One hundred years ago, one of the worst instances of racial violence in U.S. history erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob attacked the city’s Greenwood district, dubbed the “Black Wall Street,” and inflicted two days of terror. It’s not known exactly how many people died, but historians estimate that hundreds were killed. Several dozen city blocks were destroyed. Thousands of residents were left homeless. Low-flying planes and machine guns were among the weapons used to devastate the prosperous Black community.
For decades, the white establishment tried to erase the story from school lesson plans, local newspapers and history itself. Then in 2019, the Emmy-winning HBO series “Watchmen” sparked a wave of interest in the little-known tragedy.
The show inspired by a comic book depicted chilling scenes of what happened there. Viewers were shocked to realize that the assault on Greenwood was a real event grounded in horrifying facts.
Of course, there is much more to the story of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and efforts to uncover its truths. Timed to the centennial commemorations, five documentaries will provide detailed accounts of what happened and why it’s relevant now. They include:
• “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre,” from director by Stanley Nelson (“Freedom Riders”) and executive producer and NBA star Russell Westbrook (8 p.m. Sunday, History Channel).
• “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten,” produced and reported by Washington Post journalist DeNeen Brown (9 p.m. Monday, PBS)
• “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street,” made in collaboration with NBA star LeBron James’ Springhill Entertainment company. (9 p.m. Monday, CNN).
• “Tulsa 1921: An American Tragedy,” anchored by Gayle King (10 p.m. Monday, CBS).
• “The Legacy of Black Wall Street” (10 p.m. Tuesday and June 8, OWN; streaming on Discovery+).
And that’s not counting “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer,” which arrives June 18, the day before Juneteenth celebrations of the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans, on the National Geographic network. Or a new podcast called “Blindspot: Tulsa Burning.” Or the new book by a University of Michigan lecturer that earned good reviews in the New York Times.
It’s an outpouring of remembrance that is long overdue. Here are four of the storytellers who are bringing the Tulsa race massacre into the spotlight and revealing how relevant it remains today.
More:President Joe Biden to visit Tulsa to mark Tulsa Race Massacre centennial
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The reporter: DeNeen Brown
When DeNeen Brown was visiting her father in Tulsa in 2018, “I said to my dad, ‘Let’s go have lunch on Black Wall Street.’”
While eating at a soul food cafe in the heart of Greenwood’s historic district, she saw a changing landscape that started her on a journey to the PBS documentary.
Says Brown of the moment, “I see a minor league baseball stadium. I see a luxury apartment complex high-rise. I see a yoga studio. I see a yogurt shop. These are all the signs of gentrification, which I actually had written about in D.C.”
The award-winning journalist from the Washington Post knew the history of the massacre and realized the inherent contradictions in trendy stores emerging on what felt like sacred ground. Encouraged by her editor, she went back to Tulsa to do extensive reporting for a story on the unanswered questions of Greenwood.
Days after her article ran, the Rev. Robert Turner, a Tulsa activist, took a copy of it to a community meeting where Mayor G.T. Bynum was talking about plans for development in north Tulsa.
Says Brown: “He held my story, and he said to the mayor, ‘You wouldn’t have this land to develop had it not been for the massacre that occurred in 1921. What are you going to do about that?’”
In the wake of the Post story, Bynum decided to reopen a search for possible mass graves of massacre victims, a move that had been recommended in 2001 by the state’s Tulsa Race Riot Commission and then shelved by the city.
Brown was trailed during her continuing coverage of Tulsa by filmmaker Jonathan Silvers, who had emailed her asking whether he could follow and film her. Although she is more comfortable off-camera with a pen and notepad, she agreed.
That was the beginning of the PBS documentary “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten,” reported and produced by Brown and directed by Silvers.
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020, Brown was too committed to the Greenwood story to follow it remotely.
“I would be afraid to go to the grocery store. … But the minute the city of Tulsa announced it was going to excavate for mass graves, I bought my ticket. And then I got on an airplane. I had my face mask and shield on, literally terrified of flying into Tulsa, (but) knowing that the story was so important for me to tell.”
The first excavations in the search for mass graves began in July 2020, a few months after the killing of George Floyd sparked a huge racial justice movement.
Brown says she saw “the connective dots between the massacre and the continued cries for justice, the cries to end oppression, the cries to end racism, the pain that Black people feel. I understand it. I live it.”
Yet she is optimistic about the potential for healing. “When we take the time to talk to people and really try to get them to understand the pain of racism, sometimes it clicks. I’ve seen people recently who’ve come to me and said to me, ‘Now I understand. … I’m going to actively engage to fight racism.'”
Says Brown: “People can change. There is hope. There is a lot of hope.”
The director: Dawn Porter
Dawn Porter had a full plate when she was approached about helming a project on the Tulsa massacre. She already was working on “The Me You Can’t See,” the Apple TV+ series from Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry on mental health issues.
But Porter couldn’t turn down the chance to do a film examining the parallels between century-old racial violence and the current climate.
“Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” (which also features Washington Post reporter Brown in a prominent role) gets its subtitle from the period in 1919 when terror rained on Black Americans across the country, from East St. Louis to Chicago to Washington, D.C., and beyond.
The Red Summer refers to the return of African American soldiers from World War I. After risking their lives in battle overseas, they wanted a fair deal and better treatment at home. But the notion of equality for Black citizens spurred a backlash of killings and the burning of homes and businesses, a terrible preview of what was to come in Tulsa.
Porter details the three days of carnage that erupted in the small town of Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919, illustrating that Greenwood was no isolated target.
