By Lea Michelle Cash
DA Moves to Dismiss Charges
On May 31, 1921 and the first day of June, 1921 the worse race riot in the history of America occurred. Eighty-six years ago, charges were filed against fifty-five defendants for unlawfully, knowingly, willfully, riotously and feloniously assembling together, armed with rifles, shotguns, pistols, razors and other deadly weapons, to disturb the public peace and quiet serenity of the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
While acting in concert, each with the other, did congregate and assemble themselves together in and upon the public streets, avenues, alleys and other places of the City of Tulsa as arms aforesaid, shot and kill one Walter Diggs and shot, wounded and injured numerous other peaceable citizens of the City of Tulsa, County of Tulsa, State of Oklahoma.
A hearing on the motion to dismiss all charges was held at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa located at 322 North Greenwood on December 11, 2007. District Judge, the Honorable Jesse Harris presided at the historic hearing.
My grandfather, Julius Warren Wiggings was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1888, the year that incumbent President G rover Cleveland lost to Indiana senator, Benjamin Harrison who became the 23rd President of the United States. As a young child he was raised by his grandparents in Everett, Massachusetts and given the name of Warren Ramsey, which name he kept until the year 1909.
In 1909, Warren became a professional boxer and changed his name professionally to "Jack Scott". His career as a professional boxer took him all over the country and despite segregation, discrimination, cheating and crooked managers who often times did not pay what was promised, he managed to save and wisely invest his earnings. On May 2, 1917 in Little Rock, Arkansas he married Daisy Levester (Dixon) Hurst and the newlyweds moved and settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma to raise their family.
On May 31, 1921, Scott was one of the many brave Black men who stood on Tulsa's Courthouse stairs to protect a young Black male from being lynched. What happened on that explosive historical day is recorded to be the worst race riot in the history of America.
In 1921 throughout the State of Oklahoma, Blacks were being lynched. In one report it is noted that Tulsa's Police Chief John Gustafson and Sheriff Woolley claimed regarding an earlier August 1920 lynching that it shows criminals "that the men of Tulsa mean business."
According to historian Scott Ellsworth's, Tulsa Race Riot report, Blacks began to question if another mob ever gathered in Tulsa to lynch someone else, who was going to stop them? These brave men were Black men, mostly World War I veterans. They assembled to stop the White mob from lynching Dick Rowland, 19 who was arrested for being in an elevator, and when the elevator jerked, he accidentally fell upon a 17 year-old Sarah Page, the female elevator operator. She screamed. The riots were started by news reports of wealthy White oilmen and citizens (many Klansmen) who threatened to lynch yet another Black man accused of raping a White woman, charges Miss Page never filed.
Thirty-five city blocks burned to the ground, completely devastating more than a thousand Black families, leaving them homeless and displaced. The prosperous area in which they had lived known as "The Greenwood District" and "Black Wall Street" was gone over night. Gone were the many brick homes, the buildings, the markets and businesses, the sandwich shops, the hamburger and juke joints, the 750 seat Dreamland Theater, the library, the churches, the Gurley and Stafford hotels, the Black newspaper establishments. Gone was the booming commercial district along Greenwood Ave noted to be an American success story.
Days after the destructive and deadly race riot, when the facts were sorted out, the falsely accused Black youth, Rowland, was released. He was completely innocent of the charges of attempted rape. It is reported that the Tulsa County officials put him secretly on an outbound train because they could not protect him from Tulsa citizens now infuriated that his innocence came to place Tulsa in a terrible light, for having burned to the ground the entire prosperous Black Greenwood district. According to reports, not confirmed, Dick Rowland lays somewhere out of state in an unmarked grave.
Making the injustice even worse, claims filed by Blacks for damages and losses were never honored. Lives further destroyed and history forgotten. The Tulsa Race Riot Commissioners are still seeking reparations for the race riot victims, survivors and their descendants.
Harris stated, "I decided to file the motion in the best interest of justice. It is my hope that dismissal of charges against all defendants will reaffirm our commitment to the Rule of Law and help to promote racial healing in our community." He continued, "I believe it is important to recognize the atrocities and devastation that occurred during this shameful event."
Previous to the DA's decision, he was contacted by co-founder of Uncrown Queens Insitute, Dr. Barbara Nevergold. She had been doing research on the life of Andrew Jackson Smitherman, a prominent Black publisher in Buffalo, New York. Smitherman in 1921 was the publisher of the Tulsa Star, a Black newspaper, and staunch advocate for the rights of Black citizens. He was one of the individuals indicted for the riot. He posted bail and fled Tulsa with his wife and five children.
Dr. Nevergold inquired about having Smitherman's name cleared. A similar request was made by the descendants of prominent Black businessman, J.B. Stradford and in 1996 his charges were dropped.
Harris stated, "As I study the records and report released by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, it becomes clear to me that the Rule of Law which governs our search for the truth in our criminal justice system broke down during this tragic event and justice would be best served if changes were dismissed against not only Smitherman, but all defendants."
My grandparents lost everything they owned in the fateful burning down of segregated Tulsa. My grandfather although indicted, did not flee Tulsa like many others. Instead the family lived in a tent and tried to rebuild their lives, much later purchased land located on N. Greenwood Place, minutes away from the historic Greenwood district. On this land, Scott built three small wood framed houses (shacks) and a small general store. He and his family lived in one and the other two houses were rented to others. He retired from boxing and placed a boxing ring in the yard where he openly trained young boxers.
Jack and Daisy Scott had twelve children (one died in infancy) of which were raised in the City of Tulsa. Inspired by Alex Haley's "Roots" it is my mother, Altamese Marion Scott who has kept the family legacy alive and has passed it on to me. The Scott family history continues to unfold, a process in motion.
Jack Scott died on April 26, 1964, a laborer, in that same house that he built after the devastating race riot decades earlier. He never received compensation for insurance claims filed in 1921 for his race riot losses in the amount of $48, 980.50.