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An American Horror: New Documentaries Reveal the Full Scope of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Award-winning documentarians Stanley Nelson and Dawn Porter directed films that reflect on one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in U.S. history.

People watch a documentary called "Rebuilding Black Wall Street," during a drive-in screening of documentaries during centennial commemorations of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Wednesday, May 26, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Screening of “Rebuilding Black Wall Street,” at a in Tulsa, OK drive-in, commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre centennial

AP

This week 100 years ago, Tulsa, Oklahoma experienced one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in United States history. A white mob spent two days laying siege to the prosperous Greenwood district known as “Black Wall Street.” From May 31 to June 1, 1921, the community was destroyed, scores of Black homes and businesses razed, and hundreds of Black people massacred with impunity. Death tolls are disputed, but 300 Black people are believed to have been killed. Thousands were left homeless; decades later, families are still struggling to recover lost wealth.

If you didn’t know the scope of the event — or if you’d never heard of it at all — you’re not alone. Even some veteran Black documentarians say they didn’t grasp the full story until they started making a movie about it.

“I’ve been making historical documentaries for about 40 years now, so I’ve known about it for a while, at least in the broadest sense, like a lot of folks, but very few people knew and still don’t know the details,” said director Stanley Nelson, who co-directed, alongside Marco Williams, “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre,” which premiered May 30 on The History Channel. “About three years ago, I did a film called ‘Boss,’ a history of African-American entrepreneurship. We covered the Tulsa massacre in a quick seven-minute section. At that point, I knew that there was a much larger story that needed to be told.”

Executive produced by NBA superstar Russell Westbrook, Nelson’s “Tulsa Burning” is one of several new documentaries and television specials commemorating the massacre’s century anniversary. Dawn Porter’s “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer” will premiere on National Geographic June 18 and will be available on Hulu the same day, as part of its Juneteenth celebration. 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.

“Rise Again” makes an effort to move beyond the trauma, and dignify the resilience of a people. “It is so much more than an anniversary because I think we are finally beginning to crack open awareness of this history, which really speaks to what is happening today,” Porter said. “We show that the president of the United States screened ‘Birth of a Nation,’ which exploited white fear of a Black takeover. And then, 100 years later, we see a white president exploiting white fear over a black takeover. I wanted to put those images next to one another to make it crystal clear that what we are experiencing today in 2021, the storming of the Capital, police violence, all has a history. It is not new.”

Porter draws a direct line from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), to the incidents of Red Summer (1921), the murder of Emmett Till (1955), the Central Park Five case (1989), to the present. In each scenario, the virtue of white womanhood is sacrosanct, and Black men have especially paid a price.

“These events were triggered in many occasions by white envy of Black advancement, and I think we see remnants of this today, in these incidents that we jokingly call ‘Karen’ episodes,” said Porter. “They have a really dark history that got people killed.”

The real-life Tulsa massacre was the result of news spreading of an alleged assault of a young white woman by a Black male teenager. The exact facts are either unknown or in dispute, and the young man was never actually prosecuted. Instead, he was arrested and taken to a courthouse as a white mob, incensed by the allegations, gathered outside. A group of Black men arrived to defend the Black teen; after an initial violent skirmish, white Tulsans launched a devastating air and ground assault on the Greenwood district. When it all ended, the neighborhood had been burned to the ground.

At a time when Jim Crow laws were at their height and the Ku Klux Klan was resurging across the nation, the Tulsa Race Massacre was neither the first nor the only mass killing of Black Americans. There were at least 26 incidents that occurred during a chapter that was branded “Red Summer” because of the amount of bloodshed. The blood flowed in small towns like Elaine, Arkansas; in medium-size cities including Annapolis, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York; and in major metropolises like Washington, DC and Chicago. “Even I, who has made many related films, had not heard about all of these massacres,” said Porter.

Nelson, who admitted that he learned a “great deal” about this history during the making of his HISTORY channel documentary, stands steadfast in the commonly held belief that the massacre was obliterated from history by the white community.

“The newspapers did not print stories about the massacre at all for over 50 years, and the massacre was not taught in schools, even in Oklahoma, so that it wasn’t talked about,” said Nelson. “But, over time, African Americans started talking about it openly. To kind of preserve this history, younger African Americans started interviewing survivors of the massacre. And luckily for us, some of these interviews still exist, and we use them in the film.”

Beyond the lives and family fortunes lost, these tragedies had wide-reaching repercussions. They contributed to generations of Black suspicion of white authority; demanded that Black people be ready to defend themselves and their property by any means necessary; inspired courageous reporting by Black journalists like Ida B. Wells, and Black-owned newspapers like The Crisis; and reinvigorated civil rights organizations like the NAACP, which led to an era of activism as new leaders refused to let the fight for racial equality wither.

For all of that, there are no national observances to mark Red Summer. It’s the subject of several books, but they aren’t classroom texts. Beyond the current spate of documentaries, there haven’t been many previous attempts to dramatize the Tulsa Massacre story for the screen, which would make the history more accessible to wider audiences. So far, HBO’s 2019 “Watchmen” series was the first and only project to tackle the massacre on a grand scale.

After “Watchmen” showrunner Damon Lindelof read celebrated African American author and essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic feature, “The Case for Reparations,” he decided Tulsa would be the series’ setting. In Coates’ work, the Tulsa Massacre and destruction of the Greenwood District are spotlighted as arguments (among many others) in favor of reparations to be paid to the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas.

In “Watchmen’s” alternate history, reparations have been paid — what Lindelof described as a lifetime tax exemption for victims, and the direct descendants, of racial injustice throughout America’s history. The most important was the Tulsa massacre of 1921.

With a presidential declaration that reparations will be paid, this history will become widely recognized as a landmark event that’s unavoidable for history books and classrooms.

“I will admit before I began working on this project, I thought the time might have passed for reparations, that it might just be too complicated,” Porter said. “But for the Tulsa victims, I don’t see how we cannot pay reparations to those families. They’ve identified bodies of those who were killed. There are detailed lists of possessions that were destroyed at the time of the Massacres, that the insurance companies refused to accept claims for. So people were never compensated. They lost everything and then had to claw their way back.”

Nelson believes the protests of last summer created an environment that made Americans more receptive to understanding the roots of all the anger and indignation. “The term ‘reparations’ is very fraught, but for those who don’t understand, I think that, if you’ve seen ‘Tulsa Burning’, you will a lot more,” he said. “And that’s hopefully one of the things that films like this can do. It’s not an explicit call for reparations, but if you see the it, I think you’ll understand why so many African Americans call for some kind of restitution.”

For both Porter and Nelson, there’s a broader conversation to be had about the history of the African in America that stands in contrast to popular narratives. Their documentaries chronicle present-day public efforts to memorialize the Tulsa massacre and other acts of racial violence, and how Black and white communities contend with them.

“If you look at history, we’ve definitely come a long way,” Nelson said. “If you look at what’s happening now, it’s obvious that we still have a long way to go.”

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