Richard e Hill - a Writer's Journal

That Forgotten Memorable Memorial Day

 

That Forgotten Memorable Memorial Day for Black Millionaires

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Trail of Tears to Wall Street

A mound separated the early settlers of New Amsterdam from the Iroquois, an association combining five tribes of the indigenous people of North America. The Iroquois League was often known as the Five Nations ---- comprising the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. After the Tuscarora nation joined the League in 1722, the Iroquois became known as the Six Nations presently residing in New England and Canada. This was rguably the first formal democracy in the so-called New World when reprepresentatives of the associated Nations convened.

The Iroquois disapproval of the concept of “being discovered” by the arriving colonists-to-be resulted in frequent aggressive sorties against these mainly Dutch settlers. In the 1640s, picket and plank fences denoted plots and residences in the colony. The Dutch West India Company anointed governor, Peter Stuyvesant, using both African slaves and White colonists, collaborated with the city government in the construction of a stronger stockade ---- the eight block street paralleling this fortified four meter wall became known as Wall Street. The Wall started at Pearl Street, which was the then shoreline, crossed the Indian path Broadway ending at the other shoreline, currently Trinity Place, turned south along the shore until culminating at the old fort. In these early days, local merchants and traders would assemble in groups to trade commodities and slaves ---- and were known as auctioneers and dealers. The agreement forged among these financial pioneers was the provenance of the New York Stock Exchange ---- today the raiders are within the Wall.

Wall Street had historical significance in the emergence of the USA ---- (1) 1789, the scene of the United States' first presidential inauguration when George Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall on April 30. (2) The location of the passing of the Bill Of Rights. (3) The cemetery of Trinity Church is the “lost” burial ground for mixed ethnicity Alexander Hamilton, who was the first Treasury Secretary, the developer of the early United States financial/banking systems, and the founder of the Coast Guard thereby expanding the purview of the Navy.

Circa 1830 Indian Territory was the official name preceding Oklahoma Territory or State. Native American and Black slaves were confined in internment centers in Southern USA (mainly South Carolina) and forcibly transported via a “death march” along the infamous Trail of Tears from 1830 to 1842. Indians had transmogrified from contentious neighbors and trading partners to slaves in the labor intensive agriculture industry. As for Blacks ---- since that off course Dutch ship landed in North America in 1619 and used its cargo of slaves bound for the Caribbean to barter for food --- they were always considered utility. Blacks and Indians had coalesced and formed a quasi-kindred association that included inter-marriage and assimilation in many cases. Among the 8000 deaths during the Draconian trek to Oklahoma were 25 to 30 percent Blacks. (Pardon me for being politically incorrect by not using African American for Blacks and Native Americans for Indians. Have an open conversation with a Native American and within ten minutes they will be using the term Indian. My darker brethren struggle with both African American and Black, but the emotional charged trigger is a rhyming word with trigger.)

Indians had been “ceded” the USA “controlled” lands west of the Mississippi excluding Arkansas and Kansas. There was a short-lived proposition to create a Black and Indian State with elected officials of color, but the Ku Klux Klan threatened that “anyone holding such a position would be dead within 48 hours”. The boundaries diminished as the area became open to White settlement and Oklahoma Territory accordingly evolved. Blacks and Indians became agrarian landowners and the discovery of oil in Oklahoma became a financial boon to all ethnicities. Tulsa Oklahoma, penned as Magic City became the oil center pullulated by hundreds of new arrivals daily.

Note: These lucubrations are the back stories for Memorial Day 1921 in Tulsa Oklahoma.

Welcome to Oklahoma

The epicenter of Black commerce was Greenwood, the residential community in racially divided Tulsa. This forced the neighborhood into self-sufficiency as patronage of and entry into the “other side” was restricted. Greenwood was probably Black businesses shining hour. There were 10 documented Black millionaires (and a likely matching number that dealt in ventures more clandestine). The area encompassed over 600 businesses and 36 square blocks with a population of 15,000 Blacks. Lower-economic Eurocentric citizenry enviously observed the Black community. The neighborhood business district was dubbed Black Wall Street ---- (ALRIGHT, I finally got there!) The dollar circulated up to 100 times often taking a year to leave the Black community --- currently a dollar leaves in less than an hour. During that era, physicians owned medical schools. A doctor owned the bus system with an average income of 500 dollars a day, a goodly sum in 1910 ---- equivalent today to 100 thousand dollars in current purchasing power in many upscale areas. There were two newspapers, omnipresent pawn shops, brothels, jewelry stores, scores of churches and restaurants, and two movie theaters. While the entire state of Oklahoma had just two airports, six Blacks owned airplanes. With Black students, education was a prioritized requirement as well as neat suit with tie attire ---- sorry, “no statement making hooded baggy subfusc”. Tulsa was segregated with Blacks living principally in Greenwood ---- some Blacks lived in servant quarters in White Tulsa and visited family in Greenwood on the weekends for gala home cooking reunions.

