The Victory of Greenwood: B.C. Franklin

Photo of B.C. Franklin courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

B.C. Franklin’s autobiography, “My Life and an Era,” takes its readers back in time to a period of Oklahoma’s history when Black families enjoyed an abundance of prosperity, peace and freedom. His parents were Choctaw and Chickasaw and were both highly respected in the Indian Territory. Growing up, B.C. learned as much from working on his family’s farm as he did in the schoolhouse where his mother taught. He benefited not only from the great respect his family had earned in Indian Territory but also from the incredible growth of all-Black towns in the Territory—more than 50 between 1865 and 1920. Black excellence was the cornerstone of Franklin’s life, which he tirelessly upheld throughout his career. Like many of his contemporaries, he balanced numerous professions. He was an attorney, a skilled rancher, a newspaper publisher, a postmaster general and a talented writer. His autobiography serves as the most complete picture of the accomplishments of the Black community in pre-statehood Oklahoma and the struggle to preserve what they had gained during the rise of segregation and racial hatred.

Black Prosperity in Indian Territory

David Franklin was born David Birney in 1820 in Tennessee, near the town of Gallatin. At the time of the Civil War, David escaped from his owners (who had moved from Tennessee to Indian Territory in 1830) and joined the Union army, using the name David Franklin. 

David’s brother, Alexander, lived an equal amount of time during his early life in Tennessee and Virginia. Alexander was acquainted with some of the families related to President Thomas Jefferson’s former slaves, who were all sold or freed between 1827 and 1830, several years after Jefferson’s death. The Franklin family believed Jefferson to be an abolitionist. In his 1785 “Notes on the State of Virginia,”  Jefferson did write that slavery was demoralizing to both white and Black society. Nonetheless, Jefferson favored the segregation of the two races and believed Black people to be inferior. The Franklin family was also staunchly political and fought for Black freedom. Alexander served in the Second Seminole War (1835 – 1842) and convinced his brother to enlist with the Union army.

Under the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, the Choctaw Tribe was removed from their native land in Mississippi and relocated to Indian Territory. Millie Colbert Franklin, a one-fourth Choctaw Indian, was raised in the tribe’s customs and spoke Choctaw fluently. David and Millie were married in 1856 near Biloxi, Mississippi and moved to Pauls Valley in Garvin County, Indian Territory. They later moved further east near Homer, Pontotoc County, where David settled on a 300 acre spread in what was then communal land in the Chickasaw Nation. When David enlisted to fight in the Civil War in 1864, his brother Alexander—along with two other siblings, Bailey and Matilda—moved to Homer to help Millie tend the family farm.

Buck Colbert Franklin was born on May 6th, 1879, the seventh of David and Millie’s 10 children. He was named Buck in honor of his grandfather, who had been a slave and purchased his freedom. His siblings were Andrew, Walter, Dolores, Thomas, Hattie, Matthew, David Jr., Fisher and Lydia Franklin. By this time, B.C.’s father had gained national notoriety as a rancher trading cattle, horses and hogs throughout Indian Territory, as well as in Kansas, Texas and New Mexico.

1886 proved to be a victorious and tragic year for Millie Franklin. She had retired from teaching at the end of the school year. That summer, she was visited by her brother Andrew, who was traveling with Reverend J.S. Pinkard. The two were working to establish Colored Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) churches throughout the Territory. C.M.E. and A.M.E. churches were gaining popularity among Black Christians. They saw the relatively new denomination as a desirable alternative to the mostly white-influenced Baptist churches. While Millie was raised in the C.M.E. church, her husband was staunchly Baptist. Nevertheless, he felt that he could not betray his wife’s family’s wishes, convinced the pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Pauls Valley to host Pinkard and his followers, and helped establish the new church. 

During  the winter of that same year, Millie traveled to the Choctaw Nation’s capitol in Tuskahoma to prove her Choctaw citizenship. While the Dawes Act of 1887 (which would change the arrangement of tribal communal land to a system of individual land allotments for families) would not be extended to any of the Five Civilized Tribes until the passage of the Curtis Act of 1898, the family knew that the political winds were already changing and that the family might lose what they had built. She successfully put her affairs in order, but became ill on her trip back home and never recovered. Millie passed on December 25th, 1886.

The Franklin family ranch continued to prosper until David Franklin died of “dropsy” (edema) in 1900. The elder Franklin was remembered not just as a great rancher, but a great man of his community, using his wealth to improve the town’s school, churches, and  building prosperity for his business colleagues.

Education and Family

By the age of 11, B.C. could skillfully ride a horse, hunt deer, cook for the family and perform most of the chores on the ranch. His father had brought him along on a business trip to Guthrie in 1890, where the two had the opportunity to meet Governor Washington Steele. This would prove to be a foundational experience for young B.C. Franklin. He saw Black attorneys, judges and prominent businessmen participate in the shaping of the Territory.  He aspired to make a difference in his community, like his father.

