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Commission seeks facts of race riot

Published Sep. 29, 2005

While the official death count from the 1921 riot is about three dozen, some believe 200 to 300, mostly black, perished.

Nearly eight decades later, Veneice Dunn Sims still recalls the new pale blue dress she was forced to leave behind as she fled her family's home in advance of white mobs that eventually torched her neighborhood.

Her home _ and the dress neatly laid out for a high school banquet she had planned to attend _ burned during the two days of racial violence in May 1921.

But Sims, now 94, isn't sure of the need to "stir up stuff" from the past, as an Oklahoma state commission plans to do today during a hearing on the decades-old riot.

"I think with the progress that has been made since then, they ought to let a dead dog lie dead," Sims said.

The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, an 11-member panel that includes a survivor, historians, lawmakers and community members, has held meetings for two years. Today marks the first time they have invited survivors to testify in hopes of better determining what happened in Tulsa 78 years ago and if reparations should be made.

John Hope Franklin, the son of a riot survivor and head of President Clinton's national advisory board on race, also is scheduled to speak.

The panel already has located 62 black survivors, looked into reports of airplanes bombing blacks and of bodies tossed into the Arkansas River. And it has searched for mass graves.

The official death count of about three dozen has long been disputed.

"We've had an intense study for over a year just looking at death figures," said historian Scott Ellsworth, who wrote a book on the riot and is aiding the commission.

Ellsworth believes at least 200 to 300 people, mostly blacks, perished in the two days of fighting.

"I think we are now convinced this is the largest single incident of racial violence in American history," he said.

The riot broke out May 31, 1921, when a white lynch mob clashed with blacks who came to help protect a black man accused of assaulting a white elevator operator. The woman later refused to bring charges against him.

Over two days, mobs set fire to homes, businesses and churches in the thriving black business district of Greenwood. When the smoke cleared, the area lay in ruins and dozens lay dead.

Many black residents left and never returned. The National Guard rounded up thousands of others and held them at the fairgrounds, convention hall and a baseball stadium.

For decades, the city seemed to bury those memories with the ashes of Greenwood. It was only in 1996 that it recognized the anniversary of the riot.

The next year, the Oklahoma Legislature created the commission when Tulsa lawmakers raised the issue of restitution.

State Rep. Don Ross, inspired by Florida's decision to pay the descendants of black victims of the 1923 massacre in Rosewood, originally sought payments for survivors.

The black lawmaker now supports tax breaks for businesses that locate in low-income areas, ones he believes were robbed by the riot of their economic legacy.

"The only record of anybody getting payment as a result of the Tulsa disaster was a white man who owned a pawn shop where guns and ammunition were stolen for an assault on the black community," Ross said.

State Rep. Forrest Claunch, leader of the Republican caucus, isn't sure how controversial the issue will be when the commission submits its recommendation in January. However, he sees no reason why this generation should pay for what happened 78 years ago.

"It becomes tantamount to saying we are entirely a product of our past and I don't believe that's true," he said.

Sims, who will not testify today, has recorded her memories on a videotape for the commission.

And while she doesn't see the need to stir up the past, if someone decides she should be paid for her losses, she would not mind having something to leave for family members.

"If they offered, well yes, I'd take it," she said.