Black district not bombed, historian says
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Jan 6, 2001
1/20/13 at 7:55 AM
The Tulsa Race Riot Commission may finally agree to disagree in order to meet a rapidly
approaching deadline, but the chances of resolving issues that have divided it for 2-1/2 years
appeared slimmer than ever after Friday's meeting at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
The anger and raw emotion still elicited by the 1921 conflagration showed itself especially
during exchanges with members of a sparse but opinionated audience. The statements of Beryl
Ford, an amateur historian with perhaps the largest private collection of photographs and
documents related to the riot, brought particularly sharp responses.
The commission has never directly consulted Ford, who in addition to being an acknowledged
authority on Tulsa history is also a fire and blast damage investigator. Long critical of
commission historical consultant Scott Ellsworth, Ford asked for time to rebut arguments presented by Ellsworth and others.
Ford said it was his professional opinion that Tulsa's black Greenwood district could not
have been bombed as some blacks have contended over the years, and as Ellsworth states with
some reservation in his report to the commission.
Ford, a World War II pilot and a director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, said photos of
the district show no signs of explosions. Homemade incendiaries, Ford said, would have been
impractical and dan
gerous in the open-cockpit, wood-and-fabric Curtiss JN-4s -- commonly called Jennies -- thought
to have been used.
A number of commissioners found Ford's statement unconvincing.
Vivian Clark-Adams cited the statements of some black survivors that they were shot at and
firebombed from the air.
"How could you discount all those eyewitness accounts?" she said. "Because they are black,
their stories are discounted."
Commissioner Eddie Faye Gates said she, too, puts greater faith in the witnesses and said
not all authorities agree with Ford's assessment.
"Would it not be possible," commissioner Jim Lloyd asked, "for someone to make an incendiary
device from petroleum jelly and kerosene and throw it out of an airplane?"
"You'd be a damn fool to do it," said Ford.
According to contemporary newspaper accounts, the Jennies were manned by police or
pilots operating under police instruction and were used for reconnaissance. Gates thinks the
planes were part of an organized and well-planned assault masterminded by what she calls "the
Ford agrees white businessmen wanted parts of the Greenwood district for industrial
development, but he says there is no evidence they resorted to violence to get it.
To a large extent, the disagreements break down along the same racial lines as the riot
itself. Many blacks believe it was a premeditated assault, launched by city leaders and driven
by racial hatred, jealously and greed.
Ford and other white Tulsans believe it was a spontaneous outbreak driven by rising racial
tension and ignited by two linked events -- the arrest of a young black man on a trumped-up
assault charge and the mobilization of armed blacks to protect him.
The sometimes passionate arguments over these points,
however, can obscure the ones on which there is a surprising degree of consensus. When Bill
O'Brien, another local historian, said the riot was triggered by hundreds of armed black men
coming to the Tulsa County Courthouse and driving through white neighborhoods, Clark-Adams
chided him and praised as "freedom fighters" those O'Brien called "black militants."
"I agree with you," O'Brien told Clark-Adams. "If I'd been black then I'd probably have
been in the streets with a rifle."
The commission plans to meet next on Jan. 26. At that meeting it hopes to approve a summary
of the commissions' findings and the commissioners' various viewpoints and finalize the report
to be presented the Legislature by Feb. 15.
The commission faces a Feb. 28 statutory deadline.
Randy Krehbiel, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8365 or via e-
mail at email@example.com.