Jones, Richard Lloyd

Richard Lloyd JonesRichard Lloyd Jones (April 14, 1873-December 4, 1963), an outspoken and influential journalist, was the longtime owner and editor of the Tulsa Tribune. He was instrumental in creating the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site. He was also a founder of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He used his newspaper as a pulpit, regularly preaching to his readers in editorials printed under the banner, “Saturday Sermonette.” His reputation is tainted however, by an editorial, the alleged content of which some hold responsible for helping to incite the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, an act of violence directed against blacks, unparalleled in American history.

Richard, the younger of the two children and the only son born to Susan Barber and Jenkin Lloyd Jones, was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, where his father was the Unitarian minister. He grew up in the shadow of his parents, both of whom were leaders in the Western Unitarian Conference. During Richard’s early childhood, his father was often away on missionary journeys throughout the western United States. In 1881 the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where his father settled down as the minister of All Souls Church.

Seeking a refuge from the intellectual expectations of his intimidating parents, Richard participated, and excelled, in a variety of sports, including swimming, skating, tennis, and horsemanship. The latter stood him in good stead when, as a young man, he worked on a sheep ranch in Nevada. He would have preferred to remain on the ranch, but he was recalled by his family, who wished him to resume his schooling. He studied at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin and at the University of Chicago. He graduated from the Chicago Law School with a LL.B in 1897 and a LL.M the following year.

Jones practiced law only briefly, however. In 1899 he took a job as reporter and editor for the Telegram in Stamford, Connecticut. At the same time—one of the high points of his early life—he moonlighted as an actor in nearby New York City. He was an editorial writer for the Washington Times, 1900-02, and an editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, 1902-03. His most significant early employment was as writer and associate editor for Collier’s Weekly, 1903-11. In 1905 he and his employer, Robert Collier, bought at auction the old Abraham Lincoln farm in Hodgenville, Kentucky. They organized the popular fund-raising campaign—collecting small donations from school children—which brought about the creation of the Historic Site, inaugurated on the Lincoln centennial in 1909. Jones and his father were appointed to the site’s board of trustees, along with Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan, and United States President William Taft.

In 1907 Jones married Georgia (“George”) Hayden. They had three children: Richard, Jenkin, and Florence. With his encouragement, Georgia became an activist for women’s suffrage, Planned Parenthood, control of childhood disease, and humane treatment of animals.

Jones served on the Federal Prison Labor Commission, 1905-11. This experience may have formed the basis of what he later wrote in an editorial, “Self-respect”: “our whole prison system is born of ignorance and arrogance; it is mediaeval; it is the most fruitful factory we have for making criminals. They do not reform but confirm criminals. They break down self-respect when, what the individual needs, and what the state needs, is self-respect built up.”

In 1911, wishing to run his own newspaper and to promote the presidential aspirations of his friend, Wisconsin senator Robert LaFollette, Jones, with LaFollette’s help, bought the Wisconsin State Journal and moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Under Jones’s auspices the State Journal was a muckraking and reforming newspaper. He continued to back LaFollete until 1917 when he castigated the senator in print for opposing American entry into World War I. (Jones had come to differ with his father as well, for Jenkin Lloyd Jones was an outspoken pacifist.) The State Journal city editor, William Evjue, quit to found his own Madison paper, the Capital Times. Having made influential enemies, and fearing a newspaper war, Jones shopped around for a paper elsewhere and in 1919 selected and acquired the Tulsa Democrat.

Jones’s new paper, which he renamed the Tribune, was immediately locked in a struggle with a better-established paper, the Tulsa World. The World supported the Democratic Party and opposed the Ku Klux Klan. To help the Tribune survive, and to repay the substantial debt he took on in buying the paper, Jones adopted a populist and sensational style of journalism, not unlike the practices of William Randolph Hearst. He drummed up circulation by sponsoring beauty pageants. He attacked city officials, accusing them of corruption and weak law enforcement. And, as Klan sympathizers formed a segment of his customers, in the Tribune he praised the Klan as defenders of law and order: “The KKK of Tulsa has promised to do the American thing in the American way.”

He did not, however, endorse the Klan’s hostile racial program. The admiration for Lincoln, the “great emancipator,” which he had inherited from his father, would not have allowed this. Earlier in his life, when Booker T. Washington could not get a hotel room in Madison, Wisconsin, Jones hosted him in his home. He liked and respected many African Americans and cared about their welfare.

On May 31, 1921, a young black man was wrongly accused and arrested for assaulting a white girl. (Several months later the charge was dismissed.) The Tribune‘s headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and Jones’s editorial in the same issue, reportedly titled “To Lynch a Negro Tonight?” and discussing lynching rumors, have been blamed for sparking the riot that ensued. Only a few hundred copies of the editorial were circulated, however, as the first edition was recalled and Jones dropped the editorial from subsequent editions. As no text of Jones’s piece survives, it is unknown what he actually wrote. The suggestion in the Tribune‘s main story that an “assault” (rape) happened may have been enough to stir up the already-existing fearful climate in Tulsa’s white population and to ignite panic in the black community.

