Drugs wars and the Tulsa race riot

One of the things I’ve wondered for many years is whether drugs could have played a role in Tulsa’s 1921 race riot.

Drugs, and especially opiates, were a serious problem, even in those days. At least as far back as 1907, before statehood, police raided an opium den in what was then a town of seven thousand. By 1921, morphine and cocaine addiction had become a serious problem.

In January, federal agents raided a soft drink stand adjacent to McNulty Park — the stadium which would serve briefly after the riot as a holding area for black Tulsans — operated by one Irma “The Midget” Harisson. When a search of the premises failed to turn up the expected contraband, one of the agents grabbed the four-foot, six-inch Harisson by the ankles, turned her upside down, and shook her until cocaine capsules fell from her clothes.

Over the next several months, two doctors were sent to federal prison for illegally selling morphine and cocaine; two men were arrested in Tulsa and charged with possession of one thousand grains of morphine; a double amputee working in a shoe-shine parlor was found with five morphine and three cocaine capsules; a man named J.L. Love was fined $500 and sentenced to a year in prison for morphine possession; and two men were apprehended at the train station with a valise full of “liquid morphine.”

In May, police caught two drug dealers by making a buy with a marked silver dollar.

In the immediate aftermath of the May 31-June 1 Tulsa riot and for years afterward, official blame fell mostly on armed blacked men who went to the county courthouse to defend a prisoner they believed was about to be lynched. A confrontation ensued, shots were fired and riot was on.

Several of those men were described, by both whites and blacks, as dope peddlers and drug users. Today that claim is generally dismissed and in all likelihood rightfully so. But the fact it would be accepted as plausible suggests the extent of the drug problem in Tulsa at the time.

After the riot, police reported white drug dealers did indeed enjoy a windfall from the riot. One of the buildings destroyed in the fires that engulfed much of the black neighborhoods, they said, had been a well-known den, and Officer Henry Carmichael reported white dealers were “unusually active” since their black competitors had been temporarily put out of business.

Certainly, the riot was not about drugs, and I wouldn’t want anyone to make too much of this. But, as I said, I have long wondered if just may the riot did provide an opportunity for underworld characters to settle scores or get rid of competition.

I guess it’s just one of those things we’ll never know.

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