Meet the Survivors

These accounts of the 1921 Race Massacre are told through the eyes of the survivors. Their stories are chilling and horrifying. This is not an exhaustive list of the Survivors.

If you are a descendant of one of the Survivors (or know of a story that can be added) and they shared their story with you, we at the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation would love to hear it.

​Resource: The Greenwood Cultural Center

Beulah Lane Keenan Smith

Born: May 20, 1908

“Mobsters had kicked a hole in the side of the store and had set it on fire. That was the saddest day of my life. That riot cheated us out of childhood innocence. My life dreams were destroyed too by that riot. In fact, I had made up my mind to become a school teacher when I grew up. But that riot put an end to that. We lost everything in the riot, and I had to drop out of school to work and help with family support. Not only did I not become a school teacher, I was not able to even finish high school! What a loss that was to Tulsa and to society. I had such a calling for the teaching profession, and I had such a love for learning and for teaching. I know in my heart that I would have been a good teacher.”

Blanche Cole

Born: April 21, 1904

“We found that we had lost everything. Everything we owned had been stolen or burned. I wondered why we had come back. There was nothing to come back to. The rented house was badly burned and everything stolen or burned. Even my child toys and treasures had been taken. What the mobsters hadn’t stolen, they scattered about, set on fire, or smashed and damaged. I just down and cried. I was a nervous wreck.”

Carrie Humphrey Cudjoe

Born: April 6, 1913

“My parents, David and Hattie Humphrey, moved from Ft. Gibson, Oklahoma, to Tulsa. At the time of the riot, they lived at 2111 N. Lansing Avenue in a home which they owned. hey attended the Holiness Church on the corner of Marshal and Lansing. The pastor was Rev. Nichols. There were six children then. We had a house, a horse, a cow, and some chickens. Our house was burned down during the riot and we lost everything that we had. The riot was an awful thing. It scarred us.”

Clarence Bruner

Born: July 28, 1904

“When the riot broke out, I was a teenager working as a bellhop at the Mills hotel in downtown Tulsa. We made good money. Tulsa was a booming oil town and people were always coming to Tulsa. Hotels, restaurants, entertainment places, taxis, shoe shine parlors, department stores, banks, churches (so many on Boulder Avenue that it was called Cathedral Row) – all profited in the booming oil town. And then came the riot!”

Delois Vaden Ramsey

Born: March 5, 1919

“My father, Hosea Oscar Vaden, owned one of the most popular pool halls in Tulsa at the time of the Tulsa riot. Vaden’s Pool Hall was located on Greenwood Avenue next to Art’s Chili Parlor. Across the street was another pool hall, Spann’s Pool Hall. Younger people went to Spann’s, and older people came to dad’s pool hall. Famous people were always coming to play pool at Vaden’s Pool Hall. Boxer Joe Louis always came by my dad’s pool hall to buy newspapers. Dad sold ‘Black Dispatch’ newspapers and also white Tulsa newspapers. My parents also owned a home on Elgin Street, which burned to the ground in the riot. I was too young to personally remember details of the riot, but I heard my parents talk about the riot – how bad it was, how it destroyed so much property that blacks had worked so hard to acquire.”

Ernestine Gibbs

Born: December 15, 1902

“A family friend came from a hotel on Greenwood where he worked and knocked on our door. He was so scared he could not sit still, nor lie down. He just paced up and down the floor talking about the ‘mess’ going on downtown and on Greenwood. When daylight came, black people were moving down the train tracks like ants. We joined the fleeing people. During this fleeing frenzy, we made it to Golden Gate Park near 36th Street North. We had to run from there because someone warned us that whites were shooting down blacks who were fleeing along railroad tracks. Some of them were shot by whites firing from airplanes. On June 1, 1921, we were found by the guards and taken to the fairgrounds. A white man who mother knew came and took us home. Going back to Greenwood was like entering a war zone. Everything was gone! People were moaning and weeping when they looked at where their homes and businesses once stood. I’ll never forget it. No, not ever!”

