Shattering the Hollywood Myths of the Tulsa Race Massacre
From “Lovecraft Country” to “Watchmen” to docs produced by NBA stars, we’ve been inundated with reappraisals of the 1921 tragedy. But they betray the bigger picture.
Conjuring a picture of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre proves to be a struggle without a fictional re-creation. These days, it’s the mint green childhood home of fictional WWII veteran Montrose Freeman from HBO’s Black fantasy phantasmagoria Lovecraft Country that immediately comes to mind, as if some seafaring monstrosity molded by H.P. himself spat it out onto the Greenwood block that would ultimately be ablaze by the end of the night. The ninth episode saw the show’s leads—Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), Leti (Jurnee Smollett), and Montrose (Michael K. Williams)—rewinding the timeline to that fateful day, knowing what would take place on the 35 blocks of Greenwood lovingly termed Black Wall Street. They carry the knowledge of the killing, the pillaging, the joyous savagery of white police and laymen on their faces, their shoulders slumped in discomforting remembrance while staring into the green.
It’s difficult to imagine another singular Black event referenced in fiction, in documentaries and in half-hour TV specials like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. By now, the story is rock-solid in our historical frame. On June 1, 1921, in the Black business district of Greenwood, the arrest of a Black teenager, Dick Rowland—who was accused of assaulting a White woman, Sarah Page, in a hotel elevator—led to local papers calling for a lynch mob. In response, Black folks took up arms and peacefully vowed to defend Rowland’s right to a fair trial. The image alone of Black people protecting one another in what was understood as a Black town so infuriated white people that they grabbed their guns to protect themselves. From what? Who knows. Needless to say, shit hit the proverbial fan fairly quickly and Greenwood became a mass killing—an exhibition of virulent white terror executed by both police and deputized white people.
So then, it was fairly predictable that a historic spectacle like this one hitting 100 years without truly being excavated in the mainstream would necessitate a reassessment by popular culture. But the centennial celebration kicked off a bit early. Damon Lindelof’s wildly successful 2019 superhero remix, Watchmen, ripped off the historical Band-Aid, opening its tale with the white homicidal chaos of the riot. A year later, another HBO show, Lovecraft Country, would dip back into the well, portraying the slaughter as a time-traveling scavenger hunt for a magical book that would save a Black family. Both depictions are truly riveting and accentuate, in glossy panache, the intense, gruesome nature of unhinged white fascism. The History Channel and ABC followed suit with their non-fiction excavations, speaking directly to descendants of the massacre about the bodies buried underneath the soil, the emotional and psychological toll it took on the land and their families, and what they’re demanding from the local and state government as restitution.
The work of recognizing those affected by the massacre has largely been carried out by well-known white-run studios, which begs inquiry into their intention, meanings, and messaging. Over its two hour-long episodes, Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, directed by the prolific Stanley Nelson and executive produced by NBA superstar Russell Westbrook, provides a multidirectional lens on the tragedy and residual harm that the attack on Black life had on its citizens; while historians like Hannibal B. Johnson, who’s work on what he terms “Black Main Street” in Tulsa Burning, gave life to the idea that these 35 blocks encompassed some of the more innovative and distinguished Black businesses in the country.
Historian Michelle Mitchell notes that in this early part of the 20th century, in the wake of Reconstruction—and around the time the Ku Klux Klan was formed—Oklahoma was generally a place that “Black people wanted to be.” Illegitimate land grants made the “Indian Territory” of Oklahoma primed for white resettlement. The residents understood Tulsa’s history of vigilante violence. The Tulsa Outrage of 1917—when a founder of Tulsa and Ku Klux Klan member W. Tate Brady led the tarring and feathering of a dozen members of the Industrial Workers of the World, who were charged for vagrancy—was a signal to many that the link between police and deputized white people was cemented. When they made community for themselves, it was clear that poor whites’ animosity toward “economically liberated” Black people could froth over to real anti-Black violence. All they needed was the right moment.
The exact number of deaths and injuries has always been up for debate—early, largely propagandist, reports found that only 36 people died, but a 2001 commission found that the realistic number was between 150-300 people killed with over 800 people injured. And that doesn’t even measure the toll it took on the psyche of people like Brenda Nails Alford, whose grandparents were surviving victims. In both History Channel’s and ABC’s retelling, she remembers rolling past the site of the violence as a child, sitting in the back of cars, and listening to the haunting whispers of friends and family revealing that’s where the victims are buried. The scale of the massacre became a ghost story that residents would share over dinner tables, but real excavation and recognition from the local government wouldn’t take place until two generations later.
When considering what was lost in the war zone Greenwood became, the documentaries Tulsa Burning and Tulsa’s Buried Truth deem the event the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. But that wasn’t the only messaging being presented here. What was lost wasn’t just the buildings, the businesses, and the confidence—it was the accumulated wealth. That loss, and the construction of a museum, called Greenwood Rising: Black Wall Street History Center, have amplified local demands for reparations. While those constructing the facility put forth the notion that Greenwood Rising may lead to a case for financially compensating descendants of the massacre, Tulsa’s mayor G.T. Bynum has reiterated on numerous occasions that reparations through taxing individuals who themselves were never a part of the racist attack was out of the question. Instead, as both docs seem to bear out, the government believes that the discovery of the bodies underneath the soil—and the recognition that this tragedy did happen—would bring solace to the families. Recognizing the political conundrum, one of those descendants, L. Joi McCondichie, mentions that “reparation is taboo” and that “the core of what we’re talking about is generational wealth.”
