Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy

Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy

by James S. Hirsch

A best-selling author investigates the causes of the twentieth century's deadliest race riot and how its legacy has scarred and shaped a community over the past eight decades.

On a warm night in May 1921, thousands of whites, many deputized by the local police, swarmed through the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing scores of blacks, looting, and

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A best-selling author investigates the causes of the twentieth century's deadliest race riot and how its legacy has scarred and shaped a community over the past eight decades.

On a warm night in May 1921, thousands of whites, many deputized by the local police, swarmed through the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing scores of blacks, looting, and ultimately burning the neighborhood to the ground. In the aftermath, as many as 300 were dead, and 6,000 Greenwood residents were herded into detention camps.

James Hirsch focuses on the de facto apartheid that brought about the Greenwood riot and informed its eighty-year legacy, offering an unprecedented examination of how a calamity spawns bigotry and courage and how it has propelled one community's belated search for justice. Tulsa's establishment and many victims strove to forget the events of 1921, destroying records pertaining to the riot and refusing even to talk about it. This cover-up was carried through the ensuing half-century with surprising success. Even so, the riot wounded Tulsa profoundly, as Hirsch demonstrates in a compelling combination of history, journalism, and character study. White Tulsa thrived, and the city became a stronghold of Klan activity as workingmen and high civic officials alike flocked to the Hooded Order. Meanwhile, Greenwood struggled as residents strove to rebuild their neighborhood despite official attempts to thwart them. As the decades passed, the economic and social divides between white and black worlds deepened. Through the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal helped to finish what the riot had started, blighting Greenwood. Paradoxically, however, the events of 1921 saved Tulsa from the racial strife that befell so many other American cities in the 1960s, as Tulsans white and black would do almost anything to avoid a reprise of the riot.

Hirsch brings the riot's legacy up to the present day, tracing how the memory of the massacre gradually revived as academics and ordinary citizens of all colors worked tirelessly to uncover evidence of its horrors. Hirsch also highlights Tulsa's emergence at the forefront of the burgeoning debate over reparations. RIOT AND REMEMBRANCE shows vividly, chillingly, how the culture of Jim Crow caused not only the grisly incidents of 1921 but also those of Rosewood, Selma, and Watts, as well as less widely known atrocities. It also addresses the cruel irony that underlies today's battles over affirmative action and reparations: that justice and reconciliation are often incompatible goals. Finally, Hirsch details how Tulsa may be overcoming its horrific legacy, as factions long sundered at last draw together.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Drawing on oral histories of survivors as well as on studies by local scholars, Hirsch tells us what can be reliably said about Tulsa's 'race war' and recounts efforts by modern-day Tulsans to recover and atone for the past....Absorbing and horrendous at the same time: an important contribution to American history." (starred review) Kirkus Reviews with Pointers

"Hirsch's reconstruction of this history , which reads as a horrifying narrative, is illuminating....Hirsch unearths an important episode in U.S. history with verve, intelligence, and compassion." Publishers Weekly, Starred

"Riot and a quietly devastating account of Tulsa's two-day convulsion of blood and of the struggle years later to return the riot to living memory." Time Magazine

"What echoes clearest in this moving, important book is how great a debt is disadvantaged African Americans in all the Tulsas of this country who continue to reel from the wounds of state-fostered injustice."—Mother Jones

"An illuminating and brilliant discussion of history, memory and forgetting. In his convincing account, Hirsch shows how the wounds of racial division are far from healed." The Washington Post

"Remarkable...the best book yet on the Tulsa riots, and one that should be required reading." Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Acclaimed journalist James S. Hirsch takes a penetrating look at how a single incident back in 1921 -- the Tulsa race riot, which broke out when thousands of whites descended upon the city's Greenwood section, killing hundreds of blacks and burning down the area -- affected the course of rare relations for many years afterward. Hirsch explores the reasons why this incident is so little known today, and, indeed, why was it not even covered by the press when it happened. He also looks at Tulsa today, in an attempt to see how (and if) the 1921 atrocity has changed things in the former Jim Crow city.
Publishers Weekly
"But our boys who had learned their lesson/ On the blood-stained soil of France/ How to fight on the defensive/ Proposed not to take a chance." This rousing piece of verse is not a post-WWI veterans' drinking song but a poem recounting African-American resistance to a white riot ignited when blacks banded together to stop a 1921 Tulsa, Okla., lynching. But despite the bravery displayed, the riot, which was the worst in U.S. history, was a cataclysmic event in which the entire prosperous black neighborhood of Greenwood 1,256 homes, churches, stores, schools, hospitals and a library was looted and burned to the ground, while three hundred people were killed and the black residents were finally forced at gunpoint into detention centers. Even more shocking is that the event has been virtually wiped from history with newspaper accounts, police records and state militia records destroyed. Hirsch's reconstruction of this history, which reads as a horrifying narrative, is illuminating and grim. Relying on oral histories, investigative journalism, court and archival records as well as published memoirs and government reports, Hirsch (Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Hurricane Carter) paints a complex portrait of a prosperous city where oil was discovered in 1901 and where African-Americans had obtained some degree of economic and cultural independence in a state with an already troubled history of racial tension. Political organizing by the International Workers of the World in 1917 had set the stage for social unrest; veteran status gave black men a new identity after WWI. Hirsch unearths an important episode in U.S. history with verve, intelligence and compassion. (Feb.) Forecast: This book may not hit bestseller lists, but it could be shortlisted for awards. The fight for economic compensation to Greenwood's victims can be related to the larger current struggle for reparations for African-Americans. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of the best-selling Hurricane reconstructs America's worst race riot the storming of Tulsa's Greenwood section that left 300 African Americans dead. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A journalist's painstaking recounting of a bloody urban race riot that was covered up for decades. On May 31, 1921, a group of about 75 African-Americans, many of them armed, marched on the city jail of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to protect a young man who had been accused of assaulting a white girl. They had reason to believe that he was in danger of being lynched: that afternoon the Tulsa Tribune had reported the assault and apparently published an editorial urging white citizens to take the law into their own hands. All this remains fuzzy, says former Wall Street Journal and New York Times reporter Hirsch (Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, 2000), because all archival copies and microfilms of the paper have had their editorial pages carefully removed. This was one of many measures taken by Tulsa civic leaders to hush up the events that followed: a crowd of some 1,500 armed whites met the black marchers, shots ensued, and hours later the predominantly African-American section of Tulsa called Greenwood was in flames. More than 1,250 buildings in the 36-block area were destroyed, some possibly as a result of aerial bombardment. At least 38 and perhaps as many as 300 people died, most of them black. Thousands of surviving residents of Greenwood were rounded up and placed in makeshift detention camps. In the ensuing months, Tulsa civic leaders found scapegoats for the riot, most of them black, too, and then set about erasing it from the public record. Drawing on oral histories of survivors as well as on studies by local scholars, Hirsch tells us what can be reliably said about Tulsa's "race war" and recounts efforts by modern-day Tulsans to recover and atone for the past. Absorbingand horrendous at the same time: an important contribution to American history. Author tour

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction 1
The Self-Made Oil Capital
Early in the twentieth century, it was inevitable that a big city
would develop somewhere in the desolate, rolling landscape that sat
above North America's largest pool of oil. The Mid-Continent field,
beneath parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, helped fuel the Model T
Fords that put Americans on the road, the trains that transported
them across the country, and the ships and planes that prevailed in
World War I. The field transformed a land of wheat, cotton, and
cattle into a vital industrial resource and turned tired villages
into vibrant cities. The city that best exploited this pool would be
crowned the Oil Capital of the World.

That city should not have been Tulsa, Oklahoma.
For all the oil that gushed from the Oklahoma soil, not a
drop was ever found in this prairie community on the edge of the
Ozark Plateau. Tulsa could supply oilmen with the equipment,
financing , and amenities that made their work possible and their
lives pleasant, but many other towns were far better suited to serve
them. Muskogee, fifty miles southeast of Tulsa, was the seat of the
federal government that ruled the Indian Territory that became the
eastern half of Oklahoma with statehood in 1907. In 1905Muskogee had
12,000 citizens —more than twice as many as Tulsa—as well as paved
streets, a trolley, and the seven-story Turner Hotel, the finest
lodging between Kansas City and Dallas. Also bigger than Tulsa was
nearby Bartlesville, which discovered oil in 1897, as well as Vinita,
Claremore, Okmulgee, Sapulpa, and a dozen othersettlements that
dotted the grasslands. They viewed Tulsa as a drab cattle town with
one railroad, a dirty train depot, and a huddle of crude wooden
houses. A visitor in 1905 recalled that the city lacked even its own
Located along a curl in the Arkansas River, where the oak-
laden foothills of the Ozarks blend into the tawny landscape of the
Great Plains, Tulsa was settled in 1836 by Creek Indians from
Alabama. They called their village Lochapoka, "place of turtles." The
first white settlers arrived in the early 1880s, but "Tulsey Town, "
as they called it, held little promise other than as a trading post
for farmers. At the turn of the century, it was literally a cow town,
with thousands of head of cattle routinely driven through its center,
rutting streets, trampling gardens, and trailing clouds of dirt. The
roads were dust storms in dry weather, swamps in rain. Residents
insisted that the streets not be wider than eighty feet—anything
greater was too far to walk in the mud.
Main Street was gray and pungent, with no sidewalks,
streetlights, or sewers. First and Second streets, littered with
watermelon rinds and horse apples, intersected Main. The smell of
freshly killed animals pervaded the Frisco Meat Market, which paid
cash for hides and proudly hung on its storefront the pink carcasses
of deer, raccoons, rabbits, quail, and prairie chickens. Pigs and
cattle roamed the streets at will, and mosquitoes bred by the
millions in the rain barrels at each store, which offered the only
water for horse-drawn fire wagons. It sometimes wasn't enough. In
1897 a blaze destroyed the city's first bank, three masonry
buildings, and twelve wooden structures. Schools and churches were
small white frame buildings, outhouses stood behind homes, and water
faucets disgorged clumps of dirt. The briny brown liquid came from
the Arkansas River, which was dangerous to drink (wells provided a
limited supply of potable water) and barely fit for bathing. River
water gathered in tubs left a thin layer of dirt, and bathers had to
towel the granules off their bodies.
The river was also an economic liability: its wide sandy bed
and sudden freshets made it difficult to navigate. Steam ferries
ground to a halt as cattle ambled in the river past the hapless
passenger boats. The Arkansas separated Tulsa from the oil and gas
fields west of the city, which gave other towns the edge in serving
the petroleum companies and their suppliers.
Other handicaps, both natural and manmade, deterred growth.
The long summers were inescapably hot, forcing families to sleep on
mattresses outside their homes. Tulsa had telephones—three hundred in
1905—but no phone book. The city was further crippled by its
inadequate facilities; raising money for public services was almost
impossible before statehood. When the Robinson Hotel, a converted
livery stable, was built in 1904, the re was no sewage system, so the
hotel ran its waste into an open ditch a few blocks away. Protesting
neighbors won an injunction against the hotel, which eventually built
its own sewage lines directly to the river. Its owner then held
a "sewer banquet" for thirty-two of the protesters.
Tulsa's raw frontier image was shaped by the spitfire cowboys
who rode into town, filled up on illegal whiskey, and dashed through
the streets shooting at lighted windows. They sometimes fired pistols
over the heads of congregants leaving church, the screams of the
women delighting the provocateurs. Tulsa tolerated outlaws, even
offering them sanctuary. Bill Doolin, whose gang terrorized banks,
trains, and post offices, was an occasional resident, and the four
Dalton brothers were fixtures. Their exploits robbing and terrorizing
innocents had been luridly described in the press, and they boldly
walked down Tulsa's streets, ate at its cafés, attended its churches,
and purchased large quantities of gunpowder and ammunition from its
merchants. Rumors of Dalton raids sometimes forced shopkeepers to
barricade their stores with sugar sacks and barrels, and armed men
kept watch for the outlaws on rooftops. But the attacks never
materialized. Years later, Tulsans would fondly remember the Daltons
for their quiet, courteous manner, but the city's renown as a haven
for bandits contributed to its lawless reputation.
In 1900, only two years after its incorporation, Tulsa was a
grim, isolated backwater of 1,300 people, lost among the many prairie
towns of the Oklahoma and Indian territories. These communities were
soon dealt a devastating blow by technical advancements in
agriculture. The arrival of tractors and combines eliminated most
field hands. The sharecropper became expendable, and as marginal
farmers moved on, many towns and villages languished or disappeared
entirely. That could have been Tulsa's fate. Instead, it became one
of the most remarkable boomtowns in American history, and it did so
with a can-do bravado and a shameless boosterism that shaped its self-
image for the rest of the century.

