The Tulsa Race Riot from a Writer’s Perspective

by Evan Ramspott


Originally published on the blog The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 on March 18, 2013.

It is normal that we look upon an event as tragic as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 with a need for answers. We want to single out someone culpable. We look for some trigger to the destruction. Who could have caused the outbreak? Who tried to cover up its very existence? It’s part of human nature to need some villain, a despot we can abhor. And that’s where I come in.

I’m a fiction writer. Unlike an historian, I’m in the enviable position of being allowed to embellish history in such a way as to take something so widespread and pervasive as a societal malaise and funnel it through a small group of nefarious people we find easy to blame. To hate. Which is exactly what I did for my novel Water Darling.

I chose to expose the conditions of Tulsa in 1921 through several characters, both real and imaginary. When selecting real people for these roles, I researched the events extensively in order to shape my own viewpoint on their beliefs and personalities. My discoveries led me to personify certain common feelings of the time through these people. Men like Richard Lloyd Jones and O.B. Mann. And women like Sarah Page and Amy Comstock. In the pages of Water Darling, these real people breathe life. Not their true lives—the life I interpreted.

The easiest person for me to characterize in Water Darling as malevolent was Richard Lloyd Jones. Unlike most other people depicted in the novel, Jones was kind enough to publicly display his feelings through editorials and articles published in his newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune. There are numerous editorials, both before and after the riot, to suggest the self-righteous vitriol behind which I paint the man in my book. “Every unemployed man in town should be questioned, and if the answer should be unsatisfactory, should be ordered out of town.” [1] His claims about the all-black Greenwood District were equally saturated with the kind of shocking terms that endeared him to me as being a pivotal villain. Even ignoring the fact that his paper only referred to Greenwood as “Little Africa” or “Niggertown,” his consistent claims of its appalling conditions and being a den of sin and thievery guided my views on the man. He had obviously never been there. “A June 2 [1921] Tulsa Tribune editorial called the destruction of Greenwood ‘the angry white man’s reprisal for the wrong inflicted on them by the inferior race.’ Another Tribune story that week made light of black citizen’s plight. ‘There are white mourners in Tulsa as well as colored ones,’ it stated. ‘Nearly all who had their family washing in the destroyed Negro huts lost the clothes.’” [2]

In Water Darling I decided to paint the prideful O.B. Mann in an equally uncomplimentary light. In O.W. Gurley’s post-riot interview with the Tulsa Tribune—in and of itself suspect given the Tribune conducted the interview, and not to mention that Gurley and others likewise interviewed had financial interest in the outcome of the aftermath—Gurley stated, “But this boy [O.B. Mann] came back from France with exaggerated ideas about equality and thinking he can whip the world… they started the trouble and this fellow Mann fired the first shot.” [3] Other research I conducted also indicated O.B. Mann to have been in the middle of a great deal of the defense of Greenwood as well as the offensive forays to the Tulsa Courthouse where Dick Rowland was being held that night before the riot broke out.

The woman known as Sarah Page was not “an orphan who works as an elevator operator to pay her way through business college” as the Tribune article “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” led the public to believe on May 31, 1921. My initial decision to portray her in Water Darling as a selfish, desperate woman came from my reading of The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan. In his book he stated, “She’d already been married and divorced. People said she had ditched her husband in Kansas City and come to Tulsa to live with a relative. Tulsa’s sheriff served divorce papers on her that spring and was heard to comment that if half of the charges in the divorce petition were true, ‘she was a notorious character.’ ” These kinds of views about her directed my thinking when I envisioned her plight and drafted how she would have acted under the circumstances.

My decision to portray Amy Comstock in Water Darling as a home wrecker and confidant of Richard Lloyd Jones came from two sources. The first was from research provided again by Tim Madigan, specifically in his chapter notes regarding “Woodard’s account of the scandal surrounding Jones and his affair with Amy Comstock… substantiated with transcripts of sworn legal depositions” (p 275). The second source was from her own words. In an article entitled “Over There—Another View of Tulsa” from The Survey in July 1921, Comstock wrote of the tragedy with the same kind of harshness that came out of Jones’ Tribune articles, with statements such as “it was in the sordid and neglected ‘Nigger-town’ that the crooks found their best hiding place. It was a cesspool of crime.” This article had all the typical earmarks of something Jones would write, which in my opinion felt like Amy Comstock was either aligned with Jones in her thinking, or had no alternative but to do as he said, fearful of her fate should she cross him. But knowing further that she had followed Jones to Tulsa from Wisconsin when Jones bought the Tribune gave me even more insight into her motives.

Large-scale events like the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 are never the act of a single person. Even as I wrote Water Darling, I knew that the chaos and lawlessness of the riot was something I needed to express so that the villains I created were merely taking advantage of events and not actually causing them individually. Combined, their actions were like cracks in a dam. The whole thing just suddenly burst open and all hell broke loose. No one man or woman was to blame.

1. Tulsa Tribune, December 23, 1920.
2. The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal, Marian Moser Jones, p 185.
3. Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, James S. Hirsch, pp 151-152

Printed in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 9. May 1, 2013.