Then Memorial Day, the 30th of May 1921 arrived.

On this single festive day, everything would change. The arrest of a young Black man on a questionable charge of assaulting a young White woman touched off the deadliest race riot in US history. Whites charged through the community in retaliation, leaving an estimated 300 people dead, another 10,000 black residents homeless to live “quasi-refugee style” in tents and 35 city blocks in holocaustic ruin.


During the afternoon Dick Rowland, an affable well-mannered nineteen-year old Black shoe shiner at a Main Street parlor, entered the manual operated elevator of the Drexel Building across the street to use the “colored” washroom on the top floor that he had express permission to use. He encountered Sarah Page, the seventeen-year old White elevator operator and business school student. There were varied accounts of their relationship at the time including a rumored clandestine romantic interest. A clerk at a clothing store located on the first floor of the Drexel, heard what sounded like a woman's scream and allegedly observed a young black man hurriedly leaving the building. After rushing to the elevator, the clerk found Page who he perceived to be distraught. Assuming that she had been assaulted, the clerk called the police.

What had actually transpired is conjectural ---- Rowland tripping upon entering the elevator and grabbing Page’s arm to prevent falling, who then screamed or that Rowland and Page had a lover's quarrel. Although in the days and years that followed, everyone who knew Dick Rowland agreed on one thing: that he was judged as being incapable or it would have been out of character to attempt a rape. Besides, they were in the downtown district during the late afternoon. A romantic relationship would be injurious to the health of both parties and indeed have to be secretive during these times of vigilantism and miscegenation.

Whether or not an actual assault had occurred, Dick Rowland had cause to be fearful because such an accusation rightful or not, was enough to incite the latent racist segments of the White public to forego due process and take such matters into their own hands i.e. a lynching party. Rowland realizing the gravity of the situation, fled to his adopted mother's house in Greenwood.

The morning after the incident, Dick Rowland was located on Greenwood Avenue and detained by Detective Henry Carmichael and Henry Pack, a black patrolman, one of the few on the city's seventy-eight man police force. After booking, Rowland was taken to the jail on the top floor of the Tulsa County Courthouse for questioning.

Word quickly spread in Tulsa's legal circles. Many attorneys were familiar with Rowland, being patrons of the shine shop where he was employed. Several were heard defending him in personal conversations with one another. One saying, "Why I know that boy, and have known him a good while. That's just not in him."

The next morning, news of the event had apparently reached the Tulsa Tribune a 1920’s version of the New York Post. The newspaper broke the story in that afternoon's edition with the headline: 'Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator', describing the alleged incident with sketchy details assembled on short notice. It was, however, another article in the same paper that is credited with providing the misinformation which sparked the chain of events that ensued later that evening.

The second article, apparently an editorial, titled 'To Lynch Negro Tonight', spoke of Whites assembling to lynch the teenage Rowland. Several years later, researchers discovered that the editorial in question was mysteriously missing and had been removed from all archives.

Willard M. McCullough, the newly appointed sheriff of Tulsa determined that there would not be a repeat during his time in office of events like the 1920 lynching of a White man, Roy Belton. The sheriff took steps to ensure the safety of Dick Rowland as Black groups supporting Rowland and White groups determined to lynch Rowland assembled. Shots, possibly inadvertently or as a warning were fired and the riot began.

The gunshots triggered an almost immediate response by the White men, many of whom returned fire on the Black contingent, and they continued firing back at the Whites. It is said this first skirmish lasted only a few seconds or so, but had a heavy toll; several men from both sides lay mortally wounded in the street. The black contingent retreated toward Greenwood in a rolling expanding gunfight.