To survive and prosper, Tulsa's pioneers first had to overcome the
physical and economic liabilities of the Arkansas River.
In 1901 the area's first major oil discovery occurred at Red
Fork, a hamlet three miles southwest of Tulsa. With newspapers across
the country trumpeting the "Great Oil Strike, "Red Fork drew throngs
of oil workers and investors, most of whom bypassed Tulsa to avoid
the expense and time of crossing the treacherous water on
unpredictable ferries. In response, Tulsa's leaders wanted to build a
bridge across the Arkansas for pedestrians and wagons, so they
submitted a bond issue; voters, suspecting the oil craze would be
short-lived, defeated it. It looked like Tulsa would miss its chance.
But three private citizens raised $50,000 on their own and built a
toll crossing, the 11th Street Wagon Bridge. Opening on January 4,
1904, the steel bridge soon carried the tools and lumber traveling to
Red Fork. Its inscription read: YOU SAID WE COULDN'T DO IT, BUT WE
Near this bridge was an older crossing used by Tulsa's one
railroad, the Frisco. Business leaders prodded the Frisco to send
special daily trains to and from the Red Fork oil fields so that
workers could escape from the grease and grime. Each morning, the
oilmen from Tulsa ate a massive breakfast at the Pig's Ear, across
from the train station, while the proprietor's wife packed their
lunches. Then they boarded a fifteen-car train called Coal Oil
Johnny, which passed through Sapulpa and dropped off workers in and
around Red Fork. In the evening it brought them back to Tulsa, where
a boomtown was slowly taking shape. The drillers, tool dressers,
roustabouts, and investors rubbed elbows with the railroad men,
cowboys, and merchants as they sat down to the best fried chicken in
all the oil country.
Ultimately, the Red Fork strike produced far less petroleum
than expected. Its peak of a hundred barrels a day fell short of a
great gusher, and its production soon dissipated to five or six daily
barrels. But Tulsa had established its name in the oil patch.
Bridging the river was one challenge, but even more important
was linking Tulsa to the rail network that was now connecting
destinations in the Oklahoma and Indian territories and beyond. The
pioneers did not leave this matter to luck or fate. In 1901 the Katy
Railroad announced plans to complete a line from Muskogee to
Pawhuska; the new rails would cross the Frisco tracks about seven
miles east of Tulsa, sending its traffic to competing towns. All the
oil in the world wouldn't save Tulsa if the trains were taking the
financiers and roughnecks to other communities, so the city's leaders
hastily formed the Tulsa Commercial Club, which later became the
Chamber of Commerce. Club officials approached Katy's executives with
their own survey and insisted that running the line through Tulsa
would create a shorter and less expensive route to their final
destination. To help persuade the railroad men, the Tulsans also
pledged to secure a right-of-way (valued at $3,000) and gave
a "bonus"—others called it a bribe—of $12,000 (or about $239,000 in
2000 dollars) that came in a promissory note underwritten by
virtually every merchant and business in the city. Tulsa got the
railroad, and the businessmen who represented the city grew rich in
the coming oil bonanza. Three years later, the Commercial Club used
the same strategy to forge another link to the outside world when the
Midland Valley Railroad announced it would place a line through Red
Fork. To convince the Midland officials to direct their rail through
Tulsa, this time the "bonus" was $15,000. That year the city also
convinced another railroad (the Santa Fe) to redirect its tracks
through Tulsa, this time with no financial sweeteners.
Coaxing the railroads to Tulsa secured the city's future as
the major distribution point for the petroleum industry throughout
the Southwest, and it sealed the doom of its immediate rivals,
including Red Fork. What's more, it established a pattern that was
reinforced many times over the years: when Tulsa had a problem, its
business leaders solved it. They were self-made men building a self-
made city, and their work had just begun. They had figured out how to
bring people to Tulsa on rail and over water; now they devised a plan
to attract those people. They needed a massive public relations
campaign (before public relations had even been invented), and they
got it with their barnstorming boosters.
In 1905 Tulsa's leaders decided to take the story of their
city directly to the country. One hundred of the town's leading
citizens donated one hundred dollars each and chartered a train to
carry them 2,500 miles through scores of midwestern cities and towns.
This group was dubbed the One Hundred Club, although only eighty nine
men actually went. On the eve of their departure, their wives and
children worked throughout the night to decorate the train with
streamers and banners touting Tulsa as oil country. Attached to the
side of a coach was a huge map of the Oklahoma and Indian territories
and a picture of a large derrick. Outsiders thought the venture
pointless. Tulsa was not on most maps, so why would anyone move there?
But the One Hundred Club created its own frenzy. The men sent
telegrams to other cities' business clubs and newspapers asking to be
met at the train depot so they "could induce a few hundred men of
money to locate in the greatest city in the world." The train carried
a printing press borrowed from the Tulsa Democrat; at each stop, it
cranked out pretentious news pages, one of which read in part:

