Virginia book publisher Benjamin Franklin Johnson (1856-1921), of Laurel Hill in Rixeyville, witnessed the Tulsa Race Massacre while on business in the city 100 years ago.
He described the horrific scene of hate in the thriving Black neighborhood in Oklahoma, “… as the most heartless brutal piece of business I ever saw.”
A Culpeper County resident as a child and young man, the president of Johnson Publishing Co., wrote graphically and with much feeling to his daughter Gladys two days later about the horrors he observed as Black people were murdered in the streets and in their homes and businesses by a white mob.
The letter was recorded in the local family’s genealogy book, “The Descendants of Amos Johnson,” written and published by Myles Johnson in 1983 and 1992. A copy is in the local history reading room at Culpeper Library.
Author Myles Johnson is in his 90s and lives in a retirement home in Maryland, but could not be reached for this story.
His ancestor, in the letter from a collection of papers and memorabilia assembled by Lucille Forrest (Johnson) Caldwell, described how the entire thriving neighborhood of Greenwood, with its Black Wall Street—so called by Booker T. Washington—was burned down and erased over the course of a day and night starting May 31, 1921, hundreds killed and thousands displaced.
Unlike many others from the time, B.F. Johnson seemed to acknowledge the evil of it.
Dr. Uzziah Harris, president of the Culpeper Branch NAACP, reviewed a copy of Johnson’s letter and reflected on it as well as the Tulsa Race Massacre, now being observed worldwide on its centennial anniversary.
In correspondence, Harris said of the letter, “This account shows the very brutal but systematic and intentioned nature by which the whites of Tulsa savagely attacked, maimed, and killed black people (not to mention looted their businesses.) The reverberation of such terror and trauma has impact across the generations and is felt even to this day. There has been an erasure of Black history and an erasure of Black wealth and Tulsa has barely blinked (as a matter of fact Tulsa might’ve winked).”
The letter: Mothers shot down ‘with babes at their breast’
It may have well been Johnson’s last letter home, written on June 2, 1921, as follows:
“Tuesday (May 31) I braced myself for work and was getting things in fair shape when the riot broke out and raged all night and part of the next day. They burned all the negro settlement half mile wide and more than a mile long. Probably 200 Negroes were killed or crippled for life—at one time the fireing (sic) line was within two blocks of our hotel and one negre (sic) defending himself was shot down across the street from our main entrance.
”The white people were largely to blame—there seemed (to) be on the part (of) many white people a sort of joy in having unrestrained priveleges (sic) in shooting the negroes. I think tho in the end the whites will suffer far more than the blacks. After the negroes had been driven to cover in the warehouses the soldiers U. S. came in car loads from Fort Sill and took the negroes thru town to the ball park where they will have to stay under guard till homes are provided.
”It was indeed the most heartless brutal piece of business I ever saw. We have nothing on Germany after this—what they did was often on acct of orders—what these boys & men did was because they had hell in their harts (sic). Many mothers were shot down with babes at their breast and now some of the better white women of Tulsa are trying to comfort these little ones, who can only be comforted by their black mammies.
”I left Tulsa soon as soon as I could...It made my heart ache to see that not a single man or woman to whom I spoke regrettest (sic) the affair—‘Teach em a lesson’ ‘served them right’ —was the usual expression. It is said there are more millionaires in Tulsa than any place of its size in the state or U. S., and may God have mercy on their souls. Affec yours, B.F. Johnson”
B.F. Johnson, baptized at Gourdvine
From Tulsa, Benjamin Johnson went to Oklahoma City, where he was seen by a doctor on June 6, but “was taken suddenly ill at his hotel,” according to Rixeyville historian Kathy Ellis, citing the local genealogy book she has in her library.
Ellis’ grandfather, H.D. Crigler of Clifton Farm, used to hunt with B.F. Johnson, who lived nearby at Laurel Hill, a circa-1770s home, now gone, on Homeland Road. The Johnsons were active at Gourdvine Church, where B.F. was baptized in 1872.
Twice married with 12 children, B.F. was considered a success among his family and was among those who organized Broadus Bible School in 1895 on Broad Street in Richmond, according to the genealogy book.
He was involved in many associations related to history, political and social science, geographical, preservation of antiquities, art and the Audubon Society, according to a write-up after his death in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, of which B.F. Johnson was a founding member.
Johnson’s publishing company got the contract to handle all Virginia Public Elementary School textbooks in early 20th century, Ellis said.
“But he made the most money from the creation of a two-pocket envelope for church members’ giving,” she said.
Her grandmother used Johnson’s books in the local classroom in Rixeyville, copies of which she retains at her ancestral home. Ellis, whose son lives north of Tulsa, knew about the local letter recounting the Race Massacre from the Johnson genealogy book and took a copy of the letter to the Tulsa Historical Society about five years ago because they did not have one.
