Photograph of Otis Clark courtesy of M.J. Alexander
In a sense, the life of Otis Clark is reminiscent of the parable of the prodigal son. Squandering his education, he found success as a bootlegger before the age of 18. After the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, he made his way to Hollywood and became a butler to the stars, enjoying life in the fast lane. Yet he would not find happiness or fulfillment until dedicating his life to Christianity, facing a lengthy sentence in a Los Angeles County jail. For committing to lead the rest of his life on the straight and narrow, he was released after 90 days. Clark would eventually become one of the Pentecostal Movement’s most prominent leaders, carrying on Azusa Street Revival preacher William Joseph Seymour’s ministry.
Clarksville to Indian Territory
Clark’s grandparents, Aaron and Ellen Clark, and their five children, moved from Clarksville, Texas, to Indian Territory seeking their freedom from slavery. Henry T. Clark was the 2nd eldest of Aaron and Ellen’s sons. He and Effie (Moore) Clark were married in Chandler, Oklahoma. Otis Granville Clark was born February 13, 1903, in Meridian, Indian Territory, about 40 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.
Henry and Effie Clark lived in Meridian until Effie was offered a job as a maid in a Tulsa hotel. They moved to Greenwood with Henry’s mother, Ellen. The marriage wouldn’t last long, however. Henry left, taking a job as a porter for the Frisco Railroad that ran through Tulsa, carrying passengers from St. Louis to San Francisco. Effie later married Thomas J. Bryant. The new couple purchased a house at 805 East Archer Street, where Otis lived with his mother, stepfather, siblings Bernard and Amelda, and a new addition to the family, Gladys, daughter of Effie and Thomas.
Clark’s Early Life in Greenwood
Otis attended elementary school at Dunbar, located on Hartford Avenue between Easton and Cameron Streets. He was in the first class to attend Booker T. Washington High School’s new brick building, which opened in 1919. He wasn’t known for being a well-behaved child. He and his friends, Cliff and Julius, often skipped school to play baseball, go skating, fishing, and swimming. The boys would also play hookey and go to the movies. In a 2009 interview with John Erling for Voices of Oklahoma, Clark remembered, “That’s all I did back then. That was our pastime, going to the movies.” Clark’s biography, His Story, History and His Secret: Life Through the Eyes of 109 Years Old Otis Grandville Clark, written by his daughter and granddaughter, recounts a story of his arrest by officer Barney Cleaver for stealing a bicycle.
While still in high school, Clark got a job as a delivery boy for Shackles Drug Store near 12th on Main Street. In Clark’s Voices of Oklahoma interview, he described, “Dr. Shackles, I worked for him. And we had, what you might say is a disease hit Tulsa and a lot of the rich folks died. I delivered medicine. We had what you might say was kind of an epidemic or something. A lot of rich folks died around 21st Street in Tulsa. That was on the south side of the city. …I didn’t ever know what it was, but some kind of disease hit Tulsa and a lot of folks died. A lot of rich, white people died.” The outbreak of disease Clark described was undoubtedly the 1918 flu pandemic. A November 3, 1918, story in the Tulsa Democrat reported that 200 flu deaths were recorded in the city in October.
After the pandemic, Clark would switch from delivering medicine to delivering corn whiskey for his uncle Buck Black, aunt Vinnie, and cousin Bertha. He worked for his aunt and uncle until he learned to make whiskey himself, building his own still near Jenks. He made a decent amount of money but was unhappy with his criminal operation. While Congress would not ratify the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution until January, 1919, alcohol sales (except for medicinal purposes) had been illegal since statehood in 1907. Thinking that moving to a different city would improve his life, he moved to Kansas City, where his father, Henry, worked in a hotel. Clark got a steady job as a cook for the hotel, but it would not last; his reputation for living a wild lifestyle got him fired, and he returned to Tulsa to live with his mother and stepfather in 1921.
Helping to save S. M. Jackson’s Ambulance
On May 31, 1921, Clark had gone to visit S. M. Jackson at his funeral home. He was related to Jackson through his sister, Amelda, who had two boys by Jackson. By the evening, the family inside the house began to hear gunshots. Clark and Jackson’s driver went outside to try and save the business’s prized new acquisition, an ambulance, when “these white snipers in a mill tower started shooting from across the way. They shot wherever they could see black folks, swatting them like flies.” Clark told the Financial Times in a 2005 article that his friend had the keys in his hand when a bullet pierced it. The blood stained Clark’s shirt.