Far be it from any of us to tell the victims of a tragedy what is truly important; everyone has a different stake in the game. For some, the catharsis of recognition alone is enough, but for others who’ve seen the destruction of homes, businesses, and communities, it seems that both parties are misreading the realities that the Tulsa residents of 1921, who armed themselves to protect Dick Rowland, understood quite well: that economic freedom for Black people in the U.S. has never translated to actual political power. The idea that it does is part and parcel to the myth of Black capitalism and buying power that Black thinkers like Morgan State University Prof. Jared A. Ball seeks to dismantle.
“There is a desire to, as much as possible, despite the histories involved, project capitalism and more specifically Black capitalism for Black people as a solution,” Prof. Ball explains to The Daily Beast. “What’s drawing pop-cultural depiction [of Tulsa], whether it’s Lovecraft Country or more traditional writing, journalism and documentary work, the narrative is narrowly reduced to: Black people were doing well and jealous racists burned it down and went on a killing rampage. And that’s what killed Black Wall Street. When the narratives are framed to those limits then looking back from today, the argument can be projected to fit an already existing need to tell Black people that after that kind of vigilante violence, all you can do is re-create Black Wall Street wherever you are.”
The myth that Black business can free Black communities from racial oppression has been rooted in Black political thought both radical and traditional—from Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Du Bois to the Urban League, the NAACP, Booker T. Washington and, more recently, talk show host Tavis Smiley and legendary radio host Tom Joyner. In Ball’s book, The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power, the African and African-American Diaspora professor sources the myth back to bootstrapping 20th century political and sociological titans, but its more recent iteration is “propelled by misreadings and poor (false) interpretations of Nielsen surveys and marketing reports produced by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the Terry College of Business housed by Bank of America Financial Center in Athens, GA.” Prof. Ball homes in on the oft-referenced and unfounded claim that “African America has roughly $1 trillion in ‘buying power’” that has been “both friendly and hostile to the Black community” and “is unparalleled anywhere in political, economic, or media analyses.”
A simple perusal of how buying power is measured will immediately dispel any notion that Black people’s “power” can fundamentally change their position in our economic order. “For example,” Ball writes, “the median income for Black America was reported in 2018 at $40,258, and there are roughly 40 million African Americans in the United States. For there to be what is popularly understood as more than $1 trillion in buying power, this would mean each and every single Black person would have to spend at least every single penny earned. Every woman, and man, regardless of age, would have to spend it all to amass the acclaimed number.”
For, Ball, the idea of Black buying power has been “raised in defense of reparations where it was argued that Black people need another Black Wall Street, citing an article entitled, “#BuyBlack Reinforces Efforts from Civil Rights,” which mentions “an allusion to traditions of Black political struggle which emphasized more conservative notions of self-help, Black business, and Black capitalism.”
For some descendants of the massacre, the idea that wealth had been built and concentrated in Greenwood, spectacularly disassembled in 1921 and never repaired has been a driving force for the claim to reparations. But, as Ball explains to The Daily Beast, that idea isn’t totally historically accurate. “What really happened was a handful of Black people doing well in the business district, probably no more than five percent of the population, were Black bourgeoisie business owners who were benefiting from the wealth of white oil owners in surrounding Oklahoma. They were able to drive relationships and employ Black people… but ultimately only benefitted a handful of Black elites.”
But the real ahistorical reading of Black Wall Street comes in the fact that residents were indeed able to rebuild the area. “After this event in 1921, Black people rebuilt Black Wall Street and by the 1940s, it was even bigger and more affluent. But this part of the story doesn’t get told because what fully destroyed Black Wall Street wasn’t vigilante white violence but organized policy—federal government public policy—which included driving a major highway right down the middle of the Black Wall Street district, dividing it, weakening it, shattering it, etc., which has been done to Black communities all over the country for at least a century. Instead of mythologies about buying power or Black capitalism in Tulsa, what we need to understand is it’s not the lack of business acumen, financial literacy, or effort, but the lack of political power.”
Indeed, Du Bois himself remarked that by 1926, “Black Tulsa is a happy city. It has new clothes. It is young and gay and strong.” But the push for urban renewal in the area manifested into the federally- funded highway program, nominally the Federal Highway Acts of 1965 and 1968, which established the construction of four different highways to create a loop. Carlos Moreno, a Tulsa-based graphic designer and author who wrote A Kid’s Book About the Tulsa Massacre, posited, in a Next City essay earlier this year that, “The north (I-244) and east (U.S. 75) sections of the IDL were designed to replace the dense, diverse, mixed-use, mixed-income, pedestrian, and transit-oriented Greenwood and Kendall-Whittier neighborhoods.” What this did, according to Tulsa residents, was a second, more permanent, killing. Moreno cites Tulsa survivor Mabel Little, “whose family lost their home and businesses in the 1921 massacre, rebuilt and lost them both again in 1970. Little told the Tulsa Tribune in 1970, ‘You destroyed everything we had. I was here, and the people are suffering more now than they did then.’”
So, while the fictional universes of Watchmen and Lovecraft Country do have separate content goals—for Watchmen as narrative thrust and Lovecraft as magical goose-chase—neither they nor their documentarian contemporaries speak to the real culprit of Tulsa’s destruction.
To be sure, pop culture isn’t necessarily meant to be educational in that way. But with such a failed system of education—especially as it relates to race—in this country, people often turn to fictional works for understanding the history of places and people. The problem, as Ball notes, is that many of these narratives are narrowly constructed and serve advertisements and escapism. While Watchmen and Lovecraft may have unlocked a fascination, they’re incapable of retelling the destruction of a region through public policy. It’s just not entertaining enough.
As Black August—the month-long celebration of freedom fighters complete with reading lists, fasting, and renewed commitments to Black liberation—and the centennial recognition of Tulsa 1921 comes to a close, the myths targeting Black audiences and histories that press the idea of Black economic reparation and capitalism still serve white interests, while the reality of political power falls to the back-burner. And there is no fantastical re-creation that can change that.