Tulsa wasn't on the map because it grew faster than maps can be
Tulsa was a magnificent metropolis of seven churches and not a single
The clink of one dollar against the other was in Tulsa's national air.
Wearing bowler hats and dark overcoats, the Tulsans brought
their trombones, tubas, and drums, heralding their arrival at each
stop by blaring songs and waving American flags. But they also needed
a feature act to turn out the crowds, so they asked a young cowboy
named Bill Rogers, who lived in Claremore, twenty-nine miles away, to
join them. Years later, as Will Rogers, his virtuoso roping skills
were captured in movies, and his wit earned him fame as a writer and
humorist. But on this trip he dazzled crowds with his lariat—he roped
a group of men in the pit of the Chicago Board of Trade—and fashioned
Tulsa's reputation as a magical place.
The booster train created a windfall of publicity for Tulsa.
The prestigious St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, wrote: "Down in
Tulsa, the y have a theory that whatever helps the town helps the
citizens. It's a pretty good theory too. It makes nations as well as
cities great."
The publicity surrounding the trip was so great that three
years later, the Tulsans organized a second, even more ambitious
excursion. This time they promoted both their young city and their
new state of Oklahoma, established the previous year. They traveled
through Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago, then eastward to
Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York, ending in Washington, D .C.—
fifteen states and 2,972 miles in sixteen days. The band and the
printing press were back, and a Creek and a Cherokee joined them as
swarthy reminders of the city's Indian tradition. They learned a

Come, everybody! Get off the grass! We're from the town of natural
gas! From Indian Territory and don't give a rap! Move to Tulsa and
get on the map!