After saving the ambulance and the company’s hearse, the two friends ran north along Greenwood, trying to make it to Clark’s cousin, Bertha Black’s, café just north of Pine Street. When they arrived, they found the building burned down. His cousin and her parents fled further north. He joined them and stayed in a hotel in Claremore until they decided it was safe to return to Tulsa. “And the whites were running the colored folks out of town. They didn’t spare any of the rich colored folks. If they were colored, they had to run off and leave their stuff.”
Escaping the Massacre
He returned to find that his home was completely burned down. The house where his mother and stepfather were staying was destroyed as well, and his stepfather was missing; the family would never see nor hear from him again. Though never able to prove it, Clark believed that he died in the fire, with the family’s pet bulldog, Bob. Seeing Greenwood in ashes, he was in shock and decided to stay with his cousin, Bertha, until he could figure out what he would do next.
The family had received a letter that Clark’s father had left Kansas City for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so Clark and his uncle on his mother’s side, Socks, set off to find him, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Unable to find him, they returned to Tulsa, exhausted and hungry. Clark learned that his father had written another letter, this time saying that he’d moved out to California, so he set off again, this time alone.
Effie Clark remained in Tulsa with her mother, her other three children, and Amelda’s two baby boys, Leonard and Robert. Clark’s 2012 obituary stated that the Clark family would live in shanties built by the Red Cross for the next four years.
Life in Hollywood
After so much hardship, arriving in California was like paradise to Otis Clark. Riding the Santa Fe Railroad through San Bernardino, Clark saw endless groves of beautiful orange trees. Clark’s biography, His Story, History and His Secret, describes that his father cleaned him up and arranged for them to have a big dinner at a Black-owned restaurant on the ocean. After dinner, he went for a swim. His father worked as a butler and quickly got his son a job shining shoes in downtown Los Angeles.
Clark soon befriended many of Hollywood’s most prominent Black celebrities, including Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, known by his stage name, “Steppin Fetchit.” Perry was a vaudeville comic actor of Jamaican and Bahamian descent, transitioning his career to films. Perry is considered the first Black actor to receive featured screen credit in a film for his role in Old Kentucky (1927) and the first Black actor to earn $1 million, appearing in 44 films between 1927 and 1939. Perry was also friends with another Oklahoman, Will Rogers, and appeared with Rogers in four of his films in 1934 and 1935. Another of Clark’s friends was Jack Johnson, the first Black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion (1908–1915), nicknamed the “Galveston Giant.” He got to know entertainers such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. With friends living lavish lifestyles during the height of the roaring ’20s in Hollywood, temptation would soon get the better of Clark.
He was not satisfied earning a shoe shiner’s wages and found work on the side as an extra in the movie industry. He also returned to bootlegging whiskey, letting his friends and clients know that if they wanted “that good liquor,” they could meet him at a room in the Sommersville Hotel on Central Avenue. He was eventually caught, and the 25-year-old Clark was jailed, serving 90 days in the Los Angeles County jail for violating prohibition. He told the 700 Club in a short film in 2010, “While I was in jail, the Salvation Army taught us, if we would repent and turn to God, we could be saved.”
The Salvation Army visited Clark twice while he was in jail. He did not listen to them at first, thinking that surely his celebrity friends would come to his aid. When they didn’t, he became depressed but realized that the key to changing his life was in his own hands. “I dreamed that I was over in heaven, over in the heavenly pastures. But I could see all of the beautiful trees. Trees all beautiful with flowers all over them. More beautiful than anything I’d ever seen in my life. And so I made up my mind that I was going to be a good Christian.” He was released from jail after 90 days for good behavior and would never return to a life of crime.
Clark was married in the early 1930s and found employment in Hollywood as a butler. Clark and his wife, Ann, lived in Joan Crawford’s home. He was the butler, and she was the cook. One can imagine that Crawford and Clark shared a sort of kinship. They were close in age. Both had family roots in Texas. Both of their fathers abandoned them at a young age. Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur) lived in Lawton, Oklahoma, raised by her mother and stepfather, Henry J. Cassin. Clark and his wife worked for Joan Crawford until 1940, serving the likes of Clark Gable, Charley Chaplin, and some of America’s most famous movie stars of the era.