Before his college days, he enjoyed a great deal of achievement as an athlete and rancher, winning several competitions, similar to rodeo contests. He knew the famous federal lawman Bass Reeves, as well as several other Black jailers and lawmen. He was also a successful student, attending the Dawes Academy boarding school near Springer in Carter County. After graduating from Dawes Academy, Franklin was accepted into Roger Williams University in Nashville, TN.

Franklin greatly enjoyed his experience at Dawes Academy, finding support from professors such as John Hope, who taught science. Another of Franklin’s professors, William Henry Harrison (who Franklin described as one of his best friends), brought the case McCabe V. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company, 235 U.S. 151, to the Supreme Court, challenging Oklahoma’s Senate Bill One. The state legislation asserted that trains passing through Oklahoma were to “provide separate coaches or compartments for the accommodation of the white and negro races.” While the court upheld the state law, which would not be overturned until 1965, Franklin saw this as an example of the heights his career could reach. 

He admired Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, where George Washington Carver made his greatest agricultural discoveries. He befriended the Baptist minister C.T. Walker, who J.D. Rockefeller, Jr. considered a good friend. He understood that he needed to leave his home and study at a more prestigious school. Shortly after his father passed, Franklin followed his mentor, John Hope, to Atlanta Baptist College, which today is known as Morehouse College. There, he would meet Mollie Lee Parker. The couple married on April 1st, 1903. The couple struggled to maintain their studies as well as keep up with the affairs of managing a large homestead. After losing nearly all of the wealth from his father’s farm due to debts and an illness that killed off all of the ranch’s hogs, the young couple both took jobs as teachers in Springer and later moved to Ardmore.

From Farmer to Lawyer

While tending to the new smaller homestead and his job as a teacher, Franklin took a correspondence course to earn his legal degree. He passed the bar exam and was admitted to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma on August 8th, 1908. By this time, Oklahoma had become a state, and racial and political tensions increased. Fraud and corruption in order to steal land from Black and Freedman farmers became rampant. Lynchings of Black citizens in Indian Territory were relatively rare compared to the rest of the South, but after statehood, the danger of Black men being lynched grew significantly.

Franklin decided to focus on practicing law within African-American communities. The family moved to the all-black town of Rentiesville, Oklahoma in 1912. There, he and Mollie had 4 children: Mozella Denslow, Buck Colbert Jr., Anne Harriet and John Hope (named after Franklin’s long-time mentor). 

In Rentiesville, Franklin established his law practice, a newspaper named the Rentiesville News and took over the job of postmaster general. In his autobiography, he describes how  this was too much for him. He could not do any of his jobs well and was getting by with only three hours of sleep a night.

A significant amount of Franklin’s legal career was focused on defending the land and mineral rights of Natives and Freedmen. They were often the victims of falsified records, conspiracies between oil companies and judges to devalue and then buy land allotments and fraud over rightful heirs to land (which journalist A.J. Smitherman referred to as the “Guardianship Racket“). This may have been because his own family had their mineral rights stolen from them. Though his mother was one-fourth Choctaw, she passed away before the passage of the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, also known as the Dawes Rolls. After his father passed, even though he and his siblings were listed on the Dawes Rolls and were given land allotments in Garvin County, southwest of Pauls Valley, a forged mortgage was placed on the land allotment of his brother Tom. The family fought the forgery in court, but ultimately lost this land, on which there was a substantial oil reserve. Tom should have amassed millions to pass down to his family. Instead, he died penniless.

Nonetheless, Franklin was persistent in furthering his legal career and heard of an even greater opportunity in the booming neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa. His plan was to move to Tulsa in February of 1921. When he’d created enough of a nest egg, his wife and children would move from Rentiesville and join him in Tulsa soon after.

I.H. Spears, left; Effie Thomphson, middle; and B.C. Franklin right. Photo Courtesy of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum.

Lawsuit Against the City of Tulsa

The photograph is one of the most well-known in Greenwood’s history: In a tent established as a legal office, attorney I.H. Spears, secretary Effie Thompson and B.C. Franklin, equipped with only a desk, a stack of legal books and a typewriter, set about the task of seeking justice for the victims of the Massacre. From this tent, Spears, Franklin and P.A. Chappelle would build a legal case against Mayor T.D. Evans and the City of Tulsa.

Franklin was new to Tulsa. He wasn’t aware of the racial tensions that had been building, which were made even more provocative in the columns of the Tulsa Star and the Tulsa Tribune. What Franklin did recognize was white greed for Black-owned land. On June 7th, 1921, one week following the destruction of Greenwood, the City Commission voted unanimously to extend the jurisdiction of Tulsa’s fire codes, allowing for the city to “[govern] the construction, erection, alteration, repair, remodeling, re-building, moving, demolition, securing the inspection of building a structure and appurtenances thereto within and for the additional extension of the fire limits.” The following week, Mayor T.D. Evans forced the resignation of the Public Welfare Board (assembled by the Chamber of Commerce to collect a fund to help Greenwood rebuild) and presented a plan to create a new train depot and commercial development in the burned Greenwood business district. The plan was led by Tate Brady, Stephen Riley Lewis and Frank Long. Mayor Evans and Commissioner Newblock then created a new “Reconstruction Committee” to implement this plan and move Black residents and businesses further north out of the downtown area.

