaten residents. From this point on, they were totally in a defensive position, fighting for their lives, and to protect their own families and property back in Greenwood.

A short while later, a second, deadlier, skirmish broke out at Second and Cincinnati. No longer directly involved with the fate of Dick Rowland, the beleaguered second contingent of African American men were now fighting for their own lives. Heavily outnumbered by the whites, and suffering some casualties along the way, most were apparently able, however, to make it safely across the Frisco railroad tracks, and into the more familiar environs of the African American community.

At the courthouse, the sudden and unexpected turn of events had a jolting effect on the would-be lynch mob, and groups of angry, vengeance-seeking whites soon took to the streets and sidewalks of downtown. “A great many of these persons lining the sidewalks,” one white eyewitness later recalled, “were holding a rifle or shotgun in one hand, and grasping the neck of a liquor bottle with the other. Some had pistols stuck into their belts.”

on the street

Following the outbreak of violence at the courthouse, crowds of angry whites took to the streets downtown…. groups of whites–including these at Main and Archer-were still roaming the streets of downtown the next morning (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).

So there they were, a lynch mob liberally peppered with men with a bottle in one hand and a gun in the other. If you were part of the local law enforcement personnel, what do you think your priority would have been? One would think it would have been to disarm and disperse this crowd. But that wasn’t what happened.

Some were about to become, at least temporarily, officers of the law. Shortly after the fighting had broken out at the courthouse, a large number of whites – many of whom had only a little while earlier been members of the would-be lynch mob — gathered outside of police headquarters on Second Street. There, perhaps as many as five-hundred white men and boys were sworn-in by police officers as “Special Deputies.”

BOYS? Yes, photos show that many of those whites involved in the direct violence seemed to be a lot younger than 21, such as this 2-gun-totin’ lad.

two guns

Some were provided with badges or ribbons indicating their new status. Many, it appears, also were given specific instructions.

According to Laurel G. Buck, a white bricklayer who was sworn-in as one of these ‘Special Deputies”, a police officer bluntly told him to “Get a gun and get a nigger.”

So how did they “get a gun”?

Shortly thereafter, whites began breaking into downtown sporting goods stores, pawnshops, and hardware stores, stealing — or “borrowing” as some would later claim — guns and ammunition. Dick Bardon’s store on First Street was particularly hard hit as well as the J.W. MeGee Sporting Goods shop at 22 W. Second Street, even though it was located literally across the street from police headquarters. The owner later testified that a Tulsa police officer helped to dole out the guns that were taken from his store.

And did these armed men take their newly-endowed “responsibility” to maintain order seriously, and go after those few armed black men who were retreating from the Court House toward Greenwood?

More bloodshed soon followed, as whites began gunning down any African Americans that they discovered downtown. William R. Holway, a white engineer, was watching a movie at the Rialto Theater when someone ran into the theater, shouting “Nigger fight, nigger fight”. As Holway later recalled:

“Everybody left that theater on high, you know. We went out the door and looked across the street, and there was Younkman’s drug store with those big pillars. There were two big pillars at the entrance, and we got over behind them. Just got there when a Negro ran south of the alley across the street, the minute his head showed outside, somebody shot him.”

“We stood there for about half-an-hour watching,” Holway added, “which I shall never forget. He wasn’t quite dead, but he was about to die. He was the first man that I saw shot in that riot.”

Many such incidents of attacks on unarmed blacks were later described by white eye-witnesses.

Not far away, at the Royal Theater – that was showing a movie called “One Man in a Million” that evening — a similar drama played itself out. Among the onlookers was a white teenager named William “Choc” Phillips, who later became a well-known Tulsa police officer. As described by Phillips in his unpublished memoir of the riot:

“The mob action was set off when several [white] men chased a Negro man down the alley in back of the theater and out onto Fourth Street where he saw the stage door and dashed inside. Seeing the open door the Negro rushed in and hurried forward in the darkness hunting a place to hide.”

“Suddenly he was on the stage in front of the picture screen and blinded by the bright flickering light coming down from the operator’s booth in the balcony. After shielding his eyes for a moment he regained his vision enough to locate the steps leading from the stage down past the orchestra pit to the aisle just as the pursuing men rushed the stage. One of them saw the Negro and yelled, ‘there he is, heading for the aisle’. As he finished the sentence, a roaring blast from a shotgun dropped the Negro man by the end of the orchestra pit.”

Not everyone had forgotten about Dick Rowland.

Around midnight, a small crowd of whites gathered — once again — outside of the courthouse, yelling “Bring the rope” and “Get the nigger”. But they did not rush the building, and nothing happened.

Because the truth of the matter was that, by then, most of Tulsa’s rioting whites no longer particularly cared about Dick Rowland anymore. They now had much bigger things in mind.

And those things they had in mind seemed to have nothing to do with “fear” that the negroes would be a physical threat to “white Tulsa.” They didn’t seem concerned about “protecting” their neighborhoods from the “threat” of marauding blacks. This wasn’t a “black on white” riot! It was, as almost all the racial riots had been since Reconstruction, incidents of White Rage—against nothing in particular. Just the mere existence of negroes living in the community.

Well, no…most towns and cities were already totally segregated into negro ghettos that were on the margins of the white city limits. The issue was negroes HAVING a community that was anywhere near their White Space. As the message on the riot postcard in a previous blog entry put it … they were “Runing the Negro out of Tulsa.” Not because they were a threat to white Tulsans. Just … because.

While darkness slowed the pace of the riot, sporadic fighting took place throughout the nighttime hours of May 31 and June 1. The heaviest occurred alongside the Frisco railroad tracks, one of the key dividing lines between Tulsa’s black and white commercial districts. From approximately midnight until around 1:30 a.m., scores of blacks and whites exchanged gunfire across the Frisco yards. At one point during the fighting, an inbound train reportedly arrived, its passengers forced to take cover on the floor as the shooting continued, raking both sides of the train.

A few carloads of whites also made brief excursions into the African American district, firing indiscriminately into houses as they roared up and down streets lined with black residences. There were deliberate murders as well. As Walter White, who visited Tulsa immediately after the riot, later reported:

“Many are the stories of horror told to me – not by colored people – but by white residents. One was that of an aged colored couple, saying their evening prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Avenue. A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.

An ugly, hideous, mind-numbing mental picture, I know. Almost as bad as the mind-numbing physical pictures of lynchings that have been included in this blog series. I understand that most people do not want to look at such pictures, don’t want to put such descriptions in their mind, and I don’t blame them. I hate it too—but if we refuse to look, if we hide our heads from the darkness of the past in our great country, we risk not comprehending the enormity of what great evil many of the citizens of our great country have been capable of. Not just psychopathic individuals like mass murderers such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson or the killer in the recent tragic incident at a grade school in Connecticut. We NEED to know that whole masses of people, many of them likely considered “upstanding citizens” in their communities, were capable of horrific, public, group acts of ritual torture and murder and organized mayhem against people and property. Within the lifetime of some of our own close relatives. This Tulsa incident occurred less than a year before my own parents were born. My grandparents would have been adults at the time.

There are STILL black people, victims of the Tulsa Riot, alive in 2013, who were there when it happened. There is a website called “Before They Die” that is dedicated to them.

before they die

If you think that something magical happened between then and now that has somehow “changed the hearts” of all Americans so that this kind of incident couldn’t possibly ever happen again, I am here to tell you, you are wrong. These incidents died down through the succeeding decades not because those involved all had a lovely, inspirational change of heart. Nor because they didn’t pass their attitudes along to their children and grandchildren.

I am utterly convinced that many did infect their own descendants with their own prejudices and hate and meanness. The incidents themselves died down because an evolving general change in cultural behavior, and laws, made it unacceptable for people to exhibit this type of public animosity without legal recriminations. There is a current legal and social “restraint” in this country on these kinds of public exhibitions of man’s inhumanity to man. In some ways, knowing how BAD it was in the not-too-distant past, I would venture to say that this restraint is nigh unto miraculous.

Will that restraint stay in place? I am personally convinced that without a whole-hearted recognition of and repentance for what we, as a country, have socially allowed and even legally tolerated in the way of barbarianism in our collective past…we surely can’t count on GOD’S intervention to make sure the forces of chaos stay chained.

But I digress. Back to Tulsa.  By midnight or so, things had quieted down so much that some negroes in Greenwood may have begun to think the crisis was close to over, and they could rest safely in their own beds. If so, they were piteously naïve.

It appears that the first fires set by whites in black neighborhoods began at about 1:00 a.m. African American homes and businesses along Archer were the earliest targets, and when an engine crew from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived and prepared to douse the flames, white rioters forced the firemen away at gunpoint.

By 4:00 a.m., more than two-dozen black-owned businesses, including the Midway Hotel, had been torched.

This was only a tiny foretaste of what was to come.

At approximately 2:00 a.m., the fierce fighting along the Frisco railroad yards had ended. The white would-be invaders still south of the tracks. As a result, some of Greenwood’s defenders not only concluded that they had “won” the fight, but also that the riot was over. “Nine p.m. the trouble started,” A.J. Smitherman later wrote, “two a.m. the thing was done.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Regardless of whatever was, or was not, happening down by the Frisco tracks, crowds of angry, armed whites were still very much in evidence on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Tulsa. Stunned, and then outraged, by what had occurred at the courthouse, they had only begun to vent their anger.

And there was plenty of grape-vine info to fuel that venting.

Like black Tulsans, whites were not exactly certain as to what exactly was happening in the city, a situation that was, not surprisingly, tailor-made for rumors. Indeed, at about 2:30 a.m., the word spread quickly across downtown that a train carrying five-hundred armed blacks from Muskogee was due to arrive shortly at the Midland Valley Railway passenger station off Third Street. Scores of armed whites including a [local] National Guard patrol rushed to the depot, but nothing happened. There was no such train.

That reminds me of the kind of current “Urban Legends” that are created on the Internet out of whole cloth! You wonder who could possibly come up with such elaborate details—in fact, it is the very details that make such an Urban Legend seem plausible. Surely no one would just string together utter nonsense! It MUST be true. Which is no doubt how many white Tulsans responded.

