(Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).
Airplanes and the Riot
By Richard S. Warner
There is no question that airplanes were in the air over Tulsa during and after the Tulsa race riot. The question is: what were they being used for?
We cannot entirely believe all the reports that have appeared over the years in newspapers, or as recounted by survivors, descendants of survivors, and others. The problem is to separate the probable from the improbable. For example, in one unidentified newspaper account from June 12, 1921, it was alleged that, "The planes used during the riot and which set fire to brick buildings are owned by the United States Government."1 Subsequent research, however, casts considerable doubt upon this claim. While researching for his article, "Profile of a Race Riot," that appeared in the June-July, 1971 issue of Impact Magazine, Brigadier General Ed Wheeler (ret.) looked into the possible involvement of U.S. military aircraft in the riot. Wheeler, who had access to military records which are no longer available, learned that there were only six U.S. military airplanes in Oklahoma at the time of the riot. Based at Fort Sill, some 212 miles from Tulsa, these six planes were World War I Jennys, with a range of about 190 miles. Of the six planes, the records showed that two were inoperable and undergoing maintenance while two had just been delivered and were not yet in flying condition. Only two were serviceable planes and neither was in the air on May 31 or June 1, 1921.2 It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that the airplanes reported over Tulsa during the riot were not U.S. military aircraft, Hence, they must have been privately or commercially owned airplanes, probably based in Tulsa.
The story of aircraft in Tulsa goes back to July 4, 1903, when the first recorded local flight, a balloon ascent, took place.3 Three years later, during the summer of 1906, Jimmy Jones constructed an airplane of his own design at his home in Tulsa. He and his partner, Bill Stigler, disassembled the plane and took it to a pasture near Red Fork. There they reassembled it, except for the installation of the control cables to make a test flight. It was a hot day and Jones and Stigler decided to go home and finish the job the next day. That afternoon, however, a strong wind came up and destroyed the plane.4
The next airplane in Tulsa was designed and constructed by Herman DeVry, who owned a machinery repair business. DeVry hired A. C. Beach, an English pilot then living in Tulsa, to test the airplane. After four tries, it finally took off from a field southwest of Sand Springs and rose to 800 feet, staying aloft for 20 minutes. After several other attempts to fly, the engine blew up and DeVry quit the aircraft business.5
The first airfield in Tulsa was established in 1917 by Harold Breene on the south side of Federal Drive (now East Admiral Place), at approximately South Hudson Avenue. A spur railway line served as the field’s west border. There was one hangar. Mr. Breene purchased a number of surplus Curtis Jenny airplanes that he later sold to aviation enthusiasts.6
In 1920, Mr. Breene sold his Tulsa aviation interests to B.L. Brookins and Bill Campbell. The new company, called the Curtiss-Southwest Airplane Company, was the agency for Curtis and Waco airplanes.7
In early 1921, the airfield was moved to a new location on a farm owned by Mr. Brookins located just east of North Memorial Avenue and north of East Apache Street. It was situated in what is today a corner of Tulsa International Airport. According to the January 1, 1922 issue of the Tulsa Spirit, a Tulsa Chamber of Commerce publication, the airfield contained two large steel hangars, 90' x 60' in size and capable of holding eighteen airplanes, a motor repair shop, a wing and fuselage shop, and a gasoline and oil service station. Fourteen airplanes were based there.8
Sometime in 1921, a second air field was established in Tulsa by Paul Arbon, a World War I British pilot and dealer for the British-manufactured, Bristol aircraft. Arbon's airfield was located at the northwest comer of Federal Drive and Sheridan Road, and featured only one hangar.9
Registration of airplanes by the U.S. Government was not required in 1921. Thus, no records exist of actual airplane ownership during the time of the riot. Without government records, one can assume that if there were fourteen planes at the Curtiss-Southwest Air Field at the end of 1921, and probably no more than one (a demonstrator) at the Paul Arbon Air Field, the total number of airplanes based in Tulsa at the time of the riot would not have been more than fifteen.
