“The sectors of a city…are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable, as is the secrecy of private life in general, regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents” – – Guy Debord
These streets are no stranger to blood. The old Armour meat packing plant sits just past the entrance to Oklahoma City’s Stockyards, fenced in and abandoned. The Wilson packing plant sits to the south in the same condition. In contrast to the rehabbed and renovated storefronts of Stockyards City just to the east, the brick streets and wood buildings of the Stockyards themselves feel ancient and lived in, an intersection between the past and the present. In 1922, a series of dramatic and ultimately bloody events in this area formed another kind of intersection, between class and race, between labor and capital, and between the power of the city and the state. If there was ever a moment when Oklahoma City might have seen an eruption of mass violence on the scale of the Tulsa Race Riot, this is where and when it would have happened. But it didn’t happen.
To understand why, it is necessary to return to the beginning. In the years following the Land Run of 1889, Oklahoma City and Guthrie competed for primacy in the new Oklahoma Territory. Guthrie had the government, Oklahoma City had the railroads. Because it had the railroads, it had the stockyards, and because it had the stockyards, it had the slaughterhouses and the fortunes that came with them.
Packinghouse work was a dirty, dangerous, and occasionally deadly affair. The appalling conditions in these facilities (some may remember them from reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” in high school) triggered a federal investigation and led to some of the first health and safety laws enacted in the 20th century. Despite the low wages and high risk of injury, the jobs on offer at the packinghouses soon drew people from all over the state. Many people who had come to Oklahoma for opportunity found that their fresh starts had petered out, and they crowded into informal settlements on the banks of the Canadian River, getting whatever work they could. The employers of last resort for many of these people were the packinghouses.
The two biggest of these settlements were Sandtown on the south bank of the river at about May Avenue and Mulligan Flats on the north banks near Villa. Sandtown was black. Mulligan was white. Even in these unplanned neighborhoods far from the administrative center of the city, segregation was the rule. Some Indian and Mexican workers lived in both neighborhoods, but the black/white color line was impermeable. Blacks and whites competed for the jobs at the plants and the surrounding industry, a condition which had the effect of driving down wages for everyone. Still, most labor unions excluded black workers.
“If you know the Negro in the union halls, you are certainly going to have to know him at your trade, on the streets, at amusement houses, in society, and in fact, any place you may go.” wrote the editor of the Boswell (Okla) News. “When the Negro goes into the unions of America, there will be a blaze started that it will be hard for the Atlantic ocean to extinguish.”
The period from the 1890s to the 1930s was famously called “the nadir of American race relations” by C. Vann Woodward in his seminal book “The Strange Career of Jim Crow”, a judgment so indisputable that many scholars simply refer to the time as “the nadir” when discussing race in America. During the time this story took place, the President of the United States was an enthusiastic and vocal White Supremacist. DW Griffith’s film “Birth of A Nation,” with it’s depictions of heroic Klansmen and grotesque caricatures of African Americans, was the most popular film ever made. It was impossible to get a law against lynching through the US Senate, and hundreds of black men and women were hung, burned, drowned and otherwise murdered by mobs on the flimsiest pretexts. Eugenics was considered the next great scientific frontier, and people had already begun floating the idea of mass sterilization to “improve the race.”
The South gets most of the attention and blame for this period, but the contempt with which white Americans treated their black neighbors was a truly national phenomenon. Across the North and West hundreds of towns expelled their black residents around the turn of the century, and many of these became “sundown towns”, where blacks were warned to get out of town by sundown or face deadly consequences. In February 1922, University of Oklahoma students invited a black jazz band to play at a dance in Norman. The band barely escaped the gig with their lives. As The (Oklahoma City) Black Dispatch, which I consulted heavily for this piece, wrote at the time:
“A gang of ruffians have disgraced this city again in an attempt to maintain the vicious reputation of the city not to let Negroes stay in the municipality after sundown. For many years Norman has had signs and inscriptions stuck around in prominent places which read: ‘Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in this berg.’ Saturday night, when Singie Smith’s Orchestra of Fort Worth,Texas, attempted to play in the dance hall where they were employed by the students of the University [of Oklahoma], a mob of outlaws stormed the hall and practically wrecked it… The orchestra was taken to the interurban station and sent to OK City when the mob grew in strength and it became evident that there would soon be trouble. Fights occurred between the mob and students who formed a bodyguard while the Negroes were escorted to the station.”
