"These Were Real People With Real Stories" — TU Puts Tulsa Race Massacre Collection on Exhibit

Oct 4, 2019

This week, the University of Tulsa put its collection of materials on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on public display for the first time.

Exhibit curator Marc Carlson started collecting materials on the Tulsa Race Massacre about 30 years ago because when he started researching it, he found magazines from the period had any articles about the massacre cut out of them.

"There was a push at one point to try and sort of hide what happened, and it lasted for a long time, that nobody talked about it. People would try to cover it up. And now, we’re trying to reverse that," Carlson said.

Carlson now owns the largest private collection of photographs from the race massacre, and the University of Tulsa, where he’s head of special collections and university archives, has the largest institutional collection.

During a two-day open house, Carlson welcomed guests to look over pictures from the massacre itself and from a scrapbook of Greenwood started in 1922 not only to learn something, but maybe also to point out people they knew.

"Because part of the problem we have with the photos is there are so many unidentified people, whether living or victims. I can identify some people, but very few of them," Carlson said.

Carlson said identifying people in the photos adds necessary context to them.

"For example, there is a photograph of a man standing there, looking at ruins."

The man is wearing a suit and hat, with a bag hanging on his left shoulder. He holds something in front of him, close to his body, while taking in a pile of rubble and twisted metal.

"That’s Jacob Hooker. Jacob Hooker was a photographer and a Baptist minister, and he’s actually looking at the ruin of his house in that photograph. But if you don’t know who he is, you can’t make that connection," Carlson said.

There’s another, sinister subject Carlson thinks he’s identified. It’s a young man wearing a flat cap, cigar between his lips and wielding two shotguns. Carlson said he looks a lot like a mugshot of Fred Barker.

"Fred Barker was part of the Barker-Karpis gang during the 1920s and 1930s and is actually a fairly famous criminal," Carlson said.

In addition to photographs, the collection includes newspapers, maps and the text of letters from Oklahoma National Guard officers reporting to their commanders on what happened in Tulsa from May 31 to June 1, 1921.

"I am a documentary historian, which means that for me, oral history is interesting — it’s an interesting conversation to have — but is not necessarily where things are. Because I’ve also seen the folklore change over the decades. Documentation may not be more accurate, but at least once it’s written down, it doesn’t change as much," Carlson said.

Carlson said he wants answers to lingering questions about the Tulsa Race Massacre.

"Most historians don’t dispute the essential story theme — from the elevator incident to the arrest, the mobs, the next morning with the invasion and the looting and burning, the airplanes — these are not in question. This is pretty much all given," Carlson said. "But, what exactly was going on? And if there are, as some people think, hundreds of victims, where are they? So, we need to find that out."

Carlson said he’s glad the community is starting to talk about the race massacre, and he hopes everyone understands researchers are dealing with real people.

"What happened in 1921, these were real people with real stories, and it’s not just some mythical thing that we just are throwing out there," Carlson said.

Note: KWGS is licensed by the University of Tulsa.