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In Buffalo, a hero journalist found new life after Tulsa massacre

In Buffalo, a hero journalist found new life after Tulsa massacre

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For Stephen Williams and Virginia Bryant, siblings who grew up on Chester Street in Buffalo, their most powerful memories of a monumental grandfather were forged on quiet evenings, just before they slept.

In the 1940s, their family shared a duplex with their aunt, Carol Maunee Smitherman, and her children. The house was filled with jubilant kids, and for a couple of years their grandfather, Andrew or "A.J." Smitherman, stayed there on his rare breaks from work.

At night, Smitherman would gather younger grandchildren for bedtime yarns. Williams recalls a tale in which his grandfather described riding calmly in a rocking chair atop the antlers of a giant stag, while Bryant remembers “wonderful ghost stories” that left the little ones wide-eyed with alarm.

Years later, they realized he had spared them the most searing tale of all.

Smitherman, a newspaper publisher whose descendants still call him “Big Daddy,” was a survivor and a major figure in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. As May turned to June, a white mob attacked an African American community, killing an estimated 300 people and burning homes and businesses around Greenwood Avenue, known as “Black Wall Street.”

"It's an amazing story," Bryant said of her grandfather, who died at 77 in 1961. "He was a person of such high moral character, and he came through those times and was still able to save his family and his reputation."

Smitherman's descendants plan to gather in Tulsa for next year's high-profile centennial remembrance, in the planning long before the HBO series "Watchmen" brought a new spotlight to the massacre. The events again took on renewed national focus – amid protests over police violence after the death of George Floyd – when President Trump scheduled a rally for this week in that Oklahoma city.

The rally was moved from Friday to Saturday after it touched off a national furor by coinciding with Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery. While Smitherman's grandchildren and great-grandchildren wish the rally would not happen at all, they hope Americans might see one peripheral opportunity in the attention.

In a nation suddenly propelled into a long-delayed self-evaluation about race, it is a chance to seek deeper lessons in what happened in Tulsa and its aftermath – and in why so few knew of the carnage for so long.

Williams and Bryant say it was only as they grew older that they learned how their then-toddler mother, Guelda, was carried to safety in Tulsa by their Aunt Carol. The sisters fled a basement where they hid with their siblings and mother until, as Carol recalled, planes flew overhead and dropped balls soaked in turpentine to incinerate African American properties.

“If not for me, you wouldn’t be here,” she sometimes told her niece and nephew, a grim statement of fact.

Over the years, they came to an appreciation of their grandfather that was both inspiring and heartbreaking. He was the longtime publisher in Buffalo of what came to be known as the Empire Star, a black community newspaper and a namesake of the Tulsa Star, the paper he ran out West.

His feats as a crusading journalist earned him admission this year into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, alongside such fellow legends as Ralph Ellison and Will Rogers. Even before the massacre, Smitherman – also a lawyer – was a fierce voice of conscience against lynchings, as well as a sentinel who rebuffed attempts to seize the oil-rich lands of Native American families and blacks born on native territory.

All of that put him in the middle of events building toward a slaughter. Historians say an African American teenager, Dick Rowland, was accused in 1921 of assaulting a white woman in a Tulsa elevator, a shaky allegation that raised fears of murder by vigilantes.

Smitherman helped rally the black community around Rowland, and warned African American residents to arm themselves for their own protection.

“He identified vice and corruption where he saw it, and I think he was fearless,” said Randy Krehbiel, a longtime reporter with the Tulsa World who has written a book, "Tulsa 1921: Recounting a Massacre."

The confrontation over Rowland, Krehbiel wrote, touched off a spasm of violence in a tense crowd outside the courthouse. Soon an angry white mob descended upon the African American community, an attack that left the neighborhood in flames.

More than 1,000 homes were burned. Thousands of people of color were placed in a makeshift detention camp. Hundreds were killed – including one of Smitherman's neighbors, Dr. A.C. Jackson, a surgeon shot in cold blood – and the total might gain more exact dimensions as the city of Tulsa excavates the sites of what potentially are unmarked mass graves.

Smitherman and his family escaped and headed East. His brother John, a sheriff's deputy, was later kidnapped and had his ear severed, Krehbiel wrote, reportedly by the Ku Klux Klan. Smitherman was indicted in Tulsa on charges of inciting a riot, an accusation he knew could lead to death if he returned.

“Honestly, I don’t know how this man survived when his life was at risk from every angle,” said a great-granddaughter, Raven Majia Williams of California, who is playing a central role in creating a documentary and is also preparing to release Smitherman’s autobiography, based on accounts he wrote in Buffalo.

In Western New York, the Empire Star became an institution. Among the many grandchildren who worked at the plant on Broadway were Bill Dozier, who left Buffalo for a career in the Marine Corps, and his brother Richard, now the Tuskegee University dean emeritus of architecture.

The Doziers recall how mayors and civic officials would casually stop in to seek Smitherman's support. They recall folding papers “at a huge stone composition counter” and helping their grandfather as he left bundles at newsstands and other businesses throughout Buffalo.

What they do not recall is any talk about Tulsa. The indictment against Smitherman was not lifted until 2007, long after his death. That quest was led by Barbara Seals Nevergold, an educator and community historian who later served as president of the Buffalo Board of Education.

Justice delayed but, at last, not denied Thanks to a UB historian, vindication for a newsman indicted in Tulsa Race Riot

“He was a wanted man,” said Bill Dozier. “He was faced with tremendous setbacks, but he never frowned or wrung his hands. Somehow he managed to survive.”

Seth Bryant, a great-grandson and a managing partner of the Bryant Rabbino law firm in Manhattan, said his great-aunt Carol Maunee Smitherman, a witness to the massacre, made sure she knew the names of every great-nephew and great-niece – a diligence that held the family together.

She died in 2011, but her passion carries on. There is now a monthly conference call among relatives, both to touch base and to prepare for centennial events in Tulsa.

The regulars include Rodney Williams, a great-grandson in Buffalo who has devoted countless hours to a family legacy he refuses to see forgotten. Seth Bryant, who helps coordinate those calls, explained that his own career was inspired by Smitherman’s reverence for the rule of law, in its highest form.

"I think," Seth said, “it really helped me to feel whole.”

As for Raven Majia Williams, raised in California, the digital gateway to her work can be found at ajsmitherman.com. Among her dreams: She hopes a significant memorial will someday be created for her great-grandfather, in Buffalo.

That legacy is remembered at the Nash House Museum, whose longtime champion, former Common Council president George Arthur, worked as a young circulation editor for the Empire Star. Smitherman and Rev. J. Edward Nash Sr. were close friends, Arthur said, and the collection includes a Smitherman poem entitled “The Tulsa Race Riot and Massacre,” a work familiar to the family.

Stephen Williams, the grandson who never forgot those long-ago bedtime stories, learned of the poem as a teenager. Many times, at family gatherings, his children and other relatives listened as Williams read it out loud – his attempt at making sure the lessons will live on – though the effort often led to a shared response for which their grandfather, always stoic, allowed himself no room.

“I could never get through it without crying,” Williams said.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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