Dissenters from this national mood were marginal, often radical figures with almost no influence on national policy. Oklahoma was no exception to this rule. For a variety of historical reasons, however, it had a larger population of marginal, radical figures at the beginning of the 1920s than most states.
The years after statehood were a period of radical ferment all across Oklahoma, with the Socialist Party organizing it’s largest single state chapter and getting more than a third of the vote in some counties in the elections of 1912 and 1914. The Socialist party was crushed in the years during and following the First World War, but it’s members were still active in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Some moved even further to the left; In 1918, leftist radicals in East-Central Oklahoma launched the so called “Green Corn Rebellion”, a bumbling but apparently earnest attempt to overthrow the government and end American involvement in the First World War. Oklahoma also had a relatively large labor movement for such a small state. As noted before, the labor movement was often as racist as the rest of America, but there were some exceptions. It was during this period that labor unions began organizing workers in the large industries of Oklahoma City, including the packing houses. Unlike many other unions, the Butcher Workman’s Union in Oklahoma City was racially integrated, a situation that will contribute later to the strange circumstances of this story.
In 1919 and 1920, Workers began agitating for better wages and working conditions at the plants, and tensions began to rise.
Against this backdrop, another organization was gaining in strength. The Ku Klux Klan. Half fraternal organization, half terrorist group, the Invisible Empire sought – and attained in many cases – power and political influence, which they used to advance their agenda of white supremacy, nativism, anti-Catholicism, antisemitism, and opposition to organized labor. The Klan was ascendant in Oklahoma, especially in parts of Eastern Oklahoma where the historically white supremacist elements of the Democratic Party provided a convenient entrée to the circles of business and political power. “Of course they were respectable; respectability is why they were there,” wrote historian Danny Goble of the many “respectable citizens” who joined the Oklahoma Klan in this period.
The Klan was not the Kiwanis Club, however. They took plenty of inspiration from their models in the Reconstruction era KKK and regularly committed acts of terror, intimidation, and mob “justice”. The climate of terror in areas controlled by the Klan was palpable. In 1921, three alleged bootleggers – Joe Carrol, CG Sims, and John Smith – were murdered in Wilson, Oklahoma by 17 members of the Ardmore chapter of the Klan, including the sheriff of Cherokee county. The men were arrested, charged with murder, and immediately released.
The Tulsa Race Riot is a moment of singular significance for Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the United States, a bloody stain on one of the great American cities. Arising from a courthouse confrontation, the massacre left (depending on who you believe) between 3 and 300 people dead, and the entire Greenwood District leveled. As the Black Dispatch reported:
“Tulsa, Okla. June 1st, 1921 – Hundreds of black men, women, and children are scattered through the bottoms of the Verdi Gras River and the Arkansas, naked, barefooted, women with children in their arms are scattered everywhere as they hurry farther from their burning homes and the holocaust of bullets of the white assassins who rushed upon their defenseless homes in the wee hours of the morning, spreading fire and bullets everywhere. Back in the charred, smoking ruins of what was once the finest business district progressive Negros had anywhere in the United States, two and a half million dollars worth of homes and property, arson reigns supreme, punctured here and there by the still smoking carcasses of men, women, and children. Nothing remains.”
It’s not possible to attribute this entire bloody event to the Klan, but they certainly contributed to the climate that produced it. This was not an aberration; events like this were occurring all over the nation. There were 26 race riots during “the red summer” of 1919. Professor James Lowen suggests that the race riots in Tulsa, Chicago, and other large cities at this time were failed attempts to force out all black residents and create a Sundown Metropolis to match the many small towns where being black was now illegal. As you may imagine, the Klan were not shamed into reflection by the riot.
