Following the footsteps of the award-winning movie “Watchmen, the awakening surrounding what happened in Tulsa rises in the US.

It is no small feat that one of the most horrific orgies of racial violence was swept under the rug and hidden from the American public eye for decades. 

In 1921, Tulsa, a small Black town in Oklahoma away from the state’s white majority was seen as one example of a shining prosperous Black community at a time when slavery was still common in the US, and most of Africa was colonised. 

But on March 21, 1921, the prosperous Black metropolis looked like disappearing along with the thick black smoke that rose through blazed homes and businesses. 

The horror and violence unleashed upon Tulsa’s Black community by an angry white mob didn't become part of the oft-told American story. Instead, it was pushed down, neglected and kept out of history textbooks until decades later it was brought to light. And even this year, with the 100th anniversary of the massacre being recognised, it’s still an unfamiliar history to many.

“The consequence of that is a sort of a lie that we tell ourselves collectively about who we are as a society, who we have been historical, that’s set some of these things up as aberrations, as exceptions of what we understand society to be rather than endemic or intrinsic parts of American history,” said Joshua Guild, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University.

Homes and businesses owned by black residents were burned to the ground during Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921.
Homes and businesses owned by black residents were burned to the ground during Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921. (AP)

A Black Mecca: Greenwood 

In the early 1900s in a segregated and racially divided America, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was an urban legend.

Down on Black Wall Street, dubbed as “Little Africa'' by whites, Black families spent their earnings in a bustling, booming city within a city. Black-owned grocery stores, cafes, barbershops, a movie theatre, music venues, tailors and dry cleaners, rooming houses and rental properties; Greenwood had it all. 

Although Greenwood is often touted as an 'exception', a senior writer at TheRoot.com pointed out that it wasn't even the most popular "Black Wall Street" at the time and that notion is often touted to preserve the narrative that Black success is 'extraordinary'.

The oil boom and the financial stability allowed Black Tulsans to start businesses, farms and ranches and helped give rise to 'Black Wall Street and thriving Black communities in the state of Oklahoma. The prosperity of those communities attracted many African-Americans from the South, who called this vibrant town “Black Mecca”. 

But “Black Mecca” was a tough dream to sustain in a country where race defined every aspect of life. 

The ruins aftermath of Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921.
The ruins aftermath of Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921. (AP)

Tensions among the white population inflamed when a white-owned newspaper, the Tulsa Tribune published a sensationalised report of a white girl who was sexually assaulted by a young Black man, which turned out to be incorrect. “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” read the Tribune’s headline. 

Over the course of 18 hours after the report, between May 31 and June 1, a racist white mob carried out a scorched-earth campaign against the residents of Greenwood. 

More than 35 city blocks were burned to the ground, as many as 300 Black people were killed. More than 190 businesses were destroyed, and roughly 10,000 Black residents were displaced from the neighbourhood where they had lived, learned, played, worked and prospered.

In Oklahoma, the massacre was barely discussed until a commission was formed in 1997 to investigate the violence. For decades, the state’s public schools called it the Tulsa race riot, if it was discussed at all.

When the fog lifted, insurance companies denied the victims’ loss claims totalling an estimated $1.8 million. That’s $27.3 million in today’s currency. Black residents, nonetheless, rebuilt the area in the decades that followed only to see their work wiped out during the so-called urban progress, or gentrification, of the 1960s.

People watch the documentary
People watch the documentary "Rebuilding Black Wall Street," during a drive-in screening of documentaries during centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 26, 2021. (AP)

Documenting tragedy 

The Tulsa massacre had been largely forgotten or unknown until the award-winning Watchmen which aired in 2019 - and Lovecraft Country which aired a year later shedding light on the dark tragedy - teaching scores of Americans a pivotal history lesson long resigned to a footnote.

“Seeing so many tweets that Watchmen was the first time they heard about Black Wall Street and had no idea that our opening depicted the Tulsa Massacre which had not been taught in US history classes,” star Regina King said a day after the premiere in 2019. 

Following the “Watchmen’s footsteps, the awakening surrounding what happened in Tulsa grows.”

Several documentary filmmakers, backed by NBA stars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook rolled up their sleeves to depict the tragic story of Black Wall Street.

Among them was Stanley Nelson, who co-directed “Tulsa Burning: 1921 Race Massacre” with Marco Williams. Russell Westbrook — who played for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder for 11 seasons — is an executive producer of the documentary.

“This has to do with African Americans systematically being run off their land with assets and property being destroyed,” Stanley Nelson said. 

Celebrated MSNBC correspondent and TV host tweeted a thread on how commonplace and accepted lynchings were and that there is still no anti-lynching law in the US to date

LeBron James’s Spring Hill Company partnered up with director Salima Koroma and last year announced that they would create a documentary that examines the history of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Titled “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street'', it will air on CNN and later be streamed on HBO. 

An Oklahoma native, journalist DeNeen L. Brown, interviewed the descendants of Greenwood residents and business owners for the documentary “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten,” which will be aired on PBS. 

She said all the projects chronicling the massacre are needed for educational purposes since she says most of it was left out of textbooks, newspapers and periodicals from the library. Brown said, even her father, a pastor in Tulsa, had never heard of the massacre until the late 1990s when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed.

“White survivors of the massacre stopped talking about it,” she said. “Black survivors only whispered about it, because there was a real fear among Black people that it could happen again, and it did in other places.”

“(The Tulsa massacre) is not known to the larger community, certainly not known by white America,” said Jonathan Silvers, who worked with Brown as a director on the PBS documentary. “I think the Black American experience has been overshadowed. We white Americans have no idea. That historic violence does cast a very long shadow."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies