Burnt offerings

By Andrew Meier

Financial Times

Published: February 20 2005

Otis Granville Clark is a wonder. At 102, the former butler of Joan Crawford - who served Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin - still drives, lives on his own and twice a week attends church in his home city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has been a church-goer for decades, ever since he heard the call and, surprising Crawford and himself, became an evangelist preacher. Today his blue eyes have gone milky but they still sparkle, his wiry frame remains agile, and his most painful memories are still fresh - even after 83 years.

Coiled on the edge of an understuffed sofa, Clark leans back and screws his eyes tight to summon up “that day”. It remains the most vivid of his life. “That was the day I saw blood,” he says. He was a young black man of 18, scarcely aware of the world beyond his neighbourhood on that warm spring morning in 1921 when “the shooting and all” began.

Most days, he would have been working with the bootleggers making corn whiskey down by the Arkansas River. But that morning he had gone to a relative’s funeral home, a block from the heart of the violence. He had tried to help a friend save the business’s prized new acquisition, an ambulance, when “these white snipers in a mill tower started shooting from across the way. They shot wherever they could see black folks, swatting them like flies.” His friend had the keys in his hand when a bullet pierced it. The blood stained Clark’s shirt. “And that was before the worst of it started.”

Historians call the firestorm that convulsed Tulsa from the evening of May 31 into the afternoon of June 1 the single worst event in the history of American race relations. To most Tulsans it is simply “the riot”. But the carnage had nothing in common with the mass protests of Chicago, Detroit and Newark in the 1960s or the urban violence that laid siege to Los Angeles in 1992 after the white police officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted. The 1921 Tulsa race riot owes its name to an older American tradition, to the days when white mobs, with the consent of local authorities, dared to rid themselves of their black neighbours. The endeavour was an opportunity “to run the Negro out of Tulsa”.

Clark lives in a quiet bungalow. There are three square rooms filled with worn furniture and decorated with little but bibles and church pamphlets. It sits squarely in the blighted heart of North Tulsa - the city’s “predominately black neighbourhood”, to its older residents; “the “hood”, to their grandchildren. In 1921, a leafy neighbourhood sprawled here. Back then it was called Greenwood, and it was a black neighbourhood as affluent as any in America. Its small but thriving business district was dubbed “black Wall Street”. Greenwood, as Clark and other survivors remember it, was a city within a city. “We had it all,” he says, “Shops, schools, movie theatres, doctors, lawyers, newspapers - you name it.”

Sixteen years earlier a vast petroleum field had been discovered nearby, and by 1921 Tulsa had become known as “the oil capital of the world”. The town was awash in oil dollars, and the ascendant class of oilmen and their families needed more than domestics - they needed a service sector. Greenwood bloomed. Less than 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, as many as 10,000 blacks enjoyed the quiet and prosperity on the western edge of the Ozark Mountains. But Greenwood posed a challenge. “The old order would not stand much longer,” wrote legal scholar Alfred Brophy in Reconstructing the Dreamland, the most recent of more than half a dozen books on the riot. “It was a culture that would not easily abide unequal treatment.”

The riot began, as the battles in America’s race wars often seem to, with an allegation of sexual assault. On the warm afternoon of Memorial Day, May 30, 1921, in the Drexel Building that still stands downtown, a 19-year-old black shoeshine boy named Dick Rowland had gone to the “coloured” men’s toilets on the top floor. Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl - an orphan, Tulsans were soon told, working her way through college - ran the elevator. What transpired between the two remains a mystery, but whether Rowland tripped, or grabbed Page’s hand, or never even touched her, the girl screamed. It was enough. By the following afternoon, a front-page headline in the Tulsa Tribune, trusted daily of the town’s white citizens, exhorted: “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”. Rowland, the Tribune cried, had attacked Page. The spectre of rape raised, the lynching calls ensued.

At the courthouse downtown where Rowland was being held, a white mob squared off against armed black men. Veterans of the first world war, they had come from Greenwood to stave off a lynching. Shots broke out and mayhem ensued. Officers of the Tulsa police and county sheriff’s department sided with the whites, hastily deputising hundreds and handing out weapons. National Guard troops were called in from neighbouring towns, arriving in trucks mounted with machine-guns. The guardsmen not only abetted the violence, but disarmed and rounded up hundreds of black defenders of Greenwood. As the whites fired at will, local biplanes circled above, scouting for blacks and - according to some reports - dropping incendiary explosives.

