Boley's Bank Robbed!
Chase, Henry Hughes, American Visions
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. …