For the rest of her life, and she lived a very long time thereafter, Eldoris Ector McCondichie remembered the exact words of her mother.
"Eldoris, wake up! We have to go!" Harriet Ector shrieked to her daughter on that beautiful spring morning of June 1, 1921. "The white people are killing the colored folks!"
The cloudless sky outside was still pink from the dawn, but with those words, Eldoris's drowsiness was gone in a blink, rendering her fully awake and trembling by the time she tossed aside the covers. The nine-year-old girl threw a dress over her head as her mother rushed her along, with scarcely time for shoes and socks, and followed her parents and older brother as they hurried toward the front door of their small home on Iroquois Avenue.
White people? Killing the coloreds? Eldoris waited to shake free from the nightmare, but she couldn't. She turned her mother's words around in her young mind, trying to fit them together in a way that would make sense, but that didn't happen, either. The days before had been so peaceful, boys and girls antsy because the end of the school year was just a few days away, but nothing else seemed amiss whatsoever.
And white people? Eldoris never had reason to fear them before. Every morning since she could remember, her father had set out on foot, walking south through the black quarter where her family lived, the place called Greenwood. Then he crossed the Frisco railroad tracks at the edge of the Negro community, stepping into the dream world of tall buildings and streetcars and big new stores and huge schools and fancy homes where the whites of Tulsa, Oklahoma, lived. Every day Eldoris's father clipped those white folks' lawns and weeded their gardens, and the rich whites brought her father cold drinks on hot afternoons, and gave him a ham at Christmas, and otherwise treated her father fine, at least as far as his young daughter knew. But most important, they also paid her daddy a nice wage. Eldoris was old enough to know that the salary Howard Ector earned across the tracks was the reason his family had their little house on Iroquois. It paid for their food, and fifteen-cent movies at the Dreamland Theater on Greenwood Avenue, for her dresses, even for a doll or two.
And Eldoris knew the story was the same in almost every Greenwood household—Negroes toiling for white folks across the tracks, thousands of men and women joining Howard Ector on that same trek south to work as maids, or as mammies who suckled the white infants, or as chauffeurs, elevator operators, ditch-diggers, landscapers, or shoeshine boys, taking the burden from white Tulsans who got rich from the oil wells gushing just south of the city.
Many Negroes disappeared into white Tulsa for days on end, swallowed up in the affluence like Jonah by the great whale, living in servants' quarters on the south side. Greenwood didn't see them until Thursday, the maids' day off, when the servants rushed back home over the tracks and donned their fanciest clothes to stroll the two-block section of Greenwood Avenue where it ran into Archer Street—Deep Greenwood, as it was called. The maids and chauffeurs and gardeners and mammies ambled around for hours, past the sturdy brick drugstores, beauty parlors, newspaper offices, meat lockers, restaurants, jewelry stores, fine hotels, jazz joints, barbershops, skating rinks, and pool halls, all of them owned and run by blacks—past the offices of the lawyers and doctors, all of whom were Negroes, too. The heavenly aromas of fried chicken, barbeque ribs, and collard greens filled the air, mixing with the notes of jazz and blues that poured into the street. Promenading. That's what they called the activity of those wondrous Thursday nights—walking and flirting, pausing to spend some of their hard-earned money on an ice cream cone, or a glass of lemonade or a new hat, or on a snootful of bootleg liquor, then walking some more. Young men fought as the nights wore on and the moonshine flowed, and shot their guns into the air and sometimes at each other. But by and large, those nights were happy times, celebrations of what seemed possible for Negro people in America less than sixty years after the Civil War.
So on those Thursday nights in particular, the Negroes could forget about the new brick skyscrapers, fancy cars, and big homes that belonged to the whites on the south side of the tracks. They could forget that blacks, whose sweat was certainly welcome there, couldn't shop in white stores, or see movies at white theaters, or ride in white railroad cars. They could forget that new laws had caused even the telephone booths in Oklahoma to be segregated. They could forget that whites had larger, nicer, newer schools with all the latest textbooks for their children. They could over-look all these things because of the promise of those Thursday nights—because Greenwood Negroes, probably more so than blacks in any other place in the nation, had everything they needed on the north side of the Frisco tracks. As far away as Chicago, blacks said the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the top of the mountain for people of their race, a remarkable little city within a city, remembered over the decades as the "Negro Wall Street of America." And even a child knew the money that Negroes like Eldoris's father earned from the whites made it all possible.
But then, on that rosy dawn of June 1, 1921, it all disintegrated with her mother's early morning words. The white people are killing the colored folks! and in the second that Eldoris poked her head out the front door, she knew it was true.
She turned her head south as she stepped outside looking toward Deep Greenwood, the scene of all those festive Thursday nights. A massive black cloud of smoke billowed there now, nearly obliterating the rising sun.