“It’s an interesting insight from a local person,” Ellis said in correspondence.
B.F. Johnson ran his book publishing company out of Richmond and later Washington, D.C. and was in Oklahoma with the intention of expanding his customers, Ellis said.
He died June 11, 1921 at the age of 65 at Oklahoma City Hospital, less than two weeks after the Race Massacre. His cause of death was listed as diabetes, according to “Descendants of Amos Johnson.”
“Family thought it was due to stress over what he had seen in Tulsa,” Ellis said.
Harris: ‘We must still be vigilant’
History tells the massacre and terrorist bombing of American citizens started with the false report that a black man had assaulted a white woman, said Dr. Harris, with Culpeper Branch NAACP, in correspondence.
“Yet as one digs deeper into the account we come to realize it was bigger than that. There were in fact, several black millionaires in the Greenwood District,” he said.
About 45 square blocks, the Black neighborhood also had a school system and one of Oklahoma’s few airports, Harris said.
“This massacre was about putting Black people in their so-called ‘place.’ Hundreds of white, bloodthirsty mobsters were deputized in the name of law enforcement and allowed to have their way on innocent Black people. They murdered black people and put their bodies in mass unmarked graves,” he said.
The search, in fact, continues today for the bodies of those massacred as the city of Tulsa excavates more ground to locate remains in Oaklawn Cemetery. As of Thursday, 20 coffins has been found in a mass grave feature at the cemetery, AP reported.
Harris continued, “The fact that not one white person was ever put on trial for such a massacre shows the deep sickness of white supremacy that gripped America, and Oklahoma’s inability to truly provide tangible reparations and proper compensation after 100 years speaks to the sickness that still grips America.”
The local NAACP president said the city of Tulsa has yet to truly take responsibility for what was done.
“I find it saddening that slave owners were given reparations for slaves lost as a result of the Civil War, but an entire town of approximately 10,000 people was decimated, property destroyed, and not one person from the Greenwood District was ever repaid for damages,” Harris said.
Race riots and massacres happened around America, he added, leading to creation in 1909 of the NAACP, the nation’s largest civil rights organization.
“We must still be vigilant because there is still ‘hell in the hearts’ of some who hate only on the basis of race, there are still some who exude a sort of joy in exercising unrestrained privileges in the killing of African American people, there are still those who believe African American people exercising their rights need to be ‘taught a lesson,’ and still far too many more who are willing to sit back and watch it happen without any plan for redress and restoration,” Harris said.
He added: “I, like B.F. Johnson, believe that at the end of the day, all of America will suffer and grieve for the atrocities against people of color unadjudicated.”
Ellis said the massacre helped pave the road to the mistrust of government and policing seen today among Black Americans.
“Greenwood was inhabited by law-abiding, tax-paying American citizens pursuing the American dream of home and business ownership. The purpose of our government is to protect the individual citizen’s life, property, and rights. On every level—local, state, and federal—this failed to happen. No perpetrator was ever charged. No justice was brought. No compensation was given for losses,” she said.
Report: Government, police let massacre happen
A 2001, 200-page report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, acknowledged the city, including law enforcement agencies, allowed the massacre to happen and participated in it.
“Whatever interpretation one places on the origin of the riot, there seems to be a consensus emerging among historians that the riot was much worse because of the actions of Tulsa officials,” the report states. “Maj. Gen. Charles F. Barrett, who was in charge of the Oklahoma National Guard during the riot and thus was a participant in the closing moments of the riot, wrote in his book … about the role of the deputies in fueling the riot.
“The police chief had deputized perhaps 500 men to help put down the riot. He did not realize that in a race war a large part if not a majority, of those special deputies were imbued with the same spirit of destruction that animated the mob.
“They became as deputies the most dangerous part of the mob … the incendiary fires that many of these special officers were accused of setting … According to testimony found in the Oklahoma Attorney General’s papers, a brick layer, Laurel Buck, testified that after the riot broke out he went to the police station and asked for a commission.
“He did not receive it, but he was instructed to “get a gun, and get busy and try to get a (Black person, racial slur).”
Last week, the city of Tulsa cut the ribbon on the new, $5 million “Pathway of Hope,” a walking trail that begins below the Greenwood overpass and ends at John Franklin Reconciliation Park, according to a release from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
Along the way, pedestrians will see various artistic photos, plaques and inspirational quotes per the government-funded project that used the highway’s retention wall as a canvas, and turned the right-of-way into a shortcut between two of the district’s most important landmarks.
“This has been a long journey,” Tulsa civil rights activist Julius Pegues told hundreds of people at Reconciliation Park after being the first to walk the Pathway of Hope. “Looking out over this crowd, I know that work has not been in vain.”