When martial law finally brought quiet, 35 blocks of Tulsa’s north side - with 1,256 houses and 23 churches - had burned to the ground. Hundreds of homes and shops had been looted. Black men had been shot, burned and dragged through the streets.

At the time, Clark lived in his grandmother’s house with his stepfather. His own father worked as a porter on the trains on the Frisco tracks that ran through Tulsa, carrying passengers from St Louis to San Francisco. During the riot, Clark’s grandmother’s house was burned down and his stepfather disappeared - Clark believes he was killed but he has not been able to prove it. Clark soon left town, jumping a cargo train to search for his father in California. Greenwood, by then, was in ashes.

Years later, white witnesses would be haunted by what they had seen as young boys: a black corpse hanging from a telephone pole and others stacked like cordwood on railroad flatcars. The true death toll will never be known. The confirmed count stopped at 39, but a Red Cross tally at the time ran as high as 300 dead - most of them black. Rumours still persist that the dead were buried in unmarked graves or dumped in the Arkansas River that runs across the city’s west side.

In the riot’s aftermath, an all-white grand jury affirmed that “there was no mob spirit among the whites, no talk of lynching and no arms”. No participant in the riot was ever tried for a felony crime.

To white Tulsa, the area north of the Frisco tracks was a place where too much oil money had spilled over, sharecropper children had forgotten their stations and, most dangerously, the colour line had broken down. Among whites, Greenwood carried other names. To the grand jury it was “Coloured Town”. To those who fuelled the fire, making photographs of the dead that became souvenir postcards, it was “Little Africa”. And many Tulsans preferred another name, one that even appeared in the press: “Niggertown”.

Today, of course, much has changed. On top of Reservoir Hill, one of Tulsa’s highest points, where the Ku Klux Klan once held cross-burnings, blacks and whites now live side by side. Since the 1980s, when oil production went offshore and Houston boomed, Tulsa’s downtown has resembled an urban desert. Once-proud castles of the early petroleum kings now stand vacant, covered in “For Rent” billboards.

”It’s the doughnut,” explained John Gaberino, special counsel to the chairman of ONEOK, Oklahoma’s natural gas giant. “Downtown’s hollowed out. Everybody lives, works and shops in the outlying area. No one wants to have anything to do with downtown any more.”

The notion that reparations might be made for the victims of Tulsa’s riot seemed fanciful for a long time. For 50 years, the destruction was barely even acknowledged. Descendants, black and white, spoke of it in whispers, in the halls of power there was no urge to dig into the past, and beyond the city limits the tragedy was hardly known.

But in the summer of 1971, Ed Wheeler, a local history buff and radio personality, broke the silence. Wheeler was an unlikely candidate to excavate Tulsa’s darkest secret - he is white and now a retired brigadier general in the Oklahoma National Guard.

In 1971, however, he was commissioned by the magazine of Tulsa’s chamber of commerce to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Wheeler managed to interview nearly 60 black and white survivors. He drove across the Frisco tracks at night. “Blacks were still scared to tell their stories,” he says. “They’d meet only in their churches, with ministers present.” When the folks downtown read the expose - Wheeler had collected a trove of photographs of the damage and discovered that police, sheriffs and National Guard files on the riot were “missing” - the chamber refused to run it.

He turned to Don Ross, a young black journalist and civil rights veteran trying to keep afloat a fledgling local magazine devoted to black issues, Impact. Ross, a Tulsa native, had only learned of the riot in high school. Later he would discover that his grandfather had lost his business in the violence. The Impact issue with Wheeler’s “Profile of a Race Riot” sold out, even after three printings. Wheeler received death threats. “Not from the Klan,” he said, “But from the guys who did it themselves. In 1971, more than a few were still alive.”

By 1996, the 75th anniversary of the destruction, Ross had become a veteran legislator in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He filed a bill on reparations for the riot. The previous year, Timothy McVeigh had bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. Ross fumed when television newsmen called McVeigh’s work the “worst act of violence in US history since the Civil War”.

