Buried: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

It’s Memorial Day.

And in Tulsa today, they are remembering one of the worst incidents of the 20th century – the Tulsa Race Riots.

In fact, it got started just about the same time as I’m writing, late in the evening of May 31, 1921. But let’s back up for a second, because I’m pretty sure most people have never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot. And that’s because for years, it was kept under wraps as much as possible.

This is a story I never heard until I started to teach US History. As I was preparing to teach the 1920s, I kept running across the race riots of other places – like Rosewood – and of course the KKK. But then I stumbled across a website that discussed the Tulsa Race Riot.


Greenwood, before the Riot. From hoodline.com

After World War II, Tulsa was actually two cities:  Tulsa proper, which was predominantly white; and Greenwood, known as the ‘Black Wall Street of America.’ A beautiful African-American community, it boasted a thriving business district with theaters, shops, restaurants, milliners, clothing stores, banks – everything a city needs. Tulsa had a population of more than 100,00 at that time; an exact census for Greenwood is difficult to find, but certainly at least 20,000.

But all that changed. Because of one man and one woman and one scream.

According to the story, Dick Rowland worked in Tulsa as a shoe-shiner. Sarah Paige operated the elevator at the Drexel building in Tulsa. Stories vary, but the fact is, at some point that day, they were alone in that elevator together. Since she was white and he was black, this was already an issue.

Then she screamed.

If Sarah Paige ever said why she screamed, it’s not recorded. By all accounts, she refused to explain. It didn’t matter. Whites immediately jumped to one conclusion:  a black man tried to rape a white woman. Rowland was arrested, and on the night of May 31, a white mob gathered at the jail. Leaders from Greenwood went to the jail to help protect Rowland, but the sheriff told them to go home; when they tried to leave, the mob attacked them. They fled to Greenwood, with the mob in hot pursuit.

I think the caption speaks for itself. This image is found all over the ‘net; probably in the University of Tulsa Collections.

Over the next fourteen hours, thousands of whites, probably led by the local KKK, systematically destroyed Greenwood. Blacks were rounded up and kept in ‘concentration camps’ while houses were searched, robbed, and burned. Those who tried to escape were shot. They even set up a machine gun on a grain elevator at one end of Main Street. At dawn on June 1, airplanes dropped homemade bombs on Greenwood. There was even an effort to go through the wealthier areas of Tulsa and force white home owners to send out their black servants – which, thankfully, most refused to do.

It wasn’t until noon that the state troopers arrived – but by that time, it no longer mattered. The riot had fizzled.


And Greenwood was gone.

Thirty-five square blocks had burned to the ground. More than a thousand homes, 21 churches, and 600+ businesses were gone. The Tulsa Fire Department had tried to get through all night long, but were held at gunpoint  by the attackers. Likewise, anyone trying to get through to give first aid to the blacks was held at gunpoint. tulsa_riots_theater.1406030191283

Now, there were whites who tried to help. A family outside Tulsa hid more than thirty people in their barn for a week. One woman at the local YWCA saved their porter’s life by hiding him in the walk-in freezer and then standing up to the whites chasing him with shotguns. Red Cross workers moved in as soon as they could to help the wounded and bury the dead.

Because there were dead.

But the sad thing is, we have absolutely no idea how many died that night.

Most who fled Greenwood never returned, so just doing a census doesn’t help. For decades, it was known that somewhere between 39 and 55 graves were dug in cemeteries for riot victims – the lucky ones who got headstones, anyway. It was also known that there was at least one mass grave, but as one Red Cross worker admitted, they were told to bury the bodies as quickly as possible, and didn’t keep track. Then in the early 1990s, another mass grave was discovered in a vacant lot that is presumed to be from the riot as well. So estimates range between 55 and 300, with many believing that number to be much, much higher.

The Tulsa Race Riot was, we know now, the worst of the 1920s. An entire town, destroyed in less than 24 hours. All because one woman screamed. All because some people thought they were better than others.

