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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: About a girl

by Philip Martin | June 1, 2021 at 3:41 a.m.

We don't know much about the girl.

Reports say Sarah, which may or may not have been her name, was 17 years old, but she might have been as young as 15. She had only recently arrived in Tulsa; maybe she had come from Kansas City, Mo., and was waiting for her divorce to be finalized. She may have been an orphan. It is said she was working her way through business college. On Memorial Day 1921, she was operating an elevator in the Drexel Building downtown.

Somewhere along the way we picked up the detail that she had dishwater blonde hair. We will always believe she was pretty.

She must have known the bootblack Dick Rowland. Or was it Roland? Was he actually John Roland, the adopted son of Damie Roland James? Or, as she is sometimes known, Damie Roland Ford.

Damie said she adopted an infant named Jimmie Jones shortly after he was born in Texas. In high school, he went by Dick Roland. He just liked the name. He took Roland in honor of Damie's parents, who owned the boarding house at 505 E. Archer in downtown Tulsa where they lived.

A "Federal Report on Vice Conditions in Tulsa" from April 1921 identified the boarding house as a place of prostitution: "I saw a piano just inside the entrance, and an old colored woman as the madame," the undercover officer wrote. "Was solicited by a young colored yellow woman to go to bed. Price $3."

Police called the place a "negro resort." Both Damie and her brother Clarence had been cited for liquor violations.

One hundred years ago a mob burned that boarding house to the ground, along with the rest of the Greenwood neighborhood and what they called Black Wall Street. The Ku Klux Klan had an air force, firebombing buildings from the sky. Hundreds died, thousands were left homeless. Some white folks took some Black folks into their homes.

The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce gave Damie a tent that she pitched on the site of the boarding house. Today there's a concession stand on that spot. It's near the center-field entrance to ONEOK Field, where the Tulsa Drillers play baseball.

Maybe Damie's son the bootblack had some swagger. If contemporary newspaper accounts can be trusted which they cannot--he told police his name was Diamond Dick. The newspapers surmised the Roland, which they misspelled as Rowland.

Probably.

Maybe the Diamond Dick thing is an invention of the newspapers. A reporter wanted to portray a teenage shoeshine boy a certain way, to heighten the drama, to make a certain point. People who knew Dick Roland described him as a handsome young man of considerable charm, good with the ladies. He was the "best dancer in the negro quarter." He went to jazz clubs. He flashed rolls of cash.

If this Diamond Dick was indeed born Jimmie Jones, he might be in a couple of photographs in the 1921 Booker T. Washington High School yearbook. He was on the basketball team--he was, at 5-foot-10, its tallest player. He was a sophomore.

A former classmate confirmed Dick was Jimmie, only he went by Johnny in those days.

There is speculation that Sarah and Dick were lovers, but we can't know that. We do have an idea that something happened between a blonde business student and a Black shoeshine boy on an elevator on Memorial Day 1921.

A newspaper account says he assaulted her; code for "tried to rape her." The Tulsa Tribune said he "attacked her, scratching her hands and face and tearing her clothes."

An employee of Renberg's Department Store, which occupied the first two floors of the Drexel Building, heard Sarah shout something. He called police. And Diamond Dick, or whoever he was, lacking the imagination to believe anything good could come from an interaction with police at that moment, ran away.

They arrested him soon enough, and that evening he was on the top floor of the county courthouse. He was the lone prisoner on the block, surrounded by three deputies and Sheriff Willard M. McCullough (all members of the Ku Klux Klan, according to Tulsa historian Steve Gerkin) with a temporary gallows sitting right outside his cell.

A white mob was outside the courthouse. By sunset, it had grown to more than 1,000 people, some of them armed.

About 9:30 p.m., 50 to 60 Black men, many of them World War I veterans, arrived on the scene carrying rifles and shotguns. They said they had come at the behest of the sheriff, who later denied he had asked for their help.

Some of the white folks left. Some came back with guns. More Black folks arrived with guns. Someone tried to take someone else's gun. A shot was fired; maybe it was an accident or intended as a warning. But it set it off.

A few seconds of gunfire and as many as a dozen people, Black and white, lay dead in the street. Outnumbered more than 20 to 1, the Black vets headed back to Greenwood Avenue, back to Black Wall Street. A mob followed them, into infamy.

Some 1,256 houses were burned; 215 others were looted but not torched. Two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, stores and many other Black-owned businesses were among the buildings destroyed or damaged by fire.

Dick was acquitted, largely because Sarah insisted it wasn't any big deal; the boot black had only brushed her arm or stepped on her foot and surprised her. The manager of the Drexel Building said the elevator incident was so "trifling" that he didn't even learn about it until after the riots.

We don't know what happened to him; in 1972, Damie Ford told researcher and poet Ruth Avery that Sheriff McCullough told her he'd been spirited off by sheriffs' deputies to Sarah's relatives in Kansas City. She also told Avery she'd seen him only one time after the riots.

At least one serious scholar of the Tulsa massacre, Steve Gerkin, believes Ford was speaking wishfully. Sheriff's deputies may have killed the suspect and thrown his body into the Arkansas River. Or maybe more likely, he'd been put on a train and told never to come back.

There is a theory that the sacking and burning of Greenwood was preordained; that the white power structure of Tulsa was determined to acquire the property of its prosperous Black community one way or another. After the massacre, there was an unsuccessful attempt to keep the dispossessed citizens from rebuilding--the city wanted to build an industrial center with a railroad station on the ashes of Greenwood.

The Tulsa Tribune removed from its archives an incendiary front-page story of May 31; scholars later discovered police and state militia archives about the riot were also missing as well. A conspiracy of silence prevailed for more than 75 years.

We still don't know much about the girl.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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