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Stradford Hotel in ruins. From the collection of Marc Carlson, Courtesy Greenwood Cultural Center.

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First Charged, Last Freed

• By

Posted 03.20.14

John the Baptist moved to Tulsa in 1899. The Stradford family called him J. B. [1] He was a former Kentucky slave who was not afraid to preach the gospel of equal treatment and racial solidarity for black Americans. College-educated in Ohio at Oberlin College, Stradford received his law degree from Indiana University, practicing in Indianapolis and yearning to influence black equality. Tulsa became his destiny. Leaders of the local white community yearned for his demise.

In America, the late 1800s provided an unpainted canvas of opportunity for post-emancipation blacks. They were free to relocate, joining up with other freshly freed blacks and freedmen from Creek enslavement to start communities separate from the white population. While racial distrust remained, their new beginnings were sites of burgeoning entrepreneurship.
Over 60 percent of the U.S. black population served whites as domestics, restaurant cooks, bootblacks, and laborers. Wages were brought back to their new settlements and spent with black grocers, black lumberyards, black saloons and gambling enterprises, black theaters, and a cadre of like-skinned businesses.

Oklahoma’s future looked bright for blacks. Led by the vision of Edwin McCabe, founder of the first black community of Langston in 1890, the state became a mecca for black towns and self-reliant communities—50 by 1920. [2] The New York Times warned on March 1, 1890, that a Negro settlement is “a camp of savages.” McCabe sent recruiters to the South, appealing to racial pride, and hoped to recruit enough blacks to become the majority race and force the whites to turn over the region to them.

McCabe’s dream of a politically powerful, black-friendly state lured Stradford from Indianapolis to the dirt streets of Tulsa’s undeveloped Greenwood area.

Buying up large tracts of undeveloped land northeast of the tracks that bordered downtown, 39-year-old J. B. Stradford sold his Greenwood parcels to blacks only. O.W. Gurley, the acknowledged founder of the new community, did the same as Black Tulsa took shape.

Yet, Stradford was not a real estate man by trade. He was a University of Indiana-educated attorney who used his investment profits to aggressively litigate for black social justice. Never shy to voice his outrage, he occasionally declared, “The day a member of our group was mobbed (lynched) in Tulsa, the streets would be bathed in blood.” The activist put himself on the line to prevent lynches. In 1918 he turned back a lynching mob in Bristow, Oklahoma. When Stradford suffered Jim Crow discrimination, he did not sit idly.

Walking along Greenwood Avenue, a white deliveryman made a racist remark about Stradford’s skin color. Nearly beating him to death, friends pulled Stradford off the bloodied iceman, telling him that if he killed the white man, he would be mobbed, a euphemism for lynched. Later, he was acquitted for violating Oklahoma Jim Crow laws.

Riding a train from Kansas to Tulsa in 1912, nearly 50 years after the end of the Civil War, J. B. [1] experienced the continuation of slave law in Oklahoma. When the locomotive reached the Oklahoma border, the conductor stopped the train and Stradford was forcibly removed from the black luxury car although he had paid the higher fare. Oklahoma exempted railroads from the expense of such cars if it did not make economic sense. Stradford sued Midland Valley Railroad in state and federal courts for false imprisonment. All courts ruled against his demand for justice by law, angering Greenwood residents.

In 1916, Stradford railed the Tulsa City Commission for its segregation ordinance that he claimed casts “a stigma upon the colored race in the eyes of the world; and to sap the spirit of hope for justice before the law from the race itself.” The upside of segregation was the “white” dollars earned by black Tulsans stayed in the district, giving Deep Greenwood merchants the spoils of their neighbors, while the black print media continued to pull no punches.

The most militant black voice in America and a founder of the NAACP fanned the embers during a Greenwood speech. Brought to the community by Stradford and newspaperman A. J. Smitherman in March of 1921, the first black Harvard Ph.D., W. E. B. Du Bois, lectured the throngs that the hatred in the white man’s heart was still strong. At times, the professor proposed that the only solution to hate is hate.
Du Bois argued in those times, “We have suffered and cowered… When the armed lynchers come, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with sticks and clubs and guns.” There was a rising tide of passion in Greenwood. They were ready to forcefully defend the promise of equality under the law.

