The Victory of Greenwood: A. J. Smitherman

A.J. Smitherman

A. J. Smitherman photo courtesy of the University of Buffalo.

A.J. Smitherman is best known for being the founder of The Tulsa Star—Tulsa’s first black newspaper and the first black daily newspaper in the nation, according to his obituary in the Buffalo Evening News. However, there is much more to celebrate about Smitherman’s life and work. Smitherman was an accomplished attorney, an entrepreneur, a fierce social justice advocate, as well as a prolific journalist and poet with a writing career spanning fifty-three years.

Andrew Jackson Smitherman was born in Childersburg, Alabama on December 27, 1883. Both of his parents were of mixed race (his grandparents were of European, African, and Native American heritage). Smitherman was the second eldest of 11 children. His father owned a coal mining business and a general store, managing 80 employees. When he was a small boy, his family relocated to the Muskogee part of the Creek Territory (known at the time as the home of the “Upper Creeks”). Muskogee was not officially incorporated as a town until 1898. During their time in Muskogee, Smitherman’s father continued working in the coal mining business. His mother worked as a school teacher. 

As a young man, Smitherman joined his father working in the coal mine in Lehigh, Oklahoma. The work was both difficult and dangerous. Smitherman’s mother did not want him to follow in his father’s footsteps. Being a teacher, she insisted he get an education. While there were few colleges which would accept black students at the time, Smitherman was accepted into Kansas University, which began accepting black students as early as 1876. Smitherman wrote in his autobiography, published in the Buffalo Empire Star, that he went on to study at Northwestern University, LaSalle University’s extension in Chicago, and then went on to receive his law degree at LaSalle’s main campus in Boston.

Smitherman returned to Oklahoma in 1908 to work as a legal clerk for William H. Twine, an attorney who owned a small weekly newspaper called the Muskogee Cimeter. For three years, Smitherman would work as both a law clerk and a journalist. During this time, the black newspaper industry was a tiny grassroots movement. Staff at these newspapers were often no more than one or two people and newspaper publishers had to rely almost exclusively on subscriptions to maintain their businesses.

The Guardianship Racket
Soon after the discovery of oil in the Creek Territory in the late 1890s, powerful white men established what Smitherman called “The Guardianship Racket.” Land ownership laws before statehood were so lax that a person appointed by the courts could establish themselves as guardians of the children of Native American and Freedman families simply by petitioning the court, using the defense that the parents were “insane,” “incompetent,” or otherwise unfit to raise their children. If the court agreed, the new guardian would take guardianship of the child(ren) and any land owned by that family. This scheme, detailed in David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon, was a way for white men in power to steal property and mineral rights from these families.

Smitherman would take on many of these cases, fighting on behalf of the families to help them keep their lands. One of the most famous cases was that of Creek Freedman, Warrior A. Rentie. Rentie was also an attorney and a journalist, working as the co-editor of a Muskogee paper called The Pioneer. Rentie’s family owned a total of 1,600 acres, earning an estimated $120,000 per year in land royalties. In 1910, Rentie received a letter that a new guardian was appointed to his children and he would be losing his family and land. Rentie refused to cede his land and was arrested. After posting bail, Rentie took his case to William Twine and A.J. Smitherman. The Muskogee Cimiter published the details of this story and found more than 3,000 similar guardianship cases, showing that $100 million had been stolen from Native American and Black families. The journal Afro-Americans in New York Life and History noted that due to the public outcry around this case and Smitherman and Twine’s legal work, Rentie’s case was decided in his favor—one of the only such cases won by a Native American.

Smitherman and Twine would collaborate often to correct other injustices, such as assisting minorities who had been denied their voting rights. Their combination of legal expertise and advocacy through journalism received national attention and catapulted the Cimiter from being a small local paper to having nationwide circulation. This growth allowed the Cimiter to establish its own building to house the newspaper, Twine’s legal offices, and rent out offices to other local businesses—the building and business plans drawn up by Smitherman.

By 1911, Smitherman was 26 years old and had not only firmly established himself in the legal profession and grew the Cimiter to national prominence, but also rose through the ranks of the Associated Negro Press, eventually becoming president of the organization (a position he would hold for eleven years). That same year, newly married to his wife Ollie B. Murphy, Smitherman decided to leave the Cimiter and start his own weekly publication: The Muskogee Star.

Smitherman had an intentional political agenda behind starting a newspaper of his own. The Civil War having ended less than 50 years earlier, almost all African Americans aligned themselves with the Republican party. Smitherman felt that the party wasn’t doing anything to help Black voters and took the African American constituency for granted. His solution was to advocate for the black community to diversify their political voice. He felt that if black citizens asked of their leadership, “What are you going to do to help our race?”, that their voices would be heard.

