Near the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Terrorist Massacre, Acknowledging Frank Lloyd Wright's Connection to the Tragedy

Reflecting on the events leading up to the Tulsa Terrorist Massacre of 1921.

In the last few years, the terrible massacre of African Americans by white terrorists in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 has received a great deal of long overdue sympathy and recognition. Especially due to the BLM movement. Thankfully.  So what does this have to do with the above esteemed architects? Probably nothing to do with Rudolf Schindler or Richard Neutra, but let me try to explain and examine some questions in regard to FLW, the tragic murder sat Taliesin East in 1914, and FLW’s relationship with his cousin, Richard Lloyd Jones of Tulsa.  The reason being that this tragedy, according to the latest biography of FLW by Paul Hendrickson, has everything to do with Frank Lloyd Wright. Richard “Dick” Lloyd Jones wrote the editorial in his newspaper, The Tulsa Tribune, that ignited the riot that killed over 300 African Americans and burned to the ground what was termed the “Black Wall Street of America”, leaving over 9,000 persons homeless in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa.

I had no intention starting out in writing this blog of arriving at the Tulsa Oklahoma massacre of 1921.  I began with the notion of describing the bohemian lives of two famous architects, Neutra and Schindler, in Los Angeles during the early years of the 20th Century.  However, it unexpectedly led to their relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright.  I was only tangentially aware of this. Apparently as early as 1914 Schindler, who had immigrated from Vienna shortly before, tried to get a job with Wright in Chicago, but to no avail.  Finally, after Wright moved to Japan for 2 years to work on the Imperial Hotel in 1919, Wright hired Schindler(and later Neutra) to run Wright’s newly formed Los Angeles office at 8228 Fountain Street.  So at this point I put the Schindler story on hold because it led me to the bigger story, and more having to do with current events, of FLW’s world view and that of his close friend and cousin, Richard Lloyd Jones in Tulsa.

The connection between the two goes back to childhood, Wright and Jones grew up together in Wisconsin. Wright was 6 years older and the typical overachiever that cousin Jones always envied and tried to outshine.  Jones, given the left leaning background of the family’s religious beliefs, was rather progressive for the times.  This all changed in 1914 with the terrible tragedy at Taliesin.  Much has been written about the fire and murders of 7 people, but not much has been said about how it affected Richard Jones.  It totally, over time, changed his whole being, which is reflected in print through his editorials, starting in 1919, published in his own newspaper in Tulsa. More on this later and how it probably led to or at least contributed to the massacre in Tulsa.

Jones’s opinion of Wright started to deteriorate in 1909 when Wright left his wife Catherine and 5 children in Chicago to be with his mistress, Mrs. Mamah Cheney, the then wife of a client.  Taliesin was built for her and Wright to reside.  They moved in in 1911 and were unmarried.  This really upset Jones, the church he attended, the local sheriff, and most of the people in Spring Green Wisconsin.  Wright did not care.  It made headlines in the local press as the “love bungalow”.  Jones really looked down on this form of public adultery (although he himself had a mistress).

Local press about Wright's living arrangement in Wisconsin.
Julian Carlton

Fast forward to the fire and murders in 1914:  Jones was on the railroad platform in Spring Green to be with his cousin Frank when he arrived from Chicago (Wright was working in his Chicago office on the Midway Gardens project) the next day after the tragedy.  Cousin Dick Jones was sympathetic but firm when he told Frank to “stand up” and be strong, etc.  At this time, Dick did not know exactly what had happened:  an employee, Julian Carlton, went mad and set fire to the home, killed mistress Cheney, her 2 children, and 4 others.  The pain of which is something Wright nor anyone should have to endure. This event I believe is the nexus of Jones, Wright, and the later Tulsa massacre.

After the fire at Taliesin.

At his point Jones drops out of the picture, to reappear around 1919 in Tulsa as the owner of the Tulsa Tribune.  The turning point for Dick Jones mentioned above by the author Paul Hendrickson turns out to be that Julian Carlton was African American.  There have been many reports that Julian Carlton was from Barbados, but this is not true.  Carlton was born in Alabama, as was his wife Gertrude, and as were his parents, both of whom were born as slaves in the 1850’s.  All of this is irrelevant to the murders, but was a big deal apparently to Dick Jones. So much so that the Greenwood section, the very prosperous African American section of Tulsa, became his target starting around 1919.  He saw, as some say, a big market of racist customers for his new project, the Tulsa Tribune.                                                        

How the Taliesin tragedy ignited Dick Jones’s forthcoming hatred of the African American population of Tulsa is up for speculation, but this new book by Hendrickson suggests it did. Over time,1919 to 1921, Dick Jones wrote racist editorials, one after the other, regarding Greenwood.  He wrote about public support of the KKK as well.  I won’t go into detail here, but these editorials are public knowledge.  I will say though that he used phrases like “law and order” and other dog whistles that liken themselves to current events.  The law and order comments are strange however, since Greenwood was the epitome of the best aspects of law and order.  Very prosperous too.  But that all ended with the tragic massacre in 1921:

Site of the Tulsa Massacre

Since we are coming up on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, this connection between the Taliesin fire 7 years earlier and the murders and fires in Tulsa through the connection of a newspaper editor and his famous cousin is notable and curious.  It also makes one wonder if the Taliesin fire and associated murders had not happened, would Dick Jones have ever written the series of editorials that resulted in the riots and death in Tulsa 7 years later.  And how did Wright feel about it?  I am certainly curious, but cannot find any direct connection between Jones’s racist views and if Wright shared them.  I have found however, a few references to Wright using racist and anti-sematic terms, especially mentioned in the book about Taliesin, “The Fellowship”. But I have found not much more than that, however this little bit speaks volumes, at least to me.   

It should be mentioned though that later, around 1929, Dick Jones hired Wright to design his 8,000 SF home in Tulsa, West hope, which was one of Wright’s largest concrete block extravaganzas (when it leaked Dick’s wife Georgia said that is what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain).  It is to this day, even though it is on the National Historic Register, one of the most hated buildings in Tulsa.   So it seems from this that they still had a relationship and that Wright did not in any public way rebuke his cousin for his racist views or his part in instigating the riots and massacres. The only thing he ever said was “Richard is both a puritan and a publican of the worst stripe”.  Even so, Wright’s connection to Jones was profoundly meaningful to him given their common Welsh ancestry.  And it is terribly disappointing that Wright did not distance himself or publicly denounce his cousin. (Later, when Wright was commissioned to design a new prototype school for southern African American children, the Rosenwald School, Wright is known to have stated his belief in segregated public education.)  I don’t know that I will ever feel the same way toward one of the greatest of American architects.  Or should I not say that he is great but that his architecture is great. I go with the latter. But I still wonder about the relationship and possible shared values Frank may have had with Cousin Dick.  It’s a disturbing notion and deserving of deeper research.

Article Written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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