As her father pulled her from the house by the hand, she heard a terrible noise from the sky and looked up to see airplanes buzzing low. The little girl had seen the flying machines only a time or two before, and they were ominous creatures even then, but now as they roared above them, she heard the dull thuds of bullets hitting the ground around her feet like fat raindrops, and she realized that she and her family were being shot at from the air. She yanked free from her father then, racing in panic to a nearby chicken coop and pulling open the door. The terrified eyes of several Negro adults already crowded inside stared back at her from the shadows. Chickens cackled nervously at the intrusion. Eldoris pushed her way through the grown-ups and crouched in a corner of the coop and would have stayed there forever if her father hadn't appeared at the door, pulled her back outside and dragged her off to the north to join all the others.
For her family was certainly not alone in their flight. A great column of black people was hurrying north with them along the Midland Valley railroad tracks that ran past her house, a sorry procession of thousands that stretched as far as Eldoris could see. Some were dressed only in bathrobes or nightclothes, having been flushed from their homes in the middle of the night by white mobs in the grip of the devil. "Come out, niggers!" members of the mob called to them in their Greenwood homes that night. "Come out or die!" So they rushed outside and headed north, many without shoes or socks. Women carrying wailing babies quietly wept to themselves. People hauled bundles of clothing on their heads. An old woman clutched a tattered Bible to her chest. A girl about Eldoris's age carried a little white dog beneath one arm. Some of the men cried, too, or stared off to a place far away, as if looking for answers there. Parents dragged their older children along after them, just as Howard Ector now dragged his daughter. The old people shuffled along as best they could. Many of them were old enough to remember slavery, but nothing from those times compared to the horror of what was happening on this morning.
The planes disappeared from the sky after a few minutes, so now and then someone in the procession took a moment to ponder the growing wall of smoke to the south. Beneath that cloud, their homes and all their other earthly possessions were being incinerated. Back there, they had seen their neighbors tortured in the most hideous ways, or shot down in cold blood, or burned alive.
Why? The question hung over the procession like the smoke from the fires behind them. All anyone knew was that a few days before, a white girl had accused a black boy of assault, which somehow caused Greenwood to be swallowed up by rage, as if every ounce of enmity that had been building up in the whites since the Civil War had exploded on their doorsteps. The white people are killing the colored folks! An angry white mob clamored at their heels. So Eldoris and her family and the rest of the Negroes fled for their lives up the Midland Valley tracks toward the wooded hollows and rolling hills to the north of town, where they might finally be safe.
Looking around at the others, at the horror etched on the refugees' sunken faces, at the smoke behind her, Eldoris was reminded of something she had learned about in Sunday school. This was like Judgment Day! As she stumbled north with her family, she expected to see Jesus appear on his throne at any second, come to set everything right. But she never did.
Each member of Eldoris's family survived that day, but so did the horror—her mother's chilling words in the morning, the smoke, the crowds, the planes, the death and grief and destruction her family saw when they were allowed to return home a few days later. Somehow, their little house on Iroquois had survived, but most of the other buildings for thirty-five square blocks—almost every business, church, hospital, school, and home in Greenwood—had been reduced by the mob to ash and rubble. A few days after the burning, Eldoris walked to Detroit Avenue on the shoulder of Standpipe Hill, where so many of the black doctors and lawyers and businessmen and schoolteachers had their large, beautiful brick houses. Now only an occasional wall or chimney still stood. On one surviving wall, a wisp of white curtain dangled from a window, tossing in the breeze. Eldoris somehow took that as a sign of God's love and hope.
But the memories always stalked her, God's love and hope or not. The memories stalked everyone. In the decades to come, few Tulsans on either side of the tracks spoke out loud of the great burning, as though the catastrophe was a secret that both blacks and whites conspired to keep. Indeed, people who moved to the city only a few years later might never have known that it hap-pened at all. But whether it was discussed or not, no one who witnessed the events of those historic days in Tulsa could ever forget. Seventy-nine years later, seventy-nine years later almost to the day, on a cloudy spring morning in the year 2000, Eldoris Ector McClondichie shuffled to a bookcase in the living room of her tidy Tulsa home, not far from the place on Iroquois where she grew up. She was an elderly widow now. She pulled two tissues from a box on the bookcase and sat down on her sofa, smiling weakly.
"By now, I know better to talk about that day without holding a few of these," Eldoris said.
On a warm May night in 1913, in the shadowy lamplight of Greenwood's First Baptist Church, Mrs. Lucy Davis read the audience a short essay on love, and the Rollison sisters nervously stepped to the altar to sing a lovely duet. Men wearing expensive suits and white gloves and women in their finest white dresses applauded politely. But those were only the quaint preliminaries to the primary attraction, one anticipated in the Greenwood community for days. Scarcely a spot in the pews was empty that night, for the principal speaker at the annual meeting of one of Greenwood's leading fraternal orders was none other than Captain Townsend D. Jackson—ex-slave, revered black lawman and militia leader in both Oklahoma and Tennessee, a man who had cast off the shackles of slavery and now looked the white governor of Oklahoma straight in the eye without blinking.
Or so Tulsa Negroes had heard. Just a few months before, Jackson and his family had moved to Greenwood from the Oklahoma town of Guthrie, preceded by Jackson's considerable notoriety, and his new neighbors were certainly anxious to hear for themselves the man's thoughts on the great racial questions of the day. That night at the church, they would finally get their chance.