As Steve Gerkin writes in This Land Press:
“Two months later, a national Klan official, Caleb Ridley, who was also a Baptist minister, lectured at the Tulsa Convention Hall on the principles of the Klan, calling the Riot a complete success, adding that it ‘was the best thing to ever happen to Tulsa and that judging from the way strange Negroes were coming to Tulsa we might have to do it all over again.’”
The Klan operated with impunity in most parts of the country and controlled several state governments by their peak in 1923. Many members of the Oklahoma State Legislature during this time were almost certainly Klansmen.
The Klan never managed to gain a foothold in Oklahoma City. Why?
Part of the answer is that the Western half of the state was never particularly fertile ground for the Klan to begin with. Eastern Oklahoma was (and is) poorer, more densely populated, and more southern in character. The social pressures of the immediate postwar period were more acutely felt in Green Country, as the “miracle city” of Tulsa went from being an obscure watering hole to one of the wealthiest cities in the world practically overnight. The Klan appealed both to the new elite who were eager to consolidate and protect their power, as well as to those in the lower middle class whose position in society was most threatened by the upheaval of the time.
Oklahoma City was an older city with a larger manufacturing base and more union workers and immigrants (both despised by the Klan) and that base of support elected city leaders who suppressed the Klan enthusiastically. As a result the city wasn’t as saturated in Klan culture as Tulsa. Also notable is that black people in Tulsa had begun to accumulate a significant amount of wealth and property, contributing to an atmosphere of racial resentment that was less prominent in Oklahoma City, where blacks had less social and economic power.
As Oklahoma Socialist leader and newspaper publisher Oscar Ameringer observed in his autobiography:
“From what I have observed, the cause of Ku Kluxism, as of most social diseases, lies in rivalry, which, under pressure, breaks out into open warfare. There is always someone ready to serve as leader of such outbreaks. The point is that they are not the cause, but the effect of an underlying cause, which is usually economic. When a herd of cattle go on a stampede, it is the whole herd that is stampeding, and not this or that bull or lead cow that the stampede pushed forward. Moreover, give a herd of cattle all the green grass and fresh water it needs, and not even Adolf Hitler or Mussolini could make it stampede.”
The Oklahoma Klan had no more obsessive foe at the time than Oklahoma City Mayor John C. Walton, “Our Jack” to his supporters. A Nebraska born civil engineer (and alleged former ally of Kansas City machine boss Tom Pendergast), Walton rose from Director of Public Works to mayor in 1917. Walton was a prototypical populist, simultaneously fashioning himself as a Champion of the People while accumulating large amounts of power for himself, particularly through his tight personal control of the police.
Walton seems to have been sincere in his hatred of the Klan, and he used the city police to suppress it in ways that would likely not pass constitutional muster today, forbidding the wearing of masks, banning Klan parades, and regularly using the police to raid Klan meetings. It’s arguable whether he hated them more for their political beliefs or because they constituted a threat to his power. It seems likely to have been some of both. Walton enjoyed his power, but he was also a legitimate progressive for the time, publicly backing such radical ideas as the 40-hour work week, public ownership of utilities, and women’s suffrage. Whatever his motives and methods, his efforts to suppress the Klan in Oklahoma City appear to have been largely successful. Oklahoma County recorded one incident of Klan related violence during this period, compared to 8 in adjoining Pottawatamie County and 74 in Tulsa County.
Walton never said much about race, but he seems to have been a liberal on racial issues for the time; in one case in 1920, his police (which he ruled by fiat) ordered a 10-year-old white boy whipped for disrespecting a 13-year-old black girl, an outcome that would have been improbable in the extreme nearly anywhere else south of the Mason Dixon. Walton’s political foes alleged that he spent his evenings in the black jazz clubs and speakeasies of Deep Deuce, an allegation that surfaces often enough that it begins to seem somewhat credible. Roscoe Dunjee, the most active civil rights leader in Oklahoma and the publisher of The Black Dispatch credited Walton in 1921 for preventing the Tulsa Race Riot from spreading to Oklahoma City. “We live in a city where the mayor is big enough to nip in the bud any attempt on the part of cowardly vandals to destroy our homes and property” he wrote on June 1st, the day after the riot. At the request of the black community, Walton later used his police to prohibit the exhibition of riot footage anywhere in Oklahoma City for fear it might inspire similar violence.
