The May 31, 1921, Tulsa race riot pit a white mob of 2,000 against some 75 black men who had fought in World War I.
Tulsa race riot historian Scott Ellsworth, author of “Death in a Promised Land,” reveres the black soldiers.
“These are guys who faced German bullets for democracy, and when they came back, they got no democracy at home,” Ellsworth said. “They just knew a brother was being threatened. To me, they are the true heroes of the riot. They are great Oklahoma heroes and we should celebrate them.”
Eddie Faye Gates, an author and historian on the riot, said the men were, as President Woodrow Wilson put it, making “the world safe for democracy.” But their return to segregation in Tulsa left them shocked.
“They were proud they fought for democracy,” Gates said. “They would wear their uniforms downtown and that would invoke people to say, ‘What are you doing in that uniform? Get out of it. You are still a n—–.”
Marc Carlson, head of special collections at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library, said the men who returned had been treated better and now expected better.
“The blacks who served in World War I had wound up being treated equally because they wound up being treated much better by the French,” Carlson said. “When they came back, they wanted to continue to be treated better. This led to them being willing to stand up for themselves a little more.” “Ben Fenwick