He was impressive enough to look at—a stately, six-foot fellow whose short, dark hair had gone mostly gray. Jackson was also what Negroes called a "light," a mulatto whose creamy skin color gave rise to suspicions that he had been fathered by his Georgia slave owner in the 1850s, a common enough occurrence in those days. Little matter. As the Rollison sisters warbled their final note, Jackson rose and slowly stepped toward the pulpit, away from the front-row pew where his wife and youngest son, the handsome young physician Dr. Andrew Jackson, were sitting with him.
As he did, Andrew J. Smitherman removed a piece of paper and pencil from his breast pocket and leaned forward in his own pew near the front, poised to capture Jackson's every word. Smitherman, a bulldog-like man, was the irascible editor of the Tulsa Star, Greenwood's leading publication and its most authoritative public voice. In the eight years between that night in the church and the great burning to come, Smitherman doggedly chronicled all the local news, from street brawls to potluck dinners. But he also never missed a chance to rail in print against injustices perpetrated against his people, and had intervened personally in attempted lynchings in neighboring towns. An early banner headline summed up his belligerent disposition where race matters were concerned: YOU PUSH ME, the headline promised, AND I'LL PUSH YOU.
Seated next to Smitherman was John B. Stradford, a short, dapper, mustachioed man, the son of a Kentucky slave and an owner of a law degree in Indiana. He quickly had emerged as one of black Tulsa's most successful entrepreneurs, including among his ventures the famously luxurious, fifty-four-room Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue, one of the state's largest black-owned businesses. But like his friend Smitherman, Stradford's overriding concern was the Negro's plight in America, and like the editor, Stradford wasn't shy about saying so. Just ask the white deliveryman Stradford had beaten to within an inch of his life for a racist remark made within earshot.
Others in the First Baptist audience that night were less inclined toward racial militance perhaps, but were no less noteworthy. John Williams and his wife Loula owned a drugstore, an auto shop, and a movie theater, and were the first Tulsa Negroes to purchase an automobile. O. W. Gurley owned Greenwood's first hotel and grocery store. Dr. R. T. Bridgewater was black Tulsa's first physician; Barney Cleaver, the towering fellow seated near the back, was the first Negro deputy. Lawyers and schoolteachers were in the audience, too, people who memorized Shakespeare and read Latin.
On the issue of race, some no doubt shared the confrontational notions of Smitherman and Stradford. Others preferred a quieter course. But each in his or her own way had put the lie to the prevailing theories of Negro inferiority with which the whites of that time continued to justify so much of their cruelty. Indeed, to visit First Baptist on the night of Jackson's speech was to observe Greenwood's gentry in its proud entirety—educated, literate, affluent Negroes packed into the sanctuary, estimable folks curious about Captain Jackson, just the latest in a series of remarkable success stories that continued to unfold in the place called Greenwood.
They were the children of slaves, or, in a few cases, had been born into slavery themselves. Some of the Greenwood gentry, in fact, remembered the dreary years after the Civil War, when four million Negroes were emancipated but without the skills, education, and experience in public life to guide them in their new freedom. In the decades after the war, tens of thousands of freedmen were thus obliged to work as sharecroppers or as tenants for their former owners for pitiable wages or no wages at all, earning a standard of living a slim notch above slavery itself.
Thousands of other emancipated blacks wandered confused and homeless from place to place, one step ahead of starvation, or they congregated in the cities, depending on handouts from the Freedmen's Bureau, which had been created by the federal government in the North to help tide them through.
But federal assistance was short-lived. Government policies during what was called Reconstruction, policies designed to protect the ex-slave and assist his transition into free society, evaporated within a decade after the Civil War. Federal troops assigned to keep order were recalled from the South, placing Negroes once more at the mercy of the whites, men and women embittered by their defeat by the North, people who typically believed Negroes a wholly inferior species—as much animal as human. Those whites thought Negroes childlike at best, bestial at worst, a threat to the safety and dignity of Southerners, and certainly incapable of meaningful participation in self-government. So when the North looked the other way, white state legislatures across the South quickly moved to make sure that blacks would not have the chance to participate in the democracy.
State after state effectively disenfranchised them with voting requirements most Negroes had no hope of meeting. Who knew how many windows there were in the White House? That was the kind of question Negroes needed to answer to obtain a ballot. In 1870, Tennessee passed the South's first "Jim Crow" statute, mandating segregation in every facet of social and public life, and the other members of the former Confederacy were quick to follow. In the years just after the Civil War, embittered Rebel soldiers joined the Ku Klux Klan by the tens of thousands and rained death and terror on Negroes and their Southern sympathizers. Over the decades, thousands of Negroes were lynched by white mobs, some for the crime of attempting to vote, or for tipping a hat to a white woman, or for failing to observe the "rituals of deference and submission," as one writer later put it.
