Race riot reparations questioned
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Jan 10, 2000
1/20/13 at 8:18 AM
During a November meeting of the Tulsa
Race Riot Commission, historian Currie Ballard displays photographs of racial
conditions in Oklahoma around the time of the Tulsa Race Riot.
KELLY KERR / Tulsa World
The commission's report due Feb. 7 will likely address the
What do the children of one generation owe the wronged and oppressed of another?
It's a question as old as the Bible and as contemporary as today's news. It's a
question the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and ultimately the Oklahoma Legislature soon
must answer. The 1997 law creating the commission requires a final report to the
Legislature by Feb. 7. It specifies the report "may contain specific recommendations
regarding whether or not reparations can or should be made" as a result of the 1921
clash that killed at least 45 people and destroyed 35 square blocks of what was then
Tulsa's Greenwood district.
That some mention of repa
rations will be included appears almost certain. The commission's last meeting
included a committee recommendation and a lengthy discussion of the topic.
Last month's presentation aside, any recommendation on reparations will be based on
the as-yet unwritten final report -- a task that is supposed to be completed by
historians Scott Ellsworth and John Hope Franklin. Insiders say it is unlikely to be
as hyperbolic as the public statements of others involved with the investigation have
Whatever the case, no one seems to doubt the issue will have to be addressed.
"We felt from the start this whole subject of reparations would be the most
contentious," said commission member Pete Churchwell. "If we go this far . . . if we don't
do something meaningful in terms of reparations . . . if we walk away from it at this
point, I would be very sad."
Determining what is meaningful and appropriate, however, is no easy thing. And,
experts say, any compensation would almost certainly be a matter of conscience,
dependent upon convincing legislators they were "doing the right thing," as riot
commissioner Eddie Faye Gates calls it.
Legally, even the most ardent proponents of reparations agree, there is little to
compel the State of Oklahoma or the City of Tulsa to pay anyone anything. The statute
of limitations for just about all possible offenses ran out decades ago, and in any
event most original claims were dismissed.
Alfred Brophy, an Oklahoma City University law professor who has advised the
commission, says it would be possible for the State of Oklahoma to sue the City of
Tulsa for expenses incurred by the National Guard in putting down the riot. Brophy
estimates that would come to about $10 million with interest, enough for a substantial
reparations settlement. Brophy admits such a lawsuit is unlikely, but thinks it could
be used as a ploy to force the city to accept responsibility for the riot.
"The evidence is quite strong that people were deputized and sent out to get black
people," said Brophy. "Many of those doing the burning wore badges. I think the
evidence is quite strong that the city was involved. I'm willing to go toe-to-toe with
anyone who cares to debate it."
Brophy's assertion is based
primarily on the court records of Redfearn v. American Central Insurance, a civil suit
decided in 1926 by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. William Redfearn, a white man who owned
two buildings in the Greenwood district, sued American Central Insurance after it
refused to honor three policies he held on the property. American Central said it
didn't have to pay because the policies excluded riot damage.
Redfearn sued, using a Kentucky case in which American Central had to pay off on a
policy covering a lumber yard that law enforcement officials burned while trying to
apprehend some labor organizers. Redfearn produced a number of witnesses who said men
with badges were among those killing, burning and looting Greenwood on the morning of
June 1, 1921.
Redfearn lost, but the testimony added fuel to rumors that prominent white Tulsans,
including Mayor T.D. Evans and Police Chief John A. Gustafson, planned an attack on
Greenwood even before the events that sparked the riot. No firm evidence of such a
conspiracy has ever been found.
State Rep. Don Ross, D-Tulsa, an author of the bill creating the commission and an
ardent supporter of reparations, has said he believes such a connection
existed but agrees it has not been proved. Even if it could be, it might not help
those seeking reparations from the Legislature. According to state Sen. Robert
Milacek, R-Waukomis, many and perhaps most legislators already view the riot as a
purely local problem.
"I'm sure that will be the reasoning of some members of the Legislature," said
Milacek, one of two legislators on the riot commission. "The reason I'm sure is
because that is what has been expressed to me."
Perhaps because of that, the presentation made at December's commission meeting
concentrated on the general state of race relations at the time of the riot. The
state's segregation laws were among the nation's most onerous, Ku Klux Klan and
vigilante activity was on the rise and blacks were increasingly militant in defense of
In such a racially charged environment, said Langston historian Curry Ballard, a
riot somewhere in the state should not have been surprising. In that sense, he argued,
Oklahoma is responsible for the destruction of Greenwood.
For the most part, though, claims against the state have been based on the more
concrete charge that the National Guard was derelict and that
Guardsmen actually participated in the riot.
Bob Norris, a Tulsa historian who investigated the Guard's role in the riot,
attributes most if not all of those reports to World War I veterans wearing their
uniforms into the melee. Norris said local Guard units rebuffed white vigilantes
trying to raid the National Guard Armory and could have quelled the disturbance
quickly if city officials had not refused those units' help until the situation was
out of control.
Additional troops, sent by train from Oklahoma City, did not arrive until the
morning of June 1. Norris points out that order was restored within an hour of the
declaration of martial law.
Not everyone agrees with Norris' exoneration of the National Guard. But, in
buttressing Brophy's argument that city officials' actions made the riot worse,
Norris' report gives ammunition to legislative foes of reparations. Following Norris'
testimony, Milaceck said he was satisfied the state had little or no responsibility
for the riot. As things stand now, said Milacek, "I'm not aware of any support for
reparations. There may be some, but none has been directed at me."
Randy Krehbiel, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8365 or via
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .