'Embrace the history': As Tulsa reckoned with 1921 race massacre, Golden Hurricane moved city forward
Editor's note: Undeniable — The Oklahoman’s four-part series examining the lack of Black coaches in men’s college basketball — continues with Part 2 on the University of Tulsa's impact as a launching pad for Black coaches.
Forty-one years ago, Nolan Richardson went to the barbershop for haircuts and history lessons.
He had just arrived at the University of Tulsa as an up-and-coming coach fresh off winning a junior college national title. The extent of racial tensions in his new home was a bit of a mystery.
Richardson knew little of the 1921 race massacre and Black Wall Street. He had no idea the divide between the white community and the Black community remained, even in 1980.
The folks at the barbershop filled in the blanks for Richardson while openly marveling about him. How could a young, Black coach even become the head coach at the University of Tulsa?
“There was no support for the University of Tulsa because there were no Blacks (coaching) not only in Tulsa but Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas,” Richardson said recently from his ranch in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “You name all of the surrounding states, there were no African American coaches.”
Richardson took it as a challenge to reunite the city and its university.
By the time he left for Arkansas five years later, the perception of Tulsa’s basketball team was changing. He led the Golden Hurricane to the NIT championship in his first season, then won two conference titles and made three NCAA Tournament appearances.
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His success led to Tulsa hiring four more Black head coaches over the next four decades.
Tubby Smith. Steve Robinson. Danny Manning. Frank Haith.
As the city started to reckon with its infamous past — just last year, the city began exploratory digging at sites suspected to be mass graves tied to the massacre — the Golden Hurricane became a standard-bearer across the country as the percentages of Black head coaches remained low.
“That’s pretty amazing,” said Haith, the current coach. “They’ve been out front and forward-thinking in doing that, going back to when Nolan was hired.”
To be progressive enough to have six Black coaches in program history — including interim coach Pooh Williamson for 22 games in 2004-05 — it takes an understanding of the horrid past.
The Golden Hurricane has helped the city move forward.
“That does show a sign of progress for the University of Tulsa,” said Rev. Anthony Scott, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church North Tulsa.
“In light of this being the 100th anniversary, I think that’s a bright spot of progress that has been overlooked — even by me — that needs to be highlighted as we try to balance the negativity with some positives.”
When Haith interviewed for the Tulsa job in 2014, he had no knowledge of the race massacre.
It wasn’t until after he moved to Tulsa that he learned of its tragic history.
“It’s just history that we didn’t know,” Haith said. “I don’t know if it was taught in the history books either.”
According to TulsaHistory.org and the 2001 Race Riot Commission report, in the early hours of June 1, 1921, Tulsa’s Greenwood District — a thriving Black community referred to as Black Wall Street — was nearly wiped away.
It was burned and looted by white rioters. Thirty-five city blocks were destroyed. An estimated 1,256 homes were destroyed along with virtually every structure. More than 800 people were treated for injuries. At the time, reports said 36 people died, but it’s now believed to be as many as 300.
This all happened two days after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a young Black man working as a shoeshiner, entered an elevator operated by 17-year-old Sarah Page, who was white, to go to the top floor of the Drexel Building to use the restroom. Rowland was accused of rape after a witness said Page called out and Rowland ran from the elevator.
Various accounts spread at the time. The Oklahoma Historical Society says what really happened is unclear, but “the most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream.”
Rowland was arrested the next day. According to the commission report, Black community members had every reason to believe Rowland would be lynched. As Black and white mobs confronted each other at the courthouse, shots were fired, forcing the out-numbered residents of Greenwood to retreat home.
Civil officials selected many men, all white, from the crowd gathered as deputies. Police officials even provided firearms and ammunition to white individuals. They instead added to the violence. The Oklahoma National Guard arrested nearly every resident of the Greenwood District. While jailed, their community burned.
No charges were ever filed for any of the looting, burning or killing in the Greenwood District.
“Obviously, the bad part was the massacre,” Haith said. “But the good part was there was a community of Black folks doing very well here in this community. They had their land, their own businesses and they were thriving.
“I think that’s a positive that you did have a community where there were people thriving. But obviously, the negative part of it was that was taken from them.”
Greenwood District became a focal point again last summer during the protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Peaceful protests were held.
A 300-foot, yellow Black Lives Matter sign was painted on Greenwood Avenue just days before President Donald Trump’s June rally in Tulsa. Since the sign was completed without the city’s permission, the city later removed it. A mural was painted on a wall in the district in October.
It united the team with the community.
Haith said it’s likely that becomes a yearly tradition for his team. He also said Tulsa will wear a special jersey next season to honor Black Wall Street.
“I think information is power,” Haith said. “As an educator first, I think that’s our job to continue to educate our young people.
“I want us to embrace the history of our community and to learn more about it and know we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way.”
Tulsa’s basketball team was a doormat.
Richardson had the phone calls to prove it. In 1980, everybody wanted to play the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa hadn’t had a winning season in half a decade.
“Today, the game that I played back then, we would have automatically been in the NCAA Tournament because of the teams we played,” Richardson said.
Tulsa beat No. 8-ranked Louisville, OU, Georgia, OSU and Purdue in nonconference play that first season.
Soon, the color of Richardson’s skin didn’t matter as much.
What color of polka dots he wore that night or how many points his team could score in his “40 minutes of hell” system was the talk of the water cooler. Games that normally featured a few thousand fans became sellouts.
“Now you’ve got something to talk about,” Richardson said. “It doesn’t become as mean and tough, my side and your side.”
Richardson understood his responsibility. He wasn’t being judged as an individual. He was being judged alongside every Black coach in the country.
He hated that. But he pushed forward.
“What would have happened had I not been successful?” Richardson said. “That would be something you have to think about. But that’s what my grandmother would tell us when I was growing up. It ain’t about you. It’s about you opening doors.
“So, you’ve got to give it your best shot no matter where you are and what you’re doing, because they’re going to judge and they’re going to judge the people who follow you by your standards. And it’s wrong because every man should stand on his own merits of who he is and what he does. But that’s not the way it works.”
His success led to Tulsa hiring more Black coaches.
Richardson left to take over Arkansas in 1985. Six years later, Tubby Smith became Tulsa’s second Black coach. He won two conference titles and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Steve Robinson followed in 1995 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances. The Golden Hurricane did not hire another Black coach after Robinson left in 1997 until Danny Manning in 2012.
Manning and Haith each led Tulsa to the NCAA Tournament.
“There’s a lot of schools that haven't had that kind of ledger of hiring minority coaches, and all of them have been pretty successful,” Haith said. “Because it’s different decades they’ve all had success, and that shows this is built for success.
“There’s no question when I looked at the decision to partake on the opportunity at Tulsa, I looked at the past and the success of the coaches of color that came before me. That was a big part of it.”
Tulsa, of all places, has become a beacon of hope for a Black coach a century after the lowest moment of its history.
“Tulsa was successful. I was successful,” Richardson said. “Then Tulsa would say they’ve had a Black coach. They know what will happen. There’s a blueprint. Then you get another Black coach.
“That makes me feel very proud of the fact that I was given that opportunity and they have passed it on.
“It doesn’t surprise me if Tulsa’s got a job open and an African American gets it. But if at other schools that happened, it would kinda surprise me.”
Jacob Unruh covers college sports for The Oklahoman. You can send your story ideas to him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jacobunruh. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.