Essie Lee Johnson Beck

Born: April 29, 1915

“My Johnson relatives had acquired 700 acres of land in Arkansas after the Civil War, but there was so much hatred and envy of black landowners by Southern whites that my family lost all that land. Due to the deliberate racial injustice of taking their land, and threats against black landowners, my relatives secretly fled Arkansas. One of mother’s brothers had been targeted and would probably have been murdered had the family remained in Arkansas. That is h ow my mother arrived in Tulsa, just in time to become caught up in the worst race riot in America history!”

Genevieve Elizabeth Tillman Jackson

Born: June 29, 1915

“I saw what I thought were little black birds dropping out of the sky over the Greenwood District. But those were no little birds; what was falling from the sky over the Negro district, as it was called in those days, were bullets and devices to set fires, and debris of all kinds. Mother, sensing the danger, ran out and got me and took me into the house. I saw a truckload of dead bodies being carried somewhere. I was just spellbound looking at those bodies – bodies that looked like they had just haphazardly been thrown onto that truck, with arms and legs just dangling. I got closer so I could see better and I noticed that the faces and arms were black but that when the arms dangled, a person could see white at the top of the arms. I asked about that. I learned later that those were white men who had painted their faces and arms black so they could get into the Greenwood community under false pretenses. But when they started shooting down the black people, their game was up and they, themselves, got shot down. Many other black riot victims told of white bosses who had cots, blankets, and food already in place at their homes and businesses just waiting for their black employees when the riot broke out. They had to know that the riot was coming.”

Golden Williams Smith

Born: May 20, 1916

“At the time of the Tulsa riot, my mother, Willie Williams Pannell Dawson worked for a white lady, Mrs. Van Horn. During the riot, my mother, stepfather, and I fled the riot area with a lot of other colored people. I don’t remember much about the riot. I do know that our home was burned down and that we were taken by authorities to the fairgrounds.”

Harold Gibbs

Born: January 16, 1920

“I was just a year old during the riot. My mother said she joined the crowd of running black men, women, and children trying to escape the mobs who were approaching the Greenwood area. She had me in her arms and she was terrified. She said she and the group she was with ran all the way to Claremore, Oklahoma. Then a truck of soldiers came and took them to a detention center in Tulsa. I don’t remember which center she said they were taken to. My mother didn’t know where my father was. Later, we learned he had been taken to another detention center. After the riot was over, mother and dad were reunited. Dad never heard a word from the city about what happened to his wagon and his two horses. He never got a dime from the city from the loss of his ‘work capital’ – that wagon and those two horses.”

James D. Bell

Born: June 12, 1921

“At the time of the Tulsa riot, my father, J.D. (Dick Bell) and my mother, Ida Mae Bell lived at 418 N. Cincinnati Avenue in Tulsa. My mother was eight months pregnant with me. Dad and mother came from Missouri to Tulsa in 1918 to get in on the oil boom successes there. Dad was a chauffeur for rich whites such as Tate Brady, Judge Shea, and the owner of Crosby Farms. When the riot started, mother and dad fled along the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, with other fleeing black refugees all the way to Mohawk Indian Nation Park. Dad had always been fascinated with the police force. Appointments of blacks to the police force had always been ‘political plum’ appointments in return for support of the winning political party at the time. In 1925, two Tulsa commissioners, Thomas I. Monroe and A.P. Bowles, Democrats, recommended that my dad be appointed to the police force. In the next election, the Republicans won and Dad lost his job. The next election a Democrat won, and Dad was back on the force.”

James L. Steward

Born: July 12, 1917

“At the time of the Tulsa riot, my parents, Finclair and Lillian Clark Steward, lived at 444 E. Marshall Place in a home that they owned. Of course, I was just four years old and don’t remember much about the riot. But my parents told me about our terrible experience during that riot. the mobsters set our house on fire. Dad said he tried every door in the house to get us out, but at every door there was a fire! So he knocked out a window pane and put my mother through it. Then he put me through the window into my mother’s arms. We joined the crowd of running, scared black people. My parents told me they saw airplanes flying low overhead and dropping some kind devices that fire to everything they touched. Thank God, my family survived that riot. My mother always liked to keep notes about things, people, and events. I am giving to the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 a copy of my mother’s own handwritten account of the riot.”