The boosters captured the imagination of dignitaries and commoners
alike. The governor of New York, Charles Evans Hughes, welcomed the
group at Manhattan's Union Station, and state and local officials
paraded them down Fifth Avenue, past cheering New Yorkers. In the
capital, President Theodore Roosevelt gave them a party, and they
received an ovation when they visited the House and Senate. Returning
to the Chicago Board of Trade, they created such a ruckus that the
telegraph wires suspended operation. From New York came a frantic
query asking what was the matter. "Nothing, " went the
response. "Tulsa is here."
When the group returned home, 8,000 cheering supporters
greeted them at the Katy Station, Oklahoma's lieutenant governor,
chief justice, and speaker of the house among them. A scheduled
parade was canceled because the streets were too jammed. Even before
the train returned, the Commercial Club had received two sacks of
letters requesting information about Tulsa, the new state, and
opportunities for investment. Robert T. Daniel, a wealthy land
developer in Miami, had read accounts of the 1905 expedition and
moved to Tulsa, believing that it was the promised land. He built two
of the city's first skyscrapers, the Daniel Building and the Hotel
The triumphant excursions begat endless publicity gimmicks.
The Commercial Club paid $1,000 for a three-reel film about Tulsa and
its oil fields. Local publishers produced booklets on expensive paper
that ranged from bombastic praise for the city to vapid agricultural
statistics; in 1915 the Chamber of Commerce published a
booklet, "Tulsa Spirit, "with stories about economic growth and
cultural enrichment. Another book bore the title Tulsa: A City with a
Personality. The careful cultivation of Tulsa's image, w here
the "clink of one dollar against the other" could be heard in the
air, was central to its ultimate success. A name had already
blossomed for Tulsa—the Magic City—and by 1908 it had a postcard
called "Moonlight over Tulsa, "showing electric lights strung like
pearls above Main Street.
As new and larger oil fields erupted in Oklahoma, this
alluring image would ensure that Tulsa attracted the financiers who
bankrolled the oil digs and the roustabouts who worked in the fields—
as well as the women who ran the homes, raised the children, and
worked in the schools, bars, and brothels. But the publicity had one
drawback: the influx of capital and manpower could just as easily
cease if the town's image was somehow sullied, if Tulsa were known
not as a magic city but as a city of destruction and bigotry. Those
issues confronted Tulsa before long, but in the meantime it pursued
its destiny as the new El Dorado, a place of fabulous wealth and
boundless opportunity.

On November 22, 1905, two Tulsa wildcatters, Robert Galbreath and
Frank Chesley, were drilling for oil on a farm owned by Ida Glenn
about twelve miles south of the city. Their bit touched a sandbar,
and the well blew into production—and was soon anointed "the biggest
small field in the world." The new gusher held such riches that when
a curious reporter tried to visit the site a few days later, he was
barred by men with shotguns. In March the partners hit an even larger
well only three hundred feet from the first. Initially, the wells
gushed so profusely that the oil simply collected on the ground,
without the benefit of tanks. Waterfowl often mistook these "lakes of
oil" for ponds, so café owners served "roast duck, " a cheap dish
frequently on the menu.
Fortunately for the natural habitat, Glenn Pool rigs and
tanks soon appeared across a field eight miles long. "The whole
countryside, " one pioneer oilman recalled, "had a bristling
appearance from hundreds of wooden derricks rushing into the sky." By
1907 ninety-five oil companies were working the field, having sunk
more than a thousand wells; they produced almost twenty million
barrels of oil in that year alone. Glenn Pool enabled Oklahoma to
lead the nation in oil production in its first year of statehood. It
made a few lucky men instant millionaires, and it flushed millions of
dollars into Tulsa. The money, wrote the Oklahoma historian Danney
Goble, "was spent on capital with drilling companies, freight
companies, and supply companies. It was spent on wages in Tulsa's
stores and for Tulsa's homes. It was spent on necessities, on
luxuries, on children—and on gambling, liquor, and women. It made
Tulsa rich. It made Tulsa wild. And it made Tulsa big."

