Release of 1940 census shows big changes in Tulsa over 72 years
BY CASEY SMITH World Staff Writer
Saturday, June 02, 2012
6/06/12 at 6:47 PM
A Saturday Tulsa World graphic incorrectly listed the number of years between the 1940 census and the 2010 census. The two surveys were 70 years apart. The photograph accompanying the story was incorrectly credited. The photo was taken by the late Bob McCormack. This story has been corrected.
For more about the 2010 Census data.
Related story: Tulsans balked at some census questions.
This article relies on historical context contributed by Maggie Brown, manager of
Tulsa Historical Society’s education and exhibits, and “Tulsa! Biography of the American City” by Danney Goble.
Cursive script on 1940 census documents record skeletal outlines of the lives America's Greatest Generation led seven decades ago in Tulsa.
Interviews with Tulsans fill in details about life in the city at the end of the Great Depression and on the cusp of the Second World War. The census documents were released in April after a mandatory 72-year waiting period.
The Tulsa World spoke with five present-day Tulsans, all between 4 and 32 years old when census takers visited their homes in April 1940. They have seen Tulsa grow from a population of 142,157 in 1940 to 391,906 in 2010.
Their stories are entwined with Tulsa's story - marked by booming and then diminished oil production, the 1921 Race Riot, life's shift from downtown to the suburbs and a rich arts and entertainment scene.
Former state Sen. Charles Ford, University of Tulsa Associate Professor Emeritus Edward Dumit and Julius Pegues, chairman of the Tulsa Development Authority and the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, were all young boys in 1940.
At age 8 in April 1940, Ford lived in a four-room home on North Victor Avenue near the railroad tracks with older brother Beryl and their parents. Soon after, the family had the house moved just blocks from the undeveloped ranchland of Osage County.
Dumit, 10 at the time, grew up in a yellow-and-white slat home overlooking the Arkansas River. His parents, Syrian immigrants, bought the home in 1924.
Pegues, then 4, lived in a six-room home on Queen Place with his parents and three teenage siblings.
Forrest Winston and Mary Dyer have adult memories of Tulsa in 1940. Winston, then 32, lived in nice homes his father's business built. Dyer, then Mary Poss and 22, lived with her parents in a brick home near Whittier Square, an early shopping district at Lewis Avenue and Admiral Boulevard.
Center of life
Residents remember a vibrant, accommodating downtown.
"Ninety-eight percent of everything was downtown Tulsa - all the shopping, recreation, transportation," Ford said.
Ford biked downtown with his older brother. Without locking up their bikes, the brothers ate at Coney Island or Ike's Chili House and looked at the guns and saddles in Dick Barton's and pocketknives at S.H. Kress variety store, all downtown.
"Everything down there was very viable," Ford said. "If you wanted to do something it was there and there were choices, the quality was there."
Downtown was Dumit's childhood playground. After school, he would go to Dumit's Rugs and Linens, the family store specializing in Oriental rugs.
Dumit loved exploring the city. He would dart between the Grecian columns and glass windows of the old post office building. On Saturdays after reciting poetry on "Kiddie's Review," a radio program that broadcast out of Jenkins Music Co., Dumit would pay 10 cents to see a movie at the Ritz, Orpheum or Majestic theaters.
Once Dumit bought a war bond for a seat at a midnight showing of the movie "Wilson" at the Orpheum Theatre, hosted by actor Gary Cooper. His parents let him walk alone as a young teen, across the railroad tracks, one mile from their home to the theater before the showing and then walk home around 3:30 a.m.
"Today you would not think of letting your child out that way," Dumit said. "It's an interesting comparison, thinking about the customs of the times and how they change."
Pegues' downtown trips always included a parent or older brother. He remembers buying school clothes at Harrington's, stops at the hardware store and purchases at the Boston Fish Market.
But most of Pegues' free time was spent in Greenwood. He shot marbles, rode bikes, went to cowboy movies at the Dreamland or Rex theaters and tagged along to Booker T. Washington football and basketball games with older siblings and cousins.
Greenwood was bustling during Pegues' childhood, filled with merchants and restaurants. He sold papers for the Oklahoma Eagle for a 2- to 3-cent profit.
Less than 20 years earlier, rioters burned buildings to the ground in the 1921 Race Riot.
Two of Pegues' uncles, W.S. and J.C. Latimer, were deeply involved in rebuilding Greenwood. The men, both with engineering degrees from Tuskegee University, worked on projects that included Carver Junior High School and the Mount Zion Baptist Church. The church had burned just six weeks after opening.
"No one recovered any damages from the riot," Pegues said. "Black people were on their own, and this shows the resiliency of their community."
In 1940, Tulsa had not fully recovered from the Great Depression.
At the Depression's onset, Winston was a young man working at Transcontinental Oil Co. Winston remembered friends laid off and his own good fortune of keeping a job that paid $110 a month.
"I was so lucky to be kept on because a lot of people, like now, were out of work," Winston said, eyes glistening with concern. "But they kept me on."
Dyer's parents' careful money habits and father's salary cut, as opposed to losing his job, meant the Poss family was never bad off, Dyer said.
Dyer laughed when she remembered her preteen indignation at the cut in allowance she took. Her father explained that because he took a cut in pay, she would be taking one, too.
"At that stage in the game it was hard for me to understand," she said.
Others felt a more dramatic impact.
The Fords lost their home shortly after Charles was born in the summer of 1931, he said. They moved frequently, from garage apartment to garage apartment until 1937, when they bought an old railroad house built around the turn of the century, Ford said.
Dumit's Rugs and Linens did not go out of business, but there would be days with hardly any customers because few could afford luxury items, Dumit said.
Changes for T-Town
A $15 million award from the War Department in 1941 helped pull the city out of its slump and diversify the economy. The Douglas plant built B-24 and A-26 bombers in a 1.5 million-square-foot factory near Tulsa's airport.
The city began to sprawl shortly after World War II. Families moved to the suburbs, and retail and other businesses eventually followed.
Pegues feels the move to the suburbs, fashionable postwar, is reversing. People are starting to move closer because of high gas prices, he said.
The Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority of the 1960s was ultimately positive for downtown Tulsa because it got rid of old structures, Pegues said.
But the Urban Renewal Authority and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation caused the second demise of the Greenwood Business District, he said.
"The north side here, we still haven't recovered from the Urban Renewal Authority," Pegues said. "One day we will, though. We just have to keep working on it."
Tulsa World researcher Hilary Pittman contributed to this report.
70 years of growth
A look at population growth in the area and the state from the 1940 census to 2010.
Original Print Headline: 72 years of changes
Casey Smith 918-732-8106
An aerial view shows Tulsa in 1940. Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society/Bob McCormack
Looking northeast at Sixth and Main street in 1946. Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society
People walk on Main Street between Third and Fourth streets in the 1940s. Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society