J.B. Bates

Born: June 13, 1916

“I was only five years old, too young to know the significance of a riot, but I do remember tht my mother was so frightened that I knew that something was terribly wrong. The militia took dad and my uncles to detention. while the militia was busy taking the men in the family away, my mother slipped away with my sister Roxanna and me and ran to hide ina chicken house. With us, was an old man on a walking stick. While we were running, an airplane flew over real low and someone in the plane shot and killed that old man! My mother often talked about the riot, buy my dad NEVER talked about it!”

John Melvin Alexander

Born: December 22, 1919

“All the talk about reparations has helped me clarify my views on that subject. When I am asked whether I favor reparations for riot victims, I say ‘yes, I certainly do!’ If Japanese Americans got reparations for their suffering during World War II, we black Tulsa Race Riot survivors deserve it for our suffering in 1921. Some of us survivors fought for this country, the USA, in World War II. I was a steward on war ships. I went to Korea near the ending of the war in that country in the east. Yes, I did my duty for this country. I suffered during that Tulsa riot. I feel that I certainly do deserve reparations!”

Johnnie L. Grayson Brown

Born: July 5, 1914

“I was seven years old when the riot broke out. Some of the riot survivors my age remember a lot abut the riot. But I just can’t remember much about it. I guess it was so horrible, that my mind has just blotted it out. I just can’t remember much about that awful riot.”

Juanita Smith Booker

Born: January 15, 1914

“Everything about that riot was terrible. I remember that we were all riding on a flatbed truck trying to escape the approaching mobs. the truck was going so fast. The driver made a sharp turn on a corner and hit the curb. A lady fell off the truck and was killed! With all this talk in recent years about the Tulsa riot, I have been thinking a lot about my childhood days, both before the riot, during the riot, and after the riot. I remember a little playmate named Juanita Scott, survivor now living in Chicago. At the time of the riot, we lived near the Samuel Jackson Funeral Home on Archer Street. The Scott family lived nearby. Oh, those innocent days of childhood before the riot. Nothing was ever the same after the riot!”

Julius Warren Scott

Born: September 23, 1921

“I don’t remember anything about the Tulsa riot, but I remember my mother telling me about it. Mother remembers running down the street, six months pregnant with me, dodging bullets that were dropping all around her. She said that it was a miracle that she escaped alive and that I was later allowed to come into this world. She always thanked God for our safety.”

Katie Mae Johnson Livinston

Born: May 6, 1921

“At the time of the Tulsa riot, my mother, Louvenia Payne, my older sister, and I, lived with her parents Frank and Katie Payne who had moved to Tulsa from Clarksville, Oklahoma trying to get in on the good life that was supposed to exist in oil-rich Tulsa. Mother said that the riot was the worst experience she ever lived through. She said she was just scared to death. She was running in terror with my sister, who was born when mother was just 13, at her side and me, a three-week-old baby in her arms. She said there was fire and shooting everywhere! People were just running wildly trying to get out of the inferno on Greenwood that day. Some kind of way, my mother made it safely out of the inferno on Greenwood. She later went to Clarksville and stayed with relatives there.”

Kenny I. Booker

Born: March 21, 1913

“At the time of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, my parents and the five of us children lived at 320 N. Hartford Avenue. We had a lovely home, filled with beautiful furniture, including a grand piano. All our clothes and personal belongings – just everything – were burned up during the riot. Early on the morning of June 1, 1921, my parents were awakened by the sounds of shooting and the smell of fire, and the noise of fleeing blacks running past our house. My dad awakened us children and sent us to the attic with our mother. We could hear what was going on below. We heard the white men ordering dad to come with them; he was being taken to detention. We could hear dad pleading with the mobsters. He was begging them ‘please don’t set my house on fire.’ But, of course, that is exactly what they did just before they left with dad. though dad went outside the house with the mobsters, he slipped away from them when they got preoccupied splashing gasoline or kerosene on the outside of the house to speed up the burning. He rushed to the attic and rescued us. We slipped into the crowd of fleeing black refugees. Thank God we did not burn up in that attic!”

