White Violence Against Blacks and Their Businesses in Tulsa

May 6, 2021

Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten , a production of Saybrook Productions Ltd. in association with The WNET Group, premieres Monday, May 31 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

One of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history occurred 100 years ago, from May 31 to June 1, 1921, when a mob of white residents set fire to “Black Wall Street,” an affluent Black community in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, this act of anti‑Black violence destroyed hundreds of Black-owned businesses and homes, killing an estimated 100-300 Black residents, and leaving an estimated 10,000 Black residents homeless.

This explosion of racial terror was compounded by the silence that followed. No one was punished for the crimes committed, and history textbooks often made no reference to them — even in Oklahoma — so many Americans are still unaware of this history.

Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, a new documentary, examines this deadly assault on the 100th anniversary of the crime in the context of other racial massacres and police killings — including the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd — and through the stories of  people connected to the massacre.

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People in flourescent yellow vests and hard hats stand around a high mound of freshly dug dirt near a cemetery. A bulldozer is partially in view.

A team of forensic archeologists excavate a suspected mass grave site at Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery. October 19, 2020. Phto: Jonathan Silvers/Saybrook Productions Ltd.

DeNeen L. Brown, a Washington Post journalist and Oklahoma native who has been reporting on the Tulsa massacre and the city’s efforts to uncover mass graves, interviews descendants of Greenwood residents and business owners and today’s community activists about the city’s 2018 decision to search for mass graves from 1921, community demands for reparations, and current efforts to revive the Black district of Greenwood through education, technology, business development, and more.

The documentary explores issues of atonement, reconciliation, and reparation in the past, present, and future through the historical lens of white violence and Black resistance, featuring interviews with civil rights activists, lawyers, and Black community leaders including Greg Robinson II; Kristi Williams; and Regina Goodwin, Oklahoma State Representative – Tulsa House District 73. Eric Stover, founder of the Human Rights Center at University of California, Berkeley School of Law, speaks with Tulsa natives and surveys the current excavation and search for mass graves.

“What happened in Tulsa in 1921 was a horrible atrocity, and for nearly 100 years, it was covered up. It was left out of textbooks. Many survivors did not talk about it. Many survivors only whispered about it,” DeNeen L. Brown says in the film.

As the City of Tulsa commemorates the 100th anniversary of the massacre, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten gives voice to this often overlooked chapter of history.

The Tulsa Race Massacre and Greenwood Today

A sepia tone photograph showing rooftops of brick buildings, many of which are obscured by clouds of smoke from a fire.

Little Africa on fire, Tulsa Race Riot, June 1, 1921” COLL. NO. 1989-004-5-02 Credit: Courtesy of University of Tulsa – McFarlin Library Special Collections

Boss: The Black Experience in Business

See historic footage of Tulsa’s Greenwood district – “Black Wall Street” – and learn about white attacks on Black communities after World War I in this excerpt from the PBS film Boss: The Black Experience in Business (2019).

American Portrait: The Greenwood Art Project

The Greenwood Art Project uses a public art campaign, including a poster project, and a mobile unit known as The GAP Van to heal the people of Tulsa today. Meet the people behind the project in this PBS American Portrait segment.