Most of these were probably owned by the Curtiss-Southwest Airplane Company, but a few were probably owned by individuals or companies. There is really no way to determine the ownership of the planes, but it is very likely that at least one was owned by the Sinclair Oil Company. A "St. Clair Oil Company plane" is mentioned in some accounts of the riot and there is a photograph in the files of the Tulsa Historical Society of a Jenny refueling at the Curtiss-Southwest Air Field from barrels marked "Sinclair Oils". Tulsa was the headquarters of the Sinclair Oil Company at that time and the top executives lived here.10
Apparently, among the planes in Tulsa at the time of the riot, were a Stinson Detroiter, a single engine plane with an enclosed cabin capable of holding several people as well as another tri-motor, make unknown. Stinson did manufacture a tri-motor at that time according to personnel at the Tulsa Air and Space Center.11
There are many references to airplanes during the riot, but few can be additionally documented through further research. Mary E. Jones Parrish included a number of references to airplanes in her book, Events of the Tulsa Disaster. In her own account of her experiences during the riot, she mentions seeing "fast approaching aeroplanes". Moreover, in her escape from the riot area, Parrish tells of nearing the "aviation fields" --in all likelihood the Curtiss- Southwest Air Field--and seeing the "planes out of their sheds, all in readiness for flying, and these men with high-powered rifles getting into them." Parrish adds that "The aeroplanes continued to watch over the fleeing people like great birds of prey watching for a victim, but I have not heard of them doing any harm to the people out in the direction where we were." Events of the Tulsa Disaster also includes interviews including one with Mr. James T. West, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, who reported that airplanes "flew over very low, what they were doing I cannot say, for I was in my room." Dr. R. T. Bridgewater, an assistant county physician, stated that he was "near my residence and aeroplanes began to fly over us, in some instances very low to the ground," and that he heard a woman say, "look out for the aeroplanes, they are shooting upon us." Mrs. Parrish also wrote that "more than a dozen aeroplanes went up and began to drop turpentine balls upon the Negro residences," but she gives no source for this statement nor does it appear that she witnessed this herself. Lastly, Parrish also included the testimonial of an anonymous eyewitness, who stated, "Then I saw aeroplanes, they flew very low. To my surprise, as they passed over the business district, they left the entire block a mass of flame."12
The losses in the Greenwood business district alone—including two theaters, three hotels, more than a dozen restaurants, and scores of shops, family-run businesses, and professional offices—were staggering. One contemporary observer called the deaths and destruction cased by the race riot "without parallel in America" (Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society).
Other contemporary sources also reported the presence of airplanes. Walter White wrote in the June 29, 1921 issue The Nation that "eight aeroplanes were employed to spy on the movements of the Negroes and according to some were used in bombing the colored section."13
Mabel E. Little, in her unpublished biography, wrote that, "airplanes dropped incendiary bombs to enhance the burning of Mount Zion Baptist Church and business buildings."14 A reporter for the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch wrote that "Airplanes were seemingly everywhere. They seemed to fly low and I could see the men in the planes as they passed us." In an interview with Dr. Payne and Mr. Robinson that appeared in the same issue, it was stated that, "These two men with their wives succeeded in reaching the open country. They were finally spotted by the air murders who showered load after load of leadened missiles upon them." W. I. Brown, a porter on the Katy Railroad who reached Tulsa Wednesday morning, June 1 with the National Guard, recited this story:
"We reached Tulsa about 2 o'clock. Airplanes were circling all over Greenwood. We stopped our cars north of the Katy depot, going towards Sand Springs. The heavens were lightened up as plain as day from the many fires over the Negro section. I could see from my car window that two airplanes were doing most of the work. They would every few seconds drop something and every time they did there was a loud explosion and the sky would be filled with flying debris."15
Bruce Hartnitt, of Tulsa Junior College, interviewed Mabel Bonner Little in 1969 and 1971. He asked Mrs. Little, "Do you remember during the time of the riot itself, if there were any airplanes, people dropping stuff?" Mrs. Little replied, "Oh yes, they dropped those incendiary bombs, that's what burned those big buildings down, they couldn't have destroyed them with anything else . . ."16
In case No. 23, 331 filed in the District Court of Tulsa County between Barney Cleaver, plaintiff, and The City of Tulsa, one of the defendants was "The St. Clair Oil Company". The fourth paragraph of the plaintiffs petition alleges that:
"The St. Clair Oil Company, a corporation, did, at the request and insistence of the city's agents, and in furtherance of the conspiracy, aforementioned and set out, furnish airplanes on the night of May 31, 1921, and on the morning of June 1, 1921, to carry the defendant's city's agents, servants, and employees, and other persons, being part of said conspiracy and other conspirators. That the said J.R. Blaine, captain of the police department, with others, was carried in said airplane which dropped turpentine balls and bombs down and upon the houses of the plaintiff . . . "
