"Sick From What I See." An excerpt from The Burning: Massacre, Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921


08 Jun

Margaret Dickinson’s mother was often too ill to care for her youngest child, so from the time Margaret was old enough to walk, the little girl accompanied her father to job sites, or to meetings with Tulsa power brokers, or to any of the other myriad engagements befitting the owner of the young city’s most prominent construction firm.

Wilfred Dickinson’s company put up the Tulsa Hotel, and the movie theaters, and the Drew Building, and the homes of Tulsa’s millionaire oilmen and its most prominent doctors—success beyond the wildest imaginings of the man who came to the United States from Britain around the turn of the century. Margaret’s father worked first in Pennsylvania coal towns, then in Kansas, before moving with his wife and two oldest children to Tulsa in 1907, lured like so many others by the miracle of the oil city that had appeared overnight. Margaret was born three years later.

Wilfred Dickinson was a godlike figure to his daughter, a dashing fellow in a bowler hat whose wonderful accent betrayed his British upbringing, which further distinguished him from any other man in town. His hair was brown, and he had a reddish mustache always neatly trimmed, and fair skin that flushed a deep crimson when he was angry, but that was not often. Margaret loved observing the way that Tulsa’s most important men treated her father with deference. And she loved the way his workers revered him, the dozens of men—most of them husky Negro Greenwood's famous Dreamland Theater after a white mob numbering in the thousands burned Tulsa's thriving African American community to ground on June 1, 1921. Three hundred people were killed, the vast majority of them black. About 10,000 were left homeless.carpenters and bricklayers—who tipped their hats to Margaret’s father when he approached on the job. In turn, the white owner called each of his workers by name and never failed to inquire about their families. One of the Negroes, in fact, a man named Charlie Mason, was both Wilfred Dickinson’s foreman and his best friend. Margaret’s father might have been well acquainted with the mayor, the city commissioners, the police commissioner, and Tulsa’s business leaders, but when faced with a particularly ticklish concern, it was with Charlie that he consulted. A common memory of Margaret’s childhood was seeing her father and the large Negro sequestered to the side of a construction site, carrying on a long and obviously important conversation.

None of that struck her as odd whatsoever, because for some reason, befriending blacks seemed as natural to her father as breathing was, something quite typical of his expansive spirit. Yet, over the years, Margaret came to think frequently about her father’s relationship with Charlie Mason, and of his fondness for his black employees. She remembered his great satisfaction in knowing that he made life better for those men and their families. As time passed, she eventually came to understand that those feelings were largely responsible for her father’s anguish on June 1, 1921, and in the days that followed. His violet eyes were ablaze beneath the brim of his bowler that day as he and Margaret first surveyed the stricken city, his skin blazing red from his forehead to the collar of his crisp white shirt. Even his mustache seemed to glow.

“Are you mad, Daddy?” Margaret asked him that day as they drove.

“No, I’m just sick from what I see,” he said. “Margaret, this is the place hatred can lead.”

* * *

Wilfred Dickinson had roused his wife and children about midnight the night before. It might have been an exaggeration to say that he looked horrified, but there was certainly distress on her father’s face unlike anything Margaret had seen there before. His lawyer, Ernest Cornelius, had come pounding on their back door close to midnight. Cornelius had been working late downtown and thus was present at the courthouse at the outbreak of the violence there. Thinking of Dickinson’s family, the lawyer had rushed eleven blocks north to their home on Cheyenne Avenue, which was precariously located just three blocks west of the Negro district. Someone shot Cornelius in the arm from behind a tree as he approached the Dickinsons’ door—whether it was a white or a black, he never knew—so he was pale and bleeding when he finally managed to deliver news of the events downtown.

Margaret’s father thanked him profusely, called a doctor for the lawyer’s wound, and woke his family, hurrying them into the basement while insisting that everyone be silent. They need not ask why, because from the cold of the basement’s cement floor where they huddled together in blankets, they listened to the gunshots that sounded like firecrackers, and the sirens that wailed continuously in the dark outside.A member of the mob

It was daybreak when Wilfred climbed the stairs to look around the neighborhood. He returned a few minutes later, convinced that they could return to their beds upstairs because the immediate threat appeared to be over. But sleep was impossible after the night they had spent, and they gathered for an early breakfast instead.

At midday, Margaret’s father was informed that the National Guard had finally arrived to patrol the streets and that the governor had declared the city to be under martial law.

Force of habit caused Margaret to follow when her father left the house a few minutes later, and habit that prompted her to climb into the passenger seat of the Dodge. In decades to come, she could never decide whether she regretted going with him then and seeing things that human beings shouldn’t.

So that morning they turned south on Main, stopping briefly at a fire station where her father was told about the catastrophe by acquaintances there. As they drove off again, Margaret was mesmerized by a black cloud of smoke so close it made her eyes water. All that smoke, yet so many people on Main Street, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, milling about on a Wednesday afternoon when everyone should have been working or at school. And she had never seen so many guns. All the men seemed to have one, particularly those piled into the touring cars that raced up and down the street.