Walton’s primary political focus, however, was as a patron of the labor unions. Again, it is arguable whether he supported them out of political conviction or because they constituted the bulk of his electoral base. Regardless, he frequently used his political machine to support strikers and labor organizers, to the constant consternation of the Chamber of Commerce and the Daily Oklahoman, his most stalwart political foes. In one of his speeches to labor groups he characterized union membership as an essential act of self preservation. “Pups do not lie down together to keep each other warm, they lie together to keep themselves warm. It would make no sense for a pup to lie down in a pit of vipers.”
“Packers say there is no strike. Does this look like it?” — sign held by striker in Oklahoma City, December 1921
A national strike at packinghouses in Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Chicago began over Christmas weekend 1921, celebrating the release from prison of Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs. The strike was initially supported in Oklahoma City by only a few workers. The alleged assault of several of the strikers by armed gangs on Christmas day caused the local strike to swell to over 2000 workers and supporters by December 27th, when they paraded from NW 4th and Broadway to “Packingtown” at Agnew and Exchange.
The scene in the Stockyards was reported quite differently depending on the partisan bent of the papers reporting it. The Daily Oklahoman painted a scene of “absolute anarchy”, while the left leaning Oklahoma Leader (today known as the Journal Record) described the scene as “orderly.”
As the strike continued, tensions mounted on both sides. The Chamber of Commerce asked the Governor to call out the National Guard as early as December 28th. Brawls along Exchange between picketers and company employees became commonplace. As was typical in such cases, the factory offered high pay for those willing to work during the strike, which drew unaffiliated workers, many of them black, to cross the picket line. In 1917 a similar situation in East St. Louis resulted in a major race riot that left hundreds dead. As Robert A. Gibson of the Yale– New Haven Teachers Institute wrote:
When the labor force of an aluminum plant went on strike in April, the company hired Negro workers. Although the strike was crushed by a combination of militia, injunctions, and both Black and white strike breakers, the union blamed its defeat on the Blacks. A union meeting in May demanded that ‘East St. Louis must remain a white man’s town.’ A riot followed, sparked by a white man, during which mobs demolished buildings and Blacks were attacked and beaten. Policemen did little more than take the injured to hospitals and disarm Negroes. Harassments and beatings continued through June.
On July 1, some whites in a Ford drove through the main Negro district, shooting into homes. Blacks armed themselves. When a police car, also a Ford, drove down the street to investigate, the Blacks fired on it, killing two policemen. The next day, as reports of the shooting spread, a new riot began. Streetcars were stopped, Blacks were pulled off, stoned, clubbed, kicked and shot. Other rioters set fire to Black homes. By midnight the Black section was in flames and Blacks were fleeing the city. The official casualty figures were nine whites and thirty-nine Blacks, hundreds wounded, but the NAACP investigators estimated that between one hundred to two hundred Blacks were killed.14 Over three hundred buildings were destroyed.”
In Oklahoma City, however, Mayor Walton ordered his police to protect the strikers, which they did. He gave no such protection to company employees and strikebreakers. Following the strike, both Armour and Wilson said that they had found police protection “satisfactory”, but most of those pushing for military intervention in the strike were adamant that it was not. There was definitely violence committed by strikers during this time, some of it seemingly well-organized. Walton was openly supportive of the strike and provided food and gasoline to strikers out of his own pocket. By January 17, the national strike appeared to be working, nearly halting production at every major packing center in the country and contributing to the collapse of two Chicago-area banks. Meanwhile, the violence around Packingtown increased in frequency and intensity.
“ ‘Yes, that’s Jake’, sobbed miss Mabel Smith, cousin of Jake Brooks, Negro, who was lynched by unknown parties Saturday night” reported the Black Dispatch on January 19th. “’The scene was pitiful as the young girl sank down to the floor and sobbed. ‘Poor Jake’ she sobbed; ‘to think that anybody would do a harmless boy that way.’”