Tulsa buried this story. Who can blame them, really? It was never discussed. Never published. The KKK still had enough sway in the area to keep it hushed up, and the city officials swept it under the rug. Later, reporters who tried to tell the story said they were threatened. It wasn’t until 1997 that Oklahoma finally published a report on the riots, and today, a small museum in Tulsa commemorates the event.

And, because I know you’re dying to know:  the charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. He left Tulsa, never to return. And as far as I know, Sarah Paige never told what happened on that elevator.

One thing I always ask my students is do you think this could happen today? Before Michael Brown, they always said NO. They always said that America had grown beyond this, that such wanton destruction would never be allowed to happen.

Now? Now they look at me with eyes that say otherwise. Now, before they speak, they remember Michael Brown, and Freddy Gray, and all the riots that have ensued over the last two years. They think about all the Trump rallies where minorities are beaten for daring to protest his policies. And they hesitate.

Because they know the truth.


More on the Tulsa Race Riots:

http://tulsahistory.org/learn/online-exhibits/the-tulsa-race-riot/ – the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum’s site for the riots

http://www.tulsaworld.com/app/race-riot/timeline.html – The Tulsa World’s page dedicated to the riots

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/19/survivors-of-infamous1921tulsaraceriotstillhopeforjustice.html – from Al-Jazeera America, a story about the riots and the survivors still seeking justice




When a Historian’s Dream Comes True, part 2

For the first time in a LONG time, I’m not teaching face to face classes this summer. And after the year I’ve had . . . yeah. Let’s just say it’s better that way.

But it gives me the chance to catch up on things I’ve had to abandon this year, and one of those is my research into my nonfiction historical project. I’ve written about this before (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/ , https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/), but to recap:  about 10 years ago, I started to read in our local paper’s ‘100 Years Ago Today’ column about a man named George Kimmel, who disappeared from my home town of Arkansas City in 1898, and then mysteriously reappeared some eight years later . . . or did he? At the time, no one was quite sure if the man who claimed to be Kimmel was really Kimmel or not. And the testimony from the trials didn’t make it any clearer.

I spent days photographing some 3,000 +/- documents from just one of the trials, and some of the things that I found astounded me. I thought I had a good handle on the case and on who Kimmel was, and how things would turn out. Turns out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

This week, I started on the testimony of a man named John Boone Swinney, who was a surprise witness in the 1911 trial. And when I say surprise, I mean full-blown, people popping out of cakes with machine guns, kind of surprise. See, before Swinney, everyone assumed that what ‘Kimmel’ said was true:  that he’d been kidnapped from Kansas City, taken to St. Louis, and beaten up. He then lost his memory and had only recently regained it. But Swinney came in with a totally different story, one that for most, put that entire St. Louis story out to pasture permanently.

But this is what I love so much about this case. Every single time I go back to it, there’s a surprise. Not Easter eggs; Easter bombs. 🙂 I’m not finished with Swinney’s testimony – I have more than 200 pages to print and read – but I’ve already got two pages full of notes of things I have to chase down.

I think what I love most, though, is that through this testimony, I can see the trial. Hear these people. I know precisely what kind of gun Kimmel was carrying (a 32 caliber designed by Otis Smith, if anyone cares). I’ve even laughed out loud in a couple of places – for example, Swinney said he was in Utah, ‘doing nothing’ and staying in hotels. Of course, I’m thinking in the back of my mind:  Wait. You’re a part-time farmer, you’ve been convicted of attempted railroad robbery . . . um . . . where was the hotel money from again? The attorney must have wondered the same thing, because he finally asked:

“What were you doing?”

Swinney:  “Nothing.”

Attorney:  “Well, did you commit any train robberies out there?”

Swinney:  “I – at least, I wasn’t charged with any.”

