Buck Franklin must have sat in astonishment as he assisted the men and women of Tulsa’s all-Black Greenwood District, who had been escorted, at gunpoint, into a makeshift concentration camp.
As White Tulsans continued to loot and burn property in Greenwood, the focus of the people in charge had been on rounding up and interning Black people, instead of halting and arresting the criminals who, in an orchestrated act of terror, were still laying siege to Black-owned homes and businesses. During the brutal rampage, more than 300 people lost their lives and many more were injured, as a mob of brazen armed white men, many of them deputized, roamed the district on a killing spree.
On the ground providing disaster relief, the Red Cross immediately disputed the low fatality numbers put forth by town officials. Thousands of Black people were left homeless and the Red Cross indicated that many of them spent months and even a year in tents. In the internment camps, Blacks were issued identification cards and were unable to leave without a white person’s approval.
A brilliant lawyer, Franklin was new to Greenwood. He had come with dreams of professional success that had lured many other Blacks to the District. Tulsa’s attractiveness also lay in the cohesiveness of the community.
Mary E. Jones Parrish, a successful entrepreneur, educator and eyewitness to the tragedy who, in 1923, published, “Events of the Tulsa Disaster,” a long-form journalistic account of the massacre, wrote about that solidarity.
“I came not to Tulsa as many came, lured by the dream of making money and bettering myself in the financial world, but because of the wonderful co-operation I observed among our people,” Parrish wrote.
Parrish had been in Greenwood only a short time before it was decimated. Had she and Franklin been there long enough to sense the white resentment that lay just beneath the surface of this awesome display of Black brilliance?
In less than 24 hours, 35 square blocks were destroyed, including over 1,200 Black-owned homes, 12 churches, a hospital, public library, school, and countless Black businesses. There was looting, with reports that vehicles were backed up to Black people’s homes from which white women jumped out to put clothes, jewelry and household items in bags, before the white men went in and hauled out the furniture and other heavy items, like pianos.
In addition to the heavy shooting on the ground, including setting off a machine gun, there was an aerial assault. Airplanes in the sky were “raining bullets” down and, according to Franklin’s eye-witness account of the massacre, dropping incendiary devices. He captured the scene in his manuscript, which is in the possession of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top,” Franklin reported. Some of the finest Americans lost their lives during that horror.
Dr. A.C. Jackson, acclaimed as one of the best surgeons in the country, was murdered in cold blood by two young thugs who had been begged not to shoot the esteemed doctor by a white judge.
We will never know how much generational wealth was lost as a result of this staggering atrocity, but we do have an idea of what could have been by simply comprehending the success of some of the Greenwood District descendants who became connected to Chicago.
J.B Stradford, who had owned the 54-room luxury Stradford Hotel, as well as many other properties, made his way to Chicago, after the massacre, to be with his son, C. Francis Stradford. Later, the son would help win a 1937United States Supreme Court case that laid the groundwork for the landmark case that outlawed racially restrictive housing covenants.
His client was Carl Hansberry, father of award-winning playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. C. Francis’ daughter, Jewel LaFontant, was the first Black woman to earn a law degree from the University of Chicago before beginning her illustrious legal career. Her son, John Rogers, is the Chairman and co-CEO (with Mellody Hobson) of Ariel Investments. The Chicago firm manages more than $16 billion in assets.
Franklin’s son, John Hope Franklin, a Phi Beta Kappa who earned his doctorate at Harvard, once chaired the University of Chicago’s history department. He wrote several books, including the acclaimed “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans.” A 1995 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, the park in Tulsa that honors the victims of the massacre is named after him.
We will never know.