Approximately 30 minutes later, reports reached the local National Guard officers that African American gunmen were firing on white residences on Sunset Hill, north of Standpipe Hill. Moreover, it was said that a white woman had been shot and killed.

As far as I have seen from the documentation of the time, this was a false alarm too.

In other white neighborhoods across Tulsa, a different kind of activity was taking place, particularly during the first hours following midnight. As word of what some would later call the “Negro uprising” began to spread across the white community, groups of armed whites began to gather at hastily-arranged meeting places, to discuss what to do next.

Strangely enough, they didn’t decide to settle down in their neighborhoods to protect their homes and families in the event those negroes came marauding and pillaging. Perhaps that is because they instinctively knew that with only 10,000 people in Greenwood… and only a very few thousand adult males…it would have been suicide for such men to try to “take on” a city of 100,000+ whites—with the official police department on its side. It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that many of these fellows looked on this as an “opportunity” and an “excuse” to do what they’d always hoped could be done … “Runing the Negro out of Tulsa.”

For “Choc” Phillips and his other young companions, word of this activity came while they were sitting in an all-night restaurant. “Everybody”, they were told, “go to Fifteenth and Boulder”. Phillips wrote:

“Many people were drifting out of the restaurant so we decided to go along and see what happened at the meeting place. Driving south on Boulder we realized that many trucks and automobiles were headed for the same location, and near Fifteenth Street people had abandoned their vehicles because the streets and intersections were filled to capacity. We left the car more than a block away and began walking toward the crowded intersection. There were already three or four hundred people there and more arriving when we walked up.”

Once there, a man stood up on top of a touring car and announced, “We have decided to go out to Second and Lewis Streets and join the crowd that is meeting there.”

Returning to their automobiles, Phillips and his companions blended in with the long line of cars headed east. He later estimated, the crowd that had gathered was about six-hundred strong. Once again, men stood up on top of cars and began shouting instructions to the crowd. “Men,” one man announced, “we are going in at daylight.” Another man declared that they would be having, right then and there, an ammunition exchange. “If any of you have more ammunition than you need, or if what you have doesn’t fit your gun, sing out,” he said. “Be ready at daybreak,” another man insisted, claiming that meetings like this were taking place all over town. “Nothing can stop us,” he added, “for there will be thousands of others going in at the same time.”

drive by

The number of photos of this event are actually amazing, given the chaotic nature of what was going on. Did the person who shot this candid photo of white Tulsans above  just happen to have a Brownie camera in his own nearby car??

All of the chatter reported above by eye-witnesses sounds sort of like listening in on a battle plan for a decisive battle of the Civil War, doesn’t it. And in one way, it was. For so many of these folks, the Civil War had never really ended. It had just sort of been “suspended.” They had never been happy with the outcome of the earlier battles that ended in 1865, with negroes now allegedly “equal” to whites, and with rights to live wherever they wanted. These disgruntled whites intuitively knew that was nonsense, and now here was a chance to fix that “mistake,” at least in their own area.

And driving innocent people out of their homes, burning those homes to the ground, killing the occasional innocent bystander in cold blood? No biggie. It’s not like they are “humans” or somethin’. As Huckleberry Finn and Aunt Sally discussed in Mark Twain’s Finn novel, when Huck felt it necessary to come up with a lie for why he was late arriving by steamboat:

“We blowed out a cylinder head.”

“Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

I know that many people are very concerned these days that too many Americans don’t consider unborn infants to be human beings. And I too am incredibly distressed by that fact. Abortion is a horrible thing. But I think many such folks never stop to consider that for most of the time since 1776 a significant proportion of the US population has not considered another significant proportion of the US population AFTER birth as truly human. This reality was brought home, for instance, in news photos such as the one below, from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike led by Martin Luther King at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

i am a man

Is it possible that this hasn’t really changed as much over the intervening years as we might think or hope … down at the “heart” level?

We’ll consider this more, and examine more of the history of the Tulsa Holocaust, in the next entry in this blog series:

“Is the whole world on fire?”

Posted in lynching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ground Zero (TAS Pt 3)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 3: Ground Zero

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

The Oxford English Dictionary, citing the use of the term in a 1946 New York Times report on the destroyed city of Hiroshima, defines ground zero as “that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, especially an atomic one.” [Wiki]

Yes, the term Ground Zero was originally invented in connection with the development of the atomic bomb, designating the spot on the desert in New Mexico where the first bomb was detonated in 1945. Shortly after that it designated the targets of the first—and so far only—nuclear  bombs used in warfare, strategic points in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The area at and immediately around Ground Zero is where you expect virtually total destruction of human life and man-made structures, as seen in these photos of the ruins of Hiroshima taken shortly after the bomb was dropped.



Sometimes remnants of buildings and humans may be left on the outskirts of Ground Zero in the aftermath, as seen in these pictures of Nagasaki.

nagasaki church

cropped nagasaki

Since that time, the term Ground Zero has been expanded to metaphorically include the center of devastation of other types of situations involving disasters, whether the Twin Towers of 9/11 or the epicenter of major earthquakes.

Here are some photos that are eerily similar to those of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can you guess where and when they were taken?

crop hiroshima like

nagasaki like cropped tulsa deadSince they are black and white, you might guess they are vistas of bombing targets somewhere in Europe or Asia during WW2, or in North or South Korea during the Korean War.

No, they don’t show the aftermath of international warfare of any kind. They depict the aftermath of a major disaster in the USA, the utter destruction of a whole community where 10,000 people lived.

But no, these are not photos of the aftermath of a natural disaster such as an earthquake or wildfire or a tornado.

These are photos from the virtually total destruction by fire of an African American community, an area called Greenwood, in North Tulsa, Oklahoma. No, not a fire started by a natural gas explosion.  Not a fire that just “spread” from some “accident.”

The destruction by fire was at the hands of a roaring mob of thousands of white citizens from Tulsa “proper” to the south. During an 18-hour or so period on May 31 and June 1, 1921, they individually torched each home and business—after driving out the inhabitants and often looting the interiors, leaving them to burn to the ground.

It is considered by knowledgeable historians to be the most hideous incident of its kind in American history.

What… you say you never heard of it?

I hadn’t until a week ago myself. Neither have most people. Including, up until about the year 2000, most of the citizens of Oklahoma and of Tulsa who were born after the event occurred.

Because it seems to have led to the most serious incidence of Mass Amnesia in American history. Willful amnesia.

The story starts in “Metropolitan Tulsa”…

By 1910, thanks to the forest of derricks which had risen up over the nearby oil fields, Tulsa had mushroomed into a raucous boomtown of more than 10,000. Astonishingly, its real growth was only beginning. As the word began to spread about Tulsa — as a place where fortunes could be made, lives could be rebuilt, and a fresh start could be had — people literally began to pour in from all over the country. Remarkably enough, by 1920, the population of greater Tulsa had skyrocketed to more than 100,000.

Despite its youth, Tulsa also had acquired, by 1921, practically all of the trappings of older, more established American cities. Four different railroads — the Frisco, the Santa Fe, the Katy, and the Midland Valley — served the city, as did two separate inter-urban train lines. A new, all-purpose bridge spanned the Arkansas River near Eleventh Street, while street repair, owing to the ever-increasing numbers of automobiles, was practically constant. By 1919, Tulsa also could boast of having its own commercial airport.

A new city hall had been built in 1917, a new federal building in 1915, and a new county courthouse in 1912. New schools and parks also had been dedicated, and in 1914, the city erected a magnificent new auditorium, the 3,500 seat Convention Hall. Tulsa had grown so quickly, in fact, that even the old city cemetery had to be closed to new burials. In its place, the city had designated Oaklawn Cemetery, located at Eleventh Street and Peoria Avenue, as the new city cemetery. [SOURCE]

Yes, Tulsa was a thriving, modern city increasingly connected to the rest of the world:

In 1921, Tulsa could lay claim to two daily newspapers the Tulsa World, a morning paper, and a newly renamed afternoon daily, the Tulsa Tribune plus a handful of weeklies. Radio had not arrived yet, but the city was connected to the larger world through four different telegraph companies. Telephone service also existed — with some ten-thousand phones in use by 1918 — although long-distance service was still in its infancy. While the city was linked both to nearby towns and to the state capital at Oklahoma City by a network of roads, rail travel was by far the fastest and most reliable mode of transportation in and out of Tulsa.

And what with this being well before the Great Depression, there was a lot of prosperity to go around, a lot of goodies to buy, a lot of  places to spend your money.

… Frequently awash in money, the citizens of Tulsa had plenty of places to spend it from furniture stores, jewelry shops, and clothing stores to restaurants and cafes, motion picture theaters, billiard halls, and speakeasies. Those who could afford it could find just about anything in Tulsa, from the latest in fashion to the most modern home appliances, including vacuum cleaners, electric washing machines and Victrolas. For those whose luck had run dry, the city had its share of pawnshops and second-hand stores.

This wasn’t some backwater shabby “Okie” town with people living in shacks either!

Many Tulsans were especially proud of the city’s residential neighborhoods — and with good reason. From the workingman’s castles that offered electric lighting, indoor plumbing, and spacious front porches, to the real castles that were being built by the oil barons, the city could boast of block after block of handsome, modern homes. While Tulsa was by no means without its dreary rooming houses and poverty stricken side streets, brand new neighborhoods with names like Maple Ridge, Sunset Park, Glen Acres, College Addition, Gurley Hill, and Irving Heights were built year after year. Some of the new homes were so palatial that they were regularly featured on picture postcards, chamber of commerce pamphlets, and other publications extolling the virtues of life in Tulsa.

Like this lovely home from 1920.

home 1920So too, not surprisingly, was downtown. With its modern office buildings, its graceful stone churches, and its busy nightlife, it is easy to see why Tulsans — particularly those who worked, played, or worshiped downtown — were so proud of the city’s ever- growing skyline.

tulsa skyline 1925

What the pamphlets and the picture postcards did not reveal was that, despite its impressive new architecture and its increasingly urbane affectations, Tulsa was a deeply troubled town. As 1920 turned into 1921, the city would soon face a crossroads that, in the end, would change it forever.

