SOME WHITES HID & PROTECTED BLACKS FROM HARM, AS OTHERS LOOTED THEIR HOMES
Despite a gallant effort from blacks during the 1921 race war, they were out-gunned, out-numbered and "out-lawed (sic)." Blacks were being fired upon by the white mob, vigilantes posing as sheriff's deputies, and the National Guard. As the "law" forced them from the business district to the residential section, a wall of fire was advanced by airplanes and looters. Dr. R.T. Bridgewater lost 17 rental properties in this attack. As he was fleeing with his parents, Kenney Booker's little sister asked him: "Is the whole world on fire?"
According to Mary Jones Parrish, author of the classic report of the race war, "Negro men, women and children were killed in great numbers as they ran, trying to flee to safety." The Tulsa Fire Department is said to have been prevented from extinguishing the fires. Another version was that their main responsibility was not to let the Greenwood fires advance to the downtown area. According to Mrs. Parrish: "The fire department came and protected the white homes on the west side of Detroit, while on the east side, men with torches and women with shopping bags continued their looting and burning of Negro homes as airplanes flew overhead." The First Baptist Church was spared. It was thought to be white.
There were some exceptions to the cruelty of whites, some whites hid and protected blacks from harm. Merrill and Ruth Phelps hid and fed black victims in the basement of their home for days. Mary Erhardt, who roomed at the downtown Y.W.C.A., hid a black porter who worked there in the building's meat locker. Renberg's Clothing Store gave clothes to the black male victims. The First Presbyterian and Holy Family churches opened their doors to fleeing refugees until they were taken to the concentration camps for their safety. Sam Zarrow and his wife hid blacks in their store at 4th and Rockford. The Zarrows, parents of well-known Tulsa philanthropists Henry and Jack Zarrow, would later move their business to 305 N. Greenwood Avenue in the heart of The Black Wall Street of America.
Maurice Willows, the much respected and praised Red Cross Director, was one of the few candid white voices and the bridge between blacks and the white power structure. Historian Scott Ellsworth said, "Willows' well written official report not only sheds light on one of the nation's darkest days, but tells a true story of courage and compassion in the face of overwhelming catastrophe."
Willows wrote to his superiors: "All that fire, rifles, revolvers, shotguns, machine guns, and 'organized' inhumane passion could be done, with 35 city blocks with its 12,000 Negro population, was done. The number of dead is a matter of conjecture," Willows said. "Some estimates have the number of victims to be as high as 300, other estimates being as low as 55. The bodies were hurriedly rushed to burial and the records of many burials are not to be found."
He said the Red Cross would not become involved in the rebuilding of a new colored section. "This obviously was a task for the city and county administrations." Near Christmas, Willows was in the process of shutting down the hospital and the relief operations. Neither the city nor county were moving toward any reconstruction promises.
Black reconstruction leaders representing the East End Welfare Committee and "the entire colored citizenship," in a resolution signed by B.C. Franklin, I.H. Spears, P.A. Chappelle, E.F. Saddler, J.W. Hughes, and Dimple Bush wrote of Willows: "Many of us were left helpless and almost hopeless. We sat amid the wreck and ruin of our former homes and peered listlessly into space. It was at this time and under such conditions that the American Red Cross — that Angel of Love and Mercy — came to our assistance." They said Willows and the Red Cross offered food and clothing and shelter, that Willows offered sincere, unselfish service to a people left with hardship and oppression. "Mr. Willows, as a man, has stood for our civic rights at home and abroad," they wrote. As he was preparing to leave the war-torn area, A.J. Newman, who had lost his home and café, presented the following excerpts from his poem of appreciation to Mr. Willow:
A request from a true friend.
As you must leave your do intend;
And your leaving is a [re]gret,
As you have done for us – we can never forget.
Please take this as a token
To all whom may concern,
That you came and went as a gentleman,
An the colored of Tulsa will confirm.