Here is what is known for sure about Jake Brooks. He was born near Madill, Oklahoma. He picked cotton near Davidson, Oklahoma for a time. He lived in northeast Oklahoma City with his mother, wife, and children. Like most of the working poor he moved from job-to-job, taking whatever short term work he could get, eventually finding work in Packingtown. Jake Brooks was, by all accounts, a normal working man trying to provide for his family as best he could. On January 14th, 1921, 8 men knocked on his door and forced him into a car. His wife, Amanda Brooks recounted the events during the trial of Lee Harris, the only man implicated in the murder who didn’t plead guilty.
“Two automobiles drove up to their house on east 4th Street on the night of January 14th, she declared, and called her husband from the house. When she climbed onto the running board of the automobile in which the men placed her husband, she was pushed aside and cursed, she declared. “Nathan Butler and Robert Allen turned you in for working at the packing plants” the men told Brooks according to the witness. She said that Brooks had walked out when the other men went on strike but had gone back to work at the plants.”
Brooks was later shot and was found hanging from a tree 4 miles southeast of Capitol Hill in Oklahoma City on January 17th. His mother was adamant in insisting that two of her son’s abductors were black, and later identified his cousin Robert Allen as one of the assailants. Allen then implicated the other 7, Elmer Yearta, Robert McAllister, Lee Whitley, Oscar Smith, Charles Polk, Lee Harris, and Nathan Butler.
“There are those who will charge that the striking packinghouse workers were concerned. We cannot believe it.” wrote the Leader on January 18th. “Those who are in charge of the strike at Packingtown have shown themselves to be level headed, law abiding men who know that such an act would do more to accomplish defeat for their cause than any other happening. They would know that if such an infamous act of lawlessness could be proven against them that all of the suffering they had endured and all of the struggle through which they had passed would be in vain.”
In actuality, all but one of the men were members of the Butcher’s Union. Testimony in the confessions and trials of the perpetrators attest that they had gathered at the union hall and went out looking to get into a fight with strikebreakers. The assailants shot Brooks and then hung him after his death, perhaps in an attempt to make the murder look like the work of the Klan. The Leader was wrong about strikers not being involved in the lynching, but they were right to believe that it would “accomplish defeat.”
Following the murder, calls from the Chamber of Commerce for martial law intensified. The Attorney General proposed arresting every member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World statewide. The Ku Klux Klan reportedly offered to help break up the strike and remove the mayor from office, the only time in recorded history that the KKK has felt animated to outrage by a lynching. At least one mysterious fire broke out in Sandtown, which some residents of Mulligan Flats had threatened to “clean out.” (Official investigation later found the fire to have been unrelated, but the timing is suspicious to say the least.) The entire city sat at the precipice of mass violence.
“Sherrif Dancy Nabs First Mob Caught in All History” declared the Black Dispatch on January 26th 1922, in terms that are not as hyperbolic as they seem. “To date, so far as we have any record, this is the first time in the history of the United States that the whole vicious personnel of a mob have been put behind bars.”
It bears repeating that lynchings were commonplace in the United States, and that they went almost universally unpunished. Many people took proud portrait photos of themselves next to men they had just killed and never spent a day in jail. To see an entire lynch mob arrested and imprisoned within 12 days of the event is a truly remarkable event.
Dunjee’s editorial in the very same issue of the Dispatch, however, was not entirely enthusiastic about the outcome.
“Jake Brooks, together with all, black and white, who have fitted together into the emergency program of capitalism, have thrown around themselves a temporary shield which under other circumstances would have been unavailable. As strike breakers, men are valuable assets of capital. Strike breakers make dollars for capital and capital has always guarded it’s dollar making machine.”
“Someone may criticize this line of thought just now as the State of Oklahoma has grabbed the entire mob that lynched Jake Brooks and sent the confessed murderers to the penitentiary for life…We do argue though, and know, that their righteous efforts would have amounted to naught had they not had behind them in this emergency all the power and sentiment of capitalism.”
“This case is a fair sample of what CAN BE DONE by state authorities, but it is not a fair sample of WHAT IS DONE by state authorities when dealing with mobs.”
