Oklahoma’s Atticus is a tale of two Tulsas
Tulsa author Hunter Cates will discuss his debut book Oklahoma’s Atticus: An Innocent Man and the Lawyer Who Fought for Him on Nov. 7 at Magic City Books.
Three days before Easter, 1953, the body of 11-year-old Phyllis Jean Warren was found strangled in a brush pile in the slums of what is now North Tulsa. A 21-year-old Cherokee Indian named Buster Youngwolfe, Warren’s neighbor in the decimated coal town of Dawson, was accused of the killing. After five days of incarceration—with little food and no sleep—he confessed.
Youngwolfe recanted his confession within the day, saying he had been coerced by the sheriff and district attorney offices. No one believed the poor Native kid from Dawson—except Elliot Howe, his public defender. The Tulsa lawyer and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation saw something of himself in Youngwolfe, who was quickly becoming a household name as national media outlets swarmed the story. Howe’s gut told him his client was telling the truth, and he eventually proved him innocent in a court of law.
Now Howe’s grandson, Hunter Cates, tells the story of two Tulsas rocked by the case in his new book, Oklahoma’s Atticus: An Innocent Man and the Lawyer Who Fought for Him. The author will discuss his debut on Nov. 7 at Magic City Books. I talked to Cates about his grandfather, the legendary case, and life in midcentury Tulsa.
* * *
Jezy J. Gray: I first read your essay about this case, “Youngwolfe Accused,” in This Land in 2013. How did you write your way from there to this book?
Hunter Cates: I wrote it based on the magazine articles. [The case] had been covered in Redbook, Newsweek and some true crime detective stories. But I suspected that there was a lot more to it, so I went to the library and looked through old-style microfilm and discovered it was covered several times a day, every day, for three months. I saw how deep the story went.
So I had written the “Youngwolfe Accused” article, and then a former teacher of mine, Joli Jensen—formerly at the University of Tulsa—read it and said, ‘You should turn this into a book.’ That wasn’t an intention of mine, at least in the near term, so she offered to help me with it and coach the book along. And she actually met with an agent independently, mentioned the book, and the agent said it sounded interesting. And that’s how I got in contact with Bison Press [an imprint of University of Nebraska Press]. So, if not for a teacher, yeah. It was very fortuitous. A lot of happenstance came into that, and all thanks to Professor Jensen.
Gray: Take us to Dawson, Buster Youngwolfe’s hometown. What kind of place was it, and who lived there?
Cates: It was essentially North Tulsa—north Yale. There had been a lot of coal. Tulsa was the oil capital of the world. It was likewise the coal capital, in many ways. The Dawson area had a couple of coal companies, but then they left in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and left a lot of poverty in their wake. And not just poverty. There had been destruction to the land. They dug strip mines, [which] actually gathered water to the point they were practically streams.
For the people who remained, there were no jobs and they were living in tar paper shacks, which were about two or three rooms, maybe 500 square feet with ceilings so low you would actually bump your head on them. Dirt floors. And it would be several generations to a home. I would equate it to medieval serfdom, where you have multiple people all occupying the same space.
Work was scarce, and that was one of Buster’s problems. He couldn’t find a job. He was an itinerant roofer and he lived with his wife, his infant son, his mother and his mother’s husband. … It was an altogether unpleasant place to live. And the impression I get from reading the coverage is that a lot of people didn’t know about this. Troy Gordon did a front-page Tulsa World story on this area, and the tone was almost like, ‘My God. This is below Dickensian. This is unimaginable that people are living in these conditions.’
Gray: Why do you think your grandpa believed Buster when he said he didn’t kill Phyllis Jean Warren?
Cates: One of the reasons why he opened up to my grandfather and gave him the whole story is because my grandfather was a quarter Creek Indian. So they had that connection … Buster Youngwolfe realized that he had no alternative at this point, so he wound up trusting my grandfather. And like I said, no one believed him except my grandfather. It was because, perhaps, they had that connection sharing the Native American experience in Oklahoma at that point in time.
It was primarily a gut feeling. But truthfully it was kind of scary when I read over all the stuff that the authorities did and did not do. It was pretty blatant that Buster was railroaded. It’s just people were so convinced he did it, they didn’t see the forest for the trees—or perhaps more nefariously, more sinisterly, they actually manipulated the situation to look like he did do it. So I play devil’s advocate in the book and consider both options. Either A.) They thought Buster did it, and they were willing to do what they needed to do just to connect the dots. Or B.) They were connecting the dots themselves and framing him.
Gray: Was this a story you grew up with in your family?
Cates: Yeah. This story is what I would call a triumph of the oral tradition, which of course for centuries was the only way stories were passed down until we started writing them down. … It was something I was aware of. It was said tongue-in-cheek. I think I’d watched or read To Kill a Mockingbird and my mother said, ‘You know, your grandfather had a similar situation to that,’ and then explained it. Then I read the Redbook article which went into detail, and I talked to my grandfather about it a little bit. But he was always the silent type. He was never the type to go into great detail. He just jokingly said, ‘Oh, yeah, they made a movie about that.’
It occurred to me eventually, after he died: Oral tradition can only go for so long, and it’s only so reliable. So I wanted to record it, which is what inspired the This Land article. I was at David Graham’s talk the other day at the presidential lecture series at TU, and that was something that kept on coming up over and over again. This was forgotten. And likewise, the Tulsa Race Massacre, in many ways has been at risk of being forgotten. And so that was what inspired this in many ways. To make sure this aspect of Tulsa history, and family history, was not was not lost forever.
Gray: What does Buster’s case say about the kind of place Tulsa was at midcentury, and how does it inform who we are today?
Cates: I would expand it beyond Tulsa, because I think it’s important to consider this isn’t strictly a Tulsa thing. I would say it is, in many cases, an American thing. It seems like every city in the nation has a ‘have-nots’ section and a ‘haves’ section. Every city as a tale of two cities, and that was certainly the case for Tulsa in the 1950s. It was called “America’s most beautiful city” by Reader’s Digest in the 1950s. But then if you just go north of Admiral, all of a sudden you’re confronting unbelievable poverty. … It was almost as if there was a part of the city that did not get to enjoy the same privileges as everyone else, even down to the application of the law.
Gray: Obviously this something we’re still living with. I’m thinking of Corey Atchison, who was found innocent and released after spending 28 years in jail on murder charges.
Cates: You hear more and more about that all the time. As there are advances in forensic technology, people are going free—which is equally disturbing. You think of how many people were put to death who might have been innocent. That’s very troubling. … I encourage readers to check out the Innocence Project, which is an organization focused on using the latest advances in forensics to help people [who have been] wrongly imprisoned.
I’m not at a point where I can say definitively [Oklahoma’s Atticus] is a heroes vs. villains kind of story. I do think a lot of that was in play, and a lot of that is in play. It’s also the pressure law enforcement is under this in this situation, certainly. [Phyllis Jean Warren] had been missing for a month. … They were covered on a daily basis by the news and they cut corners, and people got hurt as a consequence. I don’t have a definitive answer about how to fix this. But I do want to point out that it’s wrong. I wanted to shine a light on someone who did the right thing, despite the pressure to do the wrong thing. Because everyone else under pressure did the wrong thing.