Airplanes Over Greenwood
One or more airplanes flew over Greenwood during the battle and subsequent events, surveilling refugee movements and the direction and extent of fire damage. Tulsa police piloted the aircraft. They dropped containers with messages indicating the coordinates of fleeing residents to white search parties on the ground who were rounding them up.
Some African-American residents who experienced the destruction of the community claimed that these aircraft poured murderous rifle fire on and/or threw incendiaries or explosives down at the black citizenry. Mary Elizabeth Jones Parrish wrote in her 1928 book Events of the Tulsa Disaster, based on her own eyewitness recollections as a young black woman, “There was a great shadow in the sky, and, upon a second look, we discerned that this cloud was caused by fast-moving aeroplanes.”
Like fellow Greenwood contemporaries who also penned credible accounts of the holocaust, including Buck Franklin, Parrish relays other residents’ reports of aircraft attacking targets below, though she does not herself claim to have witnessed that. In 1931, ten years after the tragedy, Franklin wrote of “sidewalks covered with burning turpentine balls,” which he suggested must have been dropped from aircraft.
No white participant in the 1921 Tulsa Race War, nor white official, military officer or spokesman ever claimed that aircraft were used to attack African-Americans.
White Tulsa Historian Richard S. Warner addressed this emotional subject in the state’s official Report of the 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. “It is important to note,” Warner wrote, “a number of prominent African Americans at the time of the riot including James T. West, Dr. R. T. Bridgewater, and Walter White of the NAACP, did not speak of any aggressive actions by airplanes during the conflict.”
Historian Hirsch described the case developed by Beryl Ford, a foremost white historian on Tulsa. Ford employed his expertise as a structural engineer and building inspector in examining numerous photographs and other evidence from the Greenwood damage to suggest that none of the abundant forensic evidence which must accompany such airborne attacks existed.
He also claimed that those actions would have been foolhardy and near physical impossibilities for experienced aviators in fragile, highly flammable, World War I-era planes, particularly amidst a wind stream and smoke that would have prohibited the lighting of a cigarette, much less a stick of dynamite or turpentine bomb. Ford further believed that the design of the planes virtually prevented an airborne pilot from throwing an object out of his cockpit without it striking the tail of his own aircraft.
Oklahoma historian Bob Blackburn agreed:
“To throw a bomb out of a canvas airplane that was an open plane would be suicide. Who in their right mind would do that? How would you get it lit? Just the technical challenge of throwing a bomb out of an airplane is improbable. I think it would have been very easy for someone to see an airplane (flying overhead) and hear an explosion down below that was a gas pipe bursting.”
Beauty and horror alike are often in the eye of the beholder. Like so much else about the Tulsa Race Massacre-Riot-War, including its name, and about Oklahoma History overall, the truth about those airplanes over Greenwood often, sadly, hinges on the reader’s own personal bias and emotions regarding the event.