Review

How the Tulsa Race Massacre Vanished

And why it’s not enough to recover its history.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Community residents look at a poster of "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa.
Rev. Jesse Jackson views a Black Wall Street poster board alongside community residents during a memorial gathering at the African Methodist Episcopal Church during commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Before the May 31, 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune was microfilmed in the 1930s, two parts of it were excised: a front-page story and nearly one-third of the editorial page. That day, a mob of angry white citizens of the Oklahoma city gathered downtown after rumors spread that a Black teenager assaulted a white elevator operator, sowing the seeds for a bloody massacre. The following morning, white Tulsans would attack Black residents of the city’s Greenwood District, also known as “Black Wall Street,” razing the neighborhood in one of the single worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. But evidence of the events that led to the massacre in the local white-owned newspaper is scant.

No intact copies of that day’s paper remain. But the front page, which was recovered decades later, featured an inflammatory account of the alleged sexual assault; the editorial, which was never found, reportedly said white Tulsans were gathering to lynch the Black teen. It seems the Tulsa Tribune had laid the groundwork for the mob that would decimate the Greenwood District—and the white gatekeepers of the archives hid the evidence.

The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice, Scott Ellsworth, Dutton, 336 pp., $28.00, May 2021

Before the May 31, 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune was microfilmed in the 1930s, two parts of it were excised: a front-page story and nearly one-third of the editorial page. That day, a mob of angry white citizens of the Oklahoma city gathered downtown after rumors spread that a Black teenager assaulted a white elevator operator, sowing the seeds for a bloody massacre. The following morning, white Tulsans would attack Black residents of the city’s Greenwood District, also known as “Black Wall Street,” razing the neighborhood in one of the single worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. But evidence of the events that led to the massacre in the local white-owned newspaper is scant.

No intact copies of that day’s paper remain. But the front page, which was recovered decades later, featured an inflammatory account of the alleged sexual assault; the editorial, which was never found, reportedly said white Tulsans were gathering to lynch the Black teen. It seems the Tulsa Tribune had laid the groundwork for the mob that would decimate the Greenwood District—and the white gatekeepers of the archives hid the evidence.

The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice, Scott Ellsworth, Dutton, 336 pp., $28.00, May 2021

As Scott Ellsworth, a white historian, details in his new book, The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice, holes like these have plagued accounts of the Tulsa Race Massacre for a century. His book, which was released just before the 100th anniversary of the massacre, reconstructs the events of 1921 and what followed in the decades after with an authority earned by decades of dogged research. It’s a book both of erasure—where individuals and institutions destroy the memory of racial violence—and of recovery—where civic and archaeological efforts are finding the truth and the mass graves of the victims.

But perhaps just as important as Ellsworth’s reconstruction is his underlying preoccupation with what comes next. Knowledge alone—however hard won—may not be enough. The question now, as Ellsworth argues, is what to do with lost histories once they’ve been restored.

Part of what makes The Ground Breaking so authoritative is Ellsworth himself: A Tulsa native and lecturer at the University of Michigan, he was one of the first historians to uncover much of what transpired during the massacre. (The great historian John Hope Franklin, a Black Oklahoman born six years before the riot, called Ellsworth’s 1982 debut book “as close to being the definitive history of the Tulsa riot as I have seen.”) And in a sense, The Ground Breaking is part memoir: Ellsworth recounts his own journey from a kid hearing rumors about the massacre, to a student trying to access the local archives for his college thesis, to a historian—along with Franklin—on the state’s Tulsa Race Riot Commission in the late 1990s.

The question now is what to do with lost histories once they’ve been restored.

If one of the public historian’s greatest tasks is to make people care, Ellsworth succeeds spectacularly. His character-driven narrative is clear and compelling—if occasionally clumsy, particularly in his desire to make the Greenwood District of 1921 alive again in the present tense. Still, the detail with which he recounts Tulsans’ lives is rich and effective, from the mother who fled the violence with her daughter to the boy—who later became Ellsworth’s friend—who dashed under a bed as the mob ransacked his house and stepped on his fingers. Ellsworth chooses his words with care: In a chilling section on the moments before the massacre, the white mob with their weapons approached Greenwood “calmly.” The implication is clear: This was not a heat-of-the moment escalation but the deliberate destruction of an entire community and its way of life.

The erasure didn’t end in 1921. A “conspiracy of silence” fell over the city in the massacre’s wake. The actions of Tulsa’s white community, which were spoken of in hushed tones even in the Greenwood District, escaped local and national history books, slipping away as official records—state archives, police documents, photographs, maps, and cemetery records—disappeared. Some of that is still lost. We don’t know, for instance, how many people died in the massacre, although as many as 300 deaths is a common estimate. Many of the graves remain unearthed, and many pages of The Ground Breaking are devoted to the ongoing search for them, which Ellsworth has helped with since it first began in the late 1990s.

Tulsa, and Greenwood specifically, have slowly seeped back into the national consciousness. In 1997, the state created a Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which would later vote in favor of reparations, but the state legislature disregarded its recommendations, opting instead to give each of the survivors a medallion. It wasn’t until recent years that the massacre gained more prominence in the national story. Partly, that’s due to growing cultural attention, such as the 2019 HBO series Watchmen. Partly, it was belated political action, such as the Tulsa mayor’s decision to reopen the search for graves that same year. In July 2020, digging commenced, marking the first time a government in the United States sought to find the graves of victims of racism. Earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden gave a speech to commemorate those who died in Greenwood a century ago, affirming that “literal hell was unleashed.”

That doesn’t mean the work is done. Before members of Tulsa’s Black community convinced Ellsworth otherwise, he thought what mattered was “wrestling with uncomfortable truths” and “facing up to the worst demons in our past.” Now, he believes understanding isn’t quite the same as reckoning—and that’s where reparations come in.

Understanding isn’t quite the same as reckoning—and that’s where reparations come in.

What Ellsworth is ultimately making the case for is what some scholars and policymakers have called “transitional justice”—or a way for societies to redress abuses and atrocities so severe the normal justice system can’t handle them. That can take many forms—truth commissions, institutional reforms, prosecution, reparations—long used worldwide, from South Africa after apartheid to Canada in its efforts to address the forced assimilation of Indigenous children.

In Tulsa, a lawsuit for reparations in 2003 failed, but a new one is ongoing with better prospects, opening up the possibility for reparations on a broader scale, especially as the nationwide push for reparations for slavery is gathering momentum. But transitional justice isn’t just about one or two undertakings—it’s a “generational project.”

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of The Ground Breaking is that it understands the limitations of the historian’s and the media’s roles in that project, acknowledging that more political action is needed to sustain a movement that’s only just begun. “For fifty years, the story of the massacre had been suppressed. Then, for fifty more, that story was brought to light,” Ellsworth wrote. “In the next fifty, we will learn what it means.”

Chloe Hadavas is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Hadavas

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