The Victory of Greenwood: Dr. A. C. Jackson

Photo of A.C. Jackson courtesy of the Department of Special Collections & University Archives, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa

Every Tulsa historian would agree that among the most tragic of the deaths which occurred during the Race Massacre of 1921 was that of Dr. A.C. Jackson. The esteemed physician and surgeon was well-respected not only in Greenwood but across medical circles throughout the country. However, relatively little is known about his life before it was cut short at age 42 on the morning of June 1, 1921.

Andrew C. Jackson was born to Captain Townsend D. Jackson and his wife Sophronia in Memphis, Tennessee in February of 1879. He was the youngest of three children. Both of Jackson’s parents were former slaves—Sophronia was from Texas, Townsend from Georgia. The couple met and married in Memphis a few short years before their daughter, Minnie Mae, was born in 1875. 

From Slavery to Prosperity

A detailed account of Townsend Jackson’s own remarkable life appears in Tim Madigan’s The Burning. He was freed from slavery after the Battle of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1863. The young soldier was only seven years old when his father, who was also his owner, sent him to fight in the war. After the Civil War campaign in Chattanooga ended, he found his mother in Trenton, Tennessee and later found work waiting tables in Memphis. One of his co-workers taught him to read and write. Townsend Jackson went on to become the leader of a black militia, which was formally recognized as part of the police force after his men helped keep order during a pandemic of yellow fever that ravaged Memphis in 1878.

Despite his service to the community, a white mob threatened to lynch Townsend Jackson after he dared to purchase and smoke a cigar in a tobacco shop in the white part of town. The civil war veteran and militia leader had a family to think of, so rather than fight, Jackson gathered his family and all their possessions and headed west. The family settled in Guthrie, Oklahoma just months after the town was established in 1889. The family thrived in the new frontier town, which welcomed Black, white, Native peoples, and anyone else willing to work hard to help build the new boomtown.

In stark contrast to the “Hell’s Half Acre” that O.W. Gurley discovered in Perry, Oklahoma, Guthrie grew to be known in Indian Territory as the “Queen of the Prairie,” with its stately brick buildings, a municipal water system, electricity, and an early mass transit system. Oklahoma’s state constitution was written in Guthrie, and from 1907-1910, the town served as Oklahoma’s state capital. There, the Jackson family thrived as well—Townsend served as the town jailer and was elected as justice of the peace. Minnie Mae married a respected lawyer, Henry Augustus Guess. The youngest son, Andrew C. Jackson, was able to earn acceptance to the first medical school in the country for aspiring black doctors: Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

By 1910, Andrew C. Jackson returned to Guthrie and married his wife, Julia. Unfortunately, the racial climate in Guthrie was beginning to change just as it had in Memphis. Segregation laws were written into the new state’s constitution. Over the course of a few years, the Jacksons found themselves reviled again in a community where they were once respected. Hearing of the Promised Land built by black entrepreneurs in Greenwood, the family packed up their belongings again and moved to Tulsa in 1912. The almost 60-year-old Townsend Jackson left his law enforcement days behind him and worked from his home on Cincinnati Ave. as a barber. H.A. Guess established a law practice. Young Dr. Andrew C. Jackson began to establish his medical practice. A small ad in the Tulsa Star from the year 1914 listed his office as located, “at the corner of Greenwood and Archer.” 

The Star’s head editor, A.J. Smitherman, must have greatly admired the Jackson family. The Tulsa Star frequently included reports of the family’s activities and travels: a Christmas dinner hosted in their honor, Dr. Jackson leaving town to attend to a patient, the family purchasing a new Ford car, a moving speech given by Townsend Jackson at First Baptist Church, and a year later, a heartfelt obituary for the family’s matriarch, Sophronia Jackson. The account of her final moments is so detailed and intimate that one would imagine that Smitherman must have been with the Jackson family at the time.

Giving Back to their Community

Just as wealthy white customers flocked to auto mechanic John Williams because of his reputation for excellence, Dr. Jackson would care for black and white patients alike. The elite class in Tulsa knew that he was one of the most exceptional doctors in the area. The founders of Mayo Clinic, brothers William and Charles Mayo, regarded Dr. Jackson as one of the finest surgeons in the nation. He served as the president of the State Medical Association. According to a recent article by the Ohio Star, some of the medical devices he invented are still in use today.

The doctor was not one to rest on his laurels. In 1916, he opened a medical practice in Claremore. In August of 1918, Dr. Jackson met with the mayor of Tulsa about establishing the Booker T. Washington Hospital for Negros, at the corner of Boston Ave. and Archer St. The Tulsa World article reporting on the creation of the hospital noted that the board of directors was made up of both black and white professionals.

