Victory of Greenwood: George Monroe

George Monroe

“I remember so well when George Monroe, a playmate of mine, who was in the [Massacre] and who hid under the bed, he was five years old. And a white hoodlum stepped on his fingers and he didn’t even cry, he didn’t shout out. He just took it. When I saw him later driving the first Coca-Cola truck in Tulsa that any Black person could drive, and he was lifting those cartons of Coca-Colas, I wondered if his hands hurt from that experience he had many years earlier…” These are John Hope Franklin’s words, in testimony given in January, 2001, for the court case Grutter v. Bollinger, et al. The case, in the U. S. District Court in Detroit, Michigan, argued the necessity of Affirmative Action in student admissions policies at universities. The U. S. Supreme Court would take up the case in 2003, and would decide that these policies do not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

When one reads interviews with Greenwood residents, Monroe’s name comes up over and over again. His boyhood friends included Kinney Booker, Eldoris McCondichie, Joe Burns, Johnny & I. V. Tate, Muriel Lilly Cabell, James Frissel, Ishamel Moran, and others. Their memories include climbing to the top of train cars that transported coal and gathering  piles of chunks of coal. White children “on the other side of the tracks” would do the same, and the two groups would have a sort of dangerous version of a snowball fight. A less violent evening pastime for the group of friends was going to watch films at the Dixie Theatre. George made friends wherever his path in life took him — from his service in the Army to selling Coca-Cola to playing drums in the band at his nightclub. 

Questions about Monroe’s Roots
Very little is known about George Monroe’s relatives. He mentioned that his grandfather, David Monroe, participated in one of the Oklahoma Land Runs in a documentary, The Night Tulsa Burned (1999),  but did not give any other details. The 1940 Census indicates that George’s father, Osborne Monroe, would have been born in 1883, and was from Illinois. His mother, Ollie Gilkey, isn’t listed as living with the family at that time (though George indicated that during his childhood his mother was around more than his father). Osborne and Ollie had four children: Lottie Carter, born in 1910; Regina J., born in 1913; and George D., born May 27, 1916, and a brother that George mentions in interviews but does not appear in public records. Berthenas, Lottie Carter’s daughter, was born in 1929, and lived with the family in 1940, as well.

Osborne built the family’s home on Exeter Street near Easton Avenue and owned a skating rink nearby, on the corner of Elgin Avenue and Haskell Street. The construction of Mt. Zion Baptist Church had been completed less than two months before May 31, 1921. The Monroe family owned a rental house next door to the church. The two buildings were so close to each other that one could open the window of the rental house and touch the new brick building.

Hiding from the Arsonists
George had celebrated his fifth birthday four days before the Massacre. He remembered playing with his next-door neighbor, Arvella Johnson, that morning. The two were walking down the street, hand in hand. When they smelled smoke and saw a mob of white men coming up the hill into the neighborhood, they started running back to their houses. 

From the window, his mother could see the mob coming and yelled at her children to get inside and hide under the bed. Four white men with torches burst into the home. George was the last to make it to the children’s hiding place. With barely enough room for him to fit under the bed with his three siblings, the tips of his fingers stuck out from under the bed. One of the men stepped on his fingers. George was just about to cry out in pain when his older sister, Lottie, put her hand over his mouth to hush him.

“She saved my life by doing that. Otherwise we would have been found and killed,” George told Tulsa photographer Don Thompson. Before the men left, they set all the curtains in the home on fire, leaving it to burn. After they left, all the children scrambled out from under the bed and escaped the house with their mother. He said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, “When we went outside, there were a lot of bullets flying, commotion and a lot of fires…” They ran down the street, but everywhere they turned, there were fires and explosions. George turned to Lottie and asked, “Is the world on fire?”

George remembered that his father had been marched at gunpoint to McNulty Park at 11th Street and Elgin Avenue. The homes that Osborne had built, Mt. Zion Church next door, and the skating rink were all completely destroyed. George kept some dimes that melted together, that he had found in the mailbox, and a handful of pennies, charred and partly melted by the fire. Today they are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D. C.