I’m so mad at the attorneys, though!!!! So many places where I want to go back in time and beat the crap out of them! I want to know what the hell happened to George Kimmel. That’s it. I want to know. So when I see testimony like this:

Q:  “Well, how long did you talk with him there?”

A:  “Maybe he was there half an hour. He told me to take this (valise) and meet him . . .”

Q:  “I didn’t ask what he told you; how long did you talk with him there?”

SERIOUSLY????? You can’t wait FIVE BLOODY MINUTES for this guy to tell us WHAT WAS SAID BETWEEN THE TWO OF THEM???? He never does let Swinney tell what Kimmel told him. So I have no idea – yet – why Kimmel was brought in on this ‘treasure hunt’ or what was said between them or why he was convinced to go. I have my suspicions, but as of yet, nothing to back them up. Very frustrating.

Another frustrating thing, for me, is the knowledge that I’m dealing with real people here. Yes, they are all dead now, but – in Arkansas City history, men like Albert Denton and A.J. Hunt are practically paragons. One of the men Swinney incriminates in his treasure hunt story is R.M. Snyder, a banker in Kansas City – and yes, another freaking paragon. What do you do? How do you reconcile what I think they did in 1898 with what they did later?

I’m hoping, in cross-examination, that the other attorney will let Swinney tell more about his interactions with Kimmel. Because so far, this bloody idiot has led us through 20 pages of Swinney being part of an attempted robbery in Oklahoma and a bunch of other crap that has no bearing whatsoever on George Kimmel. I still have about a hundred pages to go. So here’s hoping!

Man. I am so glad I don’t have any classes this summer. 🙂


Outlander – In Which a Small Complaint is Made

Okay. I’ve been trying not to do this, because I really hate when people bag on things just to bag on them. There are, of course, exceptions. Twilight. 50 Shades of Grey.  Donald Trump.

But I have to say this, because it’s bothering me, and because it’s important to me.

Writers of the Outlander TV show, STOP CHANGING MY BOOKS!!!

Outlander-1991_1st_Edition_coverI first picked up Outlander when I was in high school. 20+ years ago. (Never mind the exact number of years; not important.) My mom ordered it, along with Dragonfly in Amber, from Doubleday, and I devoured them both. I’d never read anything remotely like them, and I was a voracious reader – I’d gone through the Shannara chronicles, and Dean Koontz, and there wasn’t a moment of the day when I didn’t have a book to hand. I fell in love with Jamie and Claire and the Scottish Highlands, and the use of the first-person narrative. I fell in love with Diana Gabaldon’s writing style, her attention to detail, the smallest little turns of phrase that snagged me deep inside and stayed with me, long after the covers were closed. I loved that every small thing led to something else. I loved that they were character-driven. I loved Claire’s sarcasm and her refusal to relinquish her 1945 sensibilities and independence, even in 1743 Scotland.

And like most readers, I’d spent years wondering:  if these were ever made into movies, who would play the characters? Likely someone I’d never heard of, I was sure. And honestly, I have no issue with any of the actors. They’re marvelous. Especially Tobias Menzies, who does such a fantastic job portraying Jack Randall that I was actually having flashbacks in the Season 2 premiere when he was playing Frank.

No, I’m good with the actors. It’s the writers I’m having trouble with.

Yes, these are incredibly long books. Outlander is 627 pages (the 20th anniversary edition); Dragonfly in Amber is at least twice that. So I understand that some scenes need cut, and others merged. That’s okay – as long as the characters stay the same.

But they’re not.

1376218157DragonflyhbDelacorteTake, for example, the first few episodes of Season 2, where they are trying to stop Charles Stuart from raising the funds he needs to invade England. In the books, this is as much Jamie’s idea as it is Claire’s. He’s not being dragged along for the ride; he’s convinced that this is the best thing possible, the only way to save Lallybroch, the clans, and the Highlands. Does he doubt? Of course. He wants to see an independent Scotland as well, but he’s also convinced that Claire knows what she’s talking about. But in the show? He acts like this is all Claire’s idea, and he’s just doing it because she says so. It’s maddening.