There was, however, more to the story than the booming city:

However, chamber of commerce pamphlets and the picture postcards did not reveal everything. Tulsa was, in some ways, not one city but two. Practically in the shadow of downtown, there sat a community that was no less remarkable than Tulsa itself. Some whites disparagingly referred to it as “Little Africa”, or worse, but it has become known in later years simply as Greenwood. In the early months of 1921, it was the home of nearly ten-thousand African American men, women, and children.

… most of Tulsa’s African American residents had come to Oklahoma, like their white neighbors, in the great boom years just before and after statehood [Oklahoma became a state in 1907.] Some had come from Mississippi, some from Missouri, and others had journeyed all the way from Georgia. For many, Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former states of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope, a place worth sacrificing for, a place to start anew. And come they did, in wagons and on horseback, by train and on foot….

As of May 30, 1921, here is what Greenwood was like:

The southern end of Greenwood Avenue, and adjacent side streets, was the home of the African American commercial district. Nicknamed “Deep Greenwood”, this several block stretch of handsome one, two, and three-story red brick buildings housed dozens of black-owned and operated businesses, including grocery stores and meat markets, clothing and dry good stores, billiard halls, beauty parlors and barber shops, as well as the Economy Drug Company, William Anderson’s jewelry store, Henry Lilly’s upholstery shop, and A.S. Newkirk’s photography studio. A suit of clothes purchased at Elliott & Hooker’s clothing emporium at 124 N. Greenwood, could be fitted across the street at H.L. Byars’ tailor shop at 105 N. Greenwood, and then cleaned around the corner at Hope Watson’s cleaners at 322 E. Archer.

Here’s how Deep Greenwood looked on May 30, 1921. Look close … it will never look like this again. Because two days later it will be in ruins. Along with over 1,200 homes in nearby neighborhoods.

before the war

But I digress. Back to May 30.

There were plenty of places to eat including late night sandwich shops and barbecue joints to Doc’s Beanery and Hamburger Kelly’s place. Lilly Johnson’s Liberty Cafe, recalled Mabel Little, who owned a beauty shop in Greenwood at the time of the riot, served home-cooked meals at all hours, while at the nearby Little Cafe, “people lined up waiting for their specialty — chicken or smothered steak with rice and brown gravy.” A Coca-Cola, a sarsaparilla, or a soda could be bought at Rolly and Ada Huff’s confectionery on Archer between Detroit and Cincinnati. Although both the nation and Oklahoma were nominally dry, there were also places where a man or a woman could purchase a shot of bootleg whiskey or a milky-colored glass of Choctaw beer.

For a community of its size, the Greenwood business district could boast of a number of impressive commercial structures. John and Loula Williams, who owned the three-story Williams Building at the northwest corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, also operated the seven-hundred-fifty seat Dreamland Theater, that offered live musical and theatrical revues as well as silent movies accompanied by a piano player. Across the street from the Dreamland sat the white-owned Dixie Theater with seating for one-thousand, which made it the second largest theater in town. In nearby buildings were the offices of nearly all of Tulsa’s black lawyers, realtors, and other professionals. Most impressively, there were fifteen African American physicians in Tulsa at the time of the riot, including Dr. A.C. Jackson, who had been described by one of the Mayo brothers as the “most able Negro surgeon in America”.

Here’s a picture of how Dr. Jackson would have looked on May 30, 1921. Look close. Two days later, the “most able Negro surgeon in America” would be dead. In the yard of his own home, shot in the stomach as he held his arms up to attempt to “surrender” to members of the roaring mob.

dr jackson

But I digress again. Let’s learn a little more about Greenwood prior to May 31, 1921.

The overall intellectual life of Greenwood was, for a community of its size, quite striking. There was not one black newspaper but two – the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. African Americans were discouraged from utilizing the new Carnegie library downtown, but a smaller, all-black branch library had been opened on Archer Street. Nationally recognized African American leaders, such as W.E.B. DuBois, had lectured in Tulsa … Moreover, Greenwood was also home to a local business league, various fraternal orders, a Y.M.C.A. branch, and a number of women’s clubs, the last of which were often led by the more than thirty teachers who taught in the city’s separate — and, as far as facilities were concerned, decidedly unequal — African American public schools.

…When it came to religious activity, however, there was no question at all where Tulsa’s African American community stood. Church membership in Tulsa ran high. On a per capita basis, there were more churches in black Tulsa than there were in the city’s white community as well as a number of Bible study groups, Christian youth organizations, and chapters of national religious societies. All told, there were more than a dozen African American churches in Tulsa … including First Baptist, Vernon A.M.E., Brown’s Chapel, Morning Star, Bethel Seventh Day Adventist, and Paradise Baptist, as well as Church of God, Nazarene, and Church of God in Christ congregations. Most impressive from an architectural standpoint, perhaps, was the beautiful, brand new home of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which was dedicated on April 10, 1921 …

Yes, Greenwood was considered to have some of the finest black-owned businesses in the entire Southwest. This included the modern brick Stradford hotel, which had 54 rooms and housed a drug store, barber shop, restaurant, and banquet hall.

All in all, Greenwood was such a shining example of black entrepreneurship that it was dubbed by many “Black Wall Street.”  And many blacks coming to settle there used the term “Promised Land” to describe their destination.

So there they were in their Promised land on May 30, 1921. Enjoying all the freedoms granted by the Constitution of the US (including its fourteenth amendment granting them citizenship), enjoying the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. In a Christian nation, living next to a community of white people, most of whom no doubt considered themselves fine Christian folk—and likely went to church most Sundays.

And then IT happened.

…what is believed to be the worst case of racial violence in United States history. Within a span of 18 hours an entire Black neighborhood—more than 40 square blocks of manicured yards, precious heirlooms, treasured toys, stored memories, Black legacy and racial pride—had been eviscerated, leaving nearly 9,000 people homeless. Black Wall Street, that symbol of African-American aspiration and affluence was torched, taking with it the livelihoods, life’s work and savings of hundreds. More tragically, between 75 to 300 persons lay dead.

“For some, what occurred in Tulsa on May 31 and June 1, 1921 was a massacre, a pogrom, or, to use a more modern term, an ethnic cleansing. [Source]

And from the looks of notes scrawled on the infamous “picture postcards” of the time, it seems some folks considered that a positive thing. Yeah, as the brilliant author of the message on this postcard put it, they were just “Runing the Negro out of Tulsa.”runing the negro out

Many blacks lived in tents pitched in the ruins of the neighborhoods for the next year or more. As you can imagine, many fled the area.


Yes, this Ground Zero was on American soil in the proudly patriotic state of Oklahoma, long before the infamous bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, that is such a part of our national consciousness now.

So just what happened at Ground Zero, the community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on those two infamous days? And why did I, as a certified school teacher with a university education, know nothing about it? In fact…

…the riot was discussed so little, and for so long, even in Tulsa, that in 1996, Tulsa County District Attorney Bill LaFortune could tell a reporter, “I was born and raised here, and I had never heard of the riot.”[SOURCE]

Americans USUALLY are absolutely obsessed about memorializing just about every event in our history. Witness all the “historical plaques” installed all over the place, at highway rest stops, downtown street corners, in front of important buildings. For pity’s sake—in the last little town I lived in, Cedartown, Georgia, there is a plaque marking the birthplace of the man who voiced Winnie the Pooh in the Disney movies, Sterling Holloway!  If the birth of some movie character actor is considered a big enough deal to put up a plaque—and name a street there after him—and similar minor bits of trivia are memorialized all over the nation, how did the Tulsa incident get virtually lost from our corporate popular history so soon after the fact, and for the next 80 years?war aftermath

We’ll explore that fascinating story in the next entry in this series:

Into the Maelstrom

Posted in lynching | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Heartland, USA (TAS Pt 2)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 2: Heartland, USA

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)


Here it is, Omaha, Nebraska, as close as you get to pure “Heartland, USA”! Wiki says about Omaha:

Today, Omaha, Nebraska is the home to the headquarters of five Fortune 500 companies: packaged-food giant ConAgra Foods; the U.S.’s largest railroad operator, Union Pacific Corporation; insurance and financial firm Mutual of Omaha

mutual of omaha

…one of the world’s largest construction companies, Kiewit Corporation; and mega-conglomorate Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway is headed by local investor Warren Buffett, one of the richest people in the world, according to a decade’s worth of Forbes Magazine rankings, some of which have ranked him as high as No. 1.Omaha is also the home to four Fortune 1000 headquarters: … The Gallup Organization, of Gallup Poll fame, also is based in Omaha…

swansoncake mixtip top

… Notable modern Omaha inventions include the TV dinner, developed by Omaha’s then-Carl Swanson Co.; Raisin Bran, developed by Omaha’s Skinner Macaroni Co.; cake mix, developed by Duncan Hines, then a division of Omaha’s Nebraska Consolidated Mills … the Reuben sandwich, conceived by a chef at the then-Blackstone Hotel …the bobby pin and the “pink hair curler,” at Omaha’s Tip Top; the ski lift, in 1936, by Omaha’s Union Pacific Corp;the “Top 40” radio format, pioneered by Todd Storz, scion of Omaha’s Storz Brewing Co., and head of Storz Broadcasting, which was the first in the U.S. to use the “Top 40” format at Omaha’s KOWH Radio.

Lots of actors were born in Omaha, including Montgomery Clift, Dorothy McGuire, Marlon Brando… and Fred and Estelle Astaire:

fred and astelle

Omaha is also famous for being the site of the REAL “Boys Town” made famous in the Spencer Tracy movie…

boys town…and for Omaha Steaks, famous across the nation for mouth-watering steaks since their humble beginnings as a single butcher shop in Omaha in 1917. My dad, living in Michigan, used to mail-order a supply of these every year from the 1960s on.

omaha steaks

Lots of good things going on in Omaha!

Two years after that famous butcher shop opened up, something else occurred that put Omaha on the map—and the national news.

The current map of Omaha features a lovely spot on Douglas Street, called “Heartland of America Park.”


