The Victory of Greenwood: Horace “Peg Leg” Taylor

by Contributing Writer Carlos Moreno

It’s no exaggeration to say that no one in Greenwood’s history is more shrouded in myth and legend than Horace “Peg Leg” Taylor. He is said to have been a World War I veteran who died while single-handedly defending Standpipe Hill armed with a machine gun. He did defend Greenwood from white attackers on the night of May 31st, 1921, but he was not alone and he did not die during the Massacre. Official documents and newspaper articles reveal more questions than answers about his personal life. He evidently married three times and finally settled in Phoenix, Arizona. His great-granddaughters today are working to separate the man from the myths and give Taylor and his daughter their rightful place in the story of Greenwood.

Myths about Taylor’s Early Life

One myth about Taylor was that he was born in Indian Territory. This is false as the territory did not extend south of the Red River, which divides Oklahoma from Texas. Horace Greenly Beecher Taylor was born in Gum Creek, Texas on February 14th, 1878. Two years later, the town was renamed Jacksonville after town founders Jackson Smith and Dr. William Jackson.

Another myth showing up in almost every article and book mentioning him, is that Taylor was a veteran of World War I. This would have been highly unlikely. The United States did not enter the war until May of 1918. By this time, Taylor was over 40 years old and—according to his military registration card dated September 1918—was already missing his right leg, thus making him unfit for service. It’s more likely that Taylor was a veteran of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Journalist Tim Madigan’s book, The Burning, mentions Taylor’s service in the war against Spain. However, if Taylor did serve in the war against Spain, his military service record has yet to be found. Many residents of Greenwood who would have been establishing their homes and families in 1921 were indeed WWI veterans, but Taylor was not one of them. There is no doubt that he did know how to fight,and it is true that he was among the Black residents who defended Greenwood during the Massacre. 

Taylor’s Life in Tulsa

Unfortunately, almost nothing is known of Taylor’s life as a young man, where he returned to after the war, or when he arrived in Tulsa. The 1910 Census lists him as living at the northeast corner of Greenwood and Cameron and married to his first wife Eugenia from Arkansas. From the 1930 Census, we learn that he was married at the age of 21, which means they would have been married sometime in 1899. His father was listed as Jim Taylor but his mother was listed as “unknown.” According to Taylor’s daughter Lena Eloise, who was interviewed by historian Eddie Faye Gates in the early 1990s, her father lost his leg at the age of 19. He was working at a job picking cotton, had ended his work day, gotten paid and was ready to go home. The owner of the farm ordered him to keep working until it was too dark to see. When Taylor refused, the owner and his farm hands beat him, tied him up, dragged him to a nearby railroad track and left Taylor there to be run over by the train. Taylor managed to make his way partly off the track, but the train severed his leg. Gates writes, “The impact of the train threw the young man away from the track and into some weeds, where he lay moaning and bleeding for a long time.” Two white women who lived nearby heard his cries and were able to take him in, stop the bleeding and dress his wounds. This account calls into question his war service. If he was 19 when he lost his leg and 20 during the Spanish-American War, would he have been able to serve in the armed forces with only one leg?

Lena Eloise also revealed to Gates in her interview that her father owned “eight storefront properties in mid-Greenwood, which included business offices downstairs and twenty-one rooms upstairs. However, in official documents, the Taylors seem to have kept their wealth and status hidden. Five city directories between the years 1910 and 1919 show that the couple moved frequently and list Taylor’s occupation as alternating between general laborer, contractor and carpenter. The couple lived with another relative, Violeth Taylor, but it’s unclear how she was related to the couple. A marriage certificate dated September 8th, 1915 shows that Taylor married Valita U. Piercy. Their daughter, Lena Eloise Taylor, was born on November 11th, 1915. 

The Legend of Standpipe Hill

The official report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 includes information about Black residents of Greenwood defending themselves during the Massacre. The report chronicles that on the evening of May 31st a gun went off when a white man tried to wrestle it from grocery store owner O.B. Mann. The two mobs that had assembled in front of the courthouse, Black men led by J.B. Stradford and A.J. Smitherman who were there to defend Dick Rowland from being lynched and the white mob who wanted to lynch him, began a furious gunfight that lasted into the early hours of the morning. Outnumbered and outgunned, Stradford and Smitherman’s men fled back to Greenwood. However, they were pursued by the white mob and forced to take defensive positions on Standpipe Hill and Sunset Hill (both located northeast of “Deep Greenwood” which was the neighborhood’s business district). Facts begin to blend into legend when it comes to the historical  depictions of the fight on Standpipe Hill and Taylor’s exploits.