But by that night in 1913, something had changed. No. The whites seemed as hateful as ever. That wasn't it. The change had come instead in the hearts and minds of the former slaves and their offspring, and nowhere in America was that transformation in greater evidence than in the community on the north side of the railroad tracks in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Many there had embraced the teachings of men like Booker T. Washington, the famous educator and businessman who, beginning in the 1880s, preached that the path to white respect and ultimate equality ran through education and the acquisition of useful vocational skills.
years passed, others in Tulsa began to subscribe to a far less accommodating
philosophy that took hold after the turn of the century with a new generation
of Negro leaders. One of them,
"We have cast off on the voyage which will lead to freedom or death," Du Bois wrote in those years. "For three centuries we have suffered and cowered. No race ever gave passive submission to evil a longer, more piteous trial. Today we raise the terrible weapon of self-defense. When the murderer comes, he shall no longer strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with sticks and clubs and guns."
Thus was the debate that went on every day in Greenwood barbershops, jazz joints, and confectioneries, as it did across Negro America. Were equality and respect to be earned or not? Was it to be the quiet achievement of Negroes, or sticks and clubs and guns? Was it the way of Booker T. Washington or of W. E. B. Du Bois? That spring night in 1913, the issue lingered in the air of First Baptist like smoke from the gas lamps that lit the sanctuary. Just where would the great Captain Jackson stand?
Jackson squinted in the dim light at the piece of paper upon which he had neatly copied his remarks. He paused and cleared his throat in the anxious silence, then bid his new neighbors a pleasant good evening. Otherwise, his first words were not of confrontation, but of modesty and humility, reminding his listeners of Jesus's instruction to enter his kingdom "like little children." He extolled the virtues of the Negro who "shakes thrones and dissolves aristocracies by his silent example and gives light to those who sit in darkness."
To think that those meek words came from a man who had spent the better part of his life as a black law officer, facing down white mobs.
"With money and property comes the means of knowledge and power," Jackson continued. "A poverty-stricken class or race will be an ignorant and despised class and no amount of sentiment can make it otherwise. If the time shall ever come when we possess in the colored people of this country a class of men noted for enterprise, industry, economy and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights; the battle against the popular prejudice shall have been fought."
What better example of his message could there be than the life of Jackson's own son, Dr. Andrew Jackson, who listened to his father from the front of the congregation? Dr. Andrew Jackson had rapidly become known as one of the finest black surgeons in the nation, respected by white and black alike. Whites even consulted the black doctor, seeking cures for their ailments. Would not such achievement be a shield against the mob? Would not such achievement disarm prejudice? That's precisely what Captain Jackson seemed to be saying.
The speech was a bitter disappointment to the Greenwood mil-itants in his audience, and in the end, of course, the militants were right. No black achievement would appease the white hatred of that time. How naive Jackson's words would seem eight years later, on the terrible spring morning when Greenwood burned. Jackson's optimism must have seemed horribly ironic then. For in the great catastrophe of 1921, no one would lose more than Captain Townsend D. Jackson himself.
If anything, it was a wonder that Jackson's faith had endured until 1913, for Jackson, as much as any black, had experienced firsthand the bitter realities of racial hatred in America, dark passions that, in fact, had nearly killed him.
The story of his escape from Memphis survived in his family for generations. It was said that the trouble began on a day in 1889, when Townsend Jackson had the temerity to buy and smoke a cigar in a white store, the final insolent act to the many Memphis whites who hated him, one that begged to be dealt with in the traditional Southern way.
Jackson had always been uppity, those whites figured, had always insisted on standing apart from the rest of his colored brethren, going right back to slave days. His last days of slavery came not on his owner's Georgia plantation, but on the smoky, mist-dampened battlefield of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The husky mulatto boy was only seven when his father/master first hauled him into battle, only nine two years later, in the fall of 1863, when his owner's Rebel regiment withered beneath a bluecoat assault up the mountain and was forced to retreat.
What passed then between slave and master could only be guessed at later. Was there genuine affection between them, feelings that perhaps derived from parentage? Did the white man offer the boy any advice, any money? Did they embrace as they parted? Or did the young slave simply escape? All that could be known for sure was that shortly after the Rebel defeat at Lookout Mountain, Townsend Jackson was free.
It was Jackson's habit in the decades afterward to minimize the hardships and dangers he encountered then, and to downplay the fortitude and resourcefulness required for the boy to survive them. After all, he was not yet ten when he earned his freedom. His world was still at war, his people still in bondage. But an account of his life in the Tulsa Star years later, one based on an interview with Jackson himself, described those postwar years in just two sentences: "Secured his discharge after the battle of Mount Lookout, and went to Memphis a short while thereafter. Through correspondence, he found his mother at Trenton, Tenn., to which place she had immigrated after the war."
After the reunion, Jackson found work in Memphis as a waiter at the famous Gayosa Hotel, serving the rich white man his grits and freshening his whiskey. But Jackson's new servitude would be brief. Another Negro waiter taught him to read, which allowed him to attend night school to study math and history, literature and Latin. He thus fortified himself for the affluent, intoxicating swirl that was black Memphis, a city whose population in the decades after the Civil War was nearly half Negro, a place where every manner of black commerce sprouted from the brown-brick buildings on Beale Street, that Negro hub of business and entertainment known across the nation for its vibrancy and the variety of its temptations.