The 1921 Tulsa City Directory does not list a J.R. Blaine, but it does list a G.H. Blaine, a police captain. Captain Blaine appears in a number of newspaper articles concerning airplanes and there is no question that he was a pilot or passenger on a number of flights. The same source does not list a "St. Clair Oil Company", but its phonetic similarity to the Sinclair Oil Company is too close to be ignored. It is interesting to note that Elisha Scott was the attorney for the plaintiff in 1937 when this case was dismissed. This is the same Elisha Scott, a prominent African American attorney of Topeka, Kansas, who, according to an October 14, 1921 article in the Chicago Defender, claimed to have a thirty-one page affidavit signed by Van B. Hurley, supposedly a white former Tulsa policeman, that told of a meeting between local aviators and officials prior to the invasion of black Tulsa on the morning of June 1." These individuals allegedly planned an attack on the black area by airplanes. There is no record that a "Van B. Hurley" ever was a policeman or even existed. This affidavit was never made public or apparently used in any of the lawsuits. After his death, Mr. Scott's home burned and his personal papers evidently were destroyed. Beryl Ford, an authority on Tulsa's photographic history, after examining photographs of the Greenwood damage, has stated that the buildings were not destroyed by explosives. The debris shown in photographs, he believes, is located inside the shells of the buildings, where it had fallen after the rafters had burned, and not outside where it would have been scattered if explosives had been used. Outbuildings also are shown to be largely undamaged, something that was unlikely had explosives been used.17
An unidentified newspaper reported that Ed Lockett was shot from an airplane that had followed him for about eight miles from Tulsa. It was reported that "several hundred persons saw the aviator shoot Lockett and were later fired on by the same plane themselves." The body of a man was found on June 6, 1921 near the Curtiss-Southwest Air Field. Although there is no record of an "Ed Lockett', there is a funeral home record of an Ed Lockard who was found eight miles from Tulsa on June 6, 1921, and is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa.
The Chicago Defender, on June 11, 1921, reported that "at 4:30 a steam whistle sounded three times. With the coming of daylight airplanes from the local aviation field, in which the Cadillac company is interested, directed the movement of the oncoming army. At 6:15 a.m. men in the planes dropped fire bombs of turpentine or other inflammable material on the property." The articles goes on to say, "One man, leaning far out from an airplane, was brought down by the bullet of a sharpshooter and his body burst upon the ground." Other newspapers published similar claims.
The St. Louis Argus, on June 10, 1921, reported that "The Negroes held their own until about 6 o'clock in the morning when a fierce attack was made upon them from the hill by cannons, and airplanes soared over the Negro section dropping fire on their houses." J.W. Hughes, principal of Dunbar Grade School, wrote a statement that said that "at five o'clock a whistle was blown, seven aeroplanes were flying over the colored district . . ."18
As some newspaper accounts mention nitroglycerin bombs, it is interesting to note that the Tulsa World published an article on April 20, 1921 titled, "Tulsa Man First to Transport Nitro by Means of an Airplane". The article discusses the great danger in transporting nitroglycerin and notes that a careless movement "may only leave a grease spot."19
There is quite a bit of information that the police used airplanes to search the outskirts of the black area for fleeing people. When individuals were seen, a message was placed in a container and dropped to search parties on the ground. These containers may have been thought to be bombs by some. In reply to a request for information from people concerning the riot, one man called in and said that his uncle, Charles Foor, a Tulsa policeman, flew one of these search planes. He said that three planes were used and they flew in a "V' formation with his uncle in the lead. The planes, he believed, were used for reconnaissance only.20
On June 7, 1921, the Tulsa World reported that Captain George Blaine of the Tulsa Police Department had flown over a number of black communities around Tulsa to see if any armed mobs were forming. This was in answer to persistent rumors that an attack upon Tulsa was being planned by African Americans in these communities. His flight took him over Boley, Red Bird, Taft, Wybark, and others. Blaine, it was reported, found no evidence of any such activity.21
Although it is within reason to believe that some individuals did drop inflammables or explosives on the riot area, there is very little to support this. The newspapers targeted to black readers were full of stories of turpentine or nitroglycerin bombs being dropped and men shooting from planes. Mary E. Jones Parrish mentions bombing incidents, but one is from an anonymous source and the other may have not been witnessed by her. In Barney Cleaver's lawsuit, his petition alleges that turpentine bombs were dropped on his house, thereby destroying it. However, he apparently did not witness this.