One of the stories surrounding Standpipe Hill is that on the Sunday night before the Massacre Taylor broke into Dick Barton’s general store to steal ammunition, stocking up to defend Greenwood. One would have to ask how he would have known to do this since Dick Rowland was not arrested until Tuesday morning, May 31st. National Guard Major Charles Daley stated to the Tulsa World that, “Thousands of persons…armed with every weapon available in the city taken from every hardware and sporting goods store, swarmed on Second street from Boulder to Boston…” The people who stole weapons and ammunition from stores were whites from downtown, not Taylor. Just before 10 pm that night, another white mob stormed the National Guard Armory, demanding that Major James A. Bell give them weapons to attack Greenwood. Bell refused and the crowd dispersed.

Another story is that Taylor single-handedly killed dozens of white attackers on the south side of Standpipe Hill after most of his fellow Greenwood residents abandoned the fight in order to save their homes and families. Former State Representative and principal fundraiser of the Greenwood Cultural Center Don Ross often tells the story of Taylor bracing himself with his peg leg while fending off white attackers alone for more than six hours that night. It would be impossible to verify whether this was true, but at least one personal account—that of Otis Clark—somewhat conflicts with this story. According to Clark, who would have been 18 years old at the time, he was helping to load magazines with bullets for Taylor as they defended Greenwood near Mt. Zion Church. 

Another account of the defenders of Greenwood comes from a written interview with Binkley Wright in Eddie Faye Gates’ book, Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street. Wright, who would have been 12 years old during the time of the Massacre, recounts that  “Jitneys had driven ammunition into the…Greenwood area from downtown. …Peg-Leg and the other black defenders of Greenwood met…behind the steps of Paradise Baptist Church. Then they made a human chain and went up the hill to defend blacks from the white mobs. They told three of us young black boys, Douglas Jackson, Virgil Whiteside, and me, that we could help to defend our people. …Our job was to stay behind the steps of Paradise Church and load and reload guns for the human chain of black defenders.”

Taylor was undoubtedly not afraid to fight, but he did not defend Greenwood alone, nor was he armed with a machine gun. There was a machine gun present at the battle of Standpipe Hill, but it was being driven around Greenwood on a truck by National Guard leaders Major Daley and Lt. Colonel J.F. Rooney. Moreover, the machine gun itself was practically useless. Daly reported it to be old, worn out, damaged by water, difficult to fire and that it could only shoot one round at a time.

Putting the Pieces Together 

Yet another widespread story is that Taylor died defending Greenwood. His name appears in the 1930 Census as living on Lansing Ave. with a son, who is listed only as “G.M.” (Valita is not listed with them, nor is Lena Eloise). His April 1th, 1942 draft card for World War II shows that he was still living in Tulsa. By this time, he was 64 years old.

It is not known when Taylor left Tulsa, but he ended up living in Phoenix, Arizona in the late 1940s and married a third time to a minister and journalist named Nellye Maye Taylor. A newspaper advertisement indicated she was the pastor of Taylor Memorial Interracial Spiritualist Church. The ad proudly declared, “Everybody Welcome.” She was most well-known for writing a regular column called the “Westside Social Roundup” for the African-American newspaper Arizona Sun. The publication began in 1942 and closed its doors in 1965, but it was a significant voice for the Black community in Phoenix during its short existence. The Arizona Memory Project notes that the paper “featured issues of local and national importance, from urging voters to desegregate Arizona schools, to news of the Phoenix Urban League, from labor rights to veterans’ news.”

Taylor passed away at age 73 on July 31st, 1951. His death certificate lists his occupation at the time as minister. One might speculate that he was inspired by Nellye Maye to become a man of the cloth. His wife survived another 46 years, dying on January 26th, 1997. They are both buried in Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona. An article in the Arizona Sun dated August 10, 1951 mentions that a Mrs. Pearl Montgomery of Detroit, Michigan and a Mr. G.A. Taylor were siblings of Horace Taylor. Their ages and places of birth are unknown.

This year, Boston journalist Nia Clark created a podcast named Black Wall Street 1921. During the creation of the podcast, the great-great-granddaughters of Taylor, Kim Johnson and Alice Campbell reached out to Clark and recounted the stories that they had heard growing up from Lena Eloise, Horace Taylor’s daughter. According to Kim and Alice, Horace Taylor and his daughter escaped Greenwood and lived in Kansas for a time. The two became estranged and Lena Eloise eventually made her way back to Oklahoma. 

According to Kim and Alice, they did not know their great-grandmother until they were adults and Eloise, known to them as “Big Mama,” did not tell them anything about the Massacre until 1997. The two sisters feel that it is important to reveal these first-hand accounts and understand their family’s past. They discussed in the podcast that while this understanding can’t change what happened in 1921, it can help break the cycle of pain and uncertainty. For them, knowing what their family went through over generations has helped them to open the doors to healing.

Photo credit: Provided by Horace Taylor’s great-great granddaughter Kim Johnson. This is the only known photo of Horace Taylor. He is standing in the center back row with his wife and baby daughter. Considering the baby’s age and the fact that he was married in 1899, this photo must have been taken some time around 1900.

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