Jackson's ambitions, however, did not lie in entrepreneurship. He aspired instead to a career as a lawman, perhaps because of his early memories of military life. As a young man, he helped to recruit and organize a black militia, and in 1878, it was Jackson and his officers who stayed behind to maintain public order while white police fled a deadly outbreak of yellow fever that killed thousands in Memphis. When the fever abated, the bravery of Jackson and fourteen of his militiamen earned them permanent positions on the Memphis police force.
But such Negro prosperity was both illusory and fleeting in the South after the Civil War. Negro affluence invariably triggered escalating jealousies and fears among the whites, and in Memphis, one consequence was that Jackson and his Negro officers lost their jobs to a group of racist Irishmen. Then, in 1889, Jackson's cigar finally triggered the ire of a white mob.
A few years earlier, Jackson might have faced down the mob out of principle. He had done so many times before as a Memphis policeman, protecting Negroes accused of variously trumped-up charges. But a decade earlier, he had met and married another former slave, named Sophronia, and by 1889, he was the father to three fine children, two boys and a girl. Nothing was left for the family in the poisoned racial environment of Memphis in any event. When the mob arrived at their home in Memphis that night in 1889, they found it empty, Jackson, his wife and children, safely hidden in the homes of friends. A few days later, the family headed west aboard a car of the Rock Island Railroad.
At exactly noon on April 22, 1889, troopers of the U.S. Cavalry sounded bugles and fired their guns into the air, setting off a mad dash at the boundary of a Southwestern wilderness, which until that moment, had belonged to Indians. Thus began the Great Land Rush of 1889 in what would become the State of Oklahoma eighteen years later. Thousands of frenzied settlers, both black and white, people from every quarter of American life, rushed in on foot, by horseback, by wagon and railroad car, to stake a forty-acre claim to free land, needing only to register their claims in a crude wooden building hastily erected by the government on the prairie, the place where the town of Guthrie sprang up almost overnight.
Thousands of voracious new settlers contested every square inch of the free land, while thousands more poured into Guthrie hoping to capitalize in other ways. New stores, restaurants, hotels, and banks transformed the Guthrie landscape from one day to the next. Just four months after the land run, Guthrie was home to sixteen barbers, sixteen blacksmiths, two cigar makers, seven hardware stores, fifteen hotels, eighty-one lawyers, nineteen druggists, five photographers, thirty-nine doctors, forty restaurants, six banks, five newspapers, and at least one Negro jailer, Captain Townsend Jackson.
What a perfect place for that stubborn Negro optimist. Guthrie's chaos made Memphis seem tame by comparison. But a large percentage of the new arrivals were black, having fled Jim Crow of the South and the same racial hatreds that had driven Jackson and his family from Memphis. In this place, at least initially, the new arrivals of both races were too caught up in the promise of instant wealth, too distracted by the thrills of the raucous boomtown, to give bigotry much heed.
Negroes, in fact, assumed important positions in Guthrie's new territorial government, and Townsend Jackson was one who stepped into the new community's leadership void. In addition to his job as jailer, Jackson was elected justice of the peace. Within a few years, he was appointed to the Guthrie police force, and as in Memphis, he organized the territory's first black militia, thereby becoming a well-known local fixture to politicians of both races. After statehood, the white governor of Oklahoma appointed Jack-son to serve as an Oklahoma delegate to an important national conference on Negro education.
At home in Guthrie, his family also flourished. Jackson's oldest child, daughter Minnie Mae, met and married a bright young lawyer named H. A. Guess, soon to become one of the most respected Negro attorneys in the Southwest. But the proudest moment of Townsend Jackson's life undoubtedly came near the end of the century, when he and Sophronia embraced their youngest child, Andrew, standing with him on the crowded platform of the Guthrie train station. Andrew, always a quiet, solicitous, studious boy, held a ticket to Nashville and a spot in the freshman class at Meharry Medical College, the nation's finest medical school for Negro doctors. Tears poured down Townsend Jackson's face as he watched the train puff off, bearing his son to the east, remembering his own days of learning to read by candlelight and the long struggles to succeed that followed.
Yet Jackson's contentment was again impermanent. White hatreds caught up with the Negro in Guthrie, too. In 1907, when Oklahoma became the nation's forty-sixth state, the legislature passed its version of Jim Crow as one of its first acts. Five years later, the mayor of Guthrie ordered Townsend Jackson to limit his policing to the black sections of Guthrie. Jackson immediately resigned.
But the latest affront only briefly discouraged him. Jackson had survived slavery, the Civil War, and the dangerous years afterward. He had insisted on making a name for himself, first in Memphis, then in Guthrie. His son by then was a doctor. Jackson's stubborn hopefulness had become a habit. It would endure. He would continue to believe that resourcefulness would triumph over hatred in the end.