”I knew it wasn’t true,” he said. “And so did most of my colleagues in the legislature.” When the families of McVeigh’s victims received compensation, Ross saw an opportunity. His bill failed, as Ross knew it would. But he then removed the clause calling for reparations and in 1997 managed to pass legislation that created the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, a group of civic and community leaders authorised to investigate the events of 1921. The commission’s report, filed in 2001, argued that the authorities had failed to protect black residents and the sheriff’s department had contributed to the loss of life and property. It called on the state “to fully acknowledge and finally discharge a collective responsibility”. It also advocated reparations: payments to survivors and descendants, a scholarship fund for students in the affected area, an economic enterprise zone in the district and a memorial to the victims.

Neither the state nor the city has ever issued a formal apology and no one has received any compensation, despite the fact that survivors’ stories have now been recorded in half a dozen documentaries, at least eight books, three national TV news shows, two textbooks, one romance novel, a musical and a movie for cable-TV.

And that was before the lawyers arrived.

On February 24 2003, 19 attorneys led by Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and one of the country’s most eminent black lawyers, filed suit in the US Federal District Court in Tulsa on behalf of the 123 riot survivors and 272 descendants. Ogletree had assembled a pro bono legal dream team, including Johnnie Cochrane, triumphant defender of O.J. Simpson, and Michael Hausfeld, a Washington D.C. lawyer who helped to win a number of Holocaust cases, including a $5bn settlement for victims of Nazi slave labour.

Before the legal action began, a few white civic leaders in Tulsa had spoken with regret about the riot and ONEOK’s John Gaberino had recruited private donors to give $5,000 to each survivor, a move that collapsed once the lawsuit began.

”We had the money,” he says, “But it’s kinda hard to give money to folks when they’re suing you.” In lieu of direct payments, the state legislature in 2001 responded to mounting political pressure and awarded the survivors medals - gold-plated medallions inscribed with the state seal. Private donors covered the cost. Gaberino now leads a funding drive for a memorial museum, a variation of the memorial called for in the 2001 riot commission report. But the city has not budged on giving financial relief. The lawsuit has strengthened such sentiment, even though, so far, it has proven a poor test case.

Ogletree and company have lost at every stage. In March 2004, US Senior District Judge James Ellison dismissed the case, arguing that the statute of limitations had run. The plaintiffs filed an appeal with the US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the dismissal was affirmed. Plaintiffs are to file a petition with the US Supreme Court on March 14. Ogletree remains optimistic, and the times may be on the side of the riot victims.

Even though the Tulsa suit may ultimately fail, across the country the reparations movement seems to be gaining momentum. It is by no means a new phenomenon. It first arose in 1865, when General William Sherman, conqueror of Atlanta, issued Special Field Orders No. 15, which extended a gift of 40 acres to freed slaves. Ever since then, black Americans have heard, and seen vanish, promises of redistributive justice - from the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1865 to the “war on poverty” declared by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and the rise of affirmative action throughout that decade.

In the 1880s a black woman named Callie House launched a pension movement for ex-slaves. Mary Francis Berry, a historian who served on the US Civil Rights Commission for more than two decades until resigning its chair in 2004, is author of a forthcoming study of House’s fight. “The movement had validity,” Berry contends. “Pensions were being given to Union veterans, both black and white.” House waged a campaign akin to today’s, says Berry. “They went to court, there were bills, they hired lobbyists, they even had debates in Congress.” But House found “no more sympathy for living ex-slaves, than for the descendants of slaves”, says Berry. The federal government went after House, sending her to jail for mail fraud.

In 1989, America’s longest-serving black congressman, John Conyers, a Democrat from Detroit, introduced a bill on reparations. It called for the US government “to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery”. Conyers did not dare ask for payouts, but “to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans”. The bill failed. On the first day of every Congress since, Conyers has reintroduced it - most recently, last month. It has never made it out of committee.

Perhaps no issue in America polls as poorly among white respondents as reparations. No matter, says Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington D.C. think-tank. “This is a relay race. We cannot expect a remedy overnight.”