While Glenn Pool's output peaked in 1911, the following year saw an
even bigger eruption, the Cushing field, forty-five miles west of
Tulsa. It was the most spectacular pool of its size in the world.
Rousing gushers blasted uncontrollably from the earth, and streams of
slimy black liquid flowed down creeks and ravines as frantic
producers threw up dams to stop the waste. By 1915, the Cushing field
was producing 300,000 barrels a day—nearly one fifth of all the oil
marketed in the United States.
Money rolled into the city. In 1914 it had only three banks
with more than $1 million in deposits; two years later, all nine
banks had deposits exceeding that amount. It made sense for the Oil
and Gas Journal, the industry's bible, to move to Tulsa in 1908. The
new publisher, Patrick Doyle, lived in Oil City, Pennsylvania, the
site of America's first oil field, and the journal had been published
in Beaumont, Texas, the home of the great field at Spindletop, which
ushered in the modern oil industry. But with the best oil days over
in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and with Spindletop dried
out by 1911, Tulsa rightly claimed the title of Oil Capital of the
The arrival of the oil field workers in Tulsa was like a shot
of adrenaline in an already caffeinated body. They wore khaki shirts,
leather boots, fedoras, and trousers splattered with oil and mud.
They were reckless, free-spending, muscular, quick-tempered, violent,
hard-drinking, and eager for a gamble. But even in his Sunday attire,
an oilman could usually be recognized by the wad of tobacco in his
cheek (fire hazards at wells forced him to chew instead of smoke).
Danger loomed in the oil fields, w here men were killed when
thunderstorms torched tanks and windstorms toppled derricks. Another
hazard came from nitroglycerin, which was used to discharge wells by
breaking up oil-bearing strata. When a wagon hauling the unstable
compound hit a pothole, the resulting explosion would leave a huge
crater in the ground and rattle windows for miles. Passersby could
only speculate on whether the bits of flesh came from man or horse.
But these dangers were eclipsed by the lust for profits, with
opportunities rippling throughout the Tulsa economy. Barbershops,
restaurants, and grocery stores posted perpetual help wanted signs.
Contractors searched for craftsmen in the building trades. The oil
producers and investors were always hunting for drillers, tool
dressers, geologists, and pipeliners. Teenage boys hauled buckets of
hot bathing water to oil workers living in makeshift inns with no
plumbing. Bootleggers sold anything they could pour in a bottle.
The "shady-ladies" ran around with stockings full of money.
Tulsa's growth was staggering. Between 1907 and 1910 its
population more than doubled, to 18,182 from 7,298. From 1910 to 1920
the number almost quadrupled, to 72,075. The newcomers stood in line,
waiting for others to finish, in cafés, restaurants, and hotel dining
rooms. Barbershops stayed open all night, giving numbered cards to
customers as they entered. Carpenters, plumbers, painters,
bricklayers, and electricians also worked through the night, beneath
bright floodlights, on stores, office buildings, and no-frills board-
and-batten bungalows.
By 1909, there were seven jewelry stores, all near Second and
Main streets, two auto dealers, and two dressmaking emporiums,
including the Parisian Parlor. Watermelons were still sold from
horsedrawn buggies, but the town had forty-eight grocers, thirty-
three restaurants, six bakeries, and three wholesale meat markets.
Main Street was paved by 1908, and two years later eighty more blocks
had received the same treatment. In time, a stately four-story
courthouse was built of gray stone and marble imported from Italy.
The surveyor who laid out the rest of downtown named the
streets cleverly. Those west of Main were named after cities west of
the Mississippi River, starting with Boulder, Cheyenne, and Denver.
East of Main were cities east of the Mississippi—Boston, Cincinnati,
and Detroit. These names seemed to reflect Tulsa's big-city
The opening of the Hotel Tulsa on May 12, 1912, symbolized
the town's image of glamour and wealth. The absence of a fine hotel
had been a serious drawback for a city trying to become a commercial
center, but this ten-story marvel filled that role. "It means another
milestone in the onward march of Greater Tulsa—the biggest single
advancement yet, "proclaimed the Tulsa World. Located at Third
and Cincinnati, it breathed frontier opulence, with rich chandeliers
hanging over large brown leather chairs, brass spittoons at their
feet. The Persian rugs, white and gray marble steps, and domed
ceiling evoked the new riches, while the oilmen's other pursuits in
the hotel—drinking whiskey, playing poker, consorting with
prostitutes—embodied Tulsa's rowdy past.
The lobby was a blend of blue serge pants and grease-stained
overalls, winners one day, losers the next. Oil producers, lease
brokers, and wildcatters created their own informal stock exchange.
To buy or sell a lease, someone would pull out a map, stick a pencil
on the spot, and agree to a price. In the hotel's first fifteen
years, a billion dollars in oil deals was transacted there; according
to several accounts, the oil tycoon Josh Cosden once wrote a personal
check for $12 million. The lobby's dominant figure was Harry
Sinclair, who occupied a suite of offices on the fifth floor where he
played poker, drank whiskey, and, according to legend, put together
the Sinclair-White Oil Company one night in the hallway. Other
regulars were Robert McFarlin, who made so much money in the Glenn
Pool and elsewhere that his company became the world's largest
independent oil producer in less than ten years, and J. Paul Getty,
who around 1914 wore the first wristwatch seen in Tulsa.
The Hotel Tulsa captured the era's fizzy spirit. On one
occasion, patrons thought that a national Indian convention in Tulsa
would make a fine time to hold a bronco-riding contest in the lobby.
Three strands of rope were strung around the great white marble
columns to erect a corral, and powdered resin was sprinkled on the
tile floor. Then a bare-chested Indian, wearing buckskin pants and a
beaded headband with one feather, walked his horse through the lobby
into the corral. Crowds of people gathered outside the ropes and
along the marble rail of the mezzanine, and bets were placed on
whether the Indian could stay mounted on the bucking bronco for eight
seconds. The spectators roared as the rider banged his heels against
the horse's side; the animal reared back, lunged forward, slipped,
and crashed to the floor, spilling the rider to the ground. The
Indian got back on his horse and this time held on for the prescribed
eight seconds. But right before the gun sounded to end the ride, the
oilmen on the mezzanine began pouring corn whiskey on the crowd
below, setting off a mad scramble. As one spectator, Choc Phillips,
recounted in his memoir:

Those caught in the downpour around the corral, and the people lining
the railing around the mezzanine floor yelled and laughed as if it
was the funniest thing in the world . . .Why allow such a showy
attractive place to be shattered and broken by those wild rough
people? The answer was money, lots of it. It was that sort of town.
Any damage to the property would have been paid for immediately, and
usually without a whimper . . . Things of this nature were rather
normal conduct in boomtowns.