Just look at what was happening a hundred miles east, in the booming oil town of Tulsa. Jackson had heard that Negro prosperity without precedent was taking root there. Industrious blacks in Greenwood had finally succeeded in placing themselves beyond the reach of white malice. So in 1912, Townsend Jackson and his family boarded the train once more, this time for a shorter trip east, to the Promised Land. And on a warm May night a year later, Townsend Jackson's heart swelled as he stood at the pulpit, addressing new neighbors who had endured odysseys so similar to his, who had survived those struggles with optimism every bit as strong.
Those remarkable life stories were told again and again beneath the striped green awnings of the Greenwood barbershops and pool halls, at the church socials, and on wooden benches along Greenwood Avenue where men lingered to pass the days. Every man worth a nickel had a story.
Barney Cleaver, the tall sheriff's deputy who patrolled Greenwood's streets, recalled his birth to ex-slaves in Virginia, working on a steamer that chugged up and down the Ohio River between Charleston and Cincinnati, then toiling in the West Virginia coal mines, before his odyssey landed him in Oklahoma. John Stradford's journey had taken him from Kentucky to Ohio, to Missouri and Kansas, danger and hardship stalking him and his family at every stop. A fellow named Fairchild had a story similar to Tow-send Jackson's, of escaping from his home in Arkansas only hours before angry whites appeared at his family's door. And so on.
But of all the tales, few reflected more ambition, luck, and timing, if not outright peril, than O. W. Gurley's. He was born to former slaves on Christmas Day, 1868, and later moved with them from Alabama to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he studied in a public school and worked on his father's farm. He taught school himself as a young man, then caught on with the U.S. Post Office, a coveted position for a Negro of the time.
But young Gurley was restless, his dreams vacillating between monetary wealth and political ambition, a hunger that led him to an Oklahoma land claim in 1893, which he soon abandoned to run for county treasurer in the town of Perry, He served as a school principal when defeated, then changed course again, opening a Perry mercantile store that thrived for almost a decade.
It was early in the new century when the familiar yearning seized him again. Gurley began to envision even greener pastures for himself in the little town fifty miles away, a place that until 1905 had been a no-account cattle outpost and Indian trading village. But on November 22, 1905, wildcat oil drillers, working the land of a man named Ida E. Glenn, hit the first gusher of what became the Mid-Continent Oil Field, the most bountiful producer of petroleum in the nation for years to come. Glenn Pool No. I gushed only fourteen miles south of the village called Tulsa, almost instantly transforming the place into an oil capital. White oilmen and speculators flocked there by the thousands, many becoming millionaires overnight. Gurley rightly reasoned that somehow, Negroes could also cash in.
So a year after the oil strike, Gurley and his family moved to Tulsa. With profits from Perry, he bought a strip of land and opened another mercantile store, this time along a muddy country road cut through empty rolling prairie north of the city limits. But neither the prairie nor Gurley's pockets remained empty for long. Blacks poured off train cars at the Frisco depot by the dozens every day, having heard of the Tulsa boom and hoping to capitalize on it themselves. The newcomers threw up crude shanties of scrap lumber and packing crates and had no choice but to buy their groceries from the man who had been there first. Within a year, Gurley added a boardinghouse to his holdings in Greenwood, the place so named after another Negro town in Arkansas.
Thus O. W. Gurley was the first Negro to profit from a remarkable symbiosis born between black and white in Tulsa. Blacks could not shop in white stores, but by 1910, virtually every white family middle class and above employed black chauffeurs, maids, mammies, gardeners, or laundresses. By 1921, a third of Tulsa's black population lived not in Greenwood, but in the servants' quarters of white Tulsa, and hundreds more made the daily commute south across the tracks on foot, mule, or horseback. In downtown Tulsa, where magnificent high-rise hotels and banks and office towers materialized like magic, black shoeshine boys, bellhops, and doormen—earning salaries of five dollars a week—routinely took home ten dollars a day in tips alone, twenty dollars a day on weekends, thereby earning more than some of the black lawyers and teachers. Negro bootblacks took to wearing twenty-dollar gold pieces from their watch chains to flaunt their new wealth.
Otherwise, the Negro shoeshine boys, chauffeurs, maids, and mammies took their money home to Greenwood to spend on haircuts, barbeque, booze, prostitutes, groceries, jewelry, movie tickets, bootleg liquor, visits to black doctors when they were ill, and on black dentists when their teeth hurt. Dozens of black entrepreneurs and professionals had arrived to meet the demands of those hungry consumers.
With a nearby brick factory supplying cheap raw materials, and skilled Negro artisans arriving by the score, impressive brown brick buildings sprouted like dandelions around Gurley's store at 112 Greenwood Avenue. Just south of Gurley along Greenwood, there were the Tulsa Waffle House, the Bell and Little Restaurant, and C. L. Netherlands barbershop. North of Gurley on the first block alone were a dry cleaners, an undertaker, another restaurant, a shoeshine shop, and a lawyer's office. A tailor set up across the street, next to a cafe and Andrew Smitherman's newspaper office, which in turn adjoined a grocery store, cigar store, billiard parlor, and clothing store. When Captain Townsend Jackson arrived in 1912, he would have imagined himself back on Beale Street at the height of its Memphis glory. In 1913, an organizer for a national Negro business association described Greenwood as "a regular Monte Carlo." And O. W. Gurley had started it all—Greenwood's first entrepreneur, who quietly tucked his earnings into white banks across the tracks.