Pretty, peaceful place! Named, no doubt, for the fact that Omaha itself, right on the eastern edge of Nebraska, looks on the map as if it is located smack-dab in the center of the whole USA, in the “Heartland” of America.

omaha on map

Nebraska became a state in 1867, immediately after the Civil War. That same year it adopted its state seal, with the State Motto prominently displayed on a banner at the top of the seal stating “Equality Before the Law.”


Something happened between those lofty aspirations of 1867 and the reality of 1919. And it happened just eight blocks or so from where the lovely Heartland of America Park is now, at the Douglas County Courthouse, seen here as it looks in recent times.

current courthouse

For Omaha, in the Heartland of America, especially right in front of this courthouse, wasn’t quite so pretty and peaceful in 1919.

Omaha, Nebraska, 1919

From May through September 1919, over 25 race riots [no, not riots BY people of the black race, but directed AT people of that race] rocked cities from Texas to Illinois, Nebraska to Georgia. In Omaha, the trouble began on September 25, when a white woman, Agnes Loebeck, reported that she was assaulted by a black man.


That evening, the police took a suspect to the Loebeck home. Agnes and her boyfriend Milton Hoffman (they were later married) identified a black packinghouse worker named Will Brown as the assailant.

will brown omaha

Brown was 41 years old and suffered from acute rheumatism. [Later reports by the Omaha Police Department and the United States Army stated that actually, Agnes had not made a “positive identification.”]

Before the police could leave the Loebeck house, a mob gathered outside and threatened to seize Brown. After an hour’s confrontation, police reinforcements arrived and Brown was transferred to the Douglas County Courthouse. Several police officers were ordered to report at once to police headquarters in case of further trouble, and 46 policemen and a detective were kept on duty well into the night.

Wikipedia picks up the story of what happened next…

At about 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 28, 1919, a large group of white youths gathered near the Bancroft School in South Omaha and began a march to the Douglas County Courthouse, where Brown was being held. The march was intercepted by John T. Dunn, chief of the Omaha Detective Bureau, and his subordinates. Dunn attempted to disperse the crowd, but they ignored his warning and marched on. Thirty police officers were guarding the court house when the marchers arrived. By 4:00 p.m., the crowd had grown much larger. Members of the crowd bantered with the officers until the police were convinced that the crowd posed no serious threat. A report to that effect was made to the central police station, and the captain in charge sent fifty reserve officers home for the day.

By 5:00 p.m., a mob of about 4,000 whites had crowded into the street on the south side of the Douglas County Courthouse.

omaha mob

They began to assault the police officers, pushing one through a pane of glass in a door and attacking two others who had wielded clubs at the mob. At 5:15 p.m., officers deployed fire hoses to dispel the crowd, but they responded with a shower of bricks and sticks. Nearly every window on the south side of the courthouse was broken.


The crowd stormed the lower doors of the courthouse, and the Police inside discharged their weapons down an elevator shaft in an attempt to frighten them, but this further incited the mob. They again rushed the police who were standing guard outside the building, broke through their lines, and entered the courthouse through a broken basement door.

It was at this moment that Marshal Eberstein, chief of police, arrived. He asked leaders of the mob to give him a chance to talk to the crowd. He mounted to one of the window sills. Beside him was a recognized chief of the mob. At the request of its leader, the crowd stilled its clamor for a few minutes. Chief Eberstein tried to tell the mob that its mission would best be served by letting justice take its course. The crowd refused to listen. Its members howled so that the chief’s voice did not carry more than a few feet. Eberstein ceased his attempt to talk and entered the besieged building.

By 6 p.m., throngs swarmed about the court house on all sides. The crowd wrestled revolvers, badges and caps from policemen. They chased and beat every colored person who ventured into the vicinity. White men who attempted to rescue innocent blacks from unmerited punishment were subjected to physical abuse. The police had lost control of the crowd.


By 7 p.m., most of the policemen had withdrawn to the interior of the court house. There, they joined forces with Michael Clark, sheriff of Douglas County, who had summoned his deputies to the building with the hope of preventing the capture of Brown. The policemen and sheriffs formed their line of last resistance on the fourth floor of the court house.

The police were not successful in their efforts. Before 8 p.m., they discovered that the crowd had set the courthouse building on fire. Its leaders had tapped a nearby gasoline filling station and saturated the lower floors with the flammable liquid.


Shots were fired as the mob pillaged hardware stores in the business district and entered pawnshops, seeking firearms. Police records showed that more than 1,000 revolvers and shotguns were stolen that night. The mob shot at any policeman; seven officers received gunshot wounds, although none of the wounds were serious.

Louis Young, 16 years old, was fatally shot in the stomach while leading a gang up to the fourth floor of the building. Witnesses said the youth was the most intrepid of the mob’s leaders.

Pandemonium reigned outside the building. At Seventeenth and Douglas Streets, one block from the court house, James Hiykel, a 34-year-old businessman, was shot and killed.

The crowd continued to strike the courthouse with bullets and rocks. Spectators were shot. Participants inflicted minor wounds upon themselves. Women were thrown to the ground and trampled. Blacks were dragged from streetcars and beaten.

The description of this part of the events on the site adds a poignant vignette:

The size of the crowd was estimated as between 5,000 and 15,000 people. By 8:00 p.m. the mob had begun firing on the courthouse with guns they looted from nearby stores. In that exchange of gunfire, one 16-year-old leader of the mob, and a 34-year-old businessman a block away were killed. By 8:30 the mob had set fire to the building and prevented fire fighters from extinguishing the flames. Inside, Will Brown moaned to Sheriff Mike Clark, “I am innocent, I never did it, my God I am innocent.”

The Wikipedia article continues the timeline:

About 11 o’clock, when the frenzy was at its height, Mayor Edward Smith came out of the east door of the courthouse into Seventeenth Street. He had been in the burning building for hours. As he emerged from the doorway, a shot rang out.

“He shot me. Mayor Smith shot me,” a young man in the uniform of a United States soldier yelled. The crowd surged toward the mayor. He fought them. One man hit the mayor on the head with a baseball bat. Another slipped the noose of a rope around his neck. The crowd started to drag him away.

“If you must hang somebody, then let it be me,” the mayor said.

An amazing act of courage! Many of these lynching stories have few or no heroes, who attempted to stop the psychopathic rampage. This one does—Mayor Edward Smith had been mayor for barely a year, and had been elected on a reform ticket with the intent to clean up political corruption in the city. Unfortunately, the events of this night may have in part reflected participation by Smith’s rivals.

The mob dragged the mayor into Harney Street. A woman reached out and tore the noose from his neck. Men in the mob replaced it. Spectators wrestled the mayor from his captors and placed him in a police automobile. The throng overturned the car and grabbed him again. Once more, the rope encircled the mayor’s neck. He was carried to Sixteenth and Harney Streets. There he was hanged from the metal arm of a traffic signal tower.

Mayor Smith was suspended in the air when State Agent Ben Danbaum drove a high-powered automobile [remember… this was 1919!] into the throng right to the base of the signal tower. In the car with Danbaum were City Detectives Al Anderson, Charles Van Deusen and Lloyd Toland. They grasped the mayor and Russell Norgard untied the noose. The detectives brought the mayor to Ford Hospital. There he lingered between life and death for several days, finally recovering. “They shall not get him. Mob rule will not prevail in Omaha,” the mayor kept muttering during his delirium.

The Mayor was in error.

Meanwhile the plight of the police in the court house had become desperate. The fire had licked its way to the third floor. The officers faced the prospect of roasting to death. Appeals for help to the crowd below brought only bullets and curses. The mob frustrated all attempts to raise ladders to the imprisoned police. “Bring Brown with you and you can come down,” somebody in the crowd shouted.

On the second floor of the building, three policemen and a newspaper reporter were imprisoned in a safety vault, whose thick metal door the mob had shut. The four men hacked their way out through the court house wall. The mob shot at them as they squirmed out of the stifling vault.

The gases of formaldehyde added to the terrors of the men imprisoned within the flaming building. Several jars of the powerful chemical had burst on the stairway. Its deadly fumes mounted to the upper floors. Two policemen were overcome. Their companions could do nothing to alleviate their sufferings.

Sheriff Clark led his prisoners (there were 121 of them) to the roof. Will Brown, for whom the mob was howling, became hysterical. Blacks, fellow prisoners of the hunted man, tried to throw him off the roof. Deputy Sheriffs Hoye and McDonald foiled the attempt.

Yes, there were a number of other courageous men there that night too! May God bless the memory of their dedication to their obligations.

Sheriff Clark ordered that female prisoners be taken from the building due to their distress. They ran down the burning staircases clad only in prison pajamas. Some of them fainted on the way. Members of the mob escorted them through the smoke and flames. Black women as well as white women were helped to safety.

The mob poured more gasoline into the building. They cut every line of hose that firemen laid from nearby hydrants. The flames were rapidly lapping their way upward. It seemed like certain cremation for the prisoners and their protectors.

Then three slips of paper were thrown from the fourth floor on the west side of the building. On one piece was scrawled: “The judge says he will give up Negro Brown. He is in dungeon. There are 100 white prisoners on the roof. Save them.”

Another note read: “Come to the fourth floor of the building and we will hand the negro over to you.”

The mob in the street shrieked its delight at the last message. Boys and young men placed firemen’s ladders against the building. They mounted to the second story. One man had a heavy coil of new rope on his back. Another had a shotgun.

Two or three minutes after the unidentified athletes had climbed to the fourth floor, a mighty shout and a fusillade of shots were heard from the south side of the building.

Will Brown had been captured. A few minutes more and his lifeless body was hanging from a telephone post at Eighteenth and Harney Streets. Hundreds of revolvers and shotguns were fired at the corpse as it dangled in mid-air. Then, the rope was cut. Brown’s body was tied to the rear end of an automobile. It was dragged through the streets to Seventeenth and Dodge Streets, four blocks away. The oil from red lanterns used as danger signals for street repairs was poured on the corpse. It was burned. Members of the mob hauled the charred remains through the business district for several hours….

