On May 31, 1921, Otis G. Clark was 18 years old. He was also living in the middle of one of the deadliest, racially-motivated events in American history: The Tulsa Race Riots. That night in May, Clark, a Greenwood, Oklahoma native, escaped flying bullets and angry white mobs, only to witness his family home burn down (1 of 1,200 homes that night).
This was the same settlement in which Clark was born, four years before Oklahoma was declared a state. He carried memories of childhood, where he sold vegetables and groceries to the locals (including the home for the ‘ladies of leisure’ in town). But during the riot, those familiar places were no more.
Although the people of Tulsa and surrounding areas kept silent about the details of the race riot for decades, stories of what happened that night eventually made their way to headlines. Rumors spread to the local authorities that a black man touched a white female elevator operator inappropriately. Anyone was given deputy rights and white mobs looked for street justice in the form of a small war on blacks in Greenwood.
Clark, who was on the run, witnessed a young man at the local mortuary get shot in the hand as he tried to get the ambulance to help those in need. Clark told the press that his stepfather’s body was never found and his family’s land and belongings were burned down. His dog was killed. Later estimates of casualties from the riot were around 300 people, the majority of which were African-Americans. The survivors of the riot were denied rights of their property and no concessions were given for the damages. Above all else, the people lived in fear.
That horrible night in May, Clark left his once peaceful city of 15,000 and hopped a train headed west.