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This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of one of the deadliest acts of racial violence in America, the Tulsa Race Massacre, and in his latest book, The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice, historian Scott Ellsworth, a Tulsa native who served on the 1997 commission that recommended reparations for the survivors of the massacre, explains just how close we came to never knowing it happened.
In the late spring of 1921, a Black 19-year-old named Dick Rowland was arrested on the presumption that he raped a white 17-year-old girl, Sarah Page. As with many accusations made against Black men at the time, the truth was less important to the town's lynch mob than was its thirst for racist vengeance. A horde of angry whites stormed the Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street, over the course of 16 hours between May 31st, 1921 and throughout the day on June 1st. Hundreds of mostly Black Tulsans were killed and many more injured in the massacre, and some one thousand homes were torched and looted. Many of Greenwood's thriving establishments--churches, schools, businesses--were burned to the ground.
Published to coincide with the centennial of the massacre, The Ground Breaking is but one of the important current accounts to shine a light on of this significant historical event. Fans of popular culture were exposed to a brief but central re-enactment of the tragedy for the 2019 Emmy Award-winning HBO limited series, Watchmen, adapted from the graphic novel of the same name.
Also, premiering May 31 on PBS is Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, a documentary on how the community of Tulsa is coming to terms with its past, present, and future; and on CBS Tulsa, 1921: An American Tragedy. On June 1 OWN will air The Legacy of Black Wall Street.
These commemorations have an added urgency today—not only because our country continues to grapple with entrenched anti-Black sentiment and violence, but also because, as we learn from Tulsa transplant and teacher Nancy Feldman early on in The Ground Breaking, none of her native Oklahoman students grew up learning about the massacre. “It had been erased from the collective memory...it was as if it had never happened at all,” she is quoted as saying in the book.
The Ground Breaking documents Ellsworth’s dogged pursuit to excavate the details of what occurred on those days 100 years ago, since facts about what transpired were intentionally suppressed for decades. Op-Eds and newspaper accounts from the time went missing. Entire police files, reports and photographs were suppressed or eradicated. It seemed the entire city of Tulsa was in denial for many years subsequently, silently living with a long-buried truth. When Ellsworth asked white or even Black residents to tell him what happened, many declined to speak: Ellsworth attributes this to a collective reluctance to acknowledge or relive what happened and concludes that the survivors remain traumatized by the incidents even today.
When Don Ross, a columnist for the city’s Black newspaper, the Oklahoma Eagle, wrote about the massacre, he pointed out that “Tulsans have been trained generally to sacrifice truth and realism, to suppress their history for the sake of keeping superficial harmony in race relations.”
He may as well have been writing about American racism as a whole, which, like the Tulsa Massacre, continues to be met with appeasement, denial and suppression. But as Ellsworth reminds us, when we can dig up truths and find the courage to face them, a kind of liberation feels possible.
The Ground Breaking begins in a cinematic, true crime fashion with Ellsworth’s belief—based on rumors and stories in the town which have spread like folklore—that there are mass graves from the Tulsa massacre that have yet to be identified. He also uncovers a police file of crucial evidence that had been concealed. By weaving in his personal history and conversations with Tulsa survivors and other natives, Ellsworth combines his gift for storytelling with an historian's dogged persistence to not only track the latest information on the existence and locations of those mass graves, but to offer essential insights as to why the Tulsa Race Massacres are emblematic of why American racial inequality persists and how we need to reckon with it so we can begin to seek true reconciliation.
It was beginning 25 years ago, around the 75th anniversary of the events, that the truth about Tulsa finally began to surface. Ellsworth writes that “Between 1997 and 2002 eleven books were published about the riot, ranging from novels like Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Magic City and Rilla Askew’s Fire in Beulah to historical and journalistic accounts like Hannibal Johnson’s Black Wall Street, Tim Madigan’s The Burning, and James Hirsch’s Riot and Remembrance." As of early 2021, he observes, readers could purchase nearly two dozen books about Greenwood and the race massacre...There was no question that Greenwood and the massacre were working their way into the country’s historical memory book.”
Ellsworth, whose previous book on the massacre, published in 1982, was entitled Death In A Promised Land, with his latest masterful work of history, illuminates the hard, never-finished work of unlearning racism and nurturing truth. He also prompts us to question how many other American stories and voices remain buried, waiting for dedicated historians with Ellsworth's persistence and passion to uncover them.
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