So how the blood must have rushed into Gurley's cheeks when he heard the engine rumble up the street outside his store one morning in 1911. He was used to being first. But here was this young black man behind the wheel, that fellow John Williams in his new Chalmers, proudly inching his way down Greenwood Avenue with the ragtop conspicuously down. Until then, even the wealthiest blacks relied on horse and buggy to get from here to there. But now came Williams, with his wife Loula sitting next to him in front, and young son Bill alone in the backseat of black Tulsa's first car, and O. W. Gurley could have spit.
John Williams had a story, too, one equal to anyone's on the north side of the Frisco tracks. He was born in Pittsburgh, and drifted to Memphis as a teenager to work as a fireman on the Illinois Central Railroad. There he met Loula, a teacher and college graduate, and the couple soon moved to Arkansas and Mississippi, where Loula taught and John worked on steam engines, until the growing threat of the white lynch mob that always shadowed such industrious blacks drove them out of the Deep South to Oklahoma.
Williams worked on a paving crew when he arrived in Tulsa, then as a boiler operator for the white-owned Thompson Ice Cream Company on First Street, earning a salary sufficient to buy the new Chalmers, a purchase that caused his new neighbors to sit up and take notice.
But the surprises were just beginning where Williams was concerned. For John Williams not only managed to buy a car, he taught himself to repair its engine, a skill that quickly endeared him to Tulsa whites desperate for help with their balky new machines. The engine trade was so lucrative that he quit his job at the ice cream company and opened Williams' One Stop Garage on Archer Street, which enjoyed the patronage of Tulsa's leading white entrepreneurs and oilmen.
Such was the beginning of a remarkable Greenwood metaphor. As if by magic, the garage begat the three-story Williams Building at the prime corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street. The family lived on the second floor of Greenwood's tallest building and rented the third for attorneys' offices. But the Williams' confectionary on the ground floor was what became the heart of Greenwood's social life: a spacious place with a towering soda fountain situated amid twelve tables with four chairs each. The confectionary, boasted an ad in the Tulsa Star, was the "headquarters for sweets, candies, nuts, fruits in season, ice cream, cold drinks, cigars, tobacco, and fresh butter every day."
"Don't get disgusted because the warm weather is here," read another newspaper bulletin in 1913. "Remember Williams' Confectionary is a good place to keep cool. All the latest drinks sold daily."
No wonder that young Greenwood suitors tendered more marriage proposals at Williams's Confectionary than anywhere else in black Tulsa. To celebrate, those betrothed couples often stepped from the confectionary and pushed their way through the happy crowds, walking north along Greenwood Avenue to the brightly lit palace that was the Dreamland Theater, yet another example of John and Loula Williams's golden touch. From the time of its opening in 1914, almost every Greenwood family built a fifteen-cent movie ticket into its budget. The Dreamland's eight hundred seats were generally filled for silent features starring Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, accompanied by a live band, or for touring vaudeville acts and musical revues passing through town. With two shows a night, Loula Williams typically locked more than a thousand dollars into the theater's safe when the doors were closed, and on Tuesdays made the trip across the tracks to deposit the earnings at the white-owned Exchange National Bank.
For her family, those nights were part of a frantic but happy life. Loula looked after young Bill, and rushed back and forth between the bustling confectionary and the crowded theater. In the Tulsa Star, Andrew Smitherman hailed her as one of Oklahoma's most proficient businesswomen. Her husband repaired engines and sold gas to the whites and their chauffeurs who lined up outside his shop every day. On weekends, he and Bill carried their shotguns to the river bottoms, returning with bags full of duck or quail or goose, because John Williams might have been even handier with a shotgun than he was with a wrench.
Sophronia Jackson died in February 1914. She had attended a Baptist women's convention in Tennessee just a few months earlier, and returned on the train the picture of good health. But a persistent cough began in January, then a fever, and not even the constant attention of Andrew, her son the physician, could save Sophronia from the fatal case of consumption.
Her family gathered at her bedside in the days before she died—Andrew and his beautiful wife Julia; daughter Minnie Mae and Minnie Mae's husband, the lawyer H. A. Guess; Sophronia's other son, Townsend Jackson, Jr. "In the group," Andrew Smitherman wrote in the Tulsa Star, "with a lowered head, a sad, heavy heart, with fervent prayers upon his lips, stood her sweetheart of former days—the father of her children, her faithful husband, who cheered her in her final days with the sunshine of his love and devotion. It was a beautiful picture indeed—yet a sad one. He had made most of life's journey with her at his side. Now she had become weary and must drop off and leave him to continue alone." When she died, Captain Jackson took his wife's body back to Guthrie, where he had purchased a family cemetery plot years before.
Sophronia had been a woman of deep faith who had assured her family near the end that she was glad to be meeting her Maker, that she would wait for them all in the Great Beyond. Captain Jackson was equally certain of their coming reunion in heaven. Yet he was greatly saddened at her passing. His wife had had so little time to enjoy the peace they had finally found in Tulsa, the wonderful life they had envisioned through all those years of struggle.