The lawlessness continued for several hours after Brown had been lynched. The police patrol [vehicle] was burned. The police emergency automobile was burned. Three times, the mob went to the city jail. The third time its leaders announced that they were going to burn it. Soldiers arrived before they could carry out their threat.

The riot lasted until 3 a.m., on the morning of September 29. At that hour, federal troops, under command of Colonel John E. Morris of the Twentieth Infantry, arrived from Fort Omaha and Fort Crook. Troops manning machine guns were placed in the heart of Omaha’s business district; in North Omaha, the center of the black community, to protect citizens there; and in South Omaha, to prevent more mobs from forming. Major General Leonard Wood, commander of the Central Department, came the next day to Omaha by order of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Peace was enforced by 1,600 soldiers.

omaha troops

So, given the incredible loss of life and property, the terror inflicted on not just the focal point of the mass hysteria (Will Brown) but on large numbers of whites and blacks including police—and male and female prisoners—and innocent bystanders… given all that, how much justice prevailed when the smoke cleared?

Despite photographs that allowed authorities to identify several hundred of the lynch mob including the chief agitators, no one was ever prosecuted for the crimes committed that fearful night.

Yes, there were the usual “souvenir postcard pictures.”  Such as this one with a charred vaguely human shape that is barely a foot or two from the smiling people you see in the front row proudly getting their pictures taken for posterity.

.omaha fire

You may have been under the impression that this was only a “man’s sport.” But the following (cropped) picture taken from just a slightly different angle, clearly shows a beaming female near the center of the photo, complete with fashionable hat and coat, leering over the same horrific scene.

omaha 2 crop woman

Yes, as James Allen, one of the authors of Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America put it about this and similar pictures, “What takes the breath away is the sight of all the white people, maskless, milling about, looking straight at the camera as if they had nothing to be ashamed of, often smiling. Sometimes they line up in an orderly fashion, as if they were at a class reunion or church picnic.”

This wasn’t a “Mafia mob” battle of the Roaring Twenties.

This wasn’t New York street gangs in a rumble, as depicted in West Side Story.

This wasn’t a screaming mob of fanatic Muslims in some Middle Eastern country.

This was thousands upon thousands of “ordinary citizens” in the Heartland of the United States of America. A large percentage of whom … likely attended the Church of Their Choice the next Sunday morning!

And the children of Omaha—black and white—likely returned to school in a day or two, starting their school day out, as they no doubt always did, with the Pledge of Allegiance. How does that last line go?… You could be forgiven for thinking that maybe the black children—in their “Negro schools”—choked a bit when they got to “With liberty and justice for all.”

Of course, those words had only described an “aspiration,” not a reality, ever since the Constitution was written. To the shame of generation after generation  of Americans—and their leaders—the reality has always been “with liberty and justice for some.”

Just as an aside, given the words “all men are created equal” in the Constitution, have you ever wondered why “equality” wasn’t part of the Pledge, along with liberty and justice? I looked it up. It seems that the author of the pledge already knew that “liberty and justice” had been very elusive throughout the country’s history. Throwing in “equality” would have been just too much to expect! The pledge was written by Francis Bellamy, a “Christian socialist” Baptist minister, in 1892 as part of a national 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, promoted by the popular children’s magazine of the time, The Youth’s Companion. The magazine created “an official program for universal use in all the schools” as part of the Columbus Day celebration that was declared by Congress and President Benjamin Harrison. It included Bellamy’s pledge.

The Pledge was supposed to be quick and to the point. Bellamy designed it to be recited in 15 seconds. As a socialist, he had initially also considered using the words equality and fraternity but decided against it – knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans. [Source]

Yes, the Pledge does not include any mention of equality specifically as a response to racial prejudice in America at the time—prejudice even among educators!—still rampant 100 years after “all men are created equal” was included in the Constitution. And almost 30 years after the end of a war that had been fought, at least ostensibly, to make that equality a reality for the blacks in America.

But back to the Heartland of America… I’m not sure how witnessing that horrific set of events in Omaha in 1919 ultimately impacted most of those who were on the scene that night. But we do have a record of how it affected one young fourteen year old man.

Nebraska-born actor Henry Fonda was 14 years old when the lynching happened. His father owned a printing plant across the street from the courthouse. He watched the riot from the second floor window of his father’s shop.

“It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen . . . We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.”

During Fonda’s long career, at least two of his best movies — “Young Mister Lincoln” and “The Ox Bow Incident” — featured lynchings as major plot points. [Source]

ox bow

In The Ox Bow Incident (filmed in 1943) Fonda plays a man swept up into a vigilante group in Nevada in 1885 that lynches three men (including one played by Dana Andrews, shown here …)

ox bow 2

…only to discover by the end of the movie that all three were innocent. There was lots of remorse among the vigilantes as they gather afterwards in the saloon in the end of that movie.

ox bow3

One participant was so overcome with guilt he committed suicide.

But, of course, that was in a work of fiction.

Out in the real world, public expressions of remorse, regret…and individual or corporate repentance…were rare commodities throughout the 50+ years of the heyday of “community lynchings.”

In fact, Collective Amnesia has almost always been the response of choice to the outrageous injustices that have besmirched American history from our earliest days. As will be evidenced by the events chronicled in the next entry in this series:

Ground Zero

Posted in lynching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The United States of Lyncherdom (TAS Pt 1)

Terrorism on American Soil: TAS

Part 1: The United States of Lyncherdom

(Click here to go to the Introduction to this series.)

America’s all-time favorite writer has long been, arguably, Mark Twain (his pen name, of course—he was born “Samuel Langhorne Clemens,” but by the end of his life even he referred to himself all the time as Mark Twain.) Is there hardly anyone in the country over the age of 12, 100+ years after his death, who doesn’t recognize the name “Tom Sawyer”?

tom sawyerMany of his creations were turned into movies and TV shows and cartoons, including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It was first made into a silent movie in 1910, then reprised numerous times on the big and small screen over the years, including:

19211921 yankee1931

1931 yankee


1949 yankee

1989 (with Emma Samms as Guinevere)

1989 yankee

He wrote many books and essays, and even though some, including Tom Sawyer, have been generally marketed to a young audience, even those dealt consistently with very “mature themes.”

Twain was born in 1835, died in 1910, and wrote Tom Sawyer in 1876 when he was 41. Here he is shortly before the period in which he wrote about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and when his reputation was that of a “humorist.”

twain 1871It was a long time before I realized that as he aged, both he and his writings became more morose and much “edgier.”

Many folks have compared the “arc” of his career to that of George Carlin, who started out on TV with cheerful skits about “Al Sleet, your Hippy Dippy Weatherman” …

al sleet… and out the other end of his life became a seriously cantankerous old man performing scathing social commentary.


Actually, it is an apt comparison, as Twain traveled the country at times giving talks that were very obviously the granddaddy of “stand-up comedy routines.”

Throughout my youth I’d read Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn, and Connecticut Yankee, and the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and a number of other essays and short stories by Twain. I really enjoyed his sardonic, sarcastic, witty style. So when I ran across in the library, in about 1962 at age 16, a book by him titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, I eagerly checked it out, thinking it would be a tongue-in-cheek satire.

1896 joan of arc

Mark Twain’s work on Joan of Arc is titled in full, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, who is identified further as Joan’s page and secretary. The fictional work is presented as a translation from a manuscript by Jean Francois Alden, or, in the words of the published book, “Freely Translated out of the Ancient French into Modern English from the Original Unpublished Manuscript in the National Archives of France”.

Originally, Mark Twain’s work was published as a serialization in Harper’s Magazine beginning in 1895 and it was published in book form during 1896. At Twain’s request, Harper’s Magazine published it anonymously to avoid expectations for it to be humorous. [Wiki]

harpers 1895I wish his name had been left off the edition I read—for I really was expecting it to be “humorous.” It was not. It was the most emotionally draining and devastating thing I had ever read…up to the point of reading a book about the Holocaust in 1972. He didn’t even describe the actual “burning at the stake” of Joan at the end of the book… just her inner turmoil leading right up to it. That was more than enough to leave the reader shattered.

About a week ago, I ran across another literary creation by Mark Twain, written in 1901, five years after the publication of Joan of Arc. I should have been forewarned by my experience with that book. But I wasn’t, and thus I wasn’t braced for the emotional impact of his words in this essay. I will not burden you with the whole essay, just selected parts of it. You can read the whole thing at the link if you wish. If Twain and Carlin were both alive today and had a Battle of the Curmudgeons, I’m convinced Twain would win—and Carlin would be proud to crown him.

Just to set the stage…Twain had been born in Hannibal, Missouri. The setting for some of his stories, such as Tom Sawyer, was the Missouri he remembered from his youth. But he hadn’t lived there since he was 18.


“The United States of Lyncherdom”

Mark Twain, 1901

And so Missouri has fallen, that great state! Certain of her children have joined the lynchers, and the smirch is upon the rest of us….

Oh, Missouri!

The tragedy occurred near Pierce City, down in the southwestern corner of the state. On a Sunday afternoon a young white woman who had started alone from church was found murdered. For there are churches there; in my time religion was more general, more pervasive, in the South than it was in the North, and more virile and earnest, too, I think; I have some reason to believe that this is still the case. The young woman was found murdered. Although it was a region of churches and schools the people rose, lynched three negroes–two of them very aged ones–burned out five negro households, and drove thirty negro families into the woods.

…Lynching has reached Colorado, it has reached California, it has reached Indiana–and now Missouri! I may live to see a negro burned in Union Square, New York, with fifty thousand people present, and not a sheriff visible, not a governor, not a constable, not a colonel, not a clergyman, not a law-and-order representative of any sort.

“Increase in Lynching.–In 1900 there were eight more cases than in 1899, and probably this year there will be more than there were last year. The year is little more than half gone, and yet there are eighty-eight cases as compared with one hundred and fifteen for all of last year. The four Southern states, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi are the worst offenders. Last year there were eight cases in Alabama, sixteen in Georgia, twenty in Louisiana, and twenty in Mississippi–over one-half the total. This year to date there have been nine in Alabama, twelve in Georgia, eleven in Louisiana, and thirteen in Mississippi–again more than one-half the total number in the whole United States.–Chicago Tribune.”

