In late 1999, I was assigned to pick up the Tulsa World’s coverage of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission. As part of that assignment, I was to begin collecting materials for our own files.
At that time, most newspapers’ primary research resources were microfilm of past copies and “clip files.” The latter were so-called because each day’s editions were cut up, or “clipped,” and the individual stories placed in envelopes filed by subject. In newspaper parlance, these stories are known as “clips.” Thus, clip files.
Our clip files on Tulsa’s May 31-June 1, 1921 clip file was sparse, to say the least. The oldest clip was from 1949, was just one paragraph long, and had the riot’s date wrong. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, by the way. Our files contained very few clips on any subject that predated World War II, and the ones we did have seemed to be completely random. Our pre-war photo collection was even scantier and more haphazard.
By the time I became involved with researching and writing about the riot, quite a lot of work had been done preserving the oral history, going back to the early 1970s. Comparatively little, on the other hand, had been toward compiling and analyzing contemporary written accounts of the riot. Because my background was in newspapers, and because part of my assignment was to compile an archive for the newspaper, that is where I began.
I knew the basic outline of the story, but really didn’t know what I would find once I started digging into the microfilm. The commonly held belief, I knew, was that the city’s two daily newspapers at the time, the morning World and afternoon Tribune, had written little or nothing about the riot, and whatever they did report was almost certainly unreliable. But our executive editor, Joe Worley, told me to find what I could and let the chips fall.
What I found was a treasure trove of information, although sometimes in form that only someone familiar with newspapers — and especially the World and the Tribune — could fully appreciate. The World, with a small staff, put out four editions the night and morning of the riot, and while the reporting was sometimes confused and contradictory it was plentiful. The riot dominated the front pages of the newspapers throughout the summer of 1921.
Over the last 14 1/2 years, I’ve read every issue of the World from June 1, 1920 through the end of 1921, and ever 1921 issue of the Tribune. Those, in turn, have led me to city and county records, state archives, countless publications and innumerable on-line archives.
This much I’ve learned: the story is both simpler and more complex than most people imagine.
My friend Michelle Place at the Tulsa Historical Society said recently that THS still gets more inquiries about the riot than any other subject. I can believe this. It is a fascinating, maddening subject I think about, research or write about almost every day.
For me, it has become a story that never goes away.