Tulsa also had acquired, by 1921, practically all of the trappings of older, more established American cities. Four different railroads -- the Frisco, the Santa Fe, the Katy, and the Midland Valley -- served the city, as did two separate inter-urban train lines. A new, all-purpose bridge spanned the Arkansas River near Eleventh Street, while street repair, owing to the ever-increasing numbers of automobiles, was practically constant. By 1919, Tulsa also could boast of having its own commercial airport.
Tulsa was, in some ways, not one city but two. Practically in the shadow of downtown, there sat a community that was no less remarkable than Tulsa itself. Some whites disparagingly referred to it as "Little Africa", or worse, but it has become known in later years simply as Greenwood.5 In the early months of 1921, it was the home of nearly ten-thousand African American men, women, and children.
Many had ties to the region that stretched back for generations. Some were the descendants of African American slaves, who had accompanied the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws on the Trail of Tears. Others were the children and grandchildren of runaway slaves who had fled to the Indian nations in the years prior to and during the Civil War. A few elderly residents, some of whom were later interviewed by WPA workers during the 1930s, had been born into slavery.6
However, most of Tulsa's African American residents had come to Oklahoma, like their white neighbors, in the great boom years just before and after statehood. Some had come from Mississippi, some from Missouri, and others had journeyed all the way from Georgia. For many, Oklahoma represented not only a chance to escape the harsher racial realities of life in the former states of the Old South, but was literally a land of hope, a place worth sacrificing for, a place to start anew. And come they did, in wagons and on horseback, by train and on foot. While some of the new settlers came directly to Tulsa, many others had first lived in smaller communities -- many of which were all-black, or nearly so -- scattered throughout the state.
The overall intellectual life of Greenwood was, for a community of its size, quite striking. There was not one black newspaper but two - the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun. African Americans were discouraged from utilizing the new Carnegie library downtown, but a smaller, all-black branch library had been opened on Archer Street.
When it came to religious activity, however, there was no question at all where Tulsa's African American community stood. Church membership in Tulsa ran high. On a per capita basis, there were more churches in black Tulsa than there were in the city's white community as well as a number of Bible study groups, Christian youth organizations, and chapters of national religious societies. All told, there were more than a dozen African American churches in Tulsa at the time of the riot, including First Baptist, Vernon A.M.E., Brown's Chapel, Morning Star, Bethel Seventh Day Adventist, and Paradise Baptist, as well as Church of God, Nazarene, and Church of God in Christ congregations. Most impressive from an architectural standpoint, perhaps, was the beautiful, brand new home of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which was dedicated on April 10, 1921 -- less than eight weeks before the riot.
Oklahoma's black World War I veterans finally returned to civilian life, they, too, came home to a state where, sadly enough, anti-black sentiments were alive and well. In 1911, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the infamous "Grandfather Clause", which effectively ended voting by African Americans statewide. While the law was ruled unconstitutional by a unanimous vote by the U.S. Supreme Court four years later, other methods were soon employed to keep black Oklahomans from the polls. Nor did the Jim Crow legislation stop there. In the end, the state legislature passed a number of segregation statutes, including one which made Oklahoma the first state in the Union to segregate its telephone booths.
Racial violence, directed against black Oklahomans, also was a grim reality during this period. In large part owing to conditions of frontier lawlessness, Oklahoma had long been plagued by lynchings, and during the territorial days, numerous suspected horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and outlaws, the vast majority of whom were white, had been lynched by white mobs. However, from 1911 onward, all of the state's lynching victims, save one, were African American. And during the next decade, twenty-three black Oklahomans -- including two women -- were lynched by whites in more than a dozen different Oklahoma communities, including Anadarko, Ardmore, Eufaula, Holdenville, Idabel, Lawton, Madill, Mannford, Muldrow, Norman, Nowata, Okemah, Oklahoma City, Purcell, Shawnee, Wagoner, and Wewoka.30
The Sooner State also proved to be fertile ground for the newly revived Ku Klux Klan. Estimates vary, but at the height of its power in the mid-1920s, it is believed that there were more than 100,000 klansmen in Oklahoma. Chapters existed statewide, and the organization's membership rolls included farmers, ranchers, miners, oil field workers, small town merchants, big city businessmen, ministers, newspaper editors, policemen, educators, lawyers, judges, and politicians. Most Klan activities -- including cross burnings, parades, night riding, whippings, and other forms of violence and intimidation -- tended to be local in nature, although at one point the political clout of the state organization was so great that it managed to launch impeachment proceedings against Governor John C. Walton, who opposed the Klan.31
Tulsa, in particular, became a lively center of Klan activity. While membership figures are few and far between -- one estimate held that there were some 3,200 members of the Tulsa Klan in December 1921 -- perhaps as many as six-thousand white Tulsans, at one time or another, became members of the Klan including several prominent local leaders. At one Klan initiation ceremony, that took place in the countryside south of town during the summer of 1922, more than one-thousand new members were initiated, causing a huge traffic jam on the road to Broken Arrow. Tulsa also was home to a thriving chapter of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan as well as being one of the few cities in the country with an active chapter of the organization's official youth affiliate, the Junior Ku Klux Klan. There were Klan parades, Klan funerals, and Klan fund-raisers including one wildly successful 1923 benefit that netted some $24,000, when 13 Ford automobiles were raffled off. In time, the Tulsa Klan grew so solvent that it built its own brick auditorium, Beno Hall -- short, it was said, for "Be No Nigger, Be No Jew, Be No Catholic" -- on Main Street just north of downtown.32
The local Klan also was highly active in politics in Tulsa. It regularly issued lists of Klan-approved candidates for both state and local political offices, that were prominently displayed in Tulsa newspapers. According to one student of the Klan in Tulsa Country during the 1920s, "mayors, city commissioners, sheriffs, district attorneys, and many other city and country office holders who were either klansmen or Klan supporters were elected, and reelected, with regularity." In 1923, three of the five members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from Tulsa Country were admitted klansmen.33
In addition to cross burnings, Tulsa Klan members also routinely engaged in acts of violence and intimidation. Richard Gary, who lived off Admiral Boulevard during the early 1920s, still has vivid memories of hooded klansmen, a soon-to-be horsewhipped victim sitting between them, heading east in open touring cars. Suspected bootleggers, wife-cheaters, and automobile thieves were among the most common victims -- but they weren't the only ones. In May 1922, black Deputy sheriff John Henry Smitherman was kidnaped by klansmen, who sliced off one of his ears. Fifteen months later, Nathan Hantaman, a Jewish movie projectionist, was kidnaped by Klan members, who nearly beat him to death. The city's Catholic population also was the target of considerable abuse, as Tulsa klansmen tried to force local businessmen to fire their Catholic employees.34
Not all white Tulsans, of course, or even a majority, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Among the city's white Protestants, there were many who disdained both the Klan's tactics and beliefs. Nonetheless, at least until the mid-1920s, and in some ways all the way until the end of the decade, there is no doubt but that the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in the life of the city.35
According to Carter Blue Clark, whose 1976 doctoral dissertation remains the standard work on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma, McCarron "shortly had twelve Kleagles [assistant organizers] working out of his office selling memberships throughout the city, and very soon throughout the state." While Clark concluded that the Klan "could not be credited with precipitating the riot" -- a finding shared by most scholars of the riot -- he also determined that Klan organizers had been active in the Tulsa region beforehand.36