Twain goes on to scathingly evaluate aspects of American society which he insists have contributed to this epidemic of lynchings. And toward the end, he suggests a “solution”:

…Let us import American missionaries from China, and send them into the lynching field. With 1,500 of them out there converting two Chinamen apiece per annum against an uphill birth rate of 33,000 pagans per day, it will take upward of a million years to make the conversions balance the output and bring the Christianizing of the country in sight to the naked eye; therefore, if we can offer our missionaries as rich a field at home at lighter expense and quite satisfactory in the matter of danger, why shouldn’t they find it fair and right to come back and give us a trial?

The Chinese are universally conceded to be excellent people, honest, honorable, industrious, trustworthy, kind-hearted, and all that–leave them alone, they are plenty good enough just as they are; and besides, almost every convert runs a risk of catching our civilization. We ought to be careful. We ought to think twice before we encourage a risk like that; for, once civilized, China can never be uncivilized again. We have not been thinking of that. Very well, we ought to think of it now. Our missionaries will find that we have a field for them–and not only for the 1,500, but for 15,011. Let them look at the following telegram and see if they have anything in China that is more appetizing. It is from Texas:

“The negro was taken to a tree and swung in the air. Wood and fodder were piled beneath his body and a hot fire was made. Then it was suggested that the man ought not to die too quickly, and he was let down to the ground while a party went to Dexter, about two miles distant, to procure coal oil. This was thrown on the flame and the work completed.”

We implore them to come back and help us in our need. Patriotism imposes this duty on them. Our country is worse off than China; they are our countrymen, their motherland supplicates their aid in this her hour of deep distress. They are competent; our people are not. They are used to scoffs, sneers, revilings, danger; our people are not. They have the martyr spirit; nothing but the martyr spirit can brave a lynching mob, and cow it and scatter it. They can save their country, we beseech them to come home and do it.

We ask them to read that telegram again, and yet again, and picture the scene in their minds, and soberly ponder it; then multiply it by 115, add 88; place the 203 in a row [the number of recorded lynchings in the US the year before], allowing 600 feet of space for each human torch, so that there be viewing room around it for 5,000 Christian American men, women, and children, youths and maidens; make it night for grim effect; have the show in a gradually rising plain, and let the course of the stakes be uphill; the eye can then take in the whole line of twenty-four miles of blood-and-flesh bonfires unbroken, whereas if it occupied level ground the ends of the line would bend down and be hidden from view by the curvature of the earth.

All being ready, now, and the darkness opaque, the stillness impressive–for there should be no sound but the soft moaning of the night wind and the muffled sobbing of the sacrifices–let all the far stretch of kerosened pyres be touched off simultaneously and the glare and the shrieks and the agonies burst heavenward to the Throne. There are more than a million persons present; the light from the fires flushes into vague outline against the night the spires of five thousand churches.

O compassionate missionary, leave China! come home and convert these Christians!

A July, 2008, issue of Time magazine, with Twain on the cover, discussed his career. And at one point it refers to the essay quoted from above:

time 2008

Then there’s the long essay Twain produced in 1901, “The United States of Lyncherdom.” This is not a single-minded polemic. It registers the horror of lynchings but also undertakes to empathize with people who attended them. Their motivation, Twain argued, is not inhuman viciousness but “man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side. Its other name is Moral Cowardice, and is the commanding feature of the make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000 …”

As a remedy, Twain proposed, tongue in cheek, that sheriffs might be dispatched to communities where a lynching was about to take place. If they could rally enough citizens to oppose the hideous deed, that would make the anti-lynching position the new conventional wisdom that everyone would flock to conform to. But a problem–where to find enough sheriffs? Why not draft them from among the Christian missionaries spreading the malady of Western civilization in China? (Missionaries were a favorite target for Twain.) In China, he told his readers, “almost every convert runs a risk of catching our civilization … We ought to think twice before we encourage a risk like that; for, once civilized, China can never be uncivilized again … O compassionate missionary, leave China! come home and convert these Christians!”

There is something upsetting, off-balancing, about “The United States of Lyncherdom” that has kept it alive all these years. It’s against lynching, all right, but it seems to take more of an interest in being against righteousness. It makes you wonder whether you yourself, possibly, or let’s say your grandmother, might have appeared, smiling, in a photograph of a lynch mob. And just as you’re about to block out that queasiness, Twain slams in a snippet of what a particularly despicable lynching (in Texas, as it happened) was like. Oh, God. (The man was slow-roasted to death over a coal-oil fire.) And then, when he starts taking off on the missionaries? I don’t know that I want to express this opinion. But there’s no getting around it: it’s funny.

Not only was “The United States of Lyncherdom” politically incorrect, it still is. It blames one of the most shameful aspects of American history on moral correctness, the herd mentality that prevailed among Americans who regarded themselves as right thinking. Twain decided that the country, or at least his readership, was not ready for that essay. It wasn’t published until 1923, when Twain’s literary executor slipped it, hedgily edited, into a posthumous collection. Not until 2000 did it appear in its original form, and then in an obscure, scholarly publication. It takes a genius to strike the funny bone in a way that can still smart nearly 100 years later.

Read more:,9171,1820166,00.html#ixzz2KbMl9Fnp

Yes, even the sarcastic, sardonic Mark Twain couldn’t bring himself to put this essay in print. As he told his publisher, if he published the essay—and continued plans for a multi-volume history of lynching in the US he had in mind!—he would not have “even half a friend left” in the South.

So he … backed down. A shame. Because things went downhill from that time. So that by five years later Missouri was the scene of the infamous …

Easter Offering

One hundred and five years ago [1906], on the night before Easter, a mob in Springfield, Missouri broke into the Greene County jail, carried three prisoners to the city square, and lynched them for the alleged assault of a white woman. The murder of the three men quickly became known as the “Easter Offering.” The lynchings made the front page of newspapers across the nation and faded only with news of a terrible earthquake which leveled the west coast city of San Francisco.  []

A 2006 article in the Springfield News Leader tells some of the details starting with:

…the day Mina Edwards took a buggy ride with Charles Cooper.

Edwards, a 20-year-old white woman, had recently left her husband. She had been in and out of Springfield for about a month, seeking work. On April 13, 1906 — Good Friday — Edwards met up with Cooper, 22, whom she described as an “old friend.” What happened after that is unknown.

A story in the next morning’s paper said Cooper told Springfield Police he and Edwards were attacked at Phelps Street and Main Avenue, by two black men in masks. The attackers, he said, had knocked him unconscious and robbed him, dragged Edwards to a nearby pasture and raped her.

Saturday morning, police arrested Horace Duncan, a black man Cooper said he recognized — despite the masks he had said his attackers wore — and Fred Coker, simply because the two had been together Friday night. Twenty years old, Duncan had never been in trouble with the law. He lived with his parents and worked with his lifelong friend, Fred Coker, at the Pickwick Livery and Transfer Co. Coker, 21, lived with his grandfather, King Coker, a respected leader in the black community.

horace duncan

Duncan and Coker were taken to the city jail as suspects in the attack. They were set free after their white employer came and said they’d been at work at the time of the attack, loading stage sets several blocks away at the Baldwin Theater. After Duncan and Coker were released, Cooper filed a robbery complaint, claiming Duncan had stolen his watch.

Duncan and Coker were re-arrested Saturday evening on robbery charges. They were taken to the county jail, which stood behind the sheriff’s residence on North Robberson, near the current site of the Greene County Commission building.

Rumors of a lynch mob persisted throughout the day. Sheriff Horner dispatched his deputies around town to check the peace. Despite assurances that all was quiet, a large group of men and boys gathered at the city jail by nightfall, looking for Duncan and Coker. Convinced the two were not inside, the rowdy crowd headed back to the square and up Boonville.

Sheriff Horner met the crowd at the door threatening to fire into it if the men did not disperse. The mob of hundred responded with jeers and fired their own guns into the air, storming the jail’s doors and window with tools. After some time, the mob broke through the jail door and into the cells, beating and binding Duncan and Coker, who were dragged down Boonville to the square by a mob of now 2,000.

Sheriff Horner later testified that no city police — save one who happened to be walking near the jail — responded to telephoned pleas for back-up.

In 1906, Gottfried Tower, a metal structure several stories high, stood at the center of the square, with a wooden bandstand 12 feet up.springfield square

Duncan and Coker were taken to the foot of this tower, where the crowd had grown to an estimate 3,000. Ropes were placed around their necks. One by one, the men were hoisted into the air.

Boxes and kindling were then piled beneath the tower. The hanging bodies were doused in coal oil, and all was lit afire. Flames soon burned through the ropes, and the bodies fell into the fire below.

The mob, “Overcome with their orgy and filled with exultant frenzy over their success,” said the Springfield Republican, returned to the county jail, where they found most other prisoners had escaped, including one suspected of the Confederate veteran’s murder. Another suspect, Will Allen, remained locked in his cell. He was soon broken out and marched to the square.

On the bandstand, Allen was given a mock trial as Duncan and Coker’s remains smoldered below. He proclaimed his innocence. The crowd shouted “Hang him.” A rope was produced, and Allen, too, was doused in coal oil. Some accounts claim Allen jumped from the bandstand. Others claim he was pushed. All agree his neck broke before the rope snapped and he fell into the embers. Allen’s body was rehung on the tower, then burned with the others.

Mayor-elect James Blain mounted the tower and said, “Men, you have done enough. You have had your revenge. You would better go home.” The crowd dispersed, taking bits of rope, clothing and bone as souvenirs.

And thus was the “Easter Offering”…

Easter morning brought thousands of onlookers to the square. White men, women and children, dressed in Easter finery, flocked to the charred bandstand, where lively talk continued all day.

Black folks, however, were scarce on public streets, although some quietly went to church. Newspapers reported the train station was crowded with blacks, ready to leave town, while others left by wagon or on foot. Personal accounts tell of others seeking protection on the outskirts of town, or in the homes of compassionate white residents.

