Loula Williams ran a popular theater and candy store in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., during the 1910s, making her one of the most prominent businesswomen in the neighborhood.
Williams Dreamland Theatre was doing so well that she started two other theaters near Tulsa, according to newspaper accounts and Charles Christopher, her great-grandson. Together, the three formed the Dreamland Theatrical Co.
Ms. Williams bought insurance for her businesses—though like some in the neighborhood, she was only able to patch together partial coverage through several policies. Even that did her no good when white mobs destroyed Williams Dreamland Theatre, along with most of Greenwood, during the city’s race massacre in 1921.
Ms. Williams suffered an estimated $79,164 in losses, according to lawsuits she later filed, equivalent to $1.2 million today. The three insurance companies to which she paid premiums denied her claims.
The massacre took the lives of dozens of Black residents. It also left behind a devastated neighborhood and many property owners struggling to cover their losses. Ms. Williams was one of at least 70 Greenwood property owners who filed insurance claims after the massacre. After many of their claims were denied, Ms. Williams and others sued the insurance companies and later the city of Tulsa, unsuccessfully.
Greenwood property and business owners suffered at least $1.5 million in losses in 1921 dollars, according to a 2001 report from a bipartisan commission appointed by the state to study the event. That’s roughly $22 million in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure likely underestimates total losses, as not everyone had full insurance coverage or went to court.
Ultimately, insurance companies fell back on an exclusionary clause that prevented payouts on many claims. The policies with that clause said insurers wouldn’t be held liable for loss “caused directly or indirectly by invasion, insurrection, riot, civil war or commotion, or military or usurped power.”
Examined alone, riot exclusions weren’t intentionally racist, said Christopher Messer, a sociology professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo who has studied the Tulsa massacre. However, in the early part of the 1900s, insurance companies knew what the outcome would mean for Black property owners when the clause was enforced, due to the prevalence of such attacks, he said.
“These riots didn’t just happen anywhere—they were primarily characterized by white mobs coming into Black neighborhoods and destroying them. It was never the other way around,” he said.
The insurance issues have long cast a shadow over Tulsa. A lawsuit in Oklahoma filed by survivors and descendants of the massacre against the city of Tulsa and other local agencies cites insurers’ refusals to pay claims. Tulsa residents and politicians have questioned how insurance companies classified the event as well as the implications. Descendants of massacre victims wonder how their ancestors’ assets could have benefited their families today had claims been paid.
After the massacre, Ms. Williams is believed to have sold her two theaters outside Greenwood, her family said, and to have used the funds to help rebuild the one in Greenwood. “Maybe those insurance claims could have just gone to rebuilding the Dreamland, and she could have kept the other theaters,” said Danya Bacchus, Ms. Williams’s great-great-granddaughter. “The empire could have continued to grow.”
Court records don’t paint a complete picture of how insurers responded to the massacre, researchers say. Some business owners may have had their claims honored, while others may have been unable or unwilling to pursue litigation for denied claims.
Some people filed multiple lawsuits. Of the 96 lawsuits filed against more than 30 insurance companies, 76 were dismissed and the other 20 didn’t have documentation of the outcome, according to records maintained by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Historians said the records indicate that before the massacre some of Greenwood’s most successful businesspeople had to piece together insurance policies with narrow coverage options that didn’t fully protect the value of their properties. Insurance regulators say having multiple policies on a property wasn’t uncommon for the time.
Ms. Williams’s Greenwood properties and their contents, including the theater and the building that housed the confectionery, were worth nearly $80,000, according to her lawsuits. Her eight insurance policies through three companies on her various assets only covered $31,700. Ms. Williams reported paying $865.51 in premiums for policies that were in effect during the massacre, but her lawsuits don’t specify whether that was over one year or multiple years.
After nearly a year and a half of litigation, two insurance companies paid Ms. Williams $566.25 in returned premiums, court records show. Her claims were still denied.
