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Tulsa race massacre: 100 years later, these 5 documentaries explore ‘a mass atrocity … hidden from history’

Tulsa race massacre: 100 years later, these 5 documentaries explore ‘a mass atrocity … hidden from history’

One hundred years ago, the 35 square blocks of the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were known as Black Wall Street, “a nationally-renowned entrepreneurial center” and “a dynamic business hub rife with risk-takers and deal makers,” according to Tulsa2021.org. That is until May 30, 1921, when “[a] chance encounter between two teenagers lit the fuse that set Greenwood District alight.”

The following days, on May 31 and June 1, white men rampaged through the area, killing people and destroying millions of dollars of property. They flew overhead in airplanes, firing rifles and dropping fire bombs. They prevented firefighters from putting out fires. Hundreds of Black people were killed, hundreds more injured, and more than 8,000 were left homeless. (The University of Tulsa’s library has a virtual exhibit with a timeline of the events.)

The 2001 Oklahoma Commission report “the Tulsa race riot was the worst event in that city’s history—an event without equal and without excuse. Understand, too, that it was the worst explosion of violence in this state’s history—an episode late to be acknowledged and still to be repaired. But understand also that it was part of a message usually announced not violently at all, but calmly and quietly and deliberately.”

“The 1921 riot is, at once, a representative historical example and a unique historical event. It has many parallels in the pattern of past events, but it has no equal for its violence and its completeness. It symbolizes so much endured by so many for so long,” the report added.

I had no idea that any of this occurred until two years ago, when I saw the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen, which recreates those events in its opening moments. Despite its consequence and significance, it “was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private,” as The New York Times noted in a 2011 story.

Watchmen executive producer Damon Lindelof also wasn’t aware. “I consider myself a student of U.S. history and I thought, ‘How did this slip through the cracks?’ I felt incredible shame and guilt,” he told The Los Angeles Times. Lindelof learned about the Tulsa race massacre from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The Case for Reparations.”

Hollywood was contributing to the suppression. The director of PBS’s Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, Jonathan Silvers, told the LA Times, “We tried for at least a year to interest a number of broadcasters in the project, and none of them at the time recognized the nature of what we were doing. We weren’t just exposing a mass atrocity, but a mass atrocity that had been hidden from history.”

That’s finally changing, thanks in part to the visibility from Watchmen and the work of historians, activists, and journalists. Over the next week and month, several TV documentaries—and one podcast—will take a closer look at various aspects of these events, from telling the stories of those who created Black Wall Street to attempts to find mass graves today.

Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre (History, May 30)

Russell Westbrook executive produced Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre (History Channel, Sunday, May 30, at 8), which was directed by Peabody- and Emmy-winning director Stanley Nelson and Peabody-winning director Marco Williams. History says it:

…takes an in-depth, sobering look at the tragic events of a century ago and focuses on a specific period, from the birth of Black Wall Street, to its catastrophic downfall over the course of two bloody days, and finally the fallout and reconstruction. The documentary also follows the city’s current-day grave excavation efforts at Oaklawn Cemetery where numerous unmarked coffins of victims who were killed and buried during the massacre have been recovered. It will also feature rare archival footage and imagery from the time, coupled with commentary and interviews from numerous historians, city leaders, and activists, including the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church, among others.

History and WYNC Studios have also released a six-episode podcast, Blindspot: Tulsa Burning, on which “WNYC’s KalaLea considers the life of this remarkable 35 blocks of Tulsa through the stories of the people who lived there and their descendants.”

Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten (PBS, May 31)

At Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery on Oct. 2, 2020, forensic archeologists excavate an area they suspect to be a mass grave
At Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery on Oct. 2, 2020, forensic archeologists excavate an area they suspect to be a mass grave. (Photo by Jonathan Silvers/Saybrook Productions Ltd.)

The 90-minute documentary Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten (PBS, Monday, May 31, at 9) was directed by Jonathan Silvers and reported by DeNeen L. Brown of The Washington Post. PBS says it:

…examines this deadly assault on humanity on the 100th anniversary of the crime [as …] Brown, who was inspired by her own personal connection to Tulsa, investigates the deadly assault and racial atrocity that has gone without punishment by the law as she explores issues of atonement, reconciliation and reparation in the past, present and future through the historical lens of white violence and Black resistance. Brown and Silvers sit down with descendants of Greenwood residents, business owners and today’s community activists for an honest conversation on the community’s demands for reparations and the efforts to revive the Black district of Greenwood through education, technology, business development and more.

Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street (CNN, May 31)

Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street (CNN, Monday, May 31, at 9) comes from LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s production company, and was directed and produced by Salima Koroma. CNN says the film:

…blends archival media, animation, narrated letters and diary entries, and contemporary interviews with a richly evocative original score. Dreamland also examines the findings of the current archeological search for mass graves.

The Legacy of Black Wall Street (OWN, June 1)

The two-part, two-night documentary The Legacy of Black Wall Street (OWN and Discovery+, Tuesday, June 1 and June 8, at 9) focuses on the people who built Greenwood, and those who live there today. OWN says it:

…tracks the rise of Black Wall Street in Oklahoma’s Greenwood District up until the tragic 1921 Tulsa race massacre that destroyed the 36-block booming business epicenter. The commemorative documentary special shifts the narrative from the massacre itself to amplify the voices of those Black pioneers then who went West to build their American dream, weaving their stories with the inspiring modern-day Black pioneers now who continue the path to healing and rebuilding the rise of the Black community who presently occupy Greenwood.

Rise Again: Tulsa and The Red Summer (NatGeo and Hulu, June 18)

Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer (National Geographic, Friday, June 18, at 9, then June 19 on Hulu) was directed by Dawn Porter, and also focuses on Washington Post journalist and Oklahoman DeNeen L. Brown’s work. National Geographic describes like this:

Award-winning Washington Post journalist and Oklahoma native DeNeen Brown is at the heart of the film, reporting on the search for a mass grave in her native state. Digging into the events that led to one of the worst episodes of racial violence in America’s history, Brown reveals insights into racial conflict incidents that erupted in the early 20th century. Between 1917 and 1923, when Jim Crow laws were at their height and the Klu Klux Klan was resurging across the nation, scores of Black homes and businesses were razed, and hundreds of Black people were lynched and massacred with impunity.

Brown’s reporting highlights the revived call for justice for victims and survivors. Following a 2018 investigative report, Brown explores the current new anti-racism movement in the context of the Tulsa Massacre and the Red Summer. With access to family members of those killed, city officials, archeologists, and historians, the film reveals the decades-long effort by descendants and community members to find victims’ bodies and unearth truths that have been suppressed for nearly a century. Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer also untangles the role the media played in covering events at the time in order to reveal the full extent of the nation’s buried past.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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