Devastated after the Massacre
Monroe’s father was never able to rebuild the community’s beloved skating rink. He recalled that it devastated his father. Osborne filed three separate lawsuits in an attempt to collect insurance losses — totalling $4,000 — but all three cases were dismissed. After the Massacre, the only job that Osborne Monroe was able to find was working as a janitor for the Strand Theatre on Main Street in Downtown Tulsa. The job only paid $14 a week. Osborne made just enough money to pay back William E. Winn, owner of W. E. Winn Lumber Company, who had agreed to sell him the lumber needed to build back his family’s home. 

The family lived across the street from Booker T. Washington High School, the only building in Greenwood not destroyed during the Massacre. George remembers that he could wake up at 8:28 am and still make the 8:30 morning school bell. He had many friends in school and enjoyed baseball and playing the drums. He even formed a small band with some of his friends.

However, they were always reminded of the group that had set fire to his neighborhood years earlier. In the documentary, The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story (2000), Monroe recalled that growing up, “We used to go up and watch the Klu Klux Klan and their rally on top of Standpipe Hill. They had their torches burning and having a meeting, we knew not to get too close.”

The Young Entrepreneur
Monroe continued his education after high school at Wiley College, but he was more interested in playing drums for the band he’d formed, called “The Rhythm Aces,” which toured the Dallas area. In 1934, at the age of 18, Monroe opened a small shop called George’s Sandwiches, Shoe Shine Parlor, and News Stand at 1005 North Greenwood Avenue. The shop opened up the opportunity for him to become the first Black Coca-Cola salesman in Tulsa in 1939. The title came with a company truck and uniform, which Monroe proudly wore. He was especially popular at Booker T. Washington High School baseball games, where he handed out free sodas whenever the team scored a home run. Monroe was so successful that the company hired a second salesman for Greenwood, Greg Hawkins. The two men were limited to selling only in North Tulsa, but they were celebrated in the area. Monroe recalled in Eddie Faye Gates’ book They Came Searching, that the Black community wasso proud to see us two Black men in Coca-Cola uniforms driving that Coca-Cola truck. Somebody was always taking pictures of us.”

Army Service
Monroe traded his white Coca-Cola uniform for drab green to serve in World War II as a Sergeant in the Army from February, 1943, until January, 1946. He worked for the 3914th Quartermaster Gasoline Supply Company. The company traveled throughout Europe, supplying fuel in England, France, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

American Black enlisted men served bravely and with distinction in every theater of World War II  during a time when Jim Crow laws were in full force back home. In 1941,  fewer than 4,000 African Americans served in the military, with only twelve becoming ranking officers. By 1945, more than 1.2 million African Americans would be serving in uniform on the Home Front in Europe and the Pacific (including thousands of Black women enlisted in auxiliaries). Of Americans serving in World War II, George Orwell wrote, “The general consensus of opinion is that the only American soldiers with decent manners are Negroes.” Men like George Monroe and women like Olivia Hooker broke the military’s color barrier, which ended its segregation policies in 1948.

Desegregation wasn’t easy. For the most part, white American enlisted men weren’t happy to see their Black counterparts being treated as equals in Europe. Even less tolerated were Black men in uniform dancing with white women in pubs after-hours. Clashes between white and Black U. S. soldiers were not uncommon. One such incident occurred in June, 1943, in Lancashire, resulting in the death of William Crossland, a Black soldier working with the U. S. Eighth Army Quartermaster Truck Company. Monroe, however, did not experience any of these conflicts. “Everyone treated you like a human being there,” he told The Guardian newspaper in 2000, about his service in Staffordshire, England. 

Life After WWII
When he returned home from military service, Monroe was appointed Tulsa County Deputy Sheriff, a position he held until 1947. He then worked as a sanitation inspector for the Tulsa County Health Department. George married Martha Simpson on May 5, 1948.

It is unclear when Monroe’s father, Osborne, died, but the two were always close at this point in their lives. A 1959 Tulsa World article mentions the city making sidewalk improvements in the Sunnyslope Addition, along East Young Street (west of Peoria Avenue, south of Apache Street). George Monroe’s name appears in the list of addresses, living next door to his father. In 1962, George opened a club called the Pink House Lounge. He had formed bands in high school and college and was happy to play drums for his club’s house band. The Pink House was also an important meeting place for civil rights activists in Greenwood. The club stayed in business until 1982.

