The racial history of Oklahoma began its upward inclination in the early 1800s when the government ordered Black slaves and their Indian masters to relocate to Oklahoma territory (1). Black people were to face an unimaginable
hardship and pain. Even after slavery’s abolishment following the Civil War, Black Americans faced a new struggle of what it meant to be “equal” and “free.” It was a civil rights’ journey that would require strength, activism, and leadership. Leaders like A.J. Smitherman; a man who used his passion for words and justice to uplift the Black mind during Oklahoma’s darkest moment.
After graduating with his law degree from LaSalle University Extension School, Smitherman returned to Oklahoma. He combined his law degree with his passion and interest in journalism to become a crusader for Black rights. He championed “self-help” and “social uplift” for the Black community in Tulsa. Smitherman founded a new newspaper, the Tulsa Star, where he used his platform to bring awareness to the mistreatment of Black people and to attack the corrupt people with political power (2). The newspaper discussed political matter involving the injustice treatment of Black people using the law. In 1917, a white mob burned more than 20 Black-owned homes in Dewey, Oklahoma. Smitherman traveled to the scene to write a report that was published in the Tulsa Star. The information was also used to arrest 36 men who took part in the burning (3).
On the first day of the Tulsa Massacre, A.J. Smitherman faced a daunting challenge that would affect his life forever. He and other Greenwood leaders, armed, went to the courthouse to stand against the white mob already there and
protect Rowland (2). At the courthouse where Rowland was being held, a riot broke out, a shot was fired, and what ensued was the killing of hundreds of Black Greenwood residents, the burning of more than 1200 of their homes, and the erasing of an insurmountable amount of Black success.
A.J. Smitherman’s home, where his family had hidden, was burned down. His newspaper, the Tulsa Star, was also burned down. He lost an estimated $40,000, which today would have equaled $444,000 (2). The day after the massacre came to an end, the Tulsa Police Department issued an arrest warrant for Smitherman for “inciting the riot” (2). With the help of a contact associated with the NAACP, he was able to relocate with his family to Boston, Massachusetts.
When Smitherman eventually came out of hiding and founded a newspaper called the Buffalo Star (2). Smitherman used his platform, once again, to advocate for change and justice for African Americans.
A.J. Smitherman left behind a legacy and impact the Black community could be proud of for centuries to come. One of the most important contributions Smitherman gave us, was the knowledge that words can have a tremendous amount of power. No matter where he was, or how much he was struggling with life challenges, A.J. Smitherman was using his words to bring about change and justice.
- Magliulo, Myrna Colette. “Andrew J. Smitherman: A Pioneer of the African American Press, 1909-1961.” Afro-Americans in New York Life & History, vol. 34, no. 2, July 2010, pp. 119–153. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=53896147&site=ehost-live.
- Smitherman, Andrew Jackson. “The Tulsa Star (Tulsa, Okla.), Vol. 6, No. 39, Ed. 1, Saturday, August 24, 1918.” The Gateway to Oklahoma History, The Tulsa Star Printing and Publishing Co., 31 Jan. 2012, gateway.okhistory.org/ark:/67531/metadc72762/m1/1/?q=a.j.+smitherman.
- Roberts, Alaina E. I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.
- Picture 1: In Buffalo, a hero journalist found new life after Tulsa massacre | Local News | buffalonews.com
- Picture 2: What to Know About the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre – The New York Times (nytimes.com)