The descendants of the man, J.B. Stradford, traveled from around the country to witness a ceremony here on Friday in which the authorities dropped charges accusing him of inciting the 1921 riot in Tulsa's Greenwood district, which left 35 city blocks in ruins. Official accounts say 36 people died, but historians and others say the toll was probably much higher.
Stradford, the son of a freed Kentucky slave, died in Chicago in 1935 at the age of 75, having jumped bail after his arrest and left Tulsa. His family said that until his death he remained despondent over his fugitive status and the loss of the fortune he had accumulated in Greenwood, where he owned a hotel and rooming house and was among the most prominent businessmen. Greenwood was home to many prosperous black families and was dubbed "the Black Wall Street" at the time.
The riot was touched off on May 31, 1921, after the arrest of a black man on a questionable charge of assaulting a white woman. A crowd of angry, armed white men gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, where the jail was, and talked of a lynching, prompting the city's black residents to take up arms and head for the jail.
A scuffle led to an exchange of gunfire, and the city was beset with firebombings and gunplay, often from automatic weapons, for a day before the Oklahoma National Guard arrived.
Cornelius Toole, 63, Stradford's great-grandson and a circuit court judge in Cook County, Ill., said Stradford's memoirs indicated he was trying to act as a peacemaker when he went to the courthouse to speak to the armed black men.
"He was being preventative," Toole said.
Toole had written to the Tulsa County authorities for information on his great-grandfather's case several years ago, but it was not until he saw television reports about the city's efforts to mark the 75th anniversary of the riot this year that he decided to try to have the family name cleared.
He got in touch with Don Ross, a black representative in the Oklahoma Legislature whose name he had read in a magazine article about the riot. Ross, who had never heard of Stradford, asked Bill LaFortune, the Tulsa County district attorney, to re-examine the case.
LaFortune discovered that Stradford was one of dozens of black Tulsans charged in the riot by an angry white grand jury, and the case against him seemed dubious. Records for the sheriff's office for several months after the riot were missing, and even court files were incomplete.
A motion to dismiss the case against Stradford was apparently filed at one time, but LaFortune was unable to determine what became of it. Newspaper clippings from the period helped the district attorney make his decision.
"I didn't have any doubt in my mind that the grand jury that produced these indictments was charged emotionally and politically," LaFortune said. "Taking all of that as a whole, it appeared to me the best interests of justice would be served by dismissing the charge against him."
LaFortune and others hope the dismissal will help heal old wounds in a community that only recently has begun to recognize the atrocities of the riot and its divisive legacy.
"I'm 39 years old, and I was born and raised in Tulsa," LaFortune said. "I never really learned about the race riots until the last several years."
Ross, 55, also wants closure.
"I'm just tired personally of having the riot be the only claim to fame of my community," he said.
Friday's ceremony was held at the Greenwood Cultural Center, which lies across the street from where the 65-room Stradford Hotel stood before being destroyed in the riot. Four generations of Stradford descendants watched as LaFortune asked Judge Jesse Harris of district court to drop the charges formally.
Stradford became a successful lawyer in Chicago after leaving Tulsa, and his descendants include lawyers, judges, professors and diplomats.
Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma attended the ceremony and gave Stradford an honorary executive pardon.
"It is regrettable that we have to come together to recognize an embarrassment, a historic event that never should have happened," Keating said.
Emma Monroe, 85, was the oldest of the Stradford family members present and said that her grandfather would be relieved that his name had been cleared. Still, Monroe said, he would be angry.
"He felt he had been mistreated, and he was very unhappy," she said. "He didn't do anything, so why was he charged with anything in the first place?"
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:58 EDT