Post-riot lawsuits reveal clues, mysteries
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Feb 6, 2000
1/20/13 at 8:50 AM
One suit suggests a source for a persistent rumor surrounding the
1921 Tulsa Race Riot.
Among the artifacts of the 1921 Tulsa riot are scores of lawsuits against the city.
None appears to have come to trial, yet most lingered in the courts for years. Many were not
dismissed until 1937. But buried within these inventories of destruction lie clues to the
realities and perceptions of the riot and its aftermath.
Combined with other bits of information, some of the suits also suggest a primary source for
one of the riots' most resilient rumors -- and perhaps hint that a personal feud may have fueled
"EX-POLICE BARES PLOT OF TULSANS/Officer of Law Tells Who Ordered Aeroplanes to Destroy
Homes" headlined a story in the Chicago Defender in October 1921. The piece said a former Tulsa
policeman, identified as "Van B. Hurley (white)," had signed a 31-page affidavit in which he
claimed city officials and law enforcement officers planned and carried out an aerial attack on
"Hurley asserted the airplanes darted from hangars and hovered over the district dropping
nitroglycerin on buildings, setting them afire," said the story. It named Tulsa Police Capt.
George Blaine as one of those in the airplanes.
The Defender said the affidavit was in the hands of Topeka, Kan., attorney Elisha Scott.
Scott was a well-known attorney with connections to the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People. His son would be one of the attorneys in the famous Brown vs.
Topeka Board of Education desegragation suit.
Elisha Scott represented a number of black Tulsans following the riot. By the time the
statute of limitations ran out in 1923, he had filed more than 50 lawsuits against the city.
Most of the suits included charges similar to those made in the Chicago Defender, only more
A fairly typical one charges that "J.R. (sic) Blaine . . . acting in the capacity of the
captain of the police department, did, ride in an airplane, drop and caused to be dropped
turpentine balls and bombs down and upon the houses . . . That the said T.D. Evans, the mayor
of the City of Tulsa, J.M. Akdinson (sic), the Police commissioner of the City of Tulsa and the
said J.R. (sic) Blaine . . . did form said conspiracy with other agents, servants and employees
of said city and other persons, to kill citizens and to destroy the property of certain colored
citizens of Tulsa."
These were serious charges. They not only accused "J.R. Blaine" -- undoubtedly George H.
Blaine, mistakenly identified -- of bombing Greenwood, but also of a conspiracy at the highest
levels of city government. It would have made a sensational case.
But there was one problem.
No "Van B. Hurley" appears to have ever been a Tulsa police officer.
For reasons the riot commission's legal experts cannot explain, Scott appears to have never
pursued the cases. Whether from lack of merit, lack of money or political pressure, the suits
faded from memory and in 1937 were dismissed at the plaintiffs' request. Newspaper stories
noted the dismissals but gave no other information.
The notion that the city had been not merely inept in its handling of the riot but planned
the destruction of Greenwood surfaced almost simultaneously with the riot -- and for good
A local real estate publication and The Tulsa Tribune were trumpeting a proposal to clear
out "Deep Greenwood" for a new railroad depot and industrial district. These plans were so
well-known, even before the riot, that speculators started trying to buy up lots practically
before the embers were cool. Adjutant Gen. Charles Barrett stopped them by ordering a
moratorium on title transfers.
Nevertheless, the talks intensified. Initially, most of the major property owners in
Greenwood -- black and white -- supported the plan. When the city tried to extend the prevailing
fire code to new construction in Greenwood, it was understood as an attempt to thwart
The plan fell apart after a few months when the city refused to compensate the owners for
the pre-riot value of their holdings and the courts overturned the fire code restrictions.
Maurice Willows, who directed the Red Cross' Herculean efforts in Tulsa, was among those who
believed a conspiracy existed.
"This was not a riot," he wrote in 1951. "It was a well-planned, diabolical ouster of the
negroes from their stamping stomping? chgrounds."
Willows blamed "key persons in both races."
For one thing, a number of prominent whites, including Cyrus Avery, Tate Brady, Earl
Sinclair and S.R. Lewis (for whom Lewis Avenue is named) had substantial holdings in Greenwood.
According to estimates soon after the riot, white property owners suffered heavier losses than
blacks. And Avery, as an influential member of the group supporting the costly and
controversial Spavinaw water project, was an ally of Evans.
If there were a conspiracy, it didn't work. A check by the Oklahoma Historical Association
found no unusual patterns in the transfer of Greenwood property during the 18 months before and
after the riot. The railroad station and the industrial park were not built. By 1925 Greenwood
was sufficiently recovered to host the National Negro Business League.
By the early '30s, it was said to be more prosperous than ever.
And what of George Blaine and the "turpentine balls" and "nitroglycerine bombs" he was said
to have dropped on Greenwood?
The primary sources of the bombing stories seem to be the affidavit cited by the Defender
and two accounts, both un
signed, among those compiled by Mary E. Jones Parrish immediately after the riot.
Planes were definitely in the air during and for days after the riot. Officials say they
were used strictly for reconnaissance. Aviation and demolition experts have told the riot
commission it is unlikely anything like turpentine balls or nitroglycerine bombs were used.
Family members say Blaine always adamantly denied the charges. Once, 20 years after the
riot, he may have been close to identifying "Van B. Hurley."
Or was he?
Blaine became police chief after John Gustafson's removal in July 1921. Blaine himself was
forced out the following year. He was chief again from 1928 to 1930, then, by his own
admission, spiraled into alcoholism.
A dramatic religious experience turned Blaine around and revived his career before dying
of cancer in 1958.
In 1942, Blaine recounted his reconciliation with an old police department rival.
"In 1922, a police captain told some truths and untruths about me -- and the truths were bad
enough to hurt. I attempted to strike him, but a friend grabbed me from behind and pinned my
arms. I told him that the town wasn't big enough for both of us, that I'd kill him if he didn't
get out. He left town, and until a few weeks ago I never heard of him."
Blaine's family says he never identified the police captain or what the "truths and
untruths" may have been.
And so they remain one of the maddening mysteries of a terrible time.
Randy Krehbiel, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8365 or via e-mail at