Boley’s bank robbed! – famous 1923 bank robbery in the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma

Boley’s bank robbed! – famous 1923 bank robbery in the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma – includes related article about the history of Boley

Henry Hughes Chase

Even in the worst years of the Depression, Oklahomans, black and white, looked forward with joy to Thanksgiving, and 1932 proved no exception. That year, November 24 offered more than just a day of family gathering. It was also the start of quail season, and while few would have passed up a bird before the season legally opened, shotgun blasts would soon be heard around the state whenever a covey was kicked up.

In Boley, one of Oklahoma’s 29 all-black rural towns, the gunfire erupted a day early – and once again put the notorious bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd on the front pages of the state’s newspapers. In the early ’30s, Floyd was robbing banks in great number and without compunction. Judged “Public Enemy Number One” by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Floyd enjoyed a reputation for miraculously shooting his way out of police ambushes without a scratch.

But this is less a story of Pretty Boy Floyd’s escapades, which captured the imagination of Oklahoma; this is a tale of how Boley citizens not only defended themselves against murderous gangsters, but also shielded their children from notions of inferiority and incidents of racial discrimination (see sidebar).

As Thanksgiving 1932 approached, one of Floyd’s henchmen and two accomplices decided to take down the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Boley. Like everything else in the town, the bank was black-owned, lock, stock and barrel.

George Birdwell, Floyd’s right-hand man from March 1931 to November 1932, had knocked over 13 Oklahoma banks with Floyd in 21 months. Both men – especially Birdwell, who was considered white though he had Choctaw and Cherokee blood – were familiar with the all-black town of Boley. Birdwell lived in nearby Earlsboro, in adjoining Seminole County. He did the talking during the robbery. The white C.C. Patterson aided Birdwell. Charles “Pete” Glass, an African-American bank-robbing novice who also lived in Earlsboro, drove the getaway car.

In those days, little elaborate planning went into rural bank raids. Robbers drove up, parked outside the bank and left the car running with a driver behind the wheel, marched into the bank, announced their intention, took the money (most often several hundred to a very few thousand dollars), seized bank employees as hostages – whom they would place on the running boards of their car so as to forestall the sheriff or the frequently armed rural citizenry from shooting at them – and departed town. Once safely out of town, the robbers would release the hostages unharmed.

After breakfasting the morning of November 23 in the kitchen of a black farmer living not far from Birdwell’s home, Birdwell and his two companions jumped into a Ford roadster and brought this set piece to the bank located on Boley’s Main Street. Birdwell and Glass had seen their last Thanksgiving.

Bursting into the bank with the sawed-off-shotgun-wielding Patterson at his side and a .45 automatic pistol in his hand, Birdwell threw down. “We’re robbing this bank!” he yelled. “Hand over the money, and don’t pull no alarm.” As the cashier, W.W. Riley, and the bank’s founder and president, D.J. Turner, shoveled bills and silver dollars toward the robbers and customers looked on, Turner tripped the bank’s alarm and then added insult to injury by responding to Birdwell’s outraged “Did you pull that alarm?” with “You bet I pulled it!” Turner, too, had seen his last Thanksgiving.

BLAM!BLAM!BLAM!BLAM! The shock of gunfire and the sudden loss of hearing occasioned by repeated shots in an enclosed area sowed confusion as Turner fell, mortally wounded with four slugs in his chest. Seizing the moment, Herbert McCormick, the bank’s bookkeeper, who had been out of sight in the bank’s vault, emerged with the Winchester rifle kept there for such emergencies. He swung the barrel toward the retreating Birdwell and pulled the trigger. From a distance of but a few feet, the bullet slammed into Birdwell’s back, punched through his rib cage, tore through his lungs and exited his neck.

Spouting blood, the fatally wounded Birdwell collapsed on the floor amid the $600 for which he had hazarded his life. As Patterson cried out in anger and dismay, Glass dashed into the bank. While the robbers returned McCormick’s fire, scooped up dollar bills and ordered two customers to carry Birdwell to the getaway car, McCormick’s brother Langston, who was Boley’s sheriff, ran toward the bank, gun drawn.

