Author remembers fleeing Oklahoma race riot in 1921

Saturday, December 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GARY, Ind. _ Gary author and former psychiatric social worker Lola Sneed Snowden was 6 when riots broke out in her hometown, Tulsa, Okla.

Snowden and her family abandoned their Tulsa home in the years following those riots and moved to Gary. But after the riot, there wasn't much left to abandon.

``Riot is the wrong word. It was a massacre, or a war,'' said Eddie Fay Gates, a member of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

In her book, ``Can We Do It?'' published by Vantage Press in 1992, Snowden offers a similar understanding, referring to the ``staged riot'' that destroyed Tulsa's wealthy black business community.

Snowden, 86, now lives in a Gary nursing home. Her memories have faded, though she still recalls Tulsa as having been ``very rough and tumble against black people, especially if they were trying to accumulate something.''

The Tulsa race riot commission issued its report earlier this year, and Gates vividly describes the background and events that led to ruined businesses, homes and lives.

Blacks in Tulsa had always lived in the Greenwood District, an area next to downtown where they had been restricted.

``Whites needed to expand. They desperately wanted this land where these black people lived,'' Gates said.

She notes that Tulsa's black community was exceptionally prosperous, so much so that ``Booker T. Washington called it a Negro Wall Street.''

That was before the slaughter that occurred between May 31 and June 1, 1921. The trigger was an incident where a black youth tripped over or somehow insulted a female white elevator operator. The youth was arrested, and spurred by false stories of rape, more than a thousand white vigilantes gathered outside the jail to get ready for a lynching.

Blacks organized to stop it.

The lynching never occurred, and the legal case against the youth ultimately went nowhere. But over the course of two days after his arrest, 36 blocks were destroyed and approximately 300 people, mostly blacks, were killed.

``The richest black enclave of housing and business in the United States was totally wiped out,'' Gates said. ``It was burned out. Planes dropped incendiary devices.''

The exact number of deaths remains a matter of dispute, as does the underlying cause of the carnage.

``Oklahoma would like us to believe it was a white trash mob event,'' Gates said.

``But there was certainly collusion with the leadership. The leadership deputized known Klansmen and put guns in their hands,'' Gates said. ``The leadership wanted that property.''

Snowden's family survived the Tulsa race riot by fleeing to the woods, said Jon Key, a political and business consultant and assistant vice president of Lincoln University, originally an all-black school in Missouri that Snowden and Key attended many years apart.

Key, who is originally from Gary, considers Snowden his mentor, and interviewed her at length last year about her life as an author and entrepreneur.

She told Key that her father had friendships and business relations with American Indians who lived outside Tulsa. When the violence broke, the family fled to the woods to spend some days in safety.

In 1926, the family moved to Gary, where her father took a job in the mills. Snowden, Key said, remembered her days in Tulsa as being filled with fear _ fear, along with a lack of opportunity, that eventually drove the family to leave home and property behind.

Snowden has been officially added to the registry of survivors of the Tulsa riots.

Gates, along with some other members of her commission, are now seeking the payment of reparations to those survivors.