March 10, 2021

Black History Month Reflections: Remembering the Tulsa Massacre with Cultural Historian John W. Franklin

3 min

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, Venable hosted a conversation with cultural historian John W. Franklin, whose grandfather witnessed the massacre first-hand. Along with his father, Franklin edited his grandfather's autobiography, My Life and Era, which detailed his family's extraordinary journey from enslavement to prosperity, as well as his eyewitness account of the Massacre and its aftermath.

Born in Oklahoma in 1879, Franklin's grandfather, Buck Colbert Franklin, was the seventh of ten children born to David and Millie Franklin. (David Franklin was a former slave who had escaped his captors during the Civil War and joined the Union army.) After growing up on the family farm, Buck attended Roger Williams University, a black Baptist college, before obtaining his legal degree by correspondence while apprenticing with three black lawyers.

Buck was eventually admitted to the Oklahoma Bar in 1907, with the second-highest exam scores in the state. But he was soon to discover that trying to practice his profession as a black man living under strict segregation would be a challenge. Franklin noted one particularly dispiriting incident when a white judge in Louisiana refused to let his grandfather represent his client in court simply because he was black.

Buck decided to move with his new wife to Tulsa and ultimately managed to build a successful law practice in the area known as "Black Wall Street," where many black-owned businesses were thriving and young black college graduates were hopeful of a prosperous future. At the time, however, overt and often brutal racism was an ever-present threat, and black people were all too frequently subjected to mob justice for minor or perceived infractions. Such an incident occurred on May 30, 1921, when a young shoeshine clerk was accused of assaulting a white woman when he accidentally stepped on her foot on his way to the segregated restroom. He was arrested immediately and taken to the city jail. Soon after, a local newspaper's account of the incident suggested that a lynching was in order. While commenting on events that had occurred a month before the talk in D.C., Franklin quoted from his grandfather's eyewitness account of the day:

Upon reaching Greenwood Avenue, the same street upon which my office was then and is now located, I found the street congested with humanity and vehicles of all kinds and description. I was puzzled. I, of course, knew that there was trouble, that a race riot, or a race war as it afterwards proved to be, was in the making and we would soon be in the midst of a great catastrophe if something was not done at once to avert it.

Buck tried to calm the crowd, but nothing could be done to rein in the mob anger once it had been unleashed. Ultimately, hundreds of people, many of them black, were injured or killed, and the prosperous African American section of Tulsa was obliterated, along with the businesses they had so painstakingly built.

In addition to sharing his grandfather's account of the massacre, Franklin exposed the nearly insurmountable challenges that the black community faced in its aftermath as they endeavored to rebuild their shattered lives. He reminded the audience that neither insurance claims nor reparations were paid out for the black-owned homes and businesses that had been destroyed, adding that this element of history is not always taught.

Franklin also discussed the legacy of slavery and the necessity of confronting the nation's history of racism and learning from it. He noted that many of our most revered institutions are only beginning to understand the extent of their slave-owning past. "Much of our history is hidden," he said. "We must endeavor to learn about it."

This was the second program in Venable's 2021 Moments and Movements Speaker Series. To view a recording of the full event, click here.