Then another strange sight. Margaret wondered why, in the midst of all the ruckus, that Negro man should be sleeping on the Frisco railroad tracks. He was a big fellow, dressed in overalls and a gray shirt with one sleeve ripped away to reveal a thick, brown arm. The men in the two cars just in front of them saw the sleeping Negro, too. They aimed their guns out the window and fired in his direction, and the prone black man's torso twitched when struck by the bullets. Margaret realized then that the man was already dead. The men in the cars yipped and screamed as they fired at the corpse, then roared away, laughing gleefully.

“Don’t look,” her father said. “That is not a good sight to see.”

But Margaret could not look away. She looked directly at the dead Negro, whose eyes stared imploringly toward the smoky sky. His jaw hung open like he was trying to shout. A terrible thought came to her as she studied him.

“Daddy, is that one of our boys?” she asked.

“No,” he said, his face burning red.

They crossed the railroad tracks, passing the edge of the devastated Negro district. There the smoke was white by then because most of the fires were burning themselves out, leaving a dense fog that drifted over the piles of ashes and cement blocks where homes and businesses had been. All the leaves were burned from the trees, whose spindly, dark outlines looked ghostly through the smoke. A few old Negro couples sat on the front steps of places that had burned, or in chairs near the street, staring blankly at Margaret and her father as they idled past.

Margaret’s father decided that Standpipe Hill was the best place to begin the search for his workers, and he turned the Dodge in that direction. That was when they saw the old woman, sitting on a low wall that ran along the road at the bottom of the hill. Her hair was gray at the temples, plaited in tight braids that were tied at the back of her head with white string. She wore a tattered robe and some old slippers, and she clutched a toddler to her chest, rocking back and forth, her face shiny with tears and contorted with sorrow. Wilfred parked nearby, stepped from the car and approached the woman tentatively, as if trying to keep from spooking a frightened animal.

“My home’s burned,” she said without looking at him. “Why’d you folks go and burn my home? I ain’t done nothing to you.”

“I’m very sorry,” Wilfred said. “I’m not one of them. It was a horrible thing to do.”

“Lord,” the woman said.

“Can I help you with that baby?” he asked.

“This is my grandson,” the woman said, her wrinkled face quivering like a person who was chilled. “He’s my daughter’s boy.”

“Where is she now?”After the burning, Greenwood residents herded into dentention camps before jeering white crowds.

“Lord, if I knew,” the woman said. “She ran with the rest of them when the world went to burning. Left me here with this boy.”

Margaret’s father didn’t speak for a long while, just stood over the woman, looking down at her and the baby. His lips were pressed together and he scratched the back of his neck like he did when he was thinking.

“Why don’t you come with us?” Wilfred said finally. “That’s my daughter in the car. We’ll help you.”

The old woman didn’t resist when he stepped forward, gently taking the baby from her arms. She rose from the wall and shuffled toward the car, a vision of grief with sagging shoulders and tears streaming down her weathered cheeks. Margaret’s father followed, carrying the sleeping infant against his chest. As they got close, Margaret saw that the little boy wore nothing but a tiny bathrobe and white diaper, which led her to guess he had been in his crib sleeping when the fires started. Margaret’s father opened the car door for the old woman, who bent and slid into the backseat. When she was settled, Wilfred returned the baby to her arms, then got back behind the steering wheel and they inched off down the street in the Dodge.

“Where are we going?” Margaret asked her father.

“We’ve got to take care of this little baby,” he said.

“Are we going to take it home?” she asked, listening to the old woman softly moaning in the backseat.

“No,” he said. “We’ve got to take the baby to be buried.”

“Why are we burying the baby?” She noticed that the anger had drained from her father’s face.

“Because the baby is dead,” he said.

“Why is the baby dead?” Margaret asked.

“I guess because it breathed in too much smoke,” her father replied.

Margaret had never seen a dead thing up close before, so she stole glances over her shoulder at the lifeless little form in the old woman’s arms. They pulled into the funeral home’s parking lot a minute or two later. Wilfred offered to carry the baby inside and make the arrangements, but the old woman said no, she would do it because it was her grandson. Margaret watched while she carried the dead baby from the car, walking so slowly toward the front door of the funeral home that Margaret worried lest the old woman’s last bit of strength fail her and she would collapse right there in the parking lot. Her father appeared to be thinking the same thing, for he followed only a foot or two behind, his hat in his hand, poised to catch her if she faltered. He held the door for her when they reached the front. The old woman’s arms were empty when they reappeared a few minutes later, but the tears still streamed down her face as she returned to her spot in the backseat.

Margaret’s father drove home. She and the stricken woman sat in the car while her father hurried inside and talked to Margaret’s mother. Mrs. Dickinson came out of the house and brought the woman inside, sat her down at the kitchen table and patted her head consolingly. Margaret’s mother fixed coffee, a bowl of steaming oatmeal and two scrambled eggs, and set the food down on the kitchen table in front of the grief-stricken visitor. The Dickinson family’s Negro maid also knelt to console the old woman, whispering gently into her ear and rubbing the back of her smoky nightclothes. The woman didn’t speak, just cried and cried until Margaret’s father coaxed her into eating.

“You’ve got to be strong,” he said gently. “You’ve got to eat.”

The old woman nodded, picked up a fork and ate a few bites of the eggs so she wouldn’t seem ungrateful. A few minutes later, Margaret’s mother and father walked the woman back to the car, one of them on each side, and the three of them drove away. The dead baby’s grandmother was not with them when her parents returned.

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