3 Documentaries You Should Watch About The Tulsa Race Massacre
If all you know about the Tulsa Race Massacre is the re-creations of the attack featured in HBO series like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, prepare yourself for a serious education over the next few weeks.
Monday marks the 100th anniversary for one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history, the Tulsa Race Massacre. Back in 1921, a mob of white people tore down and burned the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Okla. — a segregated part of the city so prosperous and bustling, it was known as Black Wall Street.
Jump to reviews of Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre (The History Channel, May 30), Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street (CNN and HBO Max, May 31), and Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten (PBS, May 31).
According to some historians, over 1,200 homes and buildings were destroyed by the violence, killing between 100 and 300 people. But thanks to white-dominated power structures in the city of Tulsa and state of Oklahoma, news about the massacre was wiped from many official sources for decades (several fans of Watchmen and Lovecraft Country have told me they had never heard of the massacre before these fictional TV shows dramatized the attack during their episodes last year and in 2019).
All that will likely change over the next week and beyond, as a flood of programs centered on the Tulsa Race Massacre come to television. From enterprise reporting efforts at ABC, CBS and NBC to projects on National Geographic, CNN, The History Channel and PBS, there are a wide array of documentary films and TV programs aimed at reminding Americans just how deadly unchecked racism can be.
After watching the films offered by The History Channel, CNN and PBS, I saw common themes emerge. First was the power of white society to control what history is recognized, to erase uncomfortable truths and resist efforts to dig up the truth (sometimes literally, as when officials ended early attempts to find mass graves of massacre victims in 1999). Several films featured comments from longtime white residents of Tulsa, including its current mayor, G.T. Bynum, who said they didn't even learn the Tulsa Race Massacre had happened until they were adults.
Such insistence on erasing Black pain from a community's official history creates, by necessity, a shadow history kept among people of color and passed along, often by word of mouth. White America may have tried to forget Tulsa, but the massacre's details lived in the stories of Black survivors and their descendants, handed down like bitter family heirlooms.
(Even worse, for a journalist like me, was to realize the role the media played back then — both in whipping up white fears about Black people through horrifically racist films and newspaper stories, while disappearing news of attacks and lynchings once white people took action.)
The second painful truth was the lasting damage such attacks can have on a people. According to CNN's film, 191 Black-owned business stood in the Greenwood district before the massacre, including one of the finest hotels in the country. These days, there are fewer than a dozen Black-owned businesses in that same area, now reduced to a block-long main drag with modest establishments like a barbershop, health clinic and coffee shop.
Generations of Black wealth were erased in the massacre. Tulsa's racial segregation and the struggle of its Black community remains.
Some people pop up in multiple documentaries, including the Rev. Robert Turner, the sharp-dressing pastor of Historic Vernon AME Church. His church's basement hid survivors of the massacre 100 years ago; more recently, Turner is shown regularly visiting Tulsa's City Hall with a bullhorn, reminding residents of the need for memory and reparations.
"Pastoring a church where the members died and the survivors never saw justice, that aggravated my spirit," Turner says in the History Channel documentary. "It's an embarrassment that we have never had a district attorney investigate the worst crime in this city's history."
Historian Hannibal B. Johnson talks about how Black people enslaved by Native Americans were freed and given land, forming the early basis for the Greenwood district's wealth. And several experts also speak of the effort to find the rumored unmarked mass graves where Black people who were killed in the massacre may have been interred.
Most importantly, the films show how history's broad trends can feed into a singular disaster. As Southern states ratcheted up racialized violence and racially oppressive laws to snatch back Black voting rights, a generation of Black veterans who had served America in World War I were no longer willing to accept the indignities of indiscriminate racial oppression.
When a large group of Black people showed up in Tulsa to stop the lynching of a young Black man unfairly accused of sexually assaulting a white female elevator operator — white crowds had been incited by incendiary, unfair coverage from The Tulsa Tribune — a white man tried to grab a gun from a Black man. A struggle ensued, the gun went off, and the white mob had their excuse to obliterate Black Wall Street over two days of brutal violence.
Here are capsule reviews of three powerful films I found most compelling, from The History Channel, CNN and PBS. Watch at least one of them to learn the kind of American history that should have been taught in classrooms and from schoolbooks nationwide for the past 100 years.
Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, airing on The History Channel (May 30)
This is easily the most cinematic of the three documentaries — small surprise, given its pedigree. Co-directed and executive produced by Emmy-winner Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders), the film is also executive produced by NBA superstar Russell Westbrook, featuring original music from Branford Marsalis. The story begins with words from Rev. Turner's bullhorn, unspooling into an epic tale of how Black people migrated to Tulsa and built a bustling, successful business district, keeping dollars in the Black community until two days of mob violence destroyed it all. Archival footage of Greenwood, looking impossibly clear and vivid, appears next to photos and inspired commentary from experts like The New York Times columnist Brent Staples and historian Scott Ellsworth. The result is a detailed, evocative story of the massacre and its connection to modern Tulsa, including a renewed, modern effort to find mass graves. This compelling film is also paired with a six-part podcast produced by The History Channel and WNYC Studios in collaboration with KOSU public radio in Oklahoma, dubbed Blindspot: Tulsa Burning.
Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street, debuting on CNN and streaming on HBO Max (May 31)
This film features another NBA star, LeBron James, as an executive producer, adding evocative animation sequences to newsreel footage and archival photos to re-create scenes from 100 years ago. CNN's film traces a history similar to Tulsa Burning, bringing cameras to modern Tulsa's modest Greenwood district to show off small businesses continuing a historic legacy, as detailed maps display how much the area has shrunk from its successful heights 100 years ago. While Black people in 1921 enjoyed a community one expert says was like Bourbon Street, Harlem and Washington D.C. rolled into one, racist and resentful white Tulsans used pejorative phrases like "Little Africa" and "N*****town" to describe the area. Named for a popular theater in the Greenwood district, Dreamland uses actors to read powerful quotes from politicians and publications of the time, including Tulsa's mayor during the massacre, T. D. Evans, who blamed the Black victims of the attack for "instigating" a "negro uprising." Rev. Turner also shows up here, pointing out areas in his church's basement where victims huddled while the top floors of the church were destroyed. "I believe there is no expiration date on morality," the pastor says, explaining why he remains an aggressive advocate for uncovering the mass graves and finding justice for the city's Black community.
Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, premiering on PBS (May 31)
For a more personal story, consider this film, focused on the work of longtime Washington Post journalist DeNeen L. Brown, whose reporting on the Tulsa Race Massacre has spread word about the history of the attack. Brown, whose father lives in Tulsa and is a pastor at a Baptist church in town, is shown interviewing descendants of attack victims and experts leading the modern effort to find and exhume unmarked graves. She also serves as a producer on the film, alongside human rights investigator Eric Stover, who is featured in interviews as an expert source; the film is narrated by NPR's own Michel Martin, weekend host of All Things Considered. Viewers learn of failed efforts to sue the government for failing to protect the community — descendants were told the statute of limitations had passed. And the film shows how graphic photos of the destruction were turned into postcards and distributed by some white people. Here, the search for evidence of unmarked graves is presented as a bit of a cliffhanger, as experts work to identify likely areas for the remains, hoping to prove they are the discarded bodies of massacre victims. "Oftentimes, Black people are called on camera after something racist occurs to explain racism ... to explain what happened," Brown says in one moment. "But I can't explain why white people hate black people so much."
This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory, and adapted for the web by Eric Deggans and Petra Mayer.
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