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‘Justice looks like telling the story’: the long buried story of the Tulsa race massacre

In 1921, a white mob destroyed a black neighborhood in one of the country’s worst episodes of racial violence. A new film traces the echoes of violence, long whitewashed from textbooks, into the present

By Adrian Horton | The Guardian | May 29, 2021

On the night of 31 May 1921, a white mob descended upon the prosperous, all-black neighborhood of Greenwood, in north Tulsa, Oklahoma. In less than 24 hours, the mob – enraged over the thwarted lynching attempt of a 19-year-old black shoeshiner who probably stepped, accidentally, on a white elevator attendant’s foot – burned what had been known as “Black Wall Street” to the ground, destroying more than 1,200 black businesses, churches and homes and leaving over 10,000 residents homeless. The exact death toll was not recorded, but Red Cross estimates at the time put it upwards of 300 black people. Survivors recounted planes flown by white pilots that dropped kerosene bombs from above, and recalled witnessing dozens of black bodies dropped from bridges into the Arkansas River, or into mass graves.

The 1921 Tulsa massacre was one of the most deadly acts of mass racial violence in the United States, but for decades, it went unknown by even close descendants of the survivors – silenced by fear of reprisal, and whitewashed from history books. Though Tulsa police allowed the rioters to burn one of the most successful black neighborhoods in the country, even deputizing some looters, no one was ever held responsible for the losses.

But with the centennial this weekend, a year after Black Lives Matter protests across the country following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor turned the national spotlight on the injustice of Tulsa and the country’s corrosive amnesia over racial violence, there’s renewed momentum on seeking justice for the losses, and a slew of memorials tracing the long shadow of inequity, distortion and silence cast by the massacre.

“It’s not a movie, it’s not a chapter in a book,” said DeNeen L Brown, a Washington Post reporter whose coverage of reparations efforts in Tulsa are featured in the new PBS documentary Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, told the Guardian. “It happened to real people.”

The violence, long buried in official records and skipped over in school, also reverberates into the present – the PBS film not only revisits archival evidence of the massacre, but examines the city’s current struggle to grapple with systemic racism, de facto segregation and police brutality in the present. “Everything that happened [in 2020] plays into what happened in Tulsa,” Jonathan Silvers, the film’s director, told the Guardian. “Tulsa is very much a microcosm, and all the issues that the country is continuing to confront or struggle with are writ large in that town.”

Case in point: Silvers’ team follows Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, tense in Tulsa as in thousands of cities and towns across the country, foregrounded by the 2016 killing of Tulsa resident Terence Crutcher, who was shot as he stood, unarmed, next to his vehicle in the middle of a street. (A 2019 Human Rights Watch report found that Tulsa’s black residents “disproportionately receive aggressive treatment by police”.) A counter-insurgency of armed, mostly white men demonstrated the unnervingly small distance traveled from photos of armed white rioters 99 years before.

Brown has explored that short, obscured distance in a series of articles for the Post since 2018, after a trip to Tulsa to visit her father, a reverend in North Tulsa. Sitting in a cafe on Black Wall Street, Brown surveyed “a minor league baseball stadium, a yoga studio, and this gleaming new luxury apartment complex”, she recalled. “And I think to myself, my goodness, Black Wall Street has been gentrified.”

A team of forensic archeologists excavate a suspected mass grave site at Tulsa’s Oaklawn cemetery. Photograph: Jonathan Silvers/Saybrook Productions Ltd

Brown’s paternal family hailed from in and around Tulsa, but she rarely heard mention of the massacre growing up. “Black people really didn’t say a lot about the massacre for fear that it would happen again,” she said. Knowing the history changed her view of the development of historic Greenwood Avenue. “All of this is sacred ground, because historic Greenwood incorporated 35 square blocks,” she recalled thinking. “And to see a baseball stadium, a burger shop, all that kind of stuff – it was jarring.”

The repaving of hallowed, haunted ground prompted Brown to return to Tulsa, to cover reparations and restoration efforts long stalled by threats of further violence and, more recently, bureaucratic debates over how to proceed with evidence suggesting a mass grave in a large public cemetery downtown. (The film includes footage of the Oaklawn Cemetery excavation from October 2020, which uncovered 10 unidentified bodies; it remains unclear if the remains are related to the massacre, and updates on further investigation of them is expected this June.)

Silvers, a veteran documentarian of war crimes abroad, first learned of the Tulsa massacre from Brown’s reporting in 2018. “I was shocked because I had never heard of mass graves in my country, certainly not related to an episode of racial violence,” he said. “I knew about Jim Crow, I knew about lynchings, I knew about isolated events, but I did not know not only was there an era for probably 40 years of mass racial violence, which is tantamount to racial terrorism.

“You couldn’t find it in textbooks – I got a pretty good education, and nowhere did I hear about the era or event,” he said.

Photograph: Courtesy of University of Tulsa - McFarlin Library Special Collections

Silvers, Brown and producer Eric Stover, founder of the Human Rights Center at University of California, Berkeley School of Law and a seasoned investigator of war crimes, began shooting in Tulsa in September of 2019. The goal, said Silvers, was “to look at the crime, but more importantly to look at the impact of that crime in the present day”.

Thus Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, one of several documentary projects on Tulsa timed to air with the centennial, spends only about a third of its time on the events of 1921 itself.

The bulk of the exploration traces the massacre’s fallout into the present, from the local bureaucratic disputes over the excavation of supposed mass graves in a public ceremony, to descendants’ emotional search for evidence of lost family, to the racism still evident in Tulsa’s disproportionately high poverty and arrest rates for black residents. A host of local black activists and entrepreneurs interviewed by the film-makers attest to the long fight to amend lack of opportunity and historic recognition in the city.

In the years since Brown began reporting on reparations efforts and Silvers began filming, momentum has shifted toward national recognition of one of the country’s worst stains of racial violence. The 2019 HBO mini-series Watchmen, which was partially set in Tulsa, dramatized the massacre in its opening episode, thus introducing the story to scores of viewers probably unfamiliar with its history. Just last week, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, one of three remaining survivors of the massacre, testified before a House subcommittee to support the Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act, which would provide survivors and descendants access to the courts to seek restitution for losses in 1921, long denied by statute of limitations requirements.

“There has to be a point in the story where there’s an acknowledgment of the generational pain that was caused by the massacre,” said Brown. “Justice looks like telling the story, listening to the story, listening to survivors and, according to my reporting, justice looks like reparations.”

On a larger scale, especially for white Americans, the decades of obfuscation of a white mob’s destruction in Tulsa demonstrate how “America doesn’t really know who we are,” said Silvers. “If we don’t know about an era of racial terror, how can we make informed decisions?”

The film, as well as the numerous other tributes and investigations timed to the centennial but, said Silvers, hopefully not locked to it, is “just a reflection of a desperate need for truth to be told”.

  • Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten premieres on PBS on 31 May

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