“I remember I was walking down the street,” Langston McCormick later recalled. “It was about 10 o’clock in the morning, and somebody ran up to me and said, “The bank’s being robbed, the bank’s being robbed.’ Well, I went over to the American Legion hall and got some rifles and took off down the alley, jumping over fences. By the time I got there, the shooting was on.

“I won’t say I got one, but I kept [the robbers] busy,” he adds. Langston was joined by armed townsfolk and Boley farmers (many in town to purchase shotgun shells for the morrow’s opening of quail season), and a shoot-out on Main Street erupted.

The two customers unceremoniously dumped Birdwell on the sidewalk by the bank’s door and leapt back inside. As Patterson tried to drag Floyd’s dying lieutenant to safety, he was repeatedly struck by shotgun pellets and bullets. Witnessing this, Glass jumped back into the getaway car and tried to race off. His journey was brief. He was dead from the hail of gunfire from the crowd of locals before his car crashed to a halt on Main Street.

Birdwell died on the way to medical care in the nearby county seat of Okemah – as did D.J. Turner, one of black Boley’s founders and most-loved citizens. Patterson was the lone bank robber to survive. He soon found himself committed to years in prison.

Herbert McCormick and the town of Boley fared better in the immediate aftermath. McCormick received a $500 reward for killing Birdwell and an offer from Oklahoma’s governor to make him an honorary major on the governor’s staff. Boley residents who had taken part in the shoot-out split a $500 reward for killing Glass.

And McCormick, on his own initiative (though doubtless with the blind-eye acquiescence of his brother the sheriff), kept Birdwell’s .45. This proved to be a mixed blessing – 35 years after the robbery, the man who is still recalled in the memories of Boley’s senior citizens as “Major” accidentally wounded himself in the leg while cleaning the gun. The wound never fully healed, and ultimately contributed to McCormick’s death, family members claimed.

As for Floyd, who had been hiding out in Kansas City, Mo., when the Boley bank job went down, he had but one more Thanksgiving left to him by the time he leamed of Birdwell’s death, days after the failed robbery. In October 1934 Floyd was gunned down by the FBI as he fled across an Ohio farmer’s field. His corpse was shipped home to Oklahoma for burial. Years later, he no doubt laughed in his grave at the irony of Birdwell’s gun taking down Herbert McCormick – but none of Boley’s black folk would have joined in Floyd’s mordant mirth at Major’s demise.

BOLEY

MEMORIES

In the best of times, much of Oklahoma is hardscrabble country – and the Great Depression of the 1930s was scarcely the best of times. In those years, Oklahoma was known as dust bowl. Scores of thousands were driven from their land by the twin plagues of a catastrophic climate and tight-money farm foreclosures, the latter of which made fountain-pen-wielding bankers a loathed species. Woody Guthrie’s songs, such as “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” and “This Land Is Your Land,” Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath told the tales of the time, though they were scant compensation to those who suffered under dispossession and the pejorative lable of “Okies.”

But the bad times fell harder on African Americans living as Jim Crowed minorities in predominatly white cities and in the state’s all-black rural communities. In the latter, however, people could turn to their own bankers, who were deeply tied to communities to which they loaned and in which they lived.

Oklahoma’s all-black towns once numbered 29, and many dated back to the years following the Civil War, when the land was called the Indian Territory. Langston in Logan County and Boley in Okfuskee County stood out as notable successes of African-American autonomy. The former town – named for John Mercer Langston, who entered the U.S. House of Representatives as Virginia’s first black congressman just a month before the Oklahoma “Sooners” land rush of 1889 – was founded by Edward P. McCabe, a freeborn African American who hoped to make Oklahoma a black-majority state. Before the close of the 19th century, Langston boasted a population of 2,000 and a landgrant college.