One criticism of insurers at the time was that they didn’t conduct their own due diligence and instead relied on a characterization of the Greenwood event that proved to be false: that the destruction resulted from a riot instigated by unruly Black residents.
“It appears that it was convenient to take the words of the newspapers and the people that did it than to investigate and do the right thing,” said Kevin Matthews, an Oklahoma state senator and founder of the state’s 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which formed in 2016 in part to commemorate the tragedy.
Using the word “riot” to describe what happened remained a sore spot for Black Tulsans for decades, Mr. Matthews said. It suggests that there was a Black uprising and that Greenwood residents destroyed their own neighborhoods, he said. “Many people in my community still have heartburn with that word ‘riot.’ ”
When Mr. Matthews founded the centennial commission in 2016 it was originally called the “Race Riot” commission, he said. In 2017, Oklahoma passed bipartisan legislation to help fund its work. A year later, he and other leaders decided to change “riot” to “massacre” after constituent feedback, altering how people and historical markers in Greenwood refer to the event today.
Investigations into the event by insurers might not have made a difference in denied claims because the exclusion clauses were so broad, said Mr. Messer of Colorado State, including the words “invasion” and “insurrection.” The era’s racism would have made it easy to justify dismissing claims, no matter the actual reason, he added. “And the city really tried to paint this as an event that was caused by militant Blacks,” he said.
Two insurers that sold policies to Greenwood residents still exist today—
and Great American Insurance Group.
Hartford wrote a $1,500 policy for Emma Gurley, who owned multiple Greenwood Avenue properties. Great American wrote a $1,400 policy for a property Hope Watson owned. After denying claims for losses due to the massacre, each company was a defendant in separate lawsuits that were ultimately dismissed.
Each company declined to comment on the lawsuits or riot clauses, citing the difficulty of getting information about policies written decades ago. “Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to comment on litigation and what coverage may have been available a century ago,” said a spokesman for The Hartford.
CNA Financial Corp.
have made acquisitions that could give the two companies control over the policies cited in as many as half of the 96 insurance lawsuits, with 39 for CNA and nine for Chubb. CNA and Chubb declined to comment.
Riot clauses date to at least the late 19th century, likely influenced by the tumult of the Civil War and concerns around labor strife, said Robert Hartwig, an insurance researcher and director of the Center for Risk and Uncertainty Management at the University of South Carolina.
By the 1930s, insurance regulators set out to simplify policy language. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners proposed removing riot exclusions in 1937, according to the proceedings of its annual meeting that year. The proceedings said the riot exclusion wasn’t needed as manufacturers, who risked facing labor riots, were often able to secure coverage against riots by getting endorsements, or riders, at no extra cost. The proceedings also noted that riots rarely resulted in building fires.
Assessing the risk associated with riots paved the way for the industry to eliminate riot clauses, said Mr. Hartwig. Since the 1950s, policies have generally covered multiple perils such as riots and civil unrest, he said, including riots in the 1960s and nationwide protests in 2020.
After the Greenwood massacre, some property owners took out loans or mortgaged their land to rebuild. By 1941, there were more than 240 businesses in the section, according to a recent copy of the neighborhood’s application for the National Register of Historic Places.
Ms. Williams’s Dreamland theater doesn’t appear to have ever returned to its prior prosperity, Ms. Williams’s great-granddaughter Jan Elaine Christopher said, citing a 1924 letter she wrote to her son, William Danforth Williams, about the theater’s struggles.
“At first, the whole family was running it,” Ms. Christopher said. “And then after everything happened, it looks like she was just running everything, pretty much by herself. So it was a lot smaller.”
Several of Ms. Williams’s descendants said the trauma of the massacre played a role in her death in 1927 at age 47. Her husband, John Wesley Williams, who owned an auto repair shop in Greenwood, died in 1939. The theater is believed to have been sold after her death, but the family didn’t know any details of a sale. Today, part of the interstate highway sits where it once stood.
—Leslie Scism contributed to this article.
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