An economic frenzy of a different sort had played out in the region
once before. In the great land runs of 1889 and 1893, farmsteads
could be obtained in the Oklahoma Territory by dashing forth at the
sound of an official pistol and driving stakes into unclaimed ground.
(The Oklahoma Sooners refer to those who jumped the gun.) These
stampedes made the area a refuge for the poor, dispossessed whites
who had foundered in other southern states and were trying once again
to scrape out a livelihood. Oil attracted a completely different
newcomer to Oklahoma, and to Tulsa—not the rugged farm boys from the
South but the financial dandies and oil barons from the East, many
from the fading petroleum fields of Pennsylvania and Ohio. They
brought with them expansive styles, sophistication, and a desire to
plant highbrow culture in the red clay of Oklahoma.
In 1908 the Tulsa Opera House staged Ben Hur and fancifully
recreated the chariot race by putting two horses on adjacent
treadmills. The women of Tulsa formed a musical organization named
the Hyechka Club, from the Creek word for "music." Supported by the
city's businessmen, it brought in the New York Symphony, the
Metropolitan Opera Company, the Minneapolis Symphony, the Chicago
Civic Opera Company, the Victor Herbert Orchestra, Toscanini with the
La Scala Orchestra of Milan, and many other performers. When Amelita
Galli-Curci, the brilliant Italian soprano, came to town, she
performed her operatic repertoire, then brought down the house with
an encore of "Home, Sweet Home." As a newspaper man later wrote, "
Some of the oil queens clattered down the aisles looking like just-
opened pirate chests . . . Gradually, even [they] began to learn the
difference been an aria and an aardvark, and people didn't applaud so
loudly between the movements by celebrated soloists."
As the downtown skyline took shape, the tycoons built
mansions whose Italian marble mantelpieces, plush velvet handrails,
and silver-plated chandeliers bespoke a Gilded Age of Oil. Their
homes were south of downtown, beyond rows of bungalows, on wide
boulevards shaded by oaks, redbuds, and dogwoods. Josh Cosden, who
opened Tulsa's first refinery on the banks of the Arkansas and was a
millionaire at thirty-two, is credited with building the city's first
oil mansion in 1914. On 17th Street, it was fronted by six massive
columns and featured grand amenities. Visitors could play tennis on
an imported English clay court under electric lights—a Tulsa first—or
they could swim laps in the indoor pool. One block south was a
mansion owned by Carl Dresser, a native of Pennsylvania and the
president of a company that supplied most of the world's oil pipeline
couplings. At twenty-nine, he built a three-story Italian Renaissance
villa, with a stucco façade and terracotta roof tiles. The interior
featured high beamed ceilings, tile and hardwood floors, wrought-iron
railings, and leaded and stained glass windows. It had five bedrooms,
six baths, three sunporches, six fireplaces, and a three-car garage.
It also included quarters for five servants and a large wall safe in
the butler's pantry for the family silver. The dining room, with its
gold leaf ceiling, had a stone mantel with the immortal inscription:
Inter secundus res esto moderat (In the future, among favorable
things be moderate).
While the boosters relished the stories of Tulsa's wealth,
man y residents still lived in poverty. The oil business, in which
wells gushed one day and ran dry the next, was inherently unstable,
and even sustained oil flows were commercially perilous, causing
overproduction, lower prices, and reduced profits. These boom-and-
bust cycles capsized companies, wiped out fortunes, and prevented
many workers from escaping their squalor.
In 1921 a Methodist church in Tulsa sponsored a survey of the
working-class neighborhood of West Tulsa, on the west bank of the
Arkansas River. Three thousand residents lived in bungalows, tents,
boxes, o r other threadbare structures. In one house, a family of
seven all slept on dirt floors; on another block, twenty-seven people
used the same outdoor toilet. Leaking roofs and poor sanitation were
common, and the children lacked shoes, clothing, and food. There were
305 cases of contagious diseases—whooping cough, measles, mumps,
chicken pox, diphtheria, and smallpox, all among preschool children.
They "must have light and sunshine, as well as sanitary conditions,
and in the case of contagious diseases, be isolated, " the report
Vice also flourished. In the red brick hotels along First
Street, parallel to the railroad tracks, gamblers set up their rooms,
and prostitutes solicited patrons by rapping on the windows. To avoid
the police, illegal whiskey was floated on rafts and in boats at
night down the Arkansas River to replenish the city's supply. If it
failed to arrive, word spread that "the fleet had sunk." Otherwise, "
the fleet was in."
On Friday nights the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church,
Charles Kerr, toured First Street, prayed with drunken cowboys and
roughnecks, and tried to lead them to Jesus. On Saturday nights, when
the oilmen had a paycheck in their pocket and time on their hands,
murders, fights, and knifings became so frequent that the street was
named Bloody First. On Sunday mornings, it was common for residents
to wake up and ask, "Who got shot last night?" On one occasion, a boy
left his home at dawn to deliver newspapers and found the body of a
man in his front yard. The man had apparently been stabbed in a
fight, staggered along the street, collapsed in the yard, and bled to
death on the lawn.
Even in its early boom years, the city's lawlessness was
virtually impossible to stop. In 1906 the Tulsa chapter of the
Women's Christian Temperance Union marched on city hall and protested
that vice was corrupting the town's youth. The mayor said he was
powerless to suppress the traffic in liquor and gambling and, as for
prostitutes, "We cannot send them to jail for we have no suitable
place to incarcerate women." For years, the police department, like
other government agencies in Tulsa, remained poorly financed and
staffed. When vice squads tried to shut down the rooming houses where
hookers met their clients, the proprietors appeared in court and
swore they had thought the couple was married. After all, that was
how they signed the registry. The roadhouses outside town, which were
popular gambling dens, sat on mounted wheels, so when word came of an
impending raid, the houses were simply rolled into the next county.
Tulsa debated whether it should be an open or closed town,
typically slanting these arguments toward what was best for its
commercial interests. Open-town advocates believed the city's
anything goes mores attracted free-spending businessmen; their closed-
town adversaries considered tough law enforcement essential for
Tulsa's long-term stability. These debates flared during campaigns
for city office. Political challengers pledged to "clean up Tulsa"
and crack down on reputed "vice lords"—prominent citizens who
profited from illicit businesses and bribed police officers and
newspapermen to ignore criminal behavior. When sometimes the
political challengers won, the y were then beholden to the same
underworld interests as their predecessors, and the crackdowns rarely
Only an epidemic could inspire draconian measures. In 1918,
when the Spanish influenza infected one in four Americans and killed
forty million people around the world, Tulsans collapsed while
walking down the street or sipping coffee in a restaurant. Old
storage rooms, churches, and schools were turned into emergency
hospitals, but many residents—at one point 3,000—still had to fight
the virus at home. City officials banned gatherings of all sorts and
even advised people not to shake hands with friends. Under these
conditions, the authorities raided the First Street hotels, swept up
dozens of "undesirables"—pimps, gamblers, bootleggers, and
prostitutes—and quarantined them in two old warehouses. When the
epidemic subsided, it was business as usual, and sex, booze, and
poker were good for business.