Still, I could forgive that, if Claire was who she’s supposed to be. I feel the writers understand every other character in the books are are being truly faithful to them – but not Claire.

And. It. Drives. Me. Nuts.

Take, for example, the scene in Outlander where she and Geillis Duncan are tried as witches. In the show, Claire is a victim, pure and simple. She never fights back; she never even really defends herself. In the book, though . . .

“So I’ve the choice of being condemned as a witch or being found innocent but drowned, have I?” I snapped. “No thank you!”

The judge puffed himself up like a threatened toad.

“You’ll nae speak before this court without leave, woman! Do ye dare to refuse lawful examination?”

“Do I dare refuse to be drowned? Too right I do!”

Does it cost her in the end? Yes, a bit, but we’re right there with her, cheering her on anyway, because we get it. We’d do the same thing. Or at least, we want to think we’d do the same thing. But in the show she’s – so quiet. So passive. So . . . boring. We get flashes of her true self, but only flashes – for instance, when she’s trying to bind Jamie’s shoulder in the first season, by the side of the road, and cusses when the bandage slips. That’s from the book. So is the wonderful line, “You can bloody mind your own business and so can St. Paul!” I think it’s because we can’t get into her head in the show the way we can in the books – but still, there are ways to do it and the writers are simply not getting it done.

There’s another key scene, left out of the show, that I adored and wish had been put in. It was, in fact, the scene I was most looking forward to seeing. When Claire is first taken to Jack Randall at the fort, she goes through the office before Randall comes in, and  . . . I opened a small cupboard behind the desk and discovered the Captain’s spare wig . . .Carrying the wig stand over to the desk, I gently sifted the remaining contents of the sander over it before replacing it in the cupboard.

A small, spiteful bit of revenge, but I love the visual.

There’s other things that bother me, too – not scenes missing, exactly, but scenes made up.

I was fully expecting the Season 2 premiere to start off with Roger and Brianna, in the 1960s. Not a long-winded thing in which she basically forgets Jamie in a week’s time. Having been there and done that, I can tell you flat out, no one recovers from losing someone who was your world in one week. Not one year. Maybe not one lifetime. And especially when Gabaldon had done such a masterful job of portraying Frank and Claire’s marriage after her return as one full of tension and mistrust – he never full forgave her, nor did he ever truly understand or believe her – it was disappointing to see Claire throw Jamie aside so easily in the show. Not just disappointing:  practically treasonous.

Likewise, there wasn’t any need to lie to Jarrod about why they were in Paris and why they needed access to the Jacobite leaders. In the book, Jarrod hires Jamie to oversee his business while he’s out of the country; what Jamie does while he’s gone isn’t his concern. Jamie himself, as Lord Broch Tuarach, is able to gain access to the Paris nobility, and as a fellow Scot, gain the trust of Charles Stuart. No problems.

These books are beloved by millions. They shaped my writing. I’ve read them dozens and dozens of times. These characters live and breathe in my imagination. I’ve walked the Hopital des Anges in my mind, and Lallybroch. I probably know them better than the show’s writers do.

I truly believe Caitriona Balfe is doing the best she can with the material she’s being given. The problem is, the material she’s being given just isn’t the Claire we know and love.

So please, writers, get it right.

Photo Challenge: Face

I know everyone will be doing people and pets this week – trust me, I was tempted! – but decided instead to go with something slightly different.



A funny, slighly creepy face carved into the front of a building in my hometown.

clock 5 vg

The face of an old clock left in a barn.


Punctuation: your ‘little drum set’ for better dialogue

There are some things I’m just not good at – or may never be able to learn. Math. My new DSLR camera. Everyone has something like that.

