Juanita Delores Burnett Arnold, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Juanita Delores Burnett Arnold, Tulsa, Oklahoma
At the time of the riot, my parents Eugene Lawrence Burnett and Mary Jane McGowan Burnett lived at 1000 North Lansing, just south of the railroad tracks. They owned the house. My grandfather and grandmother lived further north on Madison where they owned their house and an adjoining grocery store. My grandfather had moved to Tulsa first. He and my grandmother had lived in a little all-black town called Redbird where he had been a schoolteacher and she had been a schoolteacher and postmistress, the first black postmistress in the U.S. In Tulsa, my grandfather bought two lots. He built a large house on one lot, and a grocery store on the other lot.
Dad got tired of teaching so he got a job in Tulsa working at the Oil Supply Company in the Drew Building on Boston Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets. His boss was Frick Reed (or Reid). My mother sewed for wealthy white Tulsa "oil women" at an exclusive shop on Fifth Street between Main and Boston. The shop was next door to Vandevers Department Store. My mother was an expert seamstress. Those wealthy white women loved wearing fashions that she created.
Trouble had been brewing in Tulsa before the riot broke out the night of May 31, 1921. We children noticed grownups, frowns on their faces, talking in whispers about bad race relations in the city and about rumors of a showdown coming. In fact, the day before the riot there was an incident right in front of our house. A group of angry white men were roaming up and down our street. They were so full of anger, jealousy, and rage. They were using the "N" word in every sentence they spoke. It as "Nigger this," and "Nigger that!" They were especially jealous of men like my father and grandfather who had nice homes and businesses. My Dad got his gun and went out into the yard and ordered the men off his property. He told them to respect his wife and children. All the men left except one man who was obviously intoxicated. Dad drew his gun on him and told him to leave. The angry, defiant man finally did reluctantly leave.
The next day when the riot was on, and after we had fled to safety further north, a person who was in the area described an armed, angry white mobster who stood in front of our house and snarled "Where is that uppity Nigger who was so bold yesterday?" If my father had still been in our house, he would surely have been killed by that hate-filled man.
Now let me tell you how we escaped the mobsters and how my grandfather’s store was saved from destruction during the riot. We stayed at our house as long as we could, but when it became obvious that white mobs were in control of the Greenwood District and surrounding black areas, my father told the family that we had to leave. So we joined the fleeing black refugees. But my Dad stopped to help tend to a black man who had been shot. He sent us on ahead. He told us to stay with the crowd and go on to safety and that he would join us later. We didn’t want to leave my Dad, but we did what he told us to do. We kept up with the running crowd until my mother befriended an elderly woman who couldn’t keep up with the crowd. That was just like my mother. She was an angel who couldn’t stand to see anyone suffer. I think her kindheartedness had something to do with her being the oldest of the ten McGowan children. She knew nothing us but loving and caring for the young, as well as for the elderly. Well when that old lady fell behind and couldn’t keep pace with those frightened-out-of-their-minds fleeing blacks, Mother decided she couldn’t leave that old lady alone. She told my brother and me to go on ahead with the people, that she and the old lady would join us later. But we wouldn’t go. We were crying and pitching such a fit. We just wouldn’t go! But you know God blesses his angels. He sent my Dad’s boss who worked at the oil supply company to find us. And he did find us in the midst of that fleeing mass of black refugees. When he saw my mother, he yelled for her and us children to get into the car and he would take us to safety. But Mother told him we couldn’t get in, for we couldn’t leave this poor helpless old lady to the mobs. The exasperated Mr. Reed (or Reid) threw up his hands and said, ‘alright, she can get in too.’ And she did. Some kind of way we all squeezed into that car!
My grandfather’s store was saved because of the kindness of some white salesmen (called drummers in those days) who came to his store every three weeks. They came to deliver orders, to take orders, to share the latest trade news, local, and/or out-of-town news, or just to plain sit and chat (gossip) for a while. It so happened that on the heaviest day of rioting, June 1, 1921, the three drummers came to Grandpa’s store. They saw the mobs when they first arrived, and saw the damage they had done on Greenwood and surrounding areas, and the damage that they were continuing to do. So those drummers stayed all day guarding Grandpa’s store. They just wouldn’t leave. When mobsters came up to the store to burn it, the drummers would shout a loud ‘NO!’ They told the mobsters, ‘The man who owns this store is a good man. He worked hard for his property. He has done you and no one else any harm. You WILL NOT destroy the efforts of this man’s hard work. And they DID NOT! God bless those men. They were angels sent by God to protect us. I believe there is a heaven, and in heaven I know at least five angels there now because they earned their places because of their angelic acts during that awful Tulsa riot - my beloved kind-hearted mother, Dad’s boss Mr. Frick Reed (or Reid), and those three drummers!
John Melvin Alexander -- Home -- Kinney I Booker