The Story of Black Wall Street #023: Trust in the Law

The legal battles over who should pay for the destruction of Greenwood, criminally and financially, began before the smoke had cleared

Welcome to the twenty-third edition of Run It Back, my biweekly newsletter about neglected black history. During the year 2021 the newsletter will be focused on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which I’m currently writing a book about for Random House.

When Oklahoma Attorney General S. Prentiss Freeling arrived at the Tulsa County courthouse on Friday, June 10, he was probably surprised to see so many black faces. Greenwood residents were lining the corridors of the courthouse and crowding around the jury room entrance. It was ten days after the massacre; their neighborhood was an ashen heap, with more than 1,200 homes and businesses destroyed. They had started erecting a tent city themselves on top of the rubble, and no doubt were already fretting about how they would survive a brutal Oklahoma winter in a few months. But they traveled across the railroad tracks right back into downtown Tulsa, to serve as witnesses to the grand jury Governor James B.A. Robertson had empaneled just days before. They wanted to be part of the pursuit of justice. 

Freeling ignored them. He had already explained his primary goal, which was to investigate the “inception of the riot” and whether police could have stopped the initial outbreak of violence. The burning of Greenwood, which is what most black people had witnessed the morning after the confrontation over Dick Rowland, was a secondary concern.

When a Tulsa World reporter pressed Freeling for more details about the process for selecting witnesses, he refused to make a statement. The World attempted to fill in the blanks themselves. “The police officers, about 50 of whom were present, seemed to have the good will of Attorney General S.P. Freeling,” the newspaper reported. “It is thought that the stories of all police officers will be heard before much other evidence is taken.”

Two weeks later, after an all-white grand jury heard from police officers, future Ku Klux Kan members, and a few Greenwood residents well-acquainted with Tulsa’s white elite, it arrived at a verdict: "We find that the recent race riot was the direct result of an effort on the part of a certain group of Colored men who appeared at the courthouse on the night of May 31, 1921...there was no mob spirit among the Whites, no talk of lynching and no arms. The assembly was quiet until the arrival of armed Negroes, which precipitated and was the direct cause of the entire affair."

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For a long time, Greenwood residents thought of the law as a final refuge from the daily vagaries of racism. Changing the feeling inside a white man’s heart was an impossible task. But seeking protection from a law? Or even changing one? That could be done. By the summer of 1921, black Oklahomans had already challenged Jim Crow cars on railways, segregated housing ordinances, and voter disenfranchisement laws in the state’s brief history. They also opposed mobs on the basis of their fundamental lawlessness, not just their racism. Perhaps because educated blacks had come so far since new laws freed from slavery, they retained a deep faith that institutional power could, in the long run, be a force for good. B.C. Franklin, a Greenwood lawyer and massacre survivor, later recalled how deeply he equated law with justice as a child, when he would read newspaper accounts of convicted criminals being hanged and wish he could go witness the executions. “I thought every outlaw was, indeed, guilty!” he wrote. “The fact that some of them might be innocent of murder never entered my mind.”

On June 16, the Tulsa grand jury indicted 64 people, all of them black (12 white men were indicted a few days later). They stood accused of organizing and inciting riot, and could be found criminally responsible for all the death and property damage that ensued, according to Oklahoma law. Prominent Greenwood entrepreneurs A.J. Smitherman and J.B. Stradford, whose businesses were destroyed, were among the indicted; both men fled the city and were pursued by law enforcement officials who tried, unsuccessfully, to extradite them from Boston and Kansas.

Receiving no help from the criminal justice system, Greenwood residents next sought justice through the civil courts. Property owners in Greenwood filed more than 190 lawsuits against the city of Tulsa, Mayor T.D. Evans, Chief of Police John A. Gustafson, and several insurance companies. B.C. Franklin was among the lawyers who filed many of the suits, along with his partners Isaac Spears and B.A. Chappelle.