But if you want to be published – or just taken seriously as a writer, or even as as a student – you need to know grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

I just read a snippet from Annie Dillard, which put in me in mind of this topic:

Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go. (If you get it wrong, any least thing, the editor will throw your manuscript out.) Punctuation is not like musical notation; it doesn’t indicate the length of pauses, but instead signifies logical relations. There are all sorts of people out there who know these things very well. You have to be among them even to begin.

I’ve never heard it put quite like this – but I love it. Because it’s true. I have little patience for people who can’t use grammar and punctuation properly, in large part because writing isn’t just about the words and sentences; it’s the punctuation that puts those words and sentences together into coherent units that convey the thought to the reader. Especially when it comes to dialogue.

Look at it this way:  you hear the voices of your characters in your head. You know their tone. You know their accents. The cadence and meter of how they speak. You may think you can’t get that across to your reader – but you can. At least, you can give it your best shot. Properly punctuated dialogue gives us those things.

Take these sentences:

“Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

“Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

In this small exchange, there’s two speakers – Nicky, my protagonist, and Bart, the bouncer at a local speakeasy. Can you hear the panic in Nicky’s voice in the second line? If so, I did good. If not, I didn’t. 🙂 Now here’s the scene with the tags attached:

Bart came over to Abby and nodded towards the closing cellar door. “Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

He laughed. “Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but dialogue usually doesn’t need tags. If you’re doing the job right with the rest of the writing, then there’s no need for tags. Your characters’ actions should tell us how they’re speaking. Take this example from one of my urban fantasy manuscripts (Erin’s feisty, BTW!): 

When I got to the meeting room, it was buzzing; almost everyone had a copy of that damn paper, and they were all talking about it, showing off photos and pointing out things in the article. I stalked through them, up to the front of the room where Spencer was talking to someone, and slammed the paper on the table.

“Whitfield? That bloody bastard went to Whitfield Abby and got those poor monks to parade around for photographs? How? Why? Why, Spencer?” My voice rose with everyone word, until they echoed from the ceiling. Vaguely, I noticed the entire room had gone silent. I didn’t give a damn. Trembling with rage, I slammed my fist into the paper. “Explain!”

“Miss Carson, perhaps after the meeting . . .”

“No.” My jaw clenched. “Now.”

Here, I’ve kept it neat and clean – again, two speakers, Erin and Spencer – and I hope you can hear the panicked, frantic – and yes, ANGRY – note in her voice as you read this. 🙂 But what you will notice is that there isn’t one single tag anywhere. No ‘said.’ Nothing. Done right, you very rarely need them. Take a look at your own writing. If you’re typing “he said,” or “I said” after every bit of dialogue – what can you do to fix it? Think about these things:

Are you afraid your readers won’t be able to tell who’s speaking? In that case, you need to strengthen your characters’ voices and make them more distinct from each other. Also, make it clear in the dialogue who’s speaking. Here, we know Erin’s talking to Spencer, so it’s clear to the reader that it’s him in that second line.

Are you using tags other than said to convey how your character is speaking? If so, get the dialogue right – using punctuation. Take these two lines:

“Now,” I said. “I want to know what the hell your golden boy was thinking.”

He stared at me, a muscle working near his jaw. “Miss Carson, please. Sit.”

That ‘sit’ at the end is set aside as its own sentence for a reason. Read it aloud. It’s not part of that first sentence, is it? Never was meant to be. It’s an order.

But this brings up another important point:  use your actions between the dialogue! That more than anything tells us precisely what your characters are thinking. Or should, if done right. That fist slamming on the table in the example above replaces any need for tags such as screamed, yelled, exclaimed, or whatever other weak adjective I could have used. But this is strong. This gets the point across.

And the last thing I want to say here is this:  When Annie Dillard says Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go, what she really means is this:  READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. Especially the dialogue. You hear it in your head; did you get it on paper? Are your characters pausing and emphasizing where you think they should be? Better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. Then, you’ll really hear it (though you have to be careful to get someone who actually knows how to read aloud; that’s an art in and of itself).

Dialogue is one of the most important things in your writing. Use punctuation to make it even better.