White Tulsa became less enchanted with the likes of J.B. Stradford. Although Stradford was respected as a legitimate businessman, many Tulsans despised him.

Stradford and his close friend Andrew J. Smitherman, the owner/publisher of the black newspaper Tulsa Star, situated on Greenwood Avenue, spoke out against the trio of leading causes of civil rights in Oklahoma—lynching, voting rights, and the railroad segregation policy. The Black Dispatch, a black Oklahoma City newspaper published by Roscoe Dunjee, regularly fired up Greenwood residents, declaring the courts were full of dead men’s bones, denied enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decision guaranteeing black Oklahomans’ right to vote, and validated Oklahoma’s railroad segregation statute. During vaudeville shows at the famed Dreamland Theater on Greenwood, a frequently bantered slogan was “Don’t let any white man run it over on you, but fight.” Racial rhetoric primed Tulsa.

While inflammatory verbiage continued in district tabloids and on street corners, business was good. J. B. Stradford amassed a sizeable bank account. With 15 rental houses, including a 16-room brick apartment building, he earned a real estate income of nearly $8,000 a month in 2013 dollars.

Stradford decided it was time that black travelers of means should have accommodations as swank as downtown’s Hotel Tulsa. He envisioned his hotel as the pinnacle of his dreams, remarking, “The Stradford would be a monument to the thrift, energy, and business tact of the race in Tulsa [and] to the race in the state of Oklahoma.” The exuberant opening of his eponymous hotel on June 1, 1918, signified the realization of his promised land, adding credence to Booker T. Washington’s description of this district as Black Wall Street.

The three-story edifice of pressed brick above the windows and stone slabs below cost a glitzy $50,000. The segregated Stradford, serving blacks only, was perhaps the largest black-owned and operated hotel in America. While it fulfilled his dream, the construction of the hotel created financial difficulties. Stradford ran out of money. Borrowing $20,000 helped, yet, when a boxcar of beds, rugs, and chandeliers rolled into the station, the new hotelier could not pay the $5,000 bill.

Within eyeshot of the hotel, the furnishings for the 54 modern “living rooms,” gambling hall, dining hall, and saloon languished on the rails. Stradford negotiated paying a quarter of the total and the remainder in monthly payments. The Stradford Hotel at 301 N. Greenwood was open for business.

It was a gay time. A new form of music ricocheted up Greenwood Avenue from the dancehalls. Jazz, with its gyrating rhythms and freedom to improvise, stimulated the dancers and frightened the white community, who considered the music style as vibrations for the half-savage. The piano in the Stradford Hotel pounded out jazz for its distinguished clientele who tripped the fantastic toe.

Amid the glamour of the Stradford, the racial tension in Greenwood and the region was superficially suppressed. Desperate events stoked emotions.

***

In April 1921, Greenwood celebrated the success of a group of Muskogee black men that stormed the city jail, liberated a black man (John McShane), and shot a white deputy sheriff in the process. The local black community justified the action, claiming they prevented a lynching. Their defiance energized Greenwood.

Stradford and Smitherman agreed that a community must be vigilant if a black man was in danger of being lynched. It was justice—a legal right, they reckoned, to take aggressive action, encouraging their community to support armed militancy towards lynching.

In the afternoon edition of May 30, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune, a front-page story announced a “negro will be lynched tonight.” The following day, a Greenwood teenager, Dick Roland, was arrested under the allegations that he attempted to rape a 17-year-old white girl, Sarah Page, in an elevator. Although a grand jury indictment against him was rendered several days later and then dismissed within three months for lack of a prosecution witness (Sarah, according to oral histories from Greenwood survivors, was his taboo lover.), the yellow-journalism article fomented the deadliest and most destructive “riot” in the history of the United States—an event that would forever be referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

A. J. Smitherman’s office of the Tulsa Star was the center of activity the night before the battle. Several carloads of passionate armed veterans made repeated trips from the newspaper’s curb to the jail holding Roland, where they confronted a growing white mob. Dedicated to stop a lynching, J. B. held court with the gathering crowd, repeating his oft used statement about “blood in the streets.” He recalled in his memoirs that he declared to the nervous onlookers what he would do if there were a lynching: “If I can’t get anyone to go with me, I will go single-handed and empty my automatic into the mob and, then, resign myself to my fate.” His comments encouraged men, including a tall, light-skinned veteran named O. B. Mann, to continue making trips to the courthouse.