Robinson, a peerless lobbyist, was the prime force behind the campaign for South African sanctions. In 2000, with his book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, he turned his sights on his own country. The Debt has been called a reparations manifesto. It became a bestseller, while America’s pundits on race and talk- show hosts across the spectrum feasted on it.

”Pity has never gotten a race anywhere,” wrote conservative black scholar John McWhorter. “One hundred years from now, the marvellous inevitability of interracial mixture will have created a deliriously miscegenated America... hundreds of millions of cafe au lait Tiger Woodses and Mariah Careys... For these new Americans, ancient essentialist tracts such as The Debt will stand as curiosities.”

David Horowitz, one-time liberal activist turned neo-con activist, placed ads in college newspapers that called reparations “racist”. In a Vanity Fair rejoinder, Christopher Hitchens countered that America had a moral obligation to “set up a reparations trust”.

Some Americans have already seen reparations. When Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, Japanese-Americans who suffered internment during the second world war won $20,000 each. In 1994, the Florida legislature created a $2m fund for survivors of the 1923 race riots in Rosewood, another black haven of the day. In 1999, the US government settled a class-action case against the department of agriculture. The largest civil-rights settlement in US history called for as much as $2.3bn to be paid to more than 20,000 black farmers, who charged that the Farm Service Agency, which oversees the distribution of federal financial aid to small farmers, had discriminated against them for two decades.

In the dawn of George W. Bush’s second administration, the reparations debate may be heading for convergence. Conservative Charles Krauthammer backed the idea in a column in The Washington Post in 2001. Even the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, head of the Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, one of America’s megachurches and a frequent interlocutor of President Bush, says: “Robinson makes a sound argument. The discussion is worth having; it keeps the issue of civil and human rights on the table.” To Caldwell, however, reparations is “a silver issue, not a civil issue. My congregants have overcome. The door’s been opened. They just want opportunity.”

The next battle, leaders on both sides of the debate say, will be in the political arena. “We are in an age of apology,” wrote Alfred Brophy in a recent article.

Former president Bill Clinton, Brophy noted, “apologised for, was part of apologies for, or discussed apologising for” the Rwandan genocide, civilian executions during the Korean war, US backing of Guatemalan hit squads, barbaric medical experiments on African-Americans [the Tuskegee study], secret cold- war radiation experiments and the theft of land from native Hawaiians. But Clinton stopped short of a formal apology on slavery. Bush, like Nixon in China or Reagan in the USSR, may well go where his predecessor dared not.

”An apology would be politically cheap,” says Mary Francis Berry, “and sure to broaden his base.”

In 2003, on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, Bush did speak of slavery’s toll. The speech won little coverage. Robinson, however, heard it and was shocked. “It was forthright and honest and stunning,” he said, adding that he did not believe “it was more than words”.

Still, Robinson would welcome a Bush apology. “Reparation means to repair,” he says. “Governments of the beneficiary bodies of slavery have to make people whole - but they first have to be made to take public responsibility.”

Recent events, whether by design or coincidence, may presage a turning point. In the area of criminal justice, several unsolved murder cases of the civil rights movements have been re-examined. Last month, after 40 years, Mississippi police arrested a suspect in the most infamous case, the murder of three young vote-registration volunteers, James Chaney a 21-year-old black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24.

A campaign for “corporate reparations” has also moved forward. Last month, J.P. Morgan Chase, America’s second-largest bank, made a landmark admission, disclosing that two of its predecessor banks had taken “about 13,000 slaves” as loan collateral between 1831 and 1865. “We all know slavery existed in our country, but it is quite different to see how our history and the institution of slavery were intertwined,” wrote J.P. Morgan chief executive William Harrison in the public letter. The bank also opened a $5m scholarship fund for Louisiana, where the 19th-century banks were based. The move came after the city of Chicago in October 2002 passed a “Slave Era Disclosure Ordinance”, requiring tender candidates to divulge ties to the slave trade.

Detroit and Los Angeles have passed similar measures: the Los Angeles City Council picked up Chicago’s lead in May 2003, while Detroit lawmakers followed suit last summer. The cities of San Diego, Atlanta and Washington D.C. are said to be discussing similar moves.

