It was during a recent speaking engagement in Tulsa on the riot that occurred there in 1921 that I discovered in my research a most interesting man. Although my essential task at the University of Tulsa was to explain the role of the African Blood Brotherhood in the riot, a fact that has been rarely disclosed, I came across the heroic deeds of A.J. Smitherman. He seemed to be all over the place, covering incidents of racial antagonism against African-Americans, mainly as an activist journalist in the Southwest and later in Buffalo.
Born Andrew J. Smitherman, Dec. 27, 1883, in Childersburg, Ala., he moved to the Indian Territory with his parents in the 1890s. Always an inquiring student with well-endowed native abilities, he attended the University of Kansas and Northwestern University in Illinois, later receiving a law degree from LaSalle University in Philadelphia.
He married Ollie B. Murphy in 1910 and they had five children. His political outlook was very much in keeping with the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, an advocate of “self-help” and “self-reliance,” an incipient form of Black nationalism, especially for Black people in Oklahoma.
Among his many endeavors was the creation of a Black voting precinct, also convincing the electorate to appoint him as inspector of the elections. A very cunning and persuasive operator, he won the good graces of several governors of the state, and this influential position afforded him the opportunity to intercede on various occasions when turmoil brewed between Black and white citizens.
For example, in 1917 in Dewey, Okla., a white mob burned some 20 African-Americans’ homes. On being informed of the catastrophe, Smitherman quickly contacted Gov. R.L. Williams, and through his involvement, 36 members of the mob, including the city’s mayor, were arrested.
“Smitherman learned the newspaper business working for the weekly Muskogee Scimitar,” according to the Black Past Remembered website. “In 1911, he started his own newspaper, the Muskogee Star, and in 1913 he moved to Tulsa and launched the Daily Tulsa Star.” As editor and publisher, he oversaw the paper at his plant until June 1, 1921, when white rioters in Tulsa destroyed the paper in retaliation for his political activism.
Later his home was destroyed and his business burned to the ground and mob rule forced him, his wife and their five children to flee to Massachusetts. Prosecutors in Oklahoma attempted to have Smitherman extradited to stand trial for the crime of incitement to riot, but Massachusetts never cooperated with extradition efforts. “A year later, Oklahoma Klansmen cut off the ear of a relative of Smitherman’s in an act of racial intimidation,” according to the Black Past Remembered. “Under such circumstances, he sold his remaining business interests in Oklahoma to Theodore Baughman, who started the Oklahoma Eagle. Smitherman never again returned to the Sooner state.”
But back to the Tulsa Riot of 1921. Smitherman was among a coterie of Black men charged with inciting the riot, although he was clearly a victim himself. Even before his involvement in Tulsa, he was an unflinching defender of the distressed after being summoned to Bristow, Okla., in 1918. The justice of the peace, according to Hannibal B. Johnson in his book “Black Wall Street,” called on Smitherman and he accompanied him and three other Black men to protect another Black man from a lynch mob.
“The man,” Johnson wrote, “Edgar Bohanan, had been arrested and charged with robbing and shooting a white man. Smitherman sent a simply worded telegram to the governor urging his assistance before embarking on the journey.” The gist of the telegram was that a riot was imminent and something must be done to stop it.
Meanwhile, the Black farmers were not content to wait for the governor’s response and, as was done in Tulsa, they assembled and intervened, confronting a white lynch mob. The chief of police of Bristow warned the white mob that he would shoot to kill anyone who dared to molest Bohanan. “But the time the courageous Smitherman and his companions arrived, law officers had spirited Bohanan out of town on a northbound train,” Johnson wrote. “Bohanan arrived, safe and sound, at the county jail in Sapulpa.”
When President Woodrow Wilson visited Oklahoma City in 1919, Smitherman was chosen by the governor to be among the delegates to greet him. This incident occurred after he performed another heroic deed in Tulsa when he rescued an impoverished woman from peonage.
Each day brought a fresh liability in Tulsa, and by 1925 Smitherman and his family relocated in Buffalo, N.Y., where once again he embarked on a newspaper journey, establishing in 1932 the Buffalo/Empire Star. In this capacity, he continued his work as an African-American political leader, his journalistic integrity remained unimpeachable.
For the next four decades with the unwavering conviction that was a consistent part of his demeanor, Smitherman provided a platform for his people, a place where they knew they could lift their voices against the evils of the day.
Smitherman died in Buffalo in 1961.
A stanza from one of Smitherman’s poems that is emblematic of his fortitude and steadfastness:
“They are trying to lynch our comrade
Without cause in law defy
Get your guns and help defend him
Let’s protect him win or die.”