An attempt by a party of blacks to defend the courthouse and to prevent the lynching, was interpreted by whites as an all-out attack on Tulsa’s downtown center. This led to a military-style invasion of Greenwood, the black neighborhood, by the much larger and better-armed white population. Dozens of people were killed and the entire black neighborhood—35 blocks—was reduced to rubble. Many blacks were rounded up in internment camps. During the riot and its aftermath Jones and his family sheltered and fed the families of the blacks who worked for them.

After the riot, Jones and the Tribune blamed city officials for allowing it to happen and for being too lenient on those blacks they labeled as dangerous. Reporting in the New York Post, Jones made a distinction between the kind of good blacks, “who are kind and courteous” and “a bad black man who is a beast.” The process of blame assignment did not last long, however, before shame set in. “The voice of conscience was never silenced without retribution,” he wrote in a sermonette the following year. The riot became a taboo subject in Tulsa. Jones went on to campaign on other issues, such as attacking the city government for the corrupt manner in which it handed out street-paving and water supply contracts. During the next fifty years, his newspaper did not again mention the riot.

Every week, in addition to other Tribune editorials, Jones printed a “Saturday Sermonette,” each one devoted to a moral or inspirational subject such as “Humaneness” or “Peace.” “I have always made the press my pulpit, and I preach,” he wrote. He quoted liberally from scriptures, classic authors such as William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo, and celebrated Americans such as Thomas JeffersonRalph Waldo Emerson, and Abraham Lincoln. He pictured himself as uplifting and educating the general public.

In one of his sermonettes, “Our Brother’s Keeper,” Jones expressed sympathy with the people in the lands his country has opposed in war. “Their sons cannot die in battle without teardrops coursing down our people’s cheeks,” he wrote. He deplored national boundaries: In the light of the religion of the lowly Nazarene they are scarcely worth study.” In the same piece he put forward one element of his religious belief: “We are all children of the same Father and we are all bound to the same goal, even though we still be so petty as to believe that we can enter His house only by the exclusive door that exactly fits our stature.”

For Jones religion meant actions, not a formula of faith. He revered Jesus as a human being, in the same way that he venerated Lincoln. “The Christ was crucified but the Cross could not kill Christ,” he wrote in “Self-respect.” “The spirit of the martyred Lincoln lives on.”

In 1920, in an advertisement in the Tribune, Jones invited religious liberals to a meeting at his home. One of those who attended was a man who had been convicted of murder in New York State. Although Jones recognized him from his reporting days at Collier’s, he and the others took the man in. The repentant felon became an active member of All Souls Unitarian Church, organized the following year. When the first church building was being constructed, Jones conducted a successful appeal for funds from non-members. A vice-president of the American Unitarian Association, 1942-44, he was considered “a generous and devoted Unitarian.”

In 1929 Jones’s cousin, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed for him an expensive, austere, and impractical new house, “Westhope.” It was finished in 1931. The commission for the house was part of Jones’s practice of financially supporting his brilliant cousin. At opposite ends of the political spectrum, they wrote each other letters full of affectionate abuse. Jones alleged that Wright was self-centered, unsympathetic, and arrogant. Wright countered that Jones was a hypocrite and a “Puritan and a publican of the worst stripe.”

In the Tribune Jones and his staff fought against Prohibition (which they considered corrupt and hypocritical), corruption in county politics, for the reapportionment of the Oklahoma State Legislature, a merit system for state appointments, a state highway commission and a modern highway system, fluoridation, and economic diversification. His crusading spirit and irascible temper made him many enemies in local and state government. In his later editorial career, Jones acquired a growing reputation as commentator on national politics. He personally reported on nearly all national political conventions.

Jones was a friend of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In 1936 he ran Alfred Landon’s pre-convention presidential campaign. His later political opinions swung further to the right. In 1952, in an article, “The Lone Eagle of the Senate,” he praised Joseph McCarthy for rooting out Communism and attacked Paul Douglas‘s opposition to McCarthy’s tactics. Once, when criticized for being a conservative, Jones responded, “I would conserve the humanism of Lincoln. I would conserve the steamboat, the telephone, the radio. I would conserve justice. I would conserve democracy, out of which freedom comes . . . In conserving these we progress.”

When Jones died at the age of 90 in 1963, the Tribune reprinted his most famous sermonette, “My Dog’s Bequest.” In this he told the story of the obedient behavior of his elderly, sick dog when it was time for him to be put down. “Just as a dog had bequeathed blessed faith,” he concluded, “he hoped that when his Master called him home he might know how to go on believing, trusting, full of faith even as his dog had done.”

This article is indebted to information provided by the family of Richard Lloyd Jones. Among his writings are five volumes of Staurday Sermonettes: Pathfinders (1921), A Brother of Men (1922), Unseen Soldiers (1923), The Other Man (1924), and My Dog’s Bequest (1925). He also wrote “An Appeal to Patriotism” from A Souvenir for the Lincoln Dinner of the Republican Club of the City of New York (1907), The Lincoln Centennial Medal (1908), and was an editor of Oklahoma and the Mid-Continent Oil Field (1930). There is an entry on Jones in Who’s Who. More negative portrayals of Jones can be found in Tim Madigan, The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (2001) and James S. Hirsch, Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy (2002).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted December 13, 2007