Allen Yowell stated that in 1950 or 1951 he was having his hair cut in a barber shop in Tulsa. There be heard a man, who looked to be 50 or 60 years old, who said that during the time of the riot, he and a friend obtained some dynamite, commandeered an airplane, flew over the riot area and dropped the dynamite on a group of fleeing African American refugees not far from where some railroad tracks cross East Pine Street. Yowell said, "the man was bragging about this, and while he did not know if the story was correct or not, he felt that the man was telling the truth. He did not know the man's name and never saw him again."22
Another oral informant, Lillian Lough, reported that her grandmother, a recent immigrant from Mexico, lived on the edge of the black area in 1921. At the time of the riot, she saw two young black boys running down the street being followed by a two-seater airplane. The man in the rear seat was shooting at the boys. She then ran out and grabbed the boys and took them into the house. The man in the airplane stopped shooting when she appeared.23
It is within reason that there was some shooting from planes and even the dropping of incendiaries, but the evidence would seem to indicate that it was of a minor nature and had no real effect in the riot. While it is certain that airplanes were used by the police for reconnaissance, by photographers and sightseers, there probably were some whites who fired guns from planes or dropped bottles of gasoline or something of that sort. However, they were probably few in numbers. It is important to note, a number of prominent African Americans at the time of the riot including James T. West, Dr. R.T. Bridgewater, and Walter White of the NAACP, did not speak of any aggressive actions by airplanes during the conflict.
1"Search Homes for Loot Taken During the Conflict", unidentified article, Tuskegee Institute News Clipping Files, "1921–Riots, Tulsa."
2Interview with Ed Wheeler, Tulsa, 1999.
3Tulsa Division Skywriter, April 26, 1968, a publication of the North American-Rockwell Corporation.
4David Moncrief, "Early Tulsa Takes Flight" an unidentified October 1981 article located in the files of The Tulsa Historical Society.
8The Tulsa Spirit, January 1, 1922.
9Tulsa Division Skywriter, April 26, 1968.
10"Rushing in the Roaring 20s", Tulsa World, June 15, 1969.
11Interview with Beryl Ford and personnel of the Tulsa Air and Space Center, Tulsa, 1999.
12Mary E. Jones Parrish, Events of the Tulsa Disaster, (rpt ed; Tulsa: Out On a Limb Publishing, 1998).
13Walter White. "Eruption of Tulsa", The Nation, June 29, 1921.
14"A History of the Blacks in North Tulsa and My Life (A True Story)" by Mabel E. Little, unpublished manuscript.
15Oklahoma City Black Dispatch, June 10, 1921.
16Transcript of interview between Bruce Hartnitt and Mabel Bonner Little, circa 1969-1971.
17Telephone interview with Beryl Ford, Tulsa, 1999.
18Chicago Defender, June 11, 1921. St. Louis Argus, June 10, 1921.
19Tulsa World, April 20, 1921.
20Telephone interview with Wade Foor, Tulsa, 1999.
21Tulsa World, June 7, 1921
22Telephone interview with Allen Yowell. Tulsa, 1999.
23Telephone interview with Lillian Lough, 1999.
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