Ultimately, nothing would derail the boom years—Tulsans wouldn't
allow it. The city was run by a benign plutocracy, which applied
enlightened self-interest to bridge the Arkansas River, entice the
railroads, sponsor the booster trains, even bail out failing
businesses that were central to its commercial mission. In 1910 the
Farmers National Bank was close to insolvency, and a run on the bank
could have triggered other runs, forced shutdowns, and eviscerated
Tulsa's claim as a business center for oil. The town's leading
petroleum executives convened an emergency meeting. Fearing the
collapse of Farmers National, the oil elite agreed to take it over,
rename it Exchange National Bank, and personally guarantee every
dollar of every deposit. Unlike other banks, which viewed the oil
business as a crapshoot and were reluctant to finance wildcat wells,
this institution catered to oilmen, and it flourished as the demand
for energy soared from the growing auto industry and, later, World
War I. Eleven years and several consolidations later, Exchange
National operated out of a beautiful new twelve-story building at
Third and Boston streets and had deposits of nearly $28 million. As
Harry Sinclair later said, "All of us thought that the future of
Tulsa and the future of oil cried out for an oil bank, and it became
what we hoped it would, the biggest and best known oil bank in the
As the century's second decade rolled on, Tulsa's streets
were paved as part of a large civic plan. A municipal building, a
convention hall, a hospital, and a high school were all constructed.
Office buildings that bore the names of their oil patrons—Cosden,
Kennedy, Sinclair—were also built. Their thick carpeting, columns
lined with brass and gold, polished marble floors, and long shining
counters all looked, in the words of one New York writer, like "a
corner torn away from Wall Street." Streets were named Harvard and
Yale. Clothing stores now sold black-embroidered Chamoisette gloves
for women, taffeta dresses for children, and Manhattan silk shirts
for men. Cadillacs crowded the streets, and car shows were annual
events, featuring—according to one advertisement—"hundreds of
beautiful women, each superbly gowned at the steering wheel of every
car." Tulsans still rode horses, but many of the riders had discarded
their blue jeans, vests, and dangling spurs for a more sophisticated
British look: tweed jackets, helmets, fine leather boots, and an
English saddle that lacked the trademark embossed pommel of its
western counterpart.
Social climbing was seen even in religious circles. Many poor
Tulsans from the rural South had Pentecostal backgrounds, which
emphasized a belief in divine healing, speaking in tongues, and
boisterous expressions of faith such as clapping and shouting. But as
the Pentecostals made money in the oil fields and moved up the social
ladder, the y sought admission to the more restrained, prestigious
Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches as one more vindication of
their enriched earthly status.

Overlooked in all the excitement was a growing black community north
of the railroad tracks. Ambitious but restive, proud but relegated to
the fringe of society, it could have existed in another state or even
country. Whites knew that blacks were in their midst—the "coloreds"
or "Negroes" worked as their cooks, chauffeurs, and servants—but they
were not among the pioneers and visionaries who built the miracle
that was Tulsa. As Tate Brady, who moved to Tulsa in 1890 and later
opened one of its largest hotels, wrote about these groundbreaking
days: "Indian and white man, Jew and Gentile, Catholic and
Protestant, we worked side by side, shoulder to shoulder and under
these conditions the 'Tulsa Spirit' was born and has lived and God
grant that it never dies . . .Cursed be he, or they, who on any
pretext try to divide our citizenship and destroy this spirit."
When racial violence finally did split the city, when long-
ignored wounds were opened and the "Tulsa Spirit" lay in ruins,
thousands would be cursed.

Copyright © 2002 by James S. Hirsch. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Meet the Author

James S. Hirsch, a former reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Cheating Destiny, the bestseller Hurricane: The Miracle Journey of Rubin Carter, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, and Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam. He is also a principal of Close Concerns, a consultancy and publishing company that specializes in diabetes. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Sheryl, and their children, Amanda and Garrett.

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