The strike at the Oklahoma City packinghouses ended in February of 1922, with strikers agreeing to slightly increased wages. The plants continued in operation until the 1950s without seeing another major strike.
“Our Jack” Walton was elected governor in 1922 as the joint candidate of the Democratic Party and the Farmer Labor Reconstruction League. He was famous for campaigning with a live jazz band and for holding a massive city wide barbecue on his inauguration day, reportedly featuring a mile long barbecue pit. (Oscar Ameringer later called the barbecue “the only campaign promise he actually kept”. During his short term in office Walton earnestly attempted to eradicate the Klan statewide using the same heavy handed tactics he employed as mayor. Walton put much of Northeast Oklahoma under martial law. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Tulsa and Klan connected elected officials were removed from office by force. Walton also accumulated a reputation for drunkenness, graft, corruption, and backhanded deal making that alienated his friends on the left, and he was eventually impeached without much opposition. Walton made a surprisingly stalwart run for Senate a few years later, earning the endorsement of no less a hallowed figure than Will Rogers, before finally being appointed to the Corporation Commission by his friend and former political foe EW Marland.
Sandtown and Mulligan Flats were eclipsed by a massive shantytown on both sides of the river during the Great Depression, one of the largest Hoovervilles in the nation. The first public housing project was started south of the river by the WPA, first known as Community Camp and later as Will Rogers Courts, which still exists near Rotary Park in South Oklahoma City. The realignment of the river for flood control and the construction of interstates 40 and 44 demolished most of Sandtown and Mulligan Flats, although what remains of them have been renamed Doffing and Westlawn Gardens, respectively. Both are still among the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
Packingtown is gone, but the “World’s Largest Stocker Feeder Cattle Market” is still full of cattle on market days, just as it always has been. The surrounding Stockyards neighborhood is mostly Hispanic now, still drawing workers with the promise of jobs and cheap housing. The largest employer in the area is Dell Computers, which has a large call center on the south side of the river just west of where Packingtown once was.
What are we to make of this incident? This is a story rife with ambiguities and aberrations. I haven’t been able to find any other incident in which black people were involved in the lynching of another black person. I haven’t found any other incident during this time period where everyone involved in a lynching was arrested and imprisoned. Did the police, on the order of Walton, not protect strikebreakers, and are they, and he, therefore complicit in this crime? There may not have been open Klan activity in Oklahoma City, but they must have existed here at the time. The recent attempt to rename Brady Street in Tulsa makes me wonder how many of our “city fathers” had a white robe in the closet, but were never exposed. Why did the lynching of Jake Brooks end the strike instead of setting off a wave of deadly violence like in East St. Louis?
Sitting here almost a century later, I can’t help but think it had a lot to do with the contingent nature of history. At any time in this story, someone could have lit a match – literally or figuratively – and set off a chain of events that could have bathed the streets with blood. No one did. We got lucky.
Above the boarded up shells of the packinghouses, you can see the skyline of Oklahoma City peeking out. This is a different city, and it isn’t. As a city, we seem to pride ourselves on our newness. We knock down old buildings and build new ones, we turned off our river and then built a new one. The mid century modern buildings that are everywhere in our city were their creator’s idea of what the City of the Future would look like. This is the city we live in, but there’s another city under our feet, and the forces that animated it are still with us. We owe it to ourselves to start digging.
(I could probably go back and footnote this article, but I’m not in grad school and I don’t want to. Here are my sources in no particular order, however:
The Atlas of Oklahoma History by Charles Robert Goins and Danney Goble
Oil, Wheat, & Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma, 1905-1930
Nigel Anthony Sellars
Riot and Rememberance– James S. Hirsch
If You Don’t Weaken– Oscar Ameringer
The Strange Career of Jim Crow – C. Vann Woodward
Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism
James W. Loewen
Personal Recollections of Ex-Governor Walton: A Record of Inside Observations – Ernest T. Bynum,
Oklahoma’s Governors, 1907-1929: Turbulent Politics, ed. LeRoy H. Fischer
A History of Governor Walton’s War on the Ku Klux Klan, The Invisible Empire – Howard Tucker