She says the patterns of what spurs racial violence toward Blacks persist today: economic envy, the fallacy of white supremacy, baseless accusations of white women being accosted by Black men.
In one segment, viral contemporary clips are shown of white women calling the police with unjustified complaints against Black people. In the film, such white privilege behavior is compared to “a massacre of the spirit.”
Porter says the purpose of the film isn’t to wallow in past suffering, but to understand its origins. She named the film “Rise Again” to acknowledge the strength needed to overcome racism and achieve remarkable success, as 1921 Greenwood had before the massacre.
“I emerged from this with such a great degree of pride and I hope (viewers) see that, too. I know it’s a tough watch, but you have to understand the remarkable accomplishments. You have to understand the adversity. You have to understand where people started to appreciate where they got to.”
Where others might see competition in the flood of Tulsa documentaries, Porter sees a communal mission. “I am thrilled there are so many projects. It’s so much harder to ignore these facts when they’re so prevalent,” she says.
The historian: Scott Ellsworth
Scott Ellsworth recounts how in the late 1940s, a Black survivor of the Tulsa massacre appeared at a class at the all-white University of Tulsa.
None of the students had heard about the event before and it was difficult for them to believe it really happened, even with proof right there in front of them.
Says Ellsworth, “That would be like a young person growing up in Manhattan today and not having any knowledge of 9/11, of the World Trade Center, no photographs available, no museum, no memorial, (everything) just wiped clean.”
Ellsworth had overheard things about the massacre while growing up in a white neighborhood in Tulsa in the 1960s, “You’d occasionally hear older adults, maybe neighbors or something, talk about this. But when you’d show up, they’d change the subject or lower their voices. I had heard these stories of bodies floating down the Arkansas River … but it was impossible to learn anything.”
As a history student in the mid-1970s, he began gathering information by interviewing massacre survivors and witnesses. Today, he is a leading scholar on the massacre. His latest book, “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice,” (Dutton, $28) has drawn praise from the Oprah Daily website, Beto O’Rourke and the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Ellsworth, a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s department of AfroAmerican and African Studies, agrees that “Watchmen” helped spread public awareness of the Tulsa massacre. But he says the big breakthrough came in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing.
According to Ellsworth, a few days after the bombing, Oklahoma state Rep. Don Ross, a prominent civil rights activist who represents Greenwood, met with then-“Today” anchor Bryant Gumbel and told him another horrific story needed telling. Ross gave Gumbel a copy of Ellsworth’s 1982 book, “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” a groundbreaking account of the massacre.
That led to Ross and Ellsworth being contacted by a “Today” producer for a 75th-anniversary segment on the massacre that prompted more publicity. Then in 1998, Ellsworth became an adviser to the newly created Tulsa Race Riot Commission. He helped initiate a search for possible mass graves that involved a team that included forensic scientists. The plan was shut down in 2000, which he chalked up to politics.
When those efforts were revived by Tulsa’s mayor in 2018, Ellsworth was asked to return to the investigation. In October 2020, excavations led to the discovery of a dozen unmarked graves in Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery that are thought to be of massacre victims.
The process of exhuming and trying to identify the remains will begin in June, says Ellsworth, with the ultimate goal of burying them with honor.
Ellsworth credits “the grace and courage” of Black survivors with helping the world learn the truth about Tulsa. They were reluctant to talk about the trauma or burden their families with it, much like many Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans. But they spoke up for the dead who no longer had a voice.
“My work is in part to honor them and the chances they took in just wanting to help get this story out,” says Ellsworth.
KalaLea, host and producer, ‘Blindspot: Tulsa Burning’ podcast
In the opening minutes of her latest podcast, KalaLea points out that no white perpetrators were ever charged with larceny, arson, murder or anything else for the Tulsa massacre, even as they flaunted the jewelry, furs and other possessions stolen from the homes of Black people.
“So when I think about what happened to Greenwood, to that community of people who look like me, people whose skin was brown like mine, people who liked nice things, like me … I just can’t imagine how those two traumatic days reverberated in every cell of their bodies, in every move that they made from that moment forward,” she says.
“And I think about their children’s bodies and how generation upon generation absorbs an event like this and how its memory mutates from one descendant to the next.”
“Blindspot: Tulsa Burning” is a six-part podcast from the History channel and WNYC Studios that’s hosted, reported and produced by KalaLea, an audio journalist who has done stories for NPR’s Latino USA and the New Yorker Radio Hour. The first episode debuted Friday.
Using the probing nature and unique intimacy of the podcast form, KalaLea dives into some emotion-filled territory. “We really give more focus, I think, to the trauma that is experienced when you are a victim or survivor of racial terrorism,” says KalaLea.
The podcast draws on interviews with distinct sources like Chief Egunwale Amusan, an activist and tour guide who compares the former Greenwood to “walking into a 1921 version of Wakanda, and Resmaa Menakem, a psychotherapist and author of “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.”
KalaLea says what keeps playing over and over in her mind as she works on the series is how racial violence keeps happening, again and again without accountability.
“It’s astonishing to me I am here because I know that my ancestors had to contend with a lot of the same disrespect, discrimination, racial violence.”
According to her, one issue must not get lost in the centennial spotlight: What happens next? Where does all this attention go in 2022 or 2023?
“If you look back on George Floyd and the protests, where do things stand now? … What has changed?… We have to continue the conversation,” she says.
Right now, she isn’t making predictions about whether this week’s coverage of the Tulsa massacre will have any long-term impact. Says KalaLea, “It will be, let’s see.”
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at email@example.com.
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