In the late 1980s, Monroe was still listed as living at 1111 East Young Street. Eddie Faye Gates described his home as “a small one-story house with frayed red carpet, worn furniture, and framed photographs of his four sons hanging on cracked walls in unkempt rooms.” His humble house may not have been much to speak of, but he was more interested in tending to his vegetable garden. By this time he was retired and planning to re-open his Pink House Lounge. 

Symbols Not Reparations
When historian Scott Ellsworth began research for his 1982 book, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, he made it a point to interview several Massacre survivors. This was rare at the time; the only other journalistic effort by a white writer to document the Massacre previous to this was the commissioning of “Profile of a Race Riot” by communications manager for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, Larry Silvey. The article, written by Ed Wheeler, was published in 1971, in the Black magazine Oklahoma Impact after the Chamber and the Tulsa World refused to publish it. While working on the story, Wheeler discovered the words “Best Look Under Your Hood From Now On” written in soap across his car’s windshield. Tulsa wasn’t yet ready to hear about its dark past or to foster friendships between Black and white men in the late 1970s, but George Monroe and Scott Ellsworth became close friends.

Monroe’s older sister, Regina, married Enoch P. Waters, editor of one of the nation’s largest Black daily newspapers, The Chicago Defender. Waters worked as an editor at the Defender for 23 years, eventually becoming the paper’s executive editor. In 1957, he became editor of the Associated Negro Press, a wire service founded in 1919, which served approximately 150 Black newspapers. When he passed away in June of 1987, his extensive collection of African-American artifacts was left to his wife. Regina passed in June, 1989, leaving the artifacts to George and Martha Monroe. George later donated the collection to the Greenwood Cultural Center, which opened in 1995.

The next year, Mayor Susan Savage and former United States Senator David Boren spoke at the dedication of a black granite “Black Wall Street of America” monument at the Greenwood Cultural Center. The monument lists several Massacre survivors, among them Osborne Monroe. Mayor Savage made a formal apology on behalf of the City of Tulsa at a service at Mt. Zion Baptist Church before the dedication. Savage also launched a program to create commemorative plaques along Greenwood’s sidewalks, showing where businesses had been prior to the Massacre and which ones were rebuilt after 1921.

George Monroe, Otis Clark, and several other Massacre survivors traveled to Oklahoma City on February 28, 2001, to hear Governor George Keating and the state legislature speak about the release of the Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot. The report detailed the events of the Massacre and ended with the following sentence: “Now the question is whether the city and state wish to acknowledge that as a debt and to pay it?” Public officials made no mention during the ceremonies in 1996 or 2001 about monetary reparations to the survivors.

Monroe was not quiet about his displeasure about these gestures being purely symbolic. He pointed out that Governor Keating did not shake his hand. He told the press he was not happy, stating after the 2001 event, “I wish I stayed at home” He felt that Massacre survivors deserved some compensation of some kind. “Somebody has to pay something … My father lost everything, his business, our home.” In a 1999 interview with KOTV, he said, “It isn’t the money. It’s just the idea. [Not receiving reparations] let me feel like [the Massacre] never happened.” In Eddie Faye Gates’ book, Riot on Greenwood, he discussed that regardless of how he felt, he doubted that he and other survivors would ever see reparations in their lifetimes.

Let Your Light Shine
Monroe’s 18-minute interview with Eddie Faye Gates, filmed in June, 1999, can be viewed online, preserved by local video producer, Jack Frank. In it, he discusses the motives behind the 1921 Massacre: “The Black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is North, was a little bit too close to Downtown Tulsa, and it’s still that way, today. …I’ve always thought that this was one of the things, why that [Massacre] was. It’s to move us out and get us away from this downtown.”

Monroe passed away at the age of 85 on August 29, 2001. His funeral was held at St. Monica’s Catholic Church. He never lived to see reparations for Massacre survivors or complete the re-opening of his Pink House Lounge. Despite the challenges he and his family faced, he never let his spirit be shaken. His inspiring words appear in journalist James S. Hirsch’s book Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy: “You’re on the face of this Earth and there’s only so much you can do, but every so often a little light will shine,” he said. “Well, doggone it, if it’s a light, let’s turn it up! Because it’s the only chance you’re going to get of being somebody. So hell, I say turn it and let it shine.”

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