Academia is also looking inward. Brown University, under president Ruth Simmons, a great-granddaughter of slaves, has launched a Committee on Slavery and Justice to spend two years studying the university’s ties to slavery.

Last year the faculty senate of the University of Alabama issued an apology about its links with slavery. Harvard, Ogletree hints, could be next. The college’s first chair in law, he notes, was endowed with the proceeds from an Antigua sugar plantation owned by Isaac Royall, a Boston merchant and slave trader. “The support for this movement has to come from the bottom up,” says Robinson. “The civil rights movement was not defined by legal cases but by the change in the behaviour of the American public. The same with apartheid; we couldn’t have had sanctions until we moved public opinion... no court is going to do that.” Robinson, who now calls St Kitts home, has a new book out, Quitting America. However, he has not given up on the US yet. “Once you scratch the surface,” he says of the J.P. Morgan disclosure, “a lot of other things come out.”

There it is,” says Otis Clark, pointing to the ground beneath his leather shoes. A block and a half away stands the one stretch of Greenwood that remains, a one-block oasis of redbrick storefronts amid the concrete flats. The shops and cafes, defiant landmarks to a lost past, went up in 1922, right after the violence. The city fought the rebuilding - a fire hazard, it was said - and no blacks won any insurance claims.

We stand in the shadow of the roadways overhead, twin expressways that bear an endless flow of cars from no-one-knows-where, heading for no-one-knows-where. The by-ways are the legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Washington’s last valiant, misguided attempt at “urban renewal”. (”Urban removal, we called it,” quipped Eddie Faye Gates, a retired schoolteacher and a member of the Tulsa riot commission.) We had driven down here in the last light of day, to the heart of old Greenwood. We stood side by side in the din and Otis Clark said, “I wanted you to see for yourself.”

His voice carried neither drama nor regret. Amid the hard earth and patchy grass at his feet, rusted train tracks emerged and disappeared just as quickly. “The old rails,” Clark explained, of the long-gone Midland Valley Railroad.

Clark cast his eyes off, and saw a landscape invisible to nearly all the living. He pointed into the tall brush 100 metres off, above the trash and beyond the debris. I could make out the clearing, a space in the green where nothing grew and where the trains once ran.

”A tiny depot stood down the way,” Clark said, waving into the distance. “My grandmother’s house was right here.” He raised his arms wide and cut the air with his palms, until they joined again before him. “And this was her garden. It was all here. Everything... “

Across the way, on the far side of the overpass, the city has donated land for the memorial museum that John Gaberino is confident will be built one day.

Ed Dwight, a Denver sculptor who was America’s first black astronaut, is at work on a towering monument. Dwight has built a bronze obelisk, two storeys high, to bring the horror of 1921 into harrowing relief. Both Gaberino and Don Ross, who has now retired from politics, speak of the work - the centrepiece of the envisioned museum - in tones of awe.

Many in Tulsa still believe the rumours of “phantom graves”, that bodies lie at the bottom of the Arkansas River or in a pit on the outskirts of town. The riot commission hired Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who has sifted through graves in Argentina, Guatemala, Bosnia and Iraq. A white witness had come forward, who remembered as a 10-year-old boy seeing white men digging a trench in the Oaklawn cemetery. Crates holding burned bodies had stood beside them. A crew used ground-penetrating radar to search deep in the silt, sand and clay. The geophysics revealed a “five metre square anomaly” within the area identified by the witness. The state archaeologist was sceptical, but made a final recommendation that the state “clarify the nature of this anomaly”. To this day, no one has done any digging. “The powers that be kept putting it off and putting it off,” says Snow.

Lawyers on both sides contend that an exhumation is a legal hornet’s nest. Scott Ellsworth, who wrote Death in a Promised Land on the riot and the historical narrative of the commission report, is hopeful that remains will be found one day. “These are the hidden victims,” Ellsworth says. “Like unknown soldiers, they deserve a proper burial. It’s the least we can do. It would also be a way for whites and blacks to reach across the tracks and, at last, shake hands.”

Andrew Meier, a former correspondent for Time Europe, now lives in New York.