Did You Know…
This Week in Sapulpa History – Remembering Sapulpa’s First African-American Police Officer
Rachel Whitney, Curator, Sapulpa Historical Museum
On this date, November 28, 1921, in the middle of the night, an automobile accident occurred “near Pageant grounds” outside of Sapulpa. One car was heading out of town, towards Mounds, when it clipped another car. Two riders in one vehicle, and at least three in the other. They gathered around the wreckage and examined the damages. Someone shouted. And someone pulled out a weapon. And shots were heard from the nearby ranch.
A few years earlier in 1913, the Nelson family moved to Sapulpa. The first known black officer of Sapulpa was Richard C. Nelson. Nelson first appeared in Sapulpa City Directories as a “Patrolman”. He and his wife lived at 208 N Hickory with their children. Mrs. Nelson worked at the Meat Market in their home. In early Sapulpa days, grocery stores and mercantile stores were often operating at the proprietor’s home, and this was no different.
It is unsure where the Nelsons were originally from before moving to Sapulpa, but the family earned a great reputation in town.
In his first year as a patrolman, two main incidents would affect Nelson for the rest of his life. He made the headlines and was praised for his help in arresting a thief from Lincoln County. In September 1913, the thief had “raided the confiscated liquor store room of the Lincoln County Sheriff”. Patrolman Nelson started off his career with high marks, and he would soon earn a promotion.
Not even a full year later, the headlines reflected a day of terror for Nelson. “Officer’s Narrow Escape - Colored Officer Nelson Was Shot in the Face.” On August 6th, 1914, Officer Nelson was on duty, arresting a drunk woman. The woman’s male friend witnessed her distress when being cuffed and decided to help her escape. During the altercation, the male friend pulled out a gun and aimed it at Officer Nelson. Officer Nelson “grabbed it in time to save his life. The shot missed its mark but Nelson’s face was badly powder burned. It was a close call.”
Little did Officer Nelson know that not even seven years later, a similar wound would kill him.
The next four years, Officer Nelson made news in Sapulpa papers for his career arrests and assists. Officer Nelson would often appear in the Oklahoma black newspaper, The Black Dispatch, for his significant work in the Sapulpa community. By 1918, Richard Nelson was promoted to Deputy Sheriff. Note: Although his position rose from first black patrolman officer and deputy sheriff, his jurisdiction was in the prominent black communities of Sapulpa and Creek County. No one could have predicted the violent end of his life.
Deputy Sheriff Richard C. Nelson was killed exactly one hundred years ago today, on November 28, 1921. Deputy Sheriff Nelson wanted to cash his check and invited his friends, Dave Croston* and Floyd Connor, to tag along. Croston worked in a garage. Connor lived “at Beggs”. Note: *Dave Croston’s name appears in articles and city directories as “Croston” or “Coston”.
Legus Brown worked alongside the police department as the Native American interpreter for the Agency in 1907. He would later work as a farmer and in real estate. He and his brother, Thomas Brown, are related to one of the most well known Native American families in the Sapulpa area, Sam Brown. Legus lived at 119 S Birch; Thomas lived at “Stone Bluff”.
These five men would be involved with the quarrel on this night in 1921.
Each article of Sapulpa newspapers and Oklahoma City newspapers described this night ever-so-slightly differently compared to one another. However, all had the following details in their articles. Connor stated “they drove south of the paved road...they [sped up to] pass a big car…[when] Nelson’s rear hit the front bumper of the big car.” Nelson had cut off the other car, and unfortunately, the cars had collided.
Nelson pulled off, turned his lights on, kept his engine running, and stepped out. Croston stepped out, as well, to examine the damage. Connor remained in the car.
The Stanely family ranch was near the scene. The son, Jesse Stanely, was an eyewitness and said that the two members from the big car ran up to the officer’s car. He heard three shots in the distance, two close together and one a moment later. Then, the large Ford took off twice as fast as it had arrived.
Connor ran off when the shooting began. He would testify that he heard Croston shouting “Please, don’t shoot me” before the last shot of the night was fired.
When Sheriff D.B. Livingston arrived, he found the still warm body of Deputy Sheriff Nelson and Dave Croston with bullet wounds to their heads. Edward Glass, owner of Glass Funeral Home, for the black community of Sapulpa, testified that Nelson had two bullet holes to the head and Croston had one. Both were killed instantly.
Legus Brown, that same evening, walked into the police station and confessed to the killings. He said he and Thomas were “pushed into the gutter,” and reacted in self defense. In the car with them were women and a child. They believed they were all in danger.
Although it is not stated in any newspaper articles if the women made it to the stand during the Brown’s trial, the defense gathered many testimonies from the community that these men were “peaceful, law abiding citizens.”
Originally, the Browns were arrested for the killings of Officer Nelson and Croston. However, Judge A.E. Piltz released Thomas on lack of evidence of possibly having two shooters. Legus Brown remained in jail during the trial for the next few months.
The Prosecutor, Attorney Frank Hickman, argued that since Legus Brown admitted to the shooting, and included that his brother was with him in the statement, they both should be held accountable. The Defense, Attorney R.B. Thompson, argued that since both “had borne such good reputations for years would not have shot the other men except in self defense.”
Witnesses and testimonies also included L.A. Stanley (Stanley ranch, father of Jesse) who also heard the gunshots, Chief of Police Ralph Morey was alongside the sheriff as first on the scene, and Dr. B.C. Schwab released the coroner's results. Character witnesses’ list had a few powerful names for the defense; such as “Joe Bruner, John Egan, Emery Timmons, William Sapulpa, Dick Smith, George Willoughby, William C. Rupert, J.H.N. Cobb, Abner Bruch, Frank Gilbert, James Marrs, Max Meyers, Jasper Cox, Levi Jones, and Henry Gray.”
Legus Brown was acquitted for the deaths of Dave Croston and Deputy Sheriff Richard Nelson.
Note: Deputy Sheriff Nelson and Mrs. Nelson had at least thirteen children. Mrs. Nelson and the children lived at home until 1924, shortly after Richard’s death. The family moved to Detroit by 1931. In a memorial column, The Michigan Chronicle wrote an article on the Nelson family. One of the thirteen children, William Nelson, described his father being an officer in Sapulpa: “William Nelson is proud that his father, Richard C. Nelson, was once considered the fastest gun in Oklahoma...members of his family were recognized as Creek County community leaders among White residents as well as Black ones.”
The information found on this page has been researched through Sapulpa (and area) newspapers, Sapulpa Historical Society archives, books, and photographs, Sapulpa yearbooks, city directories, and other local authors. Any other sources will be labeled and named as the research continues. Any mistakes will be noted and adjusted as needed.