The now considerably armed white mob pursued the Black group toward Greenwood, with many stopping to loot local stores for weapons and ammunition. Along the way innocent bystanders, many of whom were getting out of a movie theater, were caught off guard by the riotous mob and began fleeing also. Panic set in as the mobs began firing on unassuming Blacks in the crowd. At least one White man was apparently mistakenly shot and killed in the confusion.

At around 11:00 PM, members of the local National Guard unit began to assemble at the armory to organize a plan to subdue the rioters. Several groups were deployed downtown to set up guard at the courthouse, police station, and other public facilities. Members of the local chapter of the American Legion joined in to patrol the streets. The deployments of forces however were being organized to protect the adjacent White districts. Blacks who had not managed to make it back across the tracks to friendly territory were taken to the armory for detainment.

As news traveled among Greenwood residents in these early morning hours, many began to take up arms in defense of their community, while others began a mass exodus from the city. Throughout the night both sides continued fighting, sometimes only sporadically, and began anticipating what would happen at sunrise.

At around 1:00 AM, the white mob began setting fires, mainly to businesses on commercial Archer Street at the edge of the Greenwood district. As crews from the Tulsa Fire Department arrived to put out fires, they were turned away at gunpoint. By 4:00 AM, an estimated two-dozen black-owned businesses had been set ablaze.

At the 5:00 AM sunrise a reported train whistle was heard. Many believed this to be a signal for the rioters to launch an all-out assault on Greenwood. Crowds of rioters poured from places of shelter, on foot and by car, into the streets of the Black community.

Overwhelmed by the sheer number of White citizens, Blacks retreated, north on Greenwood Avenue, toward the edge of town. Chaos was rampant as terrified residents fled for their lives. Rioters were shooting indiscriminately, killing many of them along the way.

Numerous accounts described airplanes carrying White assailants firing rifles and dropping firebombs on buildings, homes, and fleeing families. The planes, six biplane two-seater trainers left over from World War I, were dispatched from the nearby Curtiss-Southwest Field outside of Tulsa. White law enforcement officials later claimed the sole purpose of the planes was to provide reconnaissance and protect Whites against what was described as a "Negro uprising". However, eyewitness accounts and testimony from the survivors confirmed that on the morning of June 1, the planes dropped incendiary bombs and fired rifles at Black Tulsans on the ground. (Note: Although this is often cited as the only USA aerial bombing of its citizenry; reference the bombing of the radical MOVE group in Philadelphia in 1985.)

One White newspaper in Tulsa reported as well that airplanes circled over Greenwood during the riot.

J.B. Stradford, the son of a freed Kentucky slave, rose to prominence in Oklahoma during the early 1900s as one of the key developers of the all Black Tulsa enclave Greenwood. A lawyer and businessman, Stradford owned the 65 room hotel that sat right in the heart of the thriving community.

Stradford and 69 other black men were subsequently charged with inciting the riot. Stradford, however, jumped bail after his arrest and fled Tulsa for Kentucky. Although J.B., who moved on to run a successful law practice in Chicago had managed to avoid facing so-called justice in Oklahoma, the charges hung over him until he died. The Stradford family fought to clear J.B., but it wasn't until 1996, 75 years after the riot, and six decades after his death in 1935 in Chicago at the age of 75, that he was cleared of all charges. (Presently descendants of J.B. Stradford are prominent in financial and media circles in Chicago.)

Ultimately, none of the men indicted were convicted of anything ---- the reprised Trail of Tears was now mixed with the blood of innocents.

Back in the day Lu Palmer, a Black radio commentator and activist would close a program about 1960’s thru 1980’s racial injustice with the tag line “It’s enough to make a Negro turn Black”. Given today’s divisive rhetoric of birthers, hate mongers, TEA Partiers and obtuse “just say no” politicians ---- well, we know what Lu Palmer would say, but there are empathetic kindred souls of all ethnicities that are joining the chorus for racial harmony.

Economic Opportunity:

“We have the will; just give us the way” ---- R e Hill

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Return from Forever

When you depart too soon from love that is true

Your heart remains as collateral for return overdue

Warming the body on sleepless nights, teary pillow caresses face

Incubus delivers both message and massage in space

Yearning in forevermore hereafter

Awaiting nights of passionate laughter

As stars and moon direct light

Over path of return from flight

Still nights alone will atone to cry “Welcome Home”

 

R e Hill Baja CA MX 2011©

 


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