As rumors of further violence arose, the mayor sent out a call for volunteer policemen. He had 150 men deputized. Sheriff Horner telephoned the governor, who dispatched five companies of the Missouri National Guard to restore the peace in Springfield.

The first troops, including a 22-man company from Pierce City, arrived by train late Sunday night. The 66 soldiers were met by the police chief and a crowd of hecklers, who followed the troops as they marched to the square. At one point, the soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets on their Krag-Jorgensen rifles. Sheriff Horner met the troops on the square and declared, from Gottfried Tower, that the city was under martial law — the first time since the Civil War. The troops remained in Springfield for a week, camping on the square and in a field adjacent to the county jail.

The lynching was recounted in newspapers across the country, though it fell off the front pages later that week, when San Francisco was destroyed by earthquake and fire.

So were there repercussions for ANYONE involved in this insanity?


A judge called a grand jury and summoned dozens of witnesses and suspected leaders of the mob. Edwards and Cooper could not be found for questioning.

The grand jury reported that Duncan and Coker were not guilty of assault.

It declared Sheriff Horner had done all in his power to stop the violence. The police department, on the other hand, “seemed to have no appreciation of their duties and responsibilities as officers of the law,” the grand jury report read.

In all, 18 men identified as leaders of the mob were indicted for the lynching, with charges ranging from murder in the first degree to perjury. Included was former policeman Jesse Brake. Several others had connections to the police department and the Democratic party.

It took several weeks to seat a jury for the first trial, in which blacksmith “Doss” Galbraith, was tried for murder. The jury selected included some of Galbraith’s friends.

The trial was held in August, in a courthouse overlooking the square. Despite grand jury testimony, white witnesses could not place Galbraith at the lynching, while black witnesses claimed to have seen him carrying a human skull, with some flesh attached, Easter morning.

After 24 hours of deliberation, the jury was still was hung, voting 10 to 2 for acquittal.

Charges against the other suspects were eventually dropped.

So there you have it. Three thousand or so witnesses, but nothing to base any “justice” on.

But the Easter Offering lived on. Here’s the answer to a question in the 2006 article:

Q: Were the lynchings celebrated in souvenir coins?

A: Yes. At least two versions of a silver dollar-size coin were minted, stamped with the date and Springfield, Mo. One reads “Easter offering: 3 negroes burned on the square.” The other uses more disparaging language. The History Museum of Springfield-Greene County has a coin in its archive. It’s not available for public viewing.

“O kind missionary, O compassionate missionary, leave China! come home and convert these Christians!”

But none came. And the epidemic continued.  For 30+ more years. Oh, I have no doubt many people across the country read the newspaper reports with horror. Many HAD to have recognized this kind of spectacle for what it was…utter insanity. On a mass scale. We are not talking a few dozen “Ku Klux Klansmen” wrapped in white robes in some dark holler down in the Deep South doing clandestine acts. We are talking thousands of citizens strolling out of church in their Easter finery, children in tow…looking like these little girls on this 1907 Easter Card in their finery…

1907 easter dresses

…coming to check out the scene of human sacrifice! (In the town square of a place now known as the Queen City of the Ozarks and the Birthplace of Route 66.)

And hanging out to look over the charred debris and chat with the neighbors about the events of the day before…before they take the kiddies home from church to see what the Easter Bunny brought them.  And open their jolly Easter cards from friends and family. Like this one from that exact time period. (Its copyright is 1907.)

easter card

By the way…Did you catch the irony in the picture of the tower in the Springfield town square? It is capped with a small version of the Statue of Liberty. That irony was not lost on a cartoonist of the time from the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper, as seen in this reproduction distributed by the historical society of modern Joplin, Missouri.

springfield easter offering

But WAIT! Shouldn’t we just sweep all this information under the rug? Why remind anyone that these things happened? After all, we can’t go back and undo the events. And—this all makes America LOOK BAD! Wouldn’t True Patriotism insist we “accentuate the positive” and “ignore the negative” as we pass on our country’s history to future generations?

I hear that kind of thinking a lot from folks. What amazes me is that if you bring up just about anything else in most of history—how the Germans treated the Jews; how the Japanese tortured our troops in WW2; how the ancient Aztecs indulged in human sacrifices; how the ancient—pre-American—Hawaiians also indulged in human sacrifices; how the Romans treated Christians in the first century—all of that is valid history. To be preserved and passed down to our children. And we complain if countries like Germany or Japan would write “revisionist” history books for their children that would downplay the dark parts of their past. Bring it all out in the open, we say. They need to face it, and make sure their children know what happened … so it never happens again. That’s what “memorials” are often all about.

But something weird happens when we get to American History. Then Mass Amnesia is the preference of many.

I believe that mass amnesia is harmful to those who have it. There ARE lessons to be learned from all these events that are under discussion. Knowing about them CAN change our country and future generations for the better. If those lessons aren’t clear to you yet, I hope they will be by the time this series is over.

I have had a personal “saying” for many years, that covers a wide variety of topics. It is: “You cannot really understand what I understand—until you know what I know.” I don’t want to just toss out my “opinions” on current events and prophecy in a vacuum. Readers can totally misunderstand my perspective—if they don’t know the vantage point from which I see that perspective. I invite you to learn more about the “things I’ve seen” in history so that you can add them to your own vantage point. You may be surprised in the end to find that your perspective may change to become much closer to mine.

If you’re willing to continue this journey of discovery, then read the next entry in this series:

Heartland, USA

Posted in lynching | Tagged | Leave a comment

Terrorism on American Soil: Introduction

Terrorism on American Soil

The occupying Allied armies entering Germany at the end of WWII in 1945 found horrific conditions in the concentration camps that they liberated. It was mind boggling to US troops, and very soon some of them decided that it would only be fitting to bring the townspeople from nearby cities to view for themselves what they had turned a blind eye to during the war. This occurred in some places, and the reactions of the Germans were captured on film in some photographs that still can be seen on the Internet. Here are three of them.

camp visit               flossenburg

camp visit2

These types of pictures retain their power even today, long after the events.

The Roth Horowitz Gallery in New York City hosted a photographic exhibit in January and February in the year 2000. One person who attended described the mood at the gallery.

I saw this exhibit. … This small gallery took in only about fifteen people at a time, and the line was long. Watching the viewers as they exited revealed what was inside: people with tears, some with anguish, some looked surprised with the horror they had seen.  (Source)

Yes, a picture is often worth 1000 words.

So I’d like to share some of the pictures that were shown at Roth Horowitz that elicited such strong emotional reactions from the viewers.

But what you need to know first is that these were not pictures of WWII Germany. They were pictures of the aftermath of terrorist attacks on American soil.

Perhaps you were under the misconception that such terrorism began on 9/11/2001 with the suicide attacks on the Twin Towers. Or maybe you trace back the beginnings of homeland terrorism to the bombing by Timothy McVeigh of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

You would be in error in either case. Terrorism on American Soil began long before that, as seen in the photographs shown at Roth Horowitz.

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; An Ugly Legacy Lives On, Its Glare Unsoftened by Age


Published: January 13, 2000

New York Times

The photographs that go on view tomorrow at Roth Horowitz, a gallery on the Upper East Side, may never fit comfortably into the history of art, or for that matter, of photography. This is because they are so deeply embedded in the history of hatred, specifically the American history of hatred, which is often a matter of race. They manifest this hatred shockingly, remorselessly, tragically.

The 60 photographs are of American lynchings that took place between 1883 and 1960, mostly but not always in the South. Most of them were taken by professional photographers immediately or a short while after the lynching, sometimes during. All but a few of the victims were African-American men and women.

Lynching. Now there’s a word you don’t hear much these days. I’m pretty sure I first heard it as a child attending a B-Western movie sometime in the early 1950s. In such movies it was very typical for “frontier justice” to be meted out by a “vigilante” gang who would “take justice into their own hands” when someone was accused of cattle rustling or murder. This was called a “lynching,” and always indicated that someone was taken from the legal custody of the local sheriff and quickly hanged by a mob, that was convinced that the perpetrator might “get off” if left to the hands of the justice system.

Yes, I had always, until recently, thought that the term “lynching” was a direct synonym for “hanging.”

How wrong I was. And therein lies a horror tale which has haunted me for months, since I first stumbled accidentally over the description of the Horowitz exhibit and began reading about this mind-boggling topic. I wish I could put it out of my mind, but God will not let me. It must be shared with those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. If that includes you, then read on.

Speaking of the Roth Horowitz collection, the writer above goes on:

These images have been collected over the past decade by James Allen, an antiques dealer from Atlanta, along with related material like anti-lynching pamphlets and newspaper reports, which are also on display. Everything in the show is from the Allen-Littlefield Collection, on deposit in the special collections department of the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University. The show was initiated by Andrew Roth when he learned that Twin Palms Publishers was planning a book about the Allen-Littlefield collection. A book published this month, ”Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” reproduces 98 images from the collection, with essays by the Georgia congressman John Lewis, the historian Leon F. Litwack, the writer Hilton Als and Mr. Allen, who has annotated each image.

Although this material has been available to scholars for two years, this is the first time any of it has been exhibited. The show at Roth Horowitz, at 160A East 70th Street, continues through Feb. 12.

These images, most of which are postcard-size, are incendiary; they will burn a hole in your heart. They depict the lifeless forms of black men and women hanging from trees, bridges, from telegraph poles, often tortured or mutilated. They depict charred corpses held aloft like banners and relatively intact ones arranged like hunting trophies.

Yes, as it turns out, “lynching” is a much more general term than I had understood. And in the context of the history of America, it turns out that the key ingredient rather than rope was often fire.

They are postcard-size because that is what they were: most of them original photographic postcards and a few printed halftones (some hand-tinted) that were produced in the hundreds and occasionally the thousands and sent through the mail, sometimes as warnings (until around 1908, when the Postmaster General of the United States forbade the sending of such material). Some bear personal inscriptions: ”This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it, your sone (sic) Joe,” reads one message.

barbecueAnd here is the horrifying front of that same postcard.

waco front of cardThe charred torso is what was left, to be put on display, of a 17 year old young man named Jesse Washington, tortured, hung from a tree, and burned alive, in the front of the court house of Waco, Texas, in 1916 with over 10,000 people looking on—perhaps close to half the population of Waco at the time.

Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the event, and many children attended during their lunch hour. Members of the mob castrated Washington, cut off his fingers [to keep him from climbing the chain by which he was hanging], and hung him over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered and raised over the fire for about two hours. After the fire was extinguished, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of a lynching in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco. (Wiki: Jesse Washington)

[DO NOT LOOK TOO CLOSELY AT THIS PHOTO UNLESS YOU ARE BRACED FOR IT. It is said that the victim was still alive when it was taken.]

waco crowedDescribing many of the photos at Roth Horowitz, the author noted:

But as Mr. Allen observes in his eloquent afterword, it is not so much the victims that stun, although of course they do. What takes the breath away is the sight of all the white people, maskless, milling about, looking straight at the camera as if they had nothing to be ashamed of, often smiling. Sometimes they line up in an orderly fashion, as if they were at a class reunion or church picnic. Sometimes they cluster around the victim, hoisting children on their shoulders so that they can see too.

No, these are not descriptions of secretive rituals of the Ku Klux Klan, done in the dead of night by people in strange robes with their faces hidden by pointed hoods. They are events that occurred in broad day light—or brightly-lit city squares at night, perpetrated and attended by men in dress shirts and ties and straw hats, accompanied by women in sleeveless flowered summer dresses, sometimes by children in their Sunday best—or school clothes.

Many of these events did indeed occur in the Deep south … such as this one near Newnan, Georgia

A crowd of nearly 2,000 people gathered in Georgia in 1899 to witness the lynching of Sam Holt, an African American farm laborer charged with killing his white employer. A newspaper described the scene:

Sam Holt…was burned at the stake in a public road…. Before the torch was applied to the pyre, the Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers, and other portions of his body…. Before the body was cool, it was cut to pieces, the bones were crushed into small bits, and even the tree upon which the wretch met his fate were torn up and disposed of as souvenirs. The Negro’s heart was cut in small pieces, as was also his liver. Those unable to obtain the ghastly relics directly, paid more fortunate possessors extravagant sums for them. Small pieces of bone went for 25 cents and a bit of liver, crisply cooked, for 10 cents. (Source)

From another lurid newspaper account at the time:

The clothes were torn from the negro in an instant. A heavy chain was produced and wound around his body. He said not a word to this proceeding, but at the sight of three or four knives slashing in the hands of several members of the crowd about him, which seemed to forecast the terrible ordeal he was about to be put to, he sent up a yell which could be heard for a mile. Instantly a hand grasping a knife shot out and one of the negro’s ears dropped into a hand ready to receive it. He pleaded pitifully for mercy and begged his tormentors let him die. His cries went unheeded. [Source]

Those events took place about four hours from where I now live in Georgia. And it is not “ancient history.”  It was in the lifetime of my own grandfather.

But no, such lynchings weren’t just a southern phenomenon. They occurred all over the country in the time period between the 1870s and the mid-20th century.

Will James was lynched to great merriment in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois

 “The Frog” or “The Froggie” was a black man implicated in the murder of a white girl, captured in nearby Belknap and taken to the most prominent square in the city and strung up. The rope broke and the man was riddled with bullets. The body was then dragged by the rope for a mile to the scene of the crime and burned in the presence of at least 10,000 rejoicing persons. Many women were in the crowd, and some helped to hang the negro and to drag the body.

Part of the mob then sought other negroes. Another part, at 11:15 o’clock, after battering down a steel cell in the county jail, took out Henry Salzner, a white man charged with the murder of his wife last August, and lynched him. [Source]

cairo will james 1909

Then there was the lynching of three young black men in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920.

…three black circus workers were attacked and lynched by a mob in Duluth, Minnesota. Rumors had circulated among the mob that six African Americans had raped a teenage girl. A physician’s examination subsequently found no evidence of rape or assault. …Through the course of the day, a mob estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 people formed outside the Duluth city jail and broke into the jail to beat and hang the accused. The Duluth Police, ordered not to use their guns, offered little or no resistance to the mob. The mob seized Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie and found them guilty of Tusken’s rape in a sham trial. The three men were taken to 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East, where they were lynched by the mob.

Here’s a postcard of the Duluth lynching.

duluth 1920

The first verse of Bob Dylan’s 1965 song “Desolation Row” recalls the lynchings in Duluth. Dylan was born in Duluth, and grew up in Hibbing, which is 60 miles northwest of Duluth. His father, Abram Zimmerman, was nine years old in June 1920 and lived two blocks from the site of the lynchings. Zimmerman passed the story on to his son. [Source]

But of course the South was keeping up.

In Paris, Texas, in 1893:

In Paris the officers of the law delivered the prisoner to the mob. The mayor gave the school children a holiday and the railroads ran excursion trains so that the people might see a human being burned to death. [Source]

paris tx 1893

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1935:

On July 19, 1935, Rubin Stacy, a homeless African-American tenant farmer, knocked on doors begging for food. After resident complaints, Dade County deputies took Stacy into custody. While he was in custody, a lynch mob took Stacy out of the jail and murdered him. Although the faces of his murderers could be seen in a photo taken at the lynching site, the state did not prosecute the murder of Rubin Stacy. [Source]

rubin stacyrubin stacy3rubin stacy2

From the records available, it appears his only “crime” was being hungry and daring to approach the home of a white woman to ask for a handout.

And it was not always males.


One of those women was Mary Turner, a woman in Georgia who wasn’t even accused of a crime.

In May, 1918, 31-year old white plantation owner Hampton Smith, known to abuse and beat his workers, was shot and killed on the plantation by one of his black workers, 19-year old Sydney Johnson. Earlier, Johnson had been beaten by Smith for not working while he was sick.Smith’s death was followed by a week-long mob-driven manhunt in which at least 11 people were killed.

Among those whom the mob killed was another black man, Hayes Turner. Distraught, his eight-month pregnant wife Mary publicly opposed her husband’s murder and threatened to have members of the mob arrested. The mob then turned against her.She was taken from her home by a mob of several hundred, who brought her to Folsom Bridge over Little River, which separates Brooks and Lowndes counties.The mob then tied her ankles, hung her upside down from a tree, doused her in gasoline and motor oil and set her on fire.

While Turner was still alive, a member of the mob split her abdomen open with a knife. Her unborn child fell on the ground, where it gave a cry before it was stomped on and crushed. Finally, Turner’s body was riddled with bullets. [From the Wikipedia article on Mary Turner. A Contemporary report can be read.]

You know, if it hadn’t been for those horrific “picture postcards” in the Horowitz exhibit, I would find it extremely difficult to believe that those details could possibly be true. Not in the United States of America. Not during the lifetime of my grandparents. Not near Valdosta, Georgia…barely three hours away by modern automobile from my home.

“Witness,” at the Roth Horowitz Gallery, includes 75 photographs of lynchings, taken from the collection of James Allen and John Littlefield. Allen, an antiques dealer from Atlanta, has gathered these historical documents over the past decade. They consist mostly of small-size photos on postcard stock, and they show grisly scenes from a few score of the thousands of lynchings which took place between 1880 and 1960.

…Almost all of the lynching victims were African-American, but there were occasionally other victims as well—most notably Leo Frank, the Jew who was imprisoned on murder charges in Atlanta in 1913, and kidnapped from his jail cell and lynched by a mob two years later, after the governor had commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. A postcard showing Frank’s murder is among those on display in the current exhibition.

Lynchings reached a peak between the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth. A poster in the exhibit, issued in the early 1920s by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and calling for a campaign against these atrocities, gives the figure of 3,436 for the number of lynchings recorded between 1889 and 1922, mostly but not entirely in the former slave states of the South. The actual number is almost certainly higher.

The poster enumerates the official charges against those killed by racist vigilantes: 1,288 victims were accused of murder, 571 of rape, 615 of “crimes against persons” and 333 for “crimes against property.” Alongside these figures are given some of the actual causes of the lynchings: “not turning out of the road to make way for a white boy”; “being the relative of a lynching victim”; “jumping a labor contract”; “talking back to a white man.”

The small photographs and postcards in the exhibit are understandably chilling and gruesome. The great majority show the bodies of the victims hanging lifelessly from trees or telephone poles. In some of the scenes men are depicted staring at the camera before they are killed, as if pleading for their lives. They essentially bear witness for future generations, testifying to the inhuman killings that were about to take place, in a fashion similar to that of photographs of the Nazi Holocaust.

Most striking about the photos is the presence of participants and bystanders. The lynchings were in most cases a kind of community event in which townspeople participated willingly and even enthusiastically. In some cases postcards depicting the killings were sent to friends and relatives. …

As one man who visited the exhibit put it, according to a news account, “Considering the fact that human beings have been executed, for people to smile, to be actually jostling to be in the picture, that’s more stunning than anything else.

Like these fellows in Duluth.

duluth crowd closeup

No, actually I think more stunning was the presence of those children.  The little Floridian in the bottom right corner of this pic of the Rubin Stacy lynching would probably be about 85 or so now. Don’t you wonder how what she saw affected her life? Not just the death of that man, but … how the adults around her “modeled” for her how she should feel about it.

rubin stacy4

The reality was that in many (if not most) of these cases of lynching, the “goal” was not any form of true “justice.” Most of the people in those swarming crowds knew nothing of the “facts of the case” of the person whose grisly death they were witnessing. In far too many of the situations, in addition to the “blood lust” of the crowd in general (obviously this is all VERY close to the displays in the Roman Coliseums in the first century), an unspoken goal was … terrorizing the Negro population (or sometimes Chinese, or Italian, or…) of an area into “keeping their place.”

These were Acts of Terrorism. Committed by American Citizens AGAINST American Citizens. On American soil. Many of them in the lifetimes of people still living.

If you are brave enough to come along, we’ll explore more on this topic of “Terrorism on American Soil” in the next blog entry:

The United States of Lyncherdom

Posted in lynching | Tagged , | 1 Comment