Mann, a successful Greenwood grocer, returned from the war with inflated ideas about equality and sure he could take on the world, according to O. W. Gurley. He continued, during court testimony on an insurance claim relating to property damage from the riot, that it was the inadvertent discharge of Mann’s handgun when grabbed by a white man that activated the fatal chain of events.

***

At dawn, the sound of an air horn commanded the heavily armed white armada, loaded with Klansmen, to step over the tracks and attack an underarmed band of black veterans in uniform and frightened Greenwood resident’s intent to defend their families and homes. Within a matter of hours, hundreds were murdered and homes and businesses were looted and burned as thousands of black Tulsans were arrested and herded into detention.

Dick Roland was a forgotten man. Sheriff McCollough claims Dick spent a safe evening in the county jail and was secreted out of town by 8 a.m. amidst the gunfire of the massacre, never, according to most, to return to Tulsa. The carnage would continue through the day.

The June 1, 1921, evening edition of the Tulsa Tribune wrote that “a motley procession of negroes wended its way down Main Street to the baseball park with hands held high above their heads, their hats in one hand, a token of their submission to the white man’s authority.” The reporter continued, “They will return, not to their homes, but to heaps of ashes, the angry reprisal for the wrong inflicted on him by the inferior race.” Some of that race-under-siege resisted the roundup.

Attempting to hold the mobsters from advancing, Stradford and others fired from the second-story porch that fronted the hotel. The building represented black equality to him and he preferred death rather than to lose it. The west-facing windows on the third-floor had been smashed by a machine gun. Six men were wounded and one was dead.

The hotel became a haven for black families. Most left, surrendering to the militia. A sobbing Augusta, Stradford’s wife, pleaded with him, “Oh, Papa, let us go, too.”

“If you want to go with the crowd, then go,” he said. “I intend to protect my hotel.”

Augusta stayed. Others returned with a message of hope. The militia had promised to keep the hotel from further destruction, if Stradford surrendered. He agreed.

A short, slightly rotund man with a pencil-thin mustache perched above his squared chin, the now 60-year-old Stradford was reportedly the wealthiest man in Greenwood with over $1.6 million dollars of investments in today’s currency. He stood with his gun in the doorway of his hotel, waiting for the car of his captors. His dark, piercing eyes surveyed the burning buildings in Deep Greenwood. Hundreds of the 8,000 Greenwood residents ran through the street before him. Some with raised hands were marshaled to detention centers, shots fired at their feet and hopelessness on their faces.

A man described by descendants as having the strength of a Mandingo warrior, watched mobsters enter his building. They took him to the Convention Center where city officials took $2,000 of his money. There is no mention of Augusta’s whereabouts. Stradford was not detained long, but he was still in harm’s way.

One day later, an order asked for the arrest of Stradford so he could face a grand jury. The contention was he had encouraged carloads of armed blacks who organized and left from the Stradford Hotel. Without his presence, he was indicted for inciting a riot. The penalty for the charge was death or life imprisonment. The white community needed a definable villain and they decided on Stradford.

His name was well known in the Tulsa white community. His railroad segregation lawsuit as well as his defiance towards the segregation ordinance put him squarely in opposition to their values. He named a hotel after himself, so they knew he was a man of ambition. As Greenwood’s Republican Party leader, the local papers named him a “henchman.” Since the media labeled the riot a “Negro uprising,” they reasoned that the wealthiest, most defiant and outspoken man must be the ringleader—and, he fled, so he must be guilty.

With authorities on his heels, Stradford leaned back in a segregated railroad car headed for Independence, Kansas. Through a gentle rain, Stradford gazed up Greenwood Avenue spying his symbol of black pride, reduced to smoldering ashes and charred brick. Oklahoma was no longer the Promised Land.