Mildred Evitt Milburn

Born: January 16, 1921

“I don’t remember anything about the riot. My memory afterward is all bad. It broke up my family. Mama never talked about it. What I know, I heard from Grandma Liza. My dad, Isaac Evitt, had a business, a club on Cameron. It was burned down. Mama and grandma were Creek Indian Freedmen and had land allotments. My dad forged their signatures, slipped and sold the land to white folks, and opened a new business that failed. He abandoned us and went to California. I never talked about it until my nephew, Don Ross, brought it up in the Oklahoma Legislature. I have been bitter for years. The riot didn’t kill my dad, but I believe it took him away from us – and we lost the land that was rightfully our inheritance.”

Otis Grandville Clark

Born: February 13, 1903

“I got caught right in the middle of that riot! Some white mobsters were holed up in the upper floor of the Ray Rhee Flour Mill on East Archer and they were just gunning down black people, just picking them off like they were swatting flies. Well, I had a friend who worked for Jackson’s Funeral Home and he was trying to get to that new ambulance so he could drive it to safety. I went with him. He had the keys in his hand, ready for the takeoff. But one of the mobsters in the rhee building zoomed in on him and shot him in the hand. The keys flew to the ground and blood shot out of his hand and some of it sprayed on me. We both immediately abandoned plans to save that ambulance! We ran for our lives. e never saw my stepfather again, nor our little pet bulldog, Bob. I just know they perished in that riot. My stepfather was a strong family man. I know he did not desert us. I just wish I knew where he was buried.”

Roanna Henry McClure

Born: February 21, 1914

“My father, William Henry, died before I was born. At the time of the riot, my mother, Lula Row Henry, and I were living with my grandmother, Katie Row, in a house on Pine Place. On the day of the riot, we left home in fear for our lives. We first sought shelter at Dr. Key’s house. Dr. Key was a prominent, colored physician who lived in a big two-story house on Virgin Street. Then we moved again. I was a sickly child. I had rheumatism and couldn’t walk very well. Grandma carried me in her arms, but she was walking too slowly for me. I said, ‘Put me down. I’ll walk myself!’ I remember we all got picked up and taken downtown. then, later w were taken to a place on 15th Street. The officials in charge put a bunch of mattresses on the floor for the ill colored children.”

Ruth Dean Nash

Born: September 9, 1915

“I was so traumatized by that riot, I don’t remember much about anything, except for my terror. I’ll never forget that. When things began to really get ugly on June 1, 1921, an aunt of mine took us to Pine Street where we were to meet up with a cousin who would drive us to Muskogee. Well, when we drove down Pine Street to Peoria Avenue, gun-bearing guards met us. I remember one came right up to the car and he had a long bayonet in his hand. I was so scared of that guard and that bayonet that I jumped out of the car and started running back toward Pine Street. My mother jumped out of the car and ran after me. Meanwhile, with all this commotion going on, my cousin couldn’t wait for mother an me. He just slipped away and drove the rest of the family to Muskogee. My mother and i were picked up with a bunch of other black folks and taken to the YWCA in downtown Tulsa.”

Simon R. Richardson

Born: February 12, 1921

“On June 1, 1921, when things got so bad, my grandparents sent me on with the neighbors, the Butlers. the Butlers hooked up two mules to a wagon and we headed for Mohawk Park to get away from the fast-approaching mobsters. My grandmother and my cousin were picked up by the guards and taken to the Red Cross. Men and boys were taken by the militia to the Convention Center. In all this commotion, my grandmother didn’t know where I was. I was missing from her for two days and she was so worried. She was just sick with grief. She thought I had been killed. A few days after the riot, blacks were released from detention and most were reunited with their families. But some people were not reunited. Some were never heard of again, like the Butlers who took me to safety in their wagon pulled by the two mules. My grandparents tried and tried to locate them after the riot, and when I grew older, I tried to locate them, but they were never heard of again. I wonder if they were buried in some secret place.”