Boley (with 523 black residents in a population of 908 in 1990) was slower to develop. Booker T. Washington called it “little more than a name” when he visited it two years after its 1903 founding. But by 1908, said Washington, Boley was “a thriving town of 2,500 inhabitants, with two banks, two cotton gins, a newspaper, a hotel, and a ‘college,’ the Greek-Seminole College and Agricultural Institute.” A quarter of a century later, as Oklahoma lay under the scourge of the Great Depression, Boley still had its black mayor, its black sheriff – and a black bank.

“The tone of our lives in Boley,” recalls Velma Dolphin Ashley, who was born there in 1910, “was colored by the success of our farm, which was just south of the town. The farm was our – we never had the feeling we were working for someone else.

“It was hard work back then. We didn’t have any high-powered tools, everything was horse- or mule-drawn or hand-held, but we didn’t consider living in Boley to be second to living in a large city like Tulsa. It was a pleasure living in Boley. We had it just as good as anybody. Our school system was as good as any in Oklahoma. Many of our high-school graduates went on to the best black colleges or North to the Big Ten or even Ivy League schools. We had many good stores that sold brand-name merchandise and two drug stores with soda fountains. Why should we feel inferior to Oklahoma City, where folk had to go down to Second Street and be exposed to riffraff?

“We were very sheltered in many ways in Boley. All the adults monitored the children. Any adult could come and tell my parents about what I had been doing … well, any adult except the rogues and thieves and whoremongers. The town had a very strict marshal on the street, and he kept children away from the liquor places and other bad spots.”

Only after leaving Boley and entering Atlanta University did Ashley find out that whites didn’t think she was as good as they were. “My parents had told me this,” she says, “but I though they were talking about the past. The transition hurt when I was exposed to the second best … eating in the back of some place or having to take my food out. I never had to do that in Boley. I remember going into a large department store in Atlanta to buy a pair of silk stockings in 1928. … You know they didn’t have nylon stocking back then? The woman looked at me stragely and showed me rayon stockings. I said, ‘Ma’am, these are rayon,’ and she said, ‘I thought for you people these were silk stockings.’ … `You people’ – that was the first time I had heard that phrase. I said, ‘Ma’am, I don’t know about you people. I didn’t know I was just supposed to wear one kind of hosiery.’ I was stunned.”

Most of Ashley’s fellow students dreamed of pursuing careers in Chicago or New York. “But when it came my turn to tell the professor what I was going to do,” Ashley continues, “I said, “I am going back to Boley; I can do more for my people in Boley than anywhere else.'”

Ashley went home in May 1932, with the Depression in full swing throughout America. “As the bottom fell out during those years, we could hardly get 2 cents a pound for baled cotton, when but a few years earlier, cotton – I’m talking about prime cotton, now – brought $500 a bale. But we did OK, because my father was very frugal. He had always operated on the theory that you don’t buy what you can make, so he had saved money.”

Ashley began teaching at Boley High School, where she remained for 44 years. One of her fellow teachers was D.J. Turner’s daughter, Bernice Turner Wheeler. Half a year after Ashley returned home, Birdwell and his comrades drove into town and quickly and brutally tore a hole in the community. “Mr. Turner was number one in the hearts of the people of Boley for a long time. When they followed his advice, they came out on top; if they didn’t,” Ashley remembers, “they were trampled.”

But Boley and D.J. Turner’s bank survived his death – and the Depression. And the main lesson Ashley draws from the tragedy of November 1932? “Boley stood together against those people. The town fought for what its citizens believed in, and it remained a viable community.”

As for Floyd, Ashley shares the rosy folk memory that Guthrie and the times helped create. “He operated on the theory that you take money from the rich and give it to the poor. People used to say, ‘He gives money to niggers and poor white trash.’ Floyd told Birdwell and the others not to come to Boley, but Birdwell in effect said he was tired of taking Floyd’s orders. He thought he was the brains of the gang – but as you can see, he wasn’t.”

COPYRIGHT 1994 Heritage Information Holdings, Inc.

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