From Hollywood to Azusa Street
The Azusa Street Revival, beginning in 1906, was pioneered by William J. Seymour, a one-eyed Black man, the son of slaves, who was instrumental as a catalyst for one of the largest Pentecostal movements in the United States. The building was at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles. This revival, led by African American preacher, William J. Seymour, is credited as the Pentecostal movement’s primary catalyst.
Clark built a close relationship with Azusa’s founding members, including Mother Emma & Henry Cotton, and the Bonnie Brae home residents, Richard & Ruth Asberry. He was given power of attorney over the Azusa Street Mission in the early 1930s.
Shortly after leaving Joan Crawford’s service in 1940, Ann and Otis Clark separated. He returned to Tulsa to work for the Douglas Aircraft Plant during World War II. After the war, he went back to California, meeting Bessie O. Drake in Bakersfield. Drake worked as an assistant to Bishop C. H. Mason, leader of the Pentecostal denomination Church of God in Christ. In 1946, Clark was officially ordained as an evangelist and preacher. Drake and Clark were married on February 24, 1964, and the couple had a daughter, Gwyneth.
Life Enrichment Ministries
Gwyneth Williams earned a Doctor of Ministry Degree in 1996 and a Master of Divinity in 1989, both from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. Bishop Otis G. Clark and Dr. Gwyneth Williams established Life Enrichment Ministries in 1986, as one of the original members of the International Charismatic Bible Ministries (ICBM) founded by Oral Roberts. Clark and his daughter were seen by many during this time as the modern spiritual leaders for Pentecostalism.
Earning the title “World’s Oldest Traveling Evangelist,” Clark spent his entire life telling the world about the Holy Spirit and the Outpouring on Azusa Street. However, he could not take his message outside of the United States until he could obtain his passport. This proved to be a challenge, as he did not have a birth certificate. In 2001, local historian, Eddie Faye Gates, worked with the United States Department of State to help Clark obtain his passport, based on Booker T. Washington High School’s documents, which contained the required information needed for the passport application.
At long last, Clark and Life Enrichment Ministries would take their message throughout South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. At 104, he traveled to Zimbabwe for a three-week mission trip. At 107, he preached in Kingston, Jamaica.
Fight for Justice
Clark was never one to mince words about who was behind the 1921 Massacre. “The Klu Klux Klan didn’t think we should be in the town at all, so they had the race riots,” he told the 700 Club in 2010.
On February 24, 2003, 19 attorneys led by Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and one of the country’s most eminent black lawyers, filed suit in the United States Federal District Court in Tulsa on behalf of the 123 riot survivors and 272 descendants. Clark added his name and advocacy on behalf of Ogletree’s lawsuit. Ogletree assembled a pro bono legal dream team, including Johnnie Cochrane, triumphant defender of O. J. Simpson, and Michael Hausfeld, a Washington D. C. lawyer who helped win several cases for Holocaust victims. In March, 2004, United States Senior District Judge James Ellison dismissed the case, arguing that the statute of limitations had run out. The plaintiffs filed an appeal with the United States Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the dismissal was affirmed. Plaintiffs filed a petition with the United States Supreme Court on March 14, 2005. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Clark would still not give up the fight for justice. In 2008, he toured with Olivia Hooker in support of the documentary film, Before They Die!, produced by Ogletree and Reginald Turner, CEO of Mportant Films. The film follows Massacre survivors and their legal team, headed by Ogletree, through the court system in their fight for justice all the way to the Supreme Court.
Be on the Winning Side
Clark continued his ministry work and his fight for justice for Greenwood’s victims until his death at 109 years of age. Until his very last days, Clark continued to appear in documentaries, and interviews on radio and television, telling his audiences, “My favorite verse is, ‘He that believeth and is baptized will be saved.’ Yep, he that believeth. God will give you eternal life. You will live all eternity with God, but you got to be on God’s side. I hold that if you are on God’s side, you are on the winning side.” By this time, Life Enrichment Ministries’ daily operations were in the hands of his daughter, Gwyneth, and granddaughter, Star Williams. He died Sunday, May 20, 2012, at his home in Federal Way, Washington, near Seattle.