In 1913, Smitherman moved to Tulsa’s Greenwood district with his wife and two children, Toussaint and Carolyn. J.B. Stradford, one of Greenwood’s most prominent businessmen, agreed to provide the funding to launch Smitherman’s new venture, The Tulsa Star. Even as a fledgling paper, The Tulsa Star was never meek or mild about its convictions. Smitherman regularly attacked people in power and often advocated for the necessity of black men to take up arms to protect their community from racial violence. 

Events leading up to the Massacre of 1921
In 1917, a white mob in Dewey, Oklahoma burned the homes of at least 20 black families. Smitherman traveled to Dewey to investigate the story and then sent a report of his findings to Governor R.L. Williams. He also wrote about the crimes extensively in The Tulsa Star. Because of Smitherman’s advocacy, the crime did not go unpunished. Thirty-six members of the mob, including the city’s mayor, were arrested.

In 1918, Smitherman interceded in stopping the lynching of a black boy. The boy was saved, but Smitherman was subsequently arrested. He escaped from the jail and reported the story in detail in the next day’s issue of The Tulsa Star. The same year, Smitherman led an armed group of black men to Bristow to protect Edgar Bohanan, a black man who had been charged with robbing and shooting a white man. Smitherman’s interference—both in the form of sending a telegram to the Governor and by organizing an armed group in Bohnan’s defense—prevented the lynching from happening.

A September 1920 article in The Tulsa Star described a black boy being held in a jail in Oklahoma City. The boy was turned over to a white mob and lynched. Smitherman wrote, “While the boy was in jail, and while there was danger of mob violence, any set of citizens had a legal right—it was their duty—to arm themselves…and take a life if need be to uphold the law and protect the prisoner.”

Nine months before the massacre of May 31, 1921, a white man accused of murder named Roy Belton had been taken from his jail cell by armed vigilantes and lynched. Of the incident, Smitherman wrote, “The lynching of Roy Belton explodes the theory that a prisoner is safe on the top of the Court House from mob violence.” Following this incident, there were two occurrences where inmates being held in the jail escaped by breaking out the windows of the upper floors and tying sheets together to descend from the building.

On the night of the massacre, the Star’s printing building became the gathering place for black men who organized as Greenwood’s defense. Randy Krehbiel’s book Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre recounts that twice on the night of May 30, 1921, Smitherman led a group of armed black men to the courthouse to ensure that Dick Rowland would not be turned over to the white mob. 

The courthouse was so concerned with a mob breaking into the jail to lynch Rowland that they paid little attention to what was happening that night, essentially turning a blind eye to the white mob’s destruction of the homes and businesses in Greenwood. 

Living in Exile
Their newspaper building and their home destroyed, Smitherman and his family fled Tulsa for St. Louis. He then made contact with the NAACP chapter in Minneapolis, moving there and working with the organization to report on the event in an effort to change the narrative that blacks were responsible for the destruction of Greenwood and push for anti-lynching legislation. He would move again, this time to Boston to continue his work with the NAACP in telling the real story of the massacre. Prosecutors in Oklahoma attempted to have Smitherman extradited to stand trial for the crime of incitement to riot, but Massachusetts never cooperated with the extradition efforts. In retaliation, klansmen brutally attacked Smitherman’s younger brother John, cutting off his ear. Smitherman’s attorneys advised him not to return to Tulsa to stand trial. A 2017 article in the New York Amsterdam News describes Smitherman’s decision at that time to sell his remaining business interests in Oklahoma to Theodore Baughman, who founded The Oklahoma Eagle.

In 1925, Smitherman and his family settled in Buffalo, New York. The records are unclear, but it is known that Smitherman had a brother living in Buffalo at the time. It is entirely possible that his brother helped the family find a place to live and helped Smitherman re-launch his journalism career. Borrowing $100, Smitherman founded the Buffalo Star in 1932, with the motto: “Freedom, Justice and Equality for All, Love of God and Our Fellow Man; Doing All the Good We Can for Our Community.” He would later rename the paper The Empire Star. In every issue of his paper, he would provide information about the voting process and urge blacks to exercise their rights.

Smitherman passed away on June 20, 1961 of heart failure. He died at his writing desk, working on completing his autobiography, which he began as a series of articles in the Empire Star the previous year. Much of what is known about Smitherman’s early years and his role in protecting black men from being lynched comes from his own narrative told in these 39 articles.

For 40 years, Smitherman lived in exile from Tulsa, where he and his brother were accused of starting the 1921 massacre. Unfortunately, Smitherman’s name was not cleared until 35 years after his death. After a letter-writing campaign begun in 1995 by Barbara Nevergold, Ph.D., which lasted for over a year, Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Smitherman and 54 other black men charged with inciting a riot in connection to the 1921 massacre. According to an article published by the University of Buffalo, charges against J.B. Stradford, another prominent black Tulsa businessman, were also dismissed in 1996 by former Tulsa County District Attorney Bill LaFortune. The following year, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was created to investigate the massacre of 1921 further and set the historical record straight—work that continues to this day.