The Story of Black Wall Street #021: What the White Folks Know

For a century white people with ties to the mob that burned Greenwood have been silent about their family ties to the massacre. That may be starting to change.

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In the leadup to the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Run It Back is returning to a biweekly schedule. I’ll be spending about 10% of my work hours on this newsletter, providing free and documented information about the history of Greenwood and black Oklahoma. I’m trying to grow a large audience for this project, build awareness for my forthcoming book, and maintain a level of editorial independence. I am asking you to share this edition or any previous edition of Run It Back with at least three other people this week and recommend they subscribe. Thanks so much for your continued support. Share and subscribe buttons below.

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This is a companion piece to my article on white mobs published in The New Yorker on Jan. 15. 

“Reconciliation” is an omnipresent word here in Tulsa. I drive by it most days on the way to the Greenwood District. A street in the neighborhood, “Reconciliation Way,” was named after Tulsa city father and former Ku Klux Klan member Tate Brady until quite recently. In 1921, Brady Street dead-ended into the Dreamland Theater, which was burned down during the massacre. The Dreamland’s owner, Loula Williams, appears to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after she and her family were fired upon by a white mob, her home and businesses were destroyed, her son was carted off to an internment camp, and her efforts to achieve restitution through the courts were denied. She was admitted to a sanitarium in 1925 to treat “her mind and nervous system,” no longer able to conduct business and barely able to write coherently. She died in 1927. 

The Williams remained in Tulsa and rebuilt their lives after a tragic decade. Loula Williams’ son W.D. became a beloved longtime teacher at Greenwood’s Booker T. Washington High School, and her granddaughter Anita was an accomplished optometrist. Many of her great-grandchildren also grew up near Greenwood. Their family story, shared generously with the world through oral histories and museum artifacts, helped form the bedrock for our modern understanding of Greenwood and the massacre.

But there are questions the Williams family can’t answer. Who burned down the Dreamland Theater? Where are those people’s descendants today? How did a thousand-person white mob disappear into the ether? And how can people like Loula Williams’ great-grandchildren reconcile with a phantom that doesn’t want to be found? 

A group of armed men standing at the railroad tracks on Greenwood Avenue watching smoke rise from a burning building during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. One of the men (center) is an Oklahoma National Guardsman. Photo courtesy Tulsa Historical Society

Historians have spent half a century talking to white people about the massacre, and trying to get them to admit what they know. In the early 1970s, a woman named Ruth Sigler Avery began interviewing white people about what was then known as the Tulsa race riot. Avery had her own vivid memories of what had happened in 1921, recalling seeing “piles and piles of dead Negroes” on trucks driving through town. But she had been a small child then, and she hadn’t been in Greenwood. 

White Tulsans told her stories about how they had hidden their black servants from the police squads that roamed the city seeking to detain them. Perhaps Avery’s subjects meant for these tales to seem heroic, but the interviews don’t read that way. Elsie Gubser was the wife of a prominent Tulsa county judge whose family lived just a few doors down from Tate Brady’s mansion, near Greenwood. They employed a black maid named Bessie who lived in the Gubsers’ garage, along with her husband and baby. Elsie Gubser told Avery that she had brought Bessie and the baby into her basement the morning after the massacre for protection, even cooking them breakfast. But the previous evening, when her husband told her the chaos in Tulsa’s streets had been sparked by Negroes “causing trouble,” Gubser sat by an upstairs window and watched Bessie, carefully, for hours. “She was ironing that night up in her house. I could see her,” Gusber told Avery. “ I stayed up practically all night watching them. I saw them turn out the lights.”

Some people told Avery they had witnessed horrors--black people being dragged behind cars, bodies being stacked onto trains--but none of the interview subjects had participated in them. And no one seemed able to name a single person who had.

"I could never find anybody to fess up,” says Scott Ellsworth, a history professor at the University of Michigan who also began researching the massacre in the ‘70s as a college student. "It's been constantly running up against a wall. There was no list of names that I could try to track down."

In 1978, when Ellsworth tried to interview a former police officer who had been on the force in 1921, the man hung up on him. When he tried to get massacre photos from the Tulsa Historical Society, the president told him that “Mexicans and Indians” had ransacked Greenwood, not whites. Ellsworth’s 1982 book Death in a Promised Land ultimately relied heavily on black massacre survivors, such as Loula Williams’ son W.D. Williams. 

