If family history research teaches anything, it is that none of us is without some fundamental sinfulness that tarnishes our family line across many generations.
So while I can join those who are reeling in horror at the weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I also remember the shameful place my family apparently took — and almost entirely denies — in the 1921 riot that destroyed middle-class black Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A Good Christian Woman
My father’s great aunt Ila — or Mrs. S.A. Gilmore, as she was known in Tulsa society — was a respected, if not particularly important, member of that community in the early 1920s. The only time we know that her photograph appeared in the Tulsa Daily World is this image from June 8, 1923. She stands in the second row of “this unique Bible class,” made up of women from more than one of the city’s Protestant congregations.
At the time, the idea of a multichurch Bible study was remarkable, let alone a Bible study that crossed denominational lines. The Bible study grew from an evangelistic crusade held in Tulsa in late 1921 by the enthusiastic Billy Sunday. Nonetheless, the newspaper reports, “none of the class members believe in religious fanaticism.”
Indeed, the span of views represented in the class included Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Church of God, Church of Christ, “both branches of the Methodist church,” a couple kinds of Presbyterian, United Brethren and members of the local Christian Science church.
When the photo was taken, the class had just finished its second year together. They had studied Acts, Romans, and the life of Christ as depicted in the four Gospels.
Shot by ‘Negro Rioter’
Six months before Billy Sunday got to Tulsa, Aunt Ila appeared in the “social news” report of another newspaper, in her brother’s home town of Twin Falls, Idaho.
The breathless and solicitous social news columnist reports that the Hill family had received a telegram notifying them of Mrs. SA Gilmore’s injuries during the riot. This report, and another in the Tulsa paper, describe her as having been shot by a negro “sniper” stationed in a church while she stood on her own front porch.
The journalist in me kicks in and remembers to ask: Who said that a “negro sniper” shot her? Who said that she was on the front porch?
Neither article answers. Which only piques my journalist’s curiosity further.
Critically Wounded by ‘Triple Through and Through’
According to the family story, Aunt Ila survived a “triple-through-and-through” shooting in the riot. The legend says that the bullet passed through her forearm, her upper arm, and her torso, making it entirely reasonable that the June 2, 1921 Tulsa World would report her still in “critical condition” on the afternoon of June 1, half a day after the injury.
What I found puzzling is how someone just standing on a porch could sustain that wound track. And I admit, at this point I’m playing amateur CSI like everyone else does. I’m holding my arms one way and another trying to imagine how a bullet could go through those three places. Am I leaning on a porch rail? Leaning on a porch support? I suppose if the “sniper” shot me in the back, the bullet could make that triple injury. Otherwise, the railing or porch support would get the bullet and I’d be safe.
Could a Bullet Have Traveled that Far?
But wait a minute. The Tulsa World also reports Mrs. Gilmore’s home address as 225 East King. That’s nowhere near the riot line.
In fact, although Aunt Ila’s house no longer stands, the address is about a mile and a quarter from the district where white Tulsa “held off” black Tulsa in a riot that white Tulsa fomented. And lest anyone imagine this was “defensive” action on the part of the white community, know that white Tulsa emerged almost unscathed. Tulsa’s middle-class black neighborhood, the Greenwood District, with its brick-built houses, schools, post office, shops, and cinema, was leveled. Thirty-five city blocks were left in smoking ruins.
Is it possible that in the midst of such race war, a “negro sniper” wandered more than a mile into hostile white territory to hole up in a church and from there shoot my aunt as she just hung out on her own porch?
I measure that possibility with the same credulity I gave the 8-year-old who once told me it was “possible” she might drink the school water fountain dry — “improbable,” she said, but “possible.”
So if it is very “improbable” that a “negro sniper” was anywhere near where Aunt Ila lived, how did she get shot?
The Tulsa World dated on the day the riot began gives me a clue:
Several hundred women armed themselves and were part of the crowd of whites that swarmed on Second street from Boulder to Boston avenue watching the gathering volunteer army or offering their services.
White Women with Rifles. Oh My.
Armed women. Oh my. I begin to retest my amateur CSI hypotheses. What if Aunt Ila had been on the riot line — ready to fire a rifle? That trajectory might work …
And so I find myself with a new hypothesis, based in part on the remarkable lack of attribution in two different publications in two states. Who says Aunt Ila was shot by a sniper in a church? I don’t know. Who says Aunt Ila was standing on her porch? I don’t know. Which means I can’t assume the source is trustworthy. In the end, looking back nearly a century, the injury pattern the family describes seems to tell much more truth than family legend and unattributed news stories. One address reported in the newspaper makes the whole story, as our family tells it, simply not credible.
Aunt Ila had to have been one of the armed women on the riot line. And just as I carry the original sin from the Garden, I carry this racial sin from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A Nasty Spiritual Blood Line
The Toronto Star published this image of 22-year-old “Ben,” who identified himself as a member of the KKK, marching in Charlottesville.
I can be appalled at the neo-Nazis and Klansmen who marched on Charlottesville. But I can’t pretend that their DNA is not in my veins. Without a spiritual “blood transfusion” from Jesus, I’m doomed to repeat my family’s history.
A Spiritual Transfusion? I Can Only Hope
Did Aunt Ila get a spiritual transfusion during the Billy Sunday crusade? Almost a hundred years later, I can’t know. Someday, I can only hope, I’ll meet her in heaven and hear how God changed her heart. Someday, I hope, you’ll meet me in heaven and believe God has changed mine.
[Cited Tulsa World newsclips from June 1921 were reviewed and noted in 2012. Links are not provided because they are no longer available to non-subscribers.]
For those unfamiliar with this episode of history, a few resources include:
The Questions that Remain: Tulsa World, 2009
This extensive multimedia publication includes information about the Klan’s rise in Tulsa beginning just months after the “riot” and events in the early 21st century aiming at reconciliation.
Tulsa Race Riot Overview: Oklahoma State University Library
1921 Tulsa Race Riot: Tulsa Historical Society & Museum