Tate Brady, the Magic City, and the Dreamland

by Alfred L. Brophy


Tate Brady, as Lee Roy Chapman points out, did a lot of good for Tulsa, but the positives came with lots of negatives. It is the tragedy of this story that building the city of Tulsa involved violence. In Brady’s case, it was violence against workers and African Americans. Therein lies a story we hear much about in American history at this time.

The “magic city’s” development was linked, as Tulsa boosters told themselves, with episodes of violence, such as running the International Workers of the World out of town. On May 29, 1921, the Tulsa Daily World ran an article suggesting that Oklahoma hire a press agent to tell the rest of America that Oklahoma is a place where “people are civilized and refined … where there are metropolitan cities with miles of paved streets and many towering skyscrapers … And where IWW’s anarchists are tarred and feathered whenever they become obstreperous.” Tulsa’s booster linked a modern state and violence together. Two days after that article appeared, there was again violence in the city. This time thousands of African Americans were left homeless, and many others were left dead. On the evening of May 31, 1921, amidst sensational stories of a young African-American man assaulting a young white woman in a downtown building, white Tulsans armed themselves and went to the courthouse to see what would happen—and perhaps participate in the lynching of that young man. Meanwhile, African-Americans in Tulsa’s segregated Greenwood section— many of them veterans of the recently ended “Great War,” which we know as World War I— armed themselves to stop the expected lynching. When those two groups clashed at the courthouse late that evening, a riot began, which led to the destruction of blocks of Greenwood and the deaths of dozens. One person trying to interpret how the Tulsa riot occurred focused on the desire of African Americans to stop the lynching. He said that one of the leaders of the Greenwood community had “come back from France with exaggerated ideas about equality and thinking he can whip the world.” Indeed, W.E.B. DuBois editorialized after the war that African-Americans would not return to their status before the war. Dubois wrote in May 1919 that the soldiers were returning home “fighting.” Thus, Tulsa was primed for a clash between African Americans and white residents.

Hear a reenactment of Tate Brady’s testimonial before an Oklahoma military tribunal.

Brady was a key player in the policing of that old order. But Tate Brady was not unique. As African- Americans’ aspirations increased, many communities turned to violence to put them back in their place. Thus, we hear of “negro drives,” where towns and counties used violence, or threats of violence, to drive out their African-American residents. Lee Roy Chapman provides a case study of what happened in many places at this time.

What is important about Tate Brady’s story is that we have obtained the details of it—and that he was a leader of the local community. We know a lot about this because in 1923 the governor of Oklahoma declared martial law to help wrest control of the state back from the Ku Klux Klan— and also to boost his falling political fortunes. During martial law military tribunals took extensive testimony about the Klan’s activities; many of the records of those secret tribunals are now in the library at the University of Oklahoma. From them we learn details about the Klan’s operation and their violence; those materials are available for no other states.

The final, haunting end of Brady’s life, after his son’s tragic death, invites questions about how the violence in early Tulsa injured those who were the perpetrators as well as the victims. Though we will never know, perhaps Brady’s suicide was partly a result of his conscience’s turmoil over the violence he had seen and committed.

Alfred L. Brophy is the Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His books include Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921 (Oxford University Press, 2002).