Obit of the Day: Survivor’s Tale
Otis Clark died just ten days before the 91st anniversary of one of the worst episodes of racial hatred in American history. An event he not only witnessed but managed to escape with his life. On May 30, 1921, a nineteen-year-old black man named Dick Rowland entered a Tulsa elevator to ride to the 3rd floor bathroom - segregated for black use only. Operating the elevator was Sarah Page a white seventeen-year-old. No one knows what happened but not long afterwards, Sarah Page was in tears and Dick Rowland was nowhere to be found. He was later arrested for assault; most presumed rape.
Dick Rowland’s arrest would then ignite a conflagration both literal and figurative. The African American neighborhood Greenwood, located within Tulsa, was called “Black Wall Street” for its affluence - relative to other segregated neighborhoods in the South. But the arrest of Dick Rowland gave Tulsa’s Ku Klux Klan an opportunity to teach the residents of Greenwood a “lesson.” Beginning on May 31 and ending on June 1 Greenwood was razed to the ground. As you can see in the image above a fire set by the KKK leveled the neighborhood, leaving most of the residents homeless. When it was over 300 people were dead, approximately 270 of those were black. Greenwood was in ruins. And Tulsa would remain silent about it for 8- years.*
One of those who survived was Otis Clark. He spent the two days running through Greenwood, ducking down alleys, jumping into cars, racing through buildings to avoid the armed, white mobs. Eventually Mr. Clark jumped onto a freight train and ended up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Mr. Clark would head west not long after and was hired as the butler of Ms. Joan Crawford, the Oscar-winning actress. Through his connection with Ms. Crawford, Mr. Clark met stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age including Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin. He also developed a personal friendship with Stepin Fetchit - the first African American actor to become a millionaire.
Mr. Clark’s life changed after an arrest for selling liquor during Prohibition. Converting to Christianity while in jail, he would spend the rest of his life as an evangelist. “The rest of his life” ended up being 80 more years. He was able to travel as a missionary to Africa in 2006 - when he was 103. He made his final trip abroad in 2010 to Jamaica at the age of 107.
Otis Clark - riot survivor, butler to the stars, and “world’s oldest evangelist” - died at the age of 109.
(Image of a devastated Greenwood section of Tulsa following the riots is courtesy of sfbayview.com)
* It was not until 2001 that the city of Tulsa undertook a complete investigation of the riots. Following the report issued by the investigating commission, the Oklahoma State Legislature passed a bill offering scholarships to 300 descendants of Greenwood residents, a memorial, and additional economic development for the neighborhood. It was recommended that survivors of the riots and their descendants be given reparations but the legislature did not agree. For more information on the riots, here is the Wikipedia entry.