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1921 Tulsa Race Riot Probers Report
Associated Press Writer

TULSA, Okla. (AP) FEBRUARY 14, 2000 — The 5-year-old boy hiding under the bed saw only the intruder's shoes as they stomped across the room and stepped on the youngster's little fingers.

George Monroe's sister stifled his scream with the palm of her hand as white men set fire to the curtains of the black family's home.

It was Monroe's first lesson on keeping quiet about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

Kinney Booker learned, too. He told his children very little about the "zinging and zanging'' of bullets on the roof of the loft where he hid, or about the car, the piano and the house that disappeared in the fires set by a white mob.

"I was silent for 60-some years,'' Booker said. "I didn't want to instill in them the hatred that I had.''

The smoke of charred homes and bodies over Tulsa's black business district cleared 79 years ago, but only now are survivors of one of the nation's bloodiest acts of racial violence telling their stories.

Their accounts are part of a preliminary report submitted Monday to the Legislature by a state commission assigned to investigate the riot. The panel recommended the survivors and their descendants be paid restitution for the riot, which left as many as 300 blacks dead and a thriving black neighborhood in ruins.

Monroe lost nearly everything in the riot, a memory the 83-year-old relives by closing his eyes and stretching out his wrinkled hand.

"It isn't the money. It's just the idea,'' he said. "Let me feel like it never happened.''

The details of that day have emerged from decades of silence in fragments, like long-hidden photographs from a box: A black survivor recalls fleeing into the countryside as homes burned and bullets flew; a white man remembers seeing black bodies stacked like cordwood; a black man describes seeing his grandfather shot.

"This white guy asked my grandfather, `Where in the hell you going, you — ?' using the `n' word,'' Ellwood Lett testified before the commission. "My grandfather says, `We're heading out. We're going out of town,' and he said, `Not this day you're not going out of town.' Bam!''

Historians are still working to separate truth from myth. The commission's final historical analysis is not expected for months, and no legislative action on reparations has been proposed yet.

The violence broke out after a black shoeshine man was accused by whites of attacking a white woman working as an elevator operator. Exactly what happened is unclear, but some say the man may have accidentally stepped on the woman's foot, causing her to lurch back, and when he grabbed her arm to keep her falling, she screamed.

The first shots rang out around 10:30 p.m. on a warm May 31, 1921, when a white lynch mob clashed with a group of blacks seeking to protect the shoeshine man.

The police deputized hundreds of white men and boys. They invaded the vibrant black Greenwood section, setting fire to a dozen black churches, five hotels, 31 restaurants, eight doctor's offices and more than 1,000 homes. They invaded homes, too.

A black couple were shot in the head as they knelt in prayer, said historian Scott Ellsworth. A nationally renowned black surgeon was gunned down as he held up his hands in surrender. Photographs show black corpses charred by flames.

Estimates of the death toll range as high as 300. But "we'll never know for sure,'' said Ellsworth, who wrote a book on the riot and serves as a consultant to the commission. Decades of silence by whites and blacks alike added to the difficulty.

Historians have discounted rumors that whites dropped bombs from airplanes or that bodies were tossed into the Arkansas River. Also, no credible evidence has been found to support theories that the riot was a conspiracy to grab land from black Tulsans, he said.

Who was at fault and who should pay remain in dispute.

Commission member Eddie Faye Gates, who compiled a list of more than 80 living survivors, blames the city, county, state and federal governments.

State Rep. Abe Deutschendorf, also a commission member, notes that insurance companies got off without paying blacks for their losses. He believes the state is blameless and because of that, the Legislature will never approve reparations. The Democrat supports scholarships instead as a "softer way to correct an injustice.''

"If we do something and it makes the blacks feel better, but it makes the whites more antagonistic, have we gained very much?'' he asked.

A poll sponsored by the Tulsa World found that 57 percent of Oklahomans do not think the state should pay reparations. But Gates said international publicity leaves the state without a choice.

"It's a justice issue,'' she said. "I think Oklahoma is going to have to face that. If they don't, the world is looking.''

Booker, a retired 86-year-old teacher, said he wants money, not a token memorial to remind him of what his family lost. In his Tulsa home, he takes a seat at the piano and launches into a song he wrote for his wife six decades earlier.

"Certain things you can remember,'' he said. "This race riot wasn't something I tried to remember. This was something burned deep into my consciousness.''

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