After Sophronia's death, Greenwood people often saw the elderly widower on his solitary evening strolls. He had settled into the quiet life of a gentleman barber who worked from his small home on Cincinnati Avenue. On a few of those sad evenings, Jackson hiked to the top of Standpipe Hill, named for the hundred-foot water pipe that stored some of Tulsa's drinking water. The hill jutted into Greenwood from the northwest like a large peninsula, four hundred feet higher than any other place in the city, therefore offering a fine view of white Tulsa to the south and the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in the other direction, and, of course, to Greenwood itself, and all the Negro lives that were unfolding just below.
The devil was busy on some of those Greenwood streets. There was no denying that. Prostitutes beckoned from the bawdy houses along First Street and Admiral Drive. Seedy men and women commingled in shacks in the alleys off Greenwood Avenue, drinking themselves into stupors with that cheap, milky-white intoxicant distilled from Choctaw root. The state's heroin traffic was said to originate from a shack in Greenwood, too. Many young men were idle and troublesome. Many Greenwood families continued to live on the outskirts in plank shacks with dirt floors.
The newspapers said that things were even worse in other places, two dozen race riots in 1919 alone—Houston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, even Duluth, Minnesota. Every month it seemed that another city was consumed. Whites worried that Negroes would take their jobs, or that Negro men would deflower their women, or the whites were enraged by uppity coloreds who were no longer content to ride in segregated rail cars. So tensions rose and the smallest things could set off an apocalypse. In Chicago, a Negro boy swimming in Lake Michigan had drifted toward a part of the beach reserved for whites. The boy was stoned and drowned, touching off a wild fight between whites and blacks who had seen it happen. Negroes never won fights like that because of the numbers always arrayed against them, so the fight on the beach led to weeks of mayhem, with dozens killed and scores of black homes burned.
In Washington, D.C., it was a white woman's groundless claim that two Negro men raped her. By the next day, white soldiers, sailors, and marines were after any black person they could find, "hauling them from off streetcars, and out of restaurants, chasing them up alleys, and beating them mercilessly on street corners," as one writer put it. Word got back to Greenwood of the horrors in East St. Louis, where nearly two score Negroes were killed in 1917, some by white police who fired into crowds of defenseless black folks huddled together in terror. A white woman there slashed a Negro woman's throat. White girls roamed the streets beating every black female they could find. Whites shot a Negro toddler, then tossed its body from a burning building. It was said that the East St. Louis mob set a black cripple on fire.
Every year, stories like those were becoming more common. Negro veterans were even strung up in uniform. More and more, whites seemed to insist on torturing blacks before lynching them, as if killing a Negro by itself did not sate their lust for hate. A Memphis mob snatched a Negro murder defendant and hacked off his ears before soaking him with gasoline and setting him to a match. Whites thrust a hot poker into the eyes of another Tennessee Negro, jammed hot irons against his genitals, then hurled his body onto a bonfire. Newspapers ran ads inviting the public to witness the burning of live colored men.
No wonder Townsend Jackson saw the rage building in his people as these stories were discussed. The young men in Greenwood were especially agitated. Hundreds had fought in World War I, and had been treated by the French people with respect and dignity. They had fought and bled defending freedom, or so they were told, only to find that their brothers were still being mutilated here at home. In all his years, Jackson had never heard Negro dissatisfaction more widespread.
Yet Jackson was too old to change his stripes now. His optimism was set in stone, sustained by all the hopeful things he saw about him in Tulsa. From the top of Standpipe Hill, he saw a steeple rising from almost every Greenwood corner. Just down the hill, the belfry atop Mount Zion Baptist Church rose majestically into the gloaming, the most imposing Negro sanctuary in the Southwest. Booker T. Washington High School stood just across the street, the spacious brick building where black students learned Latin, trigonometry and algebra, history, and literature from the finest teachers anywhere. There was a Negro hospital, too, and a Negro library on Archer Street that owned all the finest books.
And if only Sophronia could see the children now. Andrew lived in that beautiful brick home just below Standpipe on Detroit Avenue, next to other doctors and lawyers and principals and teachers, and Greenwood's finest class of businessmen. Daughter Minnie Mae, her husband and children, lived only one street over in a house just as fine. Their neighborhoods were places where Beethoven was played on Victrolas, where music poured into the night through open windows along with the sounds of laughing children and the smells of cooking chicken and potatoes and vegetables. Some of the children in Greenwood learned to play the violin.
If only Greenwood's angry young men could have walked where Captain Townsend D. Jackson had walked, could have seen what he had seen. If only they could have known slavery and its equally trying aftermath. Greenwood wasn't perfect, but it was so much better than life for Negroes in America had ever been, and this time, unlike in Guthrie or Memphis, there was little the white man could possibly do to take that good life away. Jackson was certain of that. The Tulsa Negro had come too far; more than ten thousand black people lived in peace and prosperity on the north side of the tracks. Dear, dear Sophronia. If only the Lord had not called you so soon. If only you had lived just a little longer to enjoy it.