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The Tragic Link Between Frank Lloyd Wright and the Tulsa Race Riots

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

Since this year is the one hundred year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riots it seems appropriate to mark the event and its connection to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Last year while researching the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, I stumbled upon the bizarre connection between these two violent and tragic events; the murders of Frank Lloyd-Wright's lover, children and employees at Taliesin and the Tulsa Race Riots. The murders at Taliesin, a horrific act of workplace violence, killed 8 people and is considered one of the largest mass murders to have taken place in Wisconsin. The Tulsa race riots killed 39 people, destroyed the wealthiest black community in the US at that time and left ten thousand black citizens homeless. (I will be excerpting a portion of my previous post from May of 2020 for this update).

What could possibly connect these two horrific events?

Richard Lloyd-Jones, Frank Lloyd Wright's cousin and the editor of the Tulsa Tribune.

Mass Murder at Taliesin

The original Taliesin East in Wisconsin was built in 1911, as a place for Frank Lloyd Wright and Martha Borthwick Cheney to live away from the scrutiny and censure over their unorthodox living arrangements which had forced them to flee Chicago. They were both married to other people and had left their spouses (and Frank Lloyd Wright's six children) back in Chicago. The Wisconsin locals however, were just as scandalized as the people of Chicago and referred to the compound as the “Love Cottage”. On August 15 in 1914, while FLW was away in Chicago , a handy-man/servant named Julian Carlton brandished an ax and brutally killed Martha, her two children and several other people in the house. The architecture practice was run out of the house so there were quite a few people working there at the time. Carlton locked the doors to the house, and set it on fire. As people trapped inside attempted to flee the burning building, Carlton patiently waited outside and let the would-be victims come to him.

In Chicago, FLW was told there had been a terrible accident and immediately took a train from Chicago to Wisconsin. He was not informed of the mass murder until he arrived in Wisconsin. His cousin Richard Lloyd-Jones, a journalist in Wisconsin, met him on the platform. Eight people died including Carlton himself who had swallowed muriatic acid the day of the murders but died weeks later. He never gave a reason for his rampage. At the time, this episode of shocking violence was portrayed as just retribution for the “immoral” or unconventional lifestyles of FLW and Martha. But it would appear from the facts, that Carlton was attempting to kill everyone in the building – not just Marth and her children. While many theories have been floated, from anger over a sudden firing, to racist remarks,as Carlton was black, or religious disgust at their "immoral" living arrangement, could possibly justify such an act. It seems clear (to me) that this was a tragic episode of what we would classify today as workplace violence caused by mental illness.

What is equally curious about this episode is that while FLW seems to have suffered little (if any) emotional trauma from this event, it profoundly affected his cousin Richard Lloyd-Jones for the worse. Paul Hendriksen makes the case in his book, “Plagued by Fire: The dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright” that this event was a pivotal moment in Lloyd-Jones’ life, encouraging his already racist viewpoint to harden into racial hatred.

Richard Lloyd-Jones

How The Tulsa Race Riots Got Started

In 1919 journalist Richard Lloyd -Jones had moved to Oklahoma where he purchased the Tulsa Democrat and renamed it the Tulsa Tribune. On May 31,1921 The Tulsa Tribune, under the editorship of Richard Lloyd-Jones, published a story in the afternoon edition entitled "Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator" which described the alleged assault of a white female elevator operator by a young black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland. These charges were later found to be false. In the same edition the paper allegedly (the original document has disappeared) warned of an attempted lynching on Dick Rowland. As a result when Dick Rowland was taken into custody by the Tulsa sherrif, hundreds of white men surrounded the police station threatening his life. Approximately 75 black men also assembled at the police station to protect Dick Rowland, a shot was fired and the riots began. The riots continued through June 1st until the Oklahoma National Guard was called in and martial law established. In that short time period, 35 square blocks of homes and businesses in what was then known as the "black wall street" were destroyed by armed white mobs on the ground and aerial bombing from private airplanes above.

Tulsa 1921 Bettman Archive-Getty Images

The Lost History

Many believe that these two articles incited the white mob that assaulted the black community on Greenwood Street. Richard Lloyd -Jones never wrote about the massacre or mentioned it in the Tulsa Tribune. Nor did he personally apologize, take responsibility for the tragedy or mention it in any way until his death in 1963. In fact no one was ever held to account for the damage and violence to the black community of Tulsa. Most of the survivors left town and the episode was buried and omitted from local, state and national histories until recently.

In 1996, a bipartisan group of the Oklahoma legislature created the Oklahoma Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riots. In 2001 the published report stated that the city of Tulsa conspired with the white citizens against its black citizens. It recommended a program of reparations to the descendants and survivors. Jim Lloyd, a lawyer and former member of the Tulsa Race Commission is suing the heirs of the late Richard Lloyd-Jones for damages and reparations. In 2020 the Tulsa Race Riots were mandated to be included in the Oklahoma school curriculum.

If you'd like to learn more about the Tulsa Race Riots start here

If you'd like to the read the original post about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright, you can find it here



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