Along with hundreds of black Americans who died on June 1, 1921, and thousands who had homes, businesses, and possessions stolen or burned, the Stradford Hotel laid in ruins, never to be reconstructed. The crown jewel of Black Tulsa shined a scant three years to the day.

On June 6, J. B. Stradford became the first person formally charged with inciting a riot. To be proven guilty, the county district attorney only needed to show he abetted the riot that resulted in murder, looting, and theft. Never mind those crimes were committed by the white mob.

Shortly after arriving at his brother’s house in Independence, local police, at the request of Tulsa authorities, paid a visit to Stradford. Asked if he would turn himself in, he replied, “Hell, no.” Arrested and booked, he called his son in Chicago. Cornelius Stradford, a graduate of Columbia University Law School, took the first train to Kansas and posted the $6,500 (2013 value) bond. J. B. was told to stay put and appear in court on June 10. Convinced he would not get a fair trial if returned to Tulsa, Stradford and his son boarded the next train to Chicago. Incensed Tulsa litigators vowed to extradite and try him for the charge of inciting a riot.

***

Wrangling successfully against the extradition attempts, the aging Stradford settled into Chicago life with his wife, son, and numerous grandchildren. Trying to re-create his success in Tulsa, he practiced law and filed a suit in September against the American Central Insurance Company, trying to recover some of his real estate losses. Stradford did not appear at the hearing. Due to the riot exclusion clause in insurance policies and local leaders defining the travesty as a “riot,” all riot victims’ claims, including the one by the gentleman considered by some as an outlaw, were knocked out in legal fights.

Desiring to re-create his real estate prowess, he formed a group of investors to build a luxury hotel like the Stradford. Regrettably, the project ran out of money and the building was not completed. He did, however, construct a candy store, barbershop, and a small pool hall. His modest business holdings in Chicago reminded him of what once was.

Stradford lost more than money in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. He lost his black sense of place. In his unpublished memoirs, he wrote, “It is incredible to believe that in this civilized age that a white man could be so void of humanity.” He continued, “My soul cried for revenge and prayed for the day to come when I could personally avenge the wrongs which had been perpetrated against me.” He died in 1935 at the age of 74. Sixty years later, family members extracted his atonement.

***

Cornelius E. Toole was a former NAACP lawyer and a Cook County, Illinois, circuit court judge. He was also a great-grandson of J. B. Stradford.Toole harbored resentment for the smearing of his relative’s name, the destroying of his properties and his dreams. Through impassioned communications with Mayor Susan Savage and local black leader Don Ross in 1996, the 63-year-old former judge insisted that the charges against Stradford be dismissed. The decision rested on the shoulders of first-year District Attorney Bill LaFortune who needed to render an opinion on a strict legal question—did evidence support the notion that Stradford incited a riot?

Nancy Little was assigned the investigation. Her detailed inspection revealed innocent black families suffered a ruthless attack. She was shocked. While it was undeniable Stradford violated law by jumping bail and refusing extradition, Little concluded he was innocent of inciting a riot. LaFortune vacated the charges.

In October of 1996, Stradfords from Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and New York set foot in Oklahoma—the first time since June of 1921. The vindication ceremony at the Greenwood Cultural Center featured moving statements from Governor Frank Keating. Quite simply, District Attorney Bill LaFortune presented the motion to dismiss and Judge Jesse Harris accepted it.

John the Baptist Stradford was the first riot victim indicted and the last alleged outlaw exonerated—first charged, last freed.


Footnotes

1. The salve master named his slaves, calling J.B.’s father Julius Caesar or J.C., but he had no legitimate last name until J.C. forged his master’s name and escaped to Stratford, Ontario. Changing one letter, he adopted the surname of Stradford, earned enough money to return to Kentucky prior to Emancipation, and secured legal documents declaring his family free. Many blacks used initials during that time period so that whites would not be able to disrespect them by using their first names.

2. Census numbers show that the black population in 1890 of 250,000 ballooned to more than 2 million by 1920.

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