Dr. Jackson and his wife also worked tirelessly to uplift their community. Dr. Jackson served on the board of directors of the Colored Orphan Home for Tulsa. He was also listed among the members of The Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a prominent fraternal organization. Mrs. Jackson taught art at Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary School, but was also one of the founders of the Colored Ladies of Tulsa, a social club established to promote the arts. Among the leadership was Smitherman’s wife. In a February 1914 article, the Tulsa Star reported on a speech given by Mrs. Jackson about businessmen keeping their wives appraised of their business affairs, saying, “We need more women of Mrs. Jackson’s type in Tulsa.” In 1919, the Star reported on a fundraiser Mrs. Jackson hosted for Washington High School to raise money for repairs. The freshman class (“about thirty boys and girls”) performed an operetta at the Williams Dreamland Theatre. 

Dr. Jackson’s Murder

On the night of the 1921 Massacre, many dead and wounded began showing up at the Booker T. Washington Hospital. The doctor spent the majority of the night tending to the wounded. When he heard of Dick Rowland’s arrest and the talk about a group of men gathering to prevent Rowland’s lynching, Dr. Jackson sent his wife north to avoid any trouble. His sister and her family also escaped avoiding what they feared the most—that violence would reach their neighborhood.

By the time Dr. Jackson made it back to his house, it was three o’clock in the morning. He had no desire to spend the rest of the night alone in his house, so he asked his neighbor and fellow doctor who had spent part of the evening with him helping the injured, Dr. Oliver Bridgewater, if he could stay with him. Between 7:30 and 9 a.m., the two doctors could see that a new wave of white men had begun pouring into the neighborhood and forcing people out of their homes. As they walked down the hill along Detroit Ave. so that Dr. Jackson could return to his home, they noticed that evacuees were being marched to Convention Hall. They encountered Judge John Oliphant and a group of armed men in khaki uniforms. Dr. Jackson put his hands in the air, saying, “Here I am. Take me.” When the men raised their rifles, Judge Oliphant yelled, “Don’t shoot him! That’s Doctor Jackson!” The men didn’t listen and shot the doctor twice in the chest and once in the leg. The doctor was taken to Convention Hall, where he bled to death.

When the residents who were being held at Convention Hall were finally released and the Hall was cleared, S.M. Jackson (no relation) was tasked with attending to the bodies there. Among them was the body of Dr. Andrew C. Jackson. The family made arrangements for the doctor to be buried at the family cemetery plot alongside his mother. Dr. Jackson was one of the few victims of the Massacre to receive a proper burial.

His suspected murderer, James “Cowboy” Long, was also the first white persons charged with arson associated with the Massacre. Long was arrested after the July 21st testimony of Judge Oliphant in the State Attorney General’s civil case regarding the Massacre. Though Long was named in the case as one of Dr. Jackson’s killers, he was not charged with murder. A June 5, 1921 article in the Columbus Dispatch described that former Tulsa mayor L.J. Martin was named chairman of a committee considering reparations for the damage done to homes since the insurance companies were “disclaiming responsibility.” The former mayor was quoted as saying, “Most of this damage was done by white criminals who should have been shot and killed. As the final outcome, we must rebuild these houses, see that the negroes get their insurance, and get their claims against the city and county.” The committee, established by the board of directors of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, suggested that the fund be set at $500,000 to pay for the property losses. 

Tulsa World articles from this same week, however, show that Mayor T.D. Evans placed the blame for the destruction squarely on the Black residents of Greenwood. Later that month, L.J. Martin’s committee was pressured to announce that no help, “financial or otherwise, be accepted to reconstruct the Negro district.” The committee tendered their resignations on July 15th, and a new committee, the Reconstruction Committee, was established by the City Commission. Mayor Evans supported an ordinance to re-zone Greenwood such that any new construction had to be at least two-stories high and be made of concrete, brick, or steel. The Commission and the Mayor’s office collaborated to pressure residents to sell their land so that reconstruction would result in making Greenwood an industrial district to serve the Frisco rail line. In a June 14 message to the Commission, Mayor Evans said, “Let the Negro settlement be placed farther to the north and east.” In the months that followed, while O.W. Gurley, B.C. Franklin, and others fought for Greenwood’s residents to keep what little they had left, any talk of reparations was silenced.

Lasting Legacy

Both Captain Townsend Jackson and his son-in-law H.A. Guess rebuilt their homes and businesses and continued as best they could, despite all they had lost. Lola Wilhelmina (“Aunt Tilli”) Guess Howell was the daughter of Minnie Mae Jackson and H.A. Guess. When she was eight years old, she contracted a near-fatal case of scarlet fever and was saved by her uncle, Dr. A.C. Jackson. She was fourteen at the time of the Massacre. She had gone to play with her sister near Booker T. Washington High School and was spared from witnessing any of the violence that transpired as a result. However, there is no doubt that her uncle’s murder and her family’s homes and businesses being reduced to ashes changed her life. Her parents not giving up and re-building would have been equally life-changing. 

In 1989, Historian Eddie Faye Gates interviewed Aunt Tilli. Gates profiled the life of Aunt Tilli in her 1997 book, They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa. The next year, Oklahoma State Representative Don Ross convened the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, having learned about Greenwood and its destruction from John & Loula Williams’ son William Danforth, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. The work of the Commission to preserve the narratives of the Race Massacre survivors has been instrumental in what we know today about Greenwood’s founding, its destruction in 1921, and its rebuilding.