In the ‘90s, when the state of Oklahoma formed a race riot commission, white Tulsans began to find their voice. More than 100 responded to an open call from the city for information about potential mass graves. But they were still largely heroic witnesses speaking out against injustice, or at worst, neutral observers. The mob itself somehow remained invisible. 

With the intense attention on Tulsa last year thanks to the renewed grave search, Hollywood adaptations of the massacre, and the Juneteenth weekend visit by President Trump, more white people have come forward. Over the years Ellsworth has received hints of concrete evidence--a man who claims a family pistol was used in the massacre, or a woman who says she has unseen photos--but nothing substantial has materialized tied directly to the mob. "The echoes are getting dimmer,” he said. “In the '70s I could speak to people who were adults during the riot. By the '90s you could speak to survivors and observers who were children during the massacre...now everything is second hand at best." 

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Over the summer, shortly after President Trump announced he would be holding a campaign rally in Tulsa, I came across an unusual tweet. A white man from Texas was sharing a 2018 article I wrote about the race massacre, and stating on an open forum that his ancestor was among the mob that burned Greenwood. “My great grandfather was one of them,” he wrote. “It’s a shame that will never leave.”

His name was Eric Celeste, and he agreed to talk to me with much less coaxing than I expected. Writers crave revelations that can bring a story into focus, and I thought the interview with Eric might be such a breakthrough. I wondered if he had some kind of damning evidence--a firsthand account of exactly what happened, as black witnesses had written, or perhaps a vivid oral history that family members had passed down, which he was finally sharing with the world. 

But historical narratives are not actually preserved so neatly, especially dark ones. Eric had learned of his great grandfather’s involvement that same week from his father, Mark Celeste, in a text message. Mark had learned about it from his father, Alphonse Celeste, around 1960, in a conversation Mark no longer remembers the details of. Mark doesn’t know how Alphonse found out but he suspects that his sister-in-law Hazel, who owned a bar in midcentury Tulsa and liked to trade stories, told him. Hazel was about 12 in 1921 when her father, Benjamin Fowler, probably joined the white mob, according to Mark and Eric. “ If those three conversations over 100 years don't happen, each one of them 30 seconds, 40 seconds long, then that's gone,” Eric told me when we first spoke.

I found this narrative perplexing at first. For the Celestes, the Tulsa Race Massacre wasn’t a wicked source of racist inspiration nurtured across generations. But it also wasn’t a moral stain on their good name that they had been working to actively blot out. It was just another bad thing that happened that nobody talked about, and it seemed kind of irrelevant to their actual lives. 

This was not a conspiracy of silence--not in the active, malignant sense which that phrase evokes. But it spoke to a huge gap in the ways that black people and white people process the past. If American progress is linear, then studying the past is merely an intellectual exercise. An ever-expanding abundance of prosperity and opportunity will allow every individual person to chart their own destiny. A race massacre a hundred years ago only matters so much, even if your own family is implicated. “What I know is what kind of person I am, what kind of person I’ve been,” Mark Celeste told me. “I don’t care what Jesus said, you can’t take all of the sins of the world on you.”

But if American progress is recursive, then studying the past is a form of moral vigilance, an effort to better navigate the nation’s continual cycles of violence and oppression, and perhaps help guide the country to calmer waters when the next crest hits. In this scenario, a race massacre is not a bizarre outlier from the past; it’s a warning about the future. Maybe living through cycles of discord is simply our lot as a society; if so, white people should take on more of the burden of that moral vigilance. It starts with telling the truth. “I'm part of the tapestry of hate and privilege that has been in this country for hundreds of years,” Eric said. “It's important not that I dismiss my connections to these horrible things, but that I hold them close and use them to remind myself and to fuel whatever I can do.”

Of course, people may shift in these perspectives over the course of their lives--as someone who was 18 when Barack Obama was elected, I was all aboard the linear progress train; delving into U.S. history during the years of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump, I began to feel differently. And watching the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, which evoked 1921 even as the insurrectionists thought they were recreating 1776, it became impossible to believe the knotty problems our nation has left to fester can be solved by ignoring them in the hopes that “progress” will solve them. If white people so often believe in the American Dream, many black people will at best allow for the American Détente. For when we as a people peer into the nation’s brutal past, we do not see history--we see ourselves.

Are you a white person with a direct connection to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre? If so, please email me at vic.luckerson@gmail.com as I continue my research.


Sources

Luckerson, Victor. “Watching Watchmen As a Descendant of the Tulsa Race Massacre.” The New Yorker. Sept. 20 2020.

Ruth Sigler Avery Collection (Series 1). Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, Tulsa.