B.C. Franklin, pictured far right, set up his law office in a tent on Greenwood Avenue following the massacre. Photo courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center.

The insurance companies developed boilerplate arguments against paying out claims to customers facing utter disaster. Mabel Allen, a black maid working and living in south Tulsa, also owned a one-story, shingle-roof house in Greenwood, which she bought for $525 in 1920. She also bought a $21 insurance policy that guaranteed her a payout of $750 in the event the house was destroyed by fire. On June 1, 1921, it was. 

Within two months Allen contacted her insurer, the New York-based Continental Insurance Company, seeking her payout. According to her suit, a local agent initially told her that her claim would be honored. But then she received a letter from the corporate headquarters: The company refused to pay. Continental Insurance claimed that a riot-exclusion clause in its contract with Allen meant it wasn’t liable for the destruction of her property. 

In a legal brief responding to Allen’s suit, Continental Insurance cast the “Tulsa Race Riot” as an evenhanded battle between black and white forces: “...the white and colored groups and forces [were] opposing one another, armed with fire arms and other weapons, and supplied with matches and other materials for setting fire to and burning property.” The company claimed that these opposing factions both operated “without the authority of law.”

In fact, many of the white people who invaded Greenwood had been deputized by police. The events that occurred outside the courthouse concerning Dick Rowland may have been a spontaneous “riot,” but the burning of Greenwood the next morning was a well-coordinated attack. And, according to eye-witness accounts, it involved uniformed officers. In Kentucky a few years earlier, when a marshal set a lumber building on fire in the midst of a riot, a state court found that the insurance company would have to cover the fire damage. Once law enforcement officials begin actively destroying private property, casting their actions as “riotous” becomes harder to prove.  

Mabel Allen’s civil suit, along with the vast majority of Greenwood residents’ suits, never actually went to trial. However, William Redfearn, a white entrepreneur who owned a movie theater not far from the Dreamland Theater, did get his day in court. In Redfearn v. American Central Insurance Company, the Oklahoma Supreme Court acknowledged that “evidence shows that a great number of men engaged in arresting the negroes found in the negro section wore police badges, or badges indicating they were deputy sheriffs, and in some instances were dressed in soldier’s clothes.” However, the court doubted whether these men were actually police officials. They might simply have been more nebulous “rioters.” Moreover, if they were detaining black people and sending them to internment camps as part of their police duties, but they were burning down buildings as part of their rioter duties, then an insurance company could still claim the burning wasn’t a state act. Redfearn, a prominent businessman, lost his case; an unknown black domestic like Mabel Allen never had a chance. 

The city of Tulsa’s legal defense against these lawsuits is harder to track, but a large number of the lawsuits were summarily dismissed in 1937, for reasons unknown. Mabel Allen ultimately rebuilt her home and bequeathed it to her two daughters, Eva Allen and Bonnie Johnson, when she died in 1928. B.C. Franklin continued working as a Greenwood lawyer for decades, long after all legal action in response to the massacre had been successfully smothered. But he always held out hope that restitution would come, one day. “Providence has been especially good to America and has placed her in a position to do more toward correcting past mistakes and righting the wrongs of yesteryear than possibly any other nation on the globe,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The sins and evil she has committed are not ancient, as times go, but they exist, and can be canceled out only through repentance."


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Sources

1921 Tulsa City Directory 

Allen v. Continental Insurance Company. Tulsa County Courthouse. 

“Bring Stratford Back for Trial.” Tulsa World. June 7 1921.

Brophy, Aflred. Reconstructing the Dreamland.

Franklin, B.C. My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin.

Krehbiel, Randy. Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre. 

NAACP papers. "Extradition A. J. Smitherman.” Auburn University.

“Peace Officers Give Testimony.” Tulsa World. June 11 1921.

Ruth Sigler Avery Collection (Series 1, Box 5). Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, Tulsa.

Wills and Probate Records for Mabel Allen. Ancestry.com