In filing the Tulsa County Case No. 15730, Joe Lockard v. T.D. Evans, et al., Franklin’s  courageous legal team brought the City of Tulsa, the Mayor, the City Commission, the Chief of Police and the building inspector for the city to trial. The case centered around the city’s right to prohibit Greenwood’s existing property owners from rebuilding on the land they owned. Franklin asserted that the new fire ordinance did not contain any language regarding the penalty for violating the new fire codes and that the ordinances were a violation of Tulsans’ property rights. As the case dragged on into the summer months, Greenwood’s residents were already building tents, shacks—any temporary housing they could in order to prove that they were not willing to give up their land. Greenwood’s resilience, Franklin’s lawsuit and the Reconstruction Committee’s failure to raise enough money to carry out their plans all meant that Franklin’s battle to preserve Greenwood would prove successful and the neighborhood could continue to rebuild. A detailed account of the political battles around Greenwood’s rebuilding appears in Tulsa World journalist Randy Krehbiel’s book, “Tulsa 1921: Reporting A Massacre.”

Many books and articles mistakenly claim that the lawsuit was decided in the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. This is incorrect. After an appeal filed by the city legal department, a three-judge panel of Tulsa County judges (W.B. Williams, Albert G. Hunt and L.B. Biddison)  decided in favor of Lockard and ruled that the city sought to deny the property rights of Greenwood’s residents without due process in September of 1921. Interestingly, one case that Franklin filed did reach the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. It was a defamation lawsuit that he and fellow attorney Amos T. Hall filed in 1938 against World Publishing Co., the company that owns Tulsa World.

Life after the Massacre

Franklin’s wife and youngest children would not join him in Tulsa until 1925. Mollie Franklin had been teaching in Rentiesville for about twelve years. When she finally settled in Tulsa with her family, she became an active member of her church, social clubs and established the first daycare for children of working mothers in North Tulsa. She became ill in October of 1935 and doctors could not find the source of her illness. She suffered from weariness and low blood pressure and died on November 1st, 1936. On her tombstone is inscribed the phrase, “Lifting as we Climb.”

Franklin continued to practice law, working tirelessly to right the wrongs he saw in society. Ever patient and meticulous, he wrote, “Right is slow and tardy, while wrong is aggressive; that’s the only way it can survive. It carries within itself the seed of its own destruction.” He achieved the level of Senior Member of the Oklahoma Bar Association in 1959 and was admitted to practice law at the Supreme Court of the U.S.

Franklin suffered a stroke in 1956, paralyzing the right side of his body. Undeterred, he set about  completing his autobiography, working every day by painstakingly typing with the index finger of his left hand. He worked with his son, John Hope, to complete his book’s first draft. However, Franklin did not survive to see his memoir published. He passed away on September 24th, 1960. His son and grandson finished editing the book and published it in 1997.

B.C. Franklin’s Legacy

Tulsa is still learning from B.C. Franklin’s writing and legal work. In 2015, a 10-page letter of his was discovered in a storage facility. It was purchased from a private seller by a group of Tulsans and donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The letter is dated August 22nd, 1931 and contains Franklin’s firsthand account of the Greenwood Massacre. Among its contents is an account of the neighborhood’s bombing on the morning of June 1st. Franklin writes, “From my office window, I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. …The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top…” The letter goes on to describe families fleeing burning buildings and gunshots. He described witnessing three men shot and killed. He then described being marched at gunpoint to Convention Hall. 

While historians today continue  to debate the likelihood of planes dropping bombs on Greenwood, it is difficult to dismiss this detailed firsthand account written a mere 10 years after the Massacre. Thought to have been lost, the court documents for Franklin’s lawsuit against Tulsa, Case No. 15730,  Joe Lockard. v. T.D. Evans, Mayor, et al., were recovered from an old microfilm reel by the Tulsa County Administrative Services this year. Both of these original sources shed new light on the Massacre and its aftermath.

Located at 1818 E. Virgin Street, B.C. Franklin Park was created as a project under Tulsa Model Cities in the early 1970s. Over the decades, the park became more and more neglected by the city and was  closed in the early 2000s. Community activists in North Tulsa fiercely fought for the city to renovate the park, which was finally re-opened in 2016. The new B.C. Franklin Park includes a playground, two basketball courts, an outdoor fitness center and a community garden. Of the park’s rebuilding, District One City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said, “We’ve gone through a real healing process.”