UB Researcher's Work Leads to Dismissal of Charges in 86-Year-Old Tulsa 'Race Riot' Case

Release Date: November 30, 2007


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Andrew J. Smitherman, far right, stands with a group of people greeting General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. during the general's 1944 visit to Buffalo.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was while researching the history of African-Americans in Oklahoma that Barbara Nevergold, Ph.D., of the University at Buffalo came across the name of Andrew J. Smitherman in the records of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

After discovering Smitherman's ties to Buffalo, where he settled with his family in 1925 and founded the Buffalo Star newspaper, and after uncovering the personal history of "this extraordinary man," Nevergold took up a campaign to clear Smitherman of unsubstantiated charges that he incited the riot.

Next week in Tulsa, Nevergold's work on behalf of Smitherman, who died in 1961, will be completed.

Nevergold and several descendants of riot survivors will attend a ceremonial court hearing in Tulsa on Dec. 11 at 10 a.m. CT in the Greenwood Cultural Center where Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris will file a motion to dismiss the charges against Smitherman and 54 other black men accused of the same crime in the riot's aftermath.

Nevergold will be accompanied by colleague Peggy Brooks-Bertram, Dr. PH., Ph.D. Nevergold and Brooks-Bertram co-direct UB's Uncrowned Queens Institute and Uncrowned Kings Initiative and have spent more than a decade chronicling and resurrecting the lives of extraordinary black men and women whose stories have "fallen through the cracks of history."

"After gathering testimonials from a number of people who knew him Buffalo, it became clear to me that Mr. Smitherman was a man of integrity, honesty and high morals, which is why it is so important to me to clear his name at this late date," Nevergold said.

"It's very satisfying to help bring healing and a sense of justice to a community that is still feeling the impact of a terrible event that took place 86 years ago," she added.

The bloody 16-hour riot started on May 31 and ended on June 1. It cost Smitherman his home and newspaper business, the Tulsa Star, and resulted in the deaths of hundreds (the exact number is still unknown) of his fellow citizens.

According to Nevergold's research, the riot may have started after a group of black men, perhaps inspired by Smitherman, assembled at the Tulsa courthouse to support a sheriff's refusal to turn over to a lynch mob a 19-year-old black man accused of assaulting a white woman.

Guns shots quickly escalated into widespread violence, most of it taking place in the racially segregated neighborhood of Greenwood, also dubbed "Little Africa," where Smitherman lived. Fifty white people and an estimated 300 black people were killed during the destruction, although other accounts say the number of black deaths was significantly higher. An estimated $1.5 million in property losses has been documented.

Smitherman was indicted for inciting the riot and fled Tulsa soon after. Smitherman, according to Nevergold, began a new life in Buffalo with his wife and five children. He again achieved community prominence; this time as publisher of the Buffalo Star newspaper, later known as the Empire Star.

Nevergold's campaign for Smitherman began earlier this year when she and Brooks-Bertram launched their Oklahoma Centennial Project, an official Oklahoma Centennial Project. Their book, "Uncrowned Queens, African American Community Builders of Oklahoma" contains a biography of Smitherman written by Nevergold.

For nearly a year, Nevergold called and wrote to the Tulsa County District Attorney's office making a case for dismissal of charges against Smitherman.

At Nevergold's request, Tulsa DA Harris studied the records and report released by the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which was created in 1997.

"It became clear to me that the rule of law which governs our search for the truth in our criminal justice system broke down during this tragic event and justice would best be served if charges were dismissed against not only Mr. Smitherman, but all defendants," Harris said.

Charges against another prominent black Tulsa businessman, J.B. Stradford, were dismissed in 1996 by former Tulsa County D.A. Bill LaFortune after a similar request was made by Stradford's descendants, Harris noted.

For more information about Smitherman and UB's Uncrowned Queens Institute, go to http://www.buffalo.edu/uncrownedqueens.

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John DellaContrada
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