Otis G. Clark, survivor of 1921 Tulsa race riot, dies
By Matt Schudel
The Washington Post
May 26, 2012
For years, few people dared to speak about what
happened on the night of May 31, 1921, during one of
the most deadly and devastating race riots in the
nation’s history. Otis G. Clark, who was 18 at the
time, had grown up in Greenwood, a thriving African
American section of Tulsa.
During a night that history almost forgot, Mr. Clark
dodged bullets, raced through alleys to escape armed
mobs and saw his family’s home burned to the ground. He
fled Tulsa on a freight train headed north.
He would eventually move to Los Angeles, where he was
the butler in the home of movie star Joan Crawford. He
later turned to preaching and was known as the “world’s
But for nine decades, he remained a living witness to a
night of horror, when Greenwood died. Mr. Clark died
May 21 in Seattle at age 109, family members told the
Tulsa World newspaper. The cause of death was not
“Oh, child, we had what you might say a little city,
like New York or Chicago,” Mr. Clark told author Tim
Madigan, recalling the life of Greenwood for the 2001
book “The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa
Race Riot of 1921.” “We had two theaters, two pool
halls, hotels, and cafes, and stuff. We had an amazing
Greenwood had 15,000 residents, a 65-room hotel,
several banks and two newspapers. It also faced, on its
border, growing racial resentment from an emboldened
presence of the Ku Klux Klan.
On the final day of May 1921, white mobs were sparked
into action by rumors that a young black man had
improperly touched a white female elevator operator.
Armed vigilantes were deputized by the local police,
giving them the legal standing of a militia, as they
gathered on the edge of Greenwood.
Mr. Clark had to flee his house.
“Gunfire and the blaze from the fire was getting
closer,” he told the Tulsa World in 2000, “and all we
had on our minds was getting out of the house before
the ‘war’ got there.”
He went to a mortuary, where another man was planning
to get an ambulance out of the garage to help victims
of the violence.
“The man was just then about to open the door when a
bullet shattered his hand into pieces, blood flying
everywhere,” Mr. Clark recalled.
He ran through streets and alleys until he saw a
cousin: “I jumped in the car and we hadn’t gone two
blocks before we turned this corner and ran right into
a crowd of white men coming toward us with guns.”
Running for his life, Mr. Clark eventually reached some
train tracks, where he hopped on a freight car. He
didn’t get off until he was in Milwaukee.
When the smoke cleared over Greenwood, 35 square blocks
had been burned to the ground. More than 1,200 houses
were destroyed, along with dozens of office buildings,
restaurants, churches and schools.
“It looked like a war had hit the area,” Mr. Clark
recalled in 2000. “Not a single house or building stood
untouched. Greenwood was a huge wall of fire, the heat
so strong I felt it down the block.”
The death toll was first placed at about 35, but
residents recalled seeing bodies stacked in the streets
or loaded on wagons. In the 1990s, when historians
reexamined what is now known as the Tulsa Race Riot,
they estimated that about 300 people — 90 percent of
them African American — were killed.
“My home was burned down,” Mr. Clark recalled. “My
bulldog — Bob — was killed. My stepfather was killed.
We never did find him, never had a funeral.”
The property of black landowners was seized, and their
claims for insurance or other reparations were
generally denied. For years, the only new structures in
Greenwood were tents and small wooden shacks.
Moreover, there was a climate of fear that enforced a
code of silence on perpetrators and victims. No one
spoke of the pillaging of Greenwood for fear of
As late as the 1970s, when Ed Wheeler, a Tulsa radio
host and officer in the Oklahoma National Guard, tried
to uncover the truth of Greenwood, no white-owned
publication in Tulsa would touch the story.
He received threatening phone calls, and someone wrote
in soap on the windshield of his car: “Best look under
your hood from now on.”
A state commission finally issued a report on the riot
Otis Granville Clark was born Feb. 13, 1903, in
Meridian, Okla., four years before Oklahoma became a
state. His father worked for the railroad.
In a 2009 interview for a Tulsa oral history project,
Mr. Clark said one of his jobs as a boy was selling
vegetables and groceries to a house occupied by what he
called “sportin’ women.”
After settling in California, he worked as a limousine
driver and later worked on the fringes of Hollywood. He
lived in Joan Crawford’s house, where he served as
butler and his wife was a cook. He knew Clark Gable and
Charlie Chaplin, and was a good friend of actor Stepin
“Step picked me to buddy with him,” he said, according
to a 2005 biography of Fetchit, whose real name was
Lincoln Perry. “We was on the wild side.”
Mr. Clark said he had a religious conversion while
serving a jail sentence for selling bootleg liquor
during Prohibition. He began preaching in the 1930s
and, over time, would carry his message all over the
He was 103 when he made his first trip to Africa. He
returned a year later, and in 2010, he led an
evangelistic mission to Jamaica.
He was married four times and had one daughter, who
predeceased him. In recent years, he and a goddaughter
ran a ministry in Seattle.
Throughout his exceptionally long life, he remained in
excellent health, took no medicines and did not use a
walker or a cane. Yet Mr. Clark could never expunge the
memory of what he had witnessed in 1921.
“Family and friends, missing,” Mr. Clark said in 2000.
“Jobs gone. The city took my grandmother’s land and
didn’t give us nothing in return.
“We suffered. But Tulsa has given us nothing ... even
to this day — nothing.”
© The Washington Post Company
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