This year, it’ll be 100 years since the extremely grotesque act of domestic terrorism known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred on May 31 and June 1, 1921.
Presented by the History Channel, Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre is directed by Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders, Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy) and Peabody and duPont Award-winner Marco Williams (Two Towns of Jasper) as well as executive produced by NBA star Russell Westbrook. The two-hour documentary commemorates “one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history” and zeroes in on how the town, ripe with devastation, is still being repaired to this day.
The Root sat down with Nelson and Williams to unpack the many lessons in Tulsa Burning.
“One of the things makes the film really work is that they filmed themselves—we have film footage from 1920, 1921 and 1919 of the town, of people, walking out [into the] camera [frame] and kind of strutting out, sitting on their porch going like this [he gestures a proud pose] and stared into the camera. ‘Yeah, we built this house. We built this church. We got a Black sheriff,’” Nelson told The Root.
It was the 2019 HBO series Watchmen that brought the historic travesty of the Tulsa Race Massacre into modern mainstream conversations, which is especially significant to us and our inability to learn about our own people given how whitewashed our education systems tend to be.
In addition to the act of terrorism being initially dubbed as a “race riot” involving Black residents instead of the direct white terrorism that it actually was, Hollywood previously dismissed the importance of highlighting this history via documentaries. Now that we’re at the centennial mark of its occurrence, we have a bounty of documentaries to choose from this year—including this one.
“There are probably a lot of stories about race [and] racial atrocities that are unspoken,” Williams noted. “Whether it’s shame, embarrassment, trauma that our people carry to the humiliation, guilt, concern for responsibility, repair, reparations [and] restitution that the perpetrators [must reckon with]...I think it’s often much preferred for certain narratives to be buried.”
Given the current domestic terrorism we’re experiencing and witnessing as Black Americans right now at the hands of the police system, this film is “so timely and poignant,” according to Nelson. History has a sobering way of repeating itself, constantly reminding us that we must look back, reflect and honor those who paved the way for us. That literal paving and building by the Black residents of Tulsa was snatched from us via the burning fires of bigotry and hatred—in this documentary, the audience is able to first sit with the sheer beautiful abundance of what our people built, known as “Black Wall Street.”
“It’s not only about the destruction of the community, but it’s about the building of the community,” Nelson stated. “It’s about the fact that there were over a hundred towns in the West that were formed by African Americans after the Civil War [when] African-Americans made the move west. We say, ‘Go west, young man,’ [often credited to author-editor Horace Greeley]. We don’t think about African Americans [concerning that phrase], but once you start thinking about it, it really makes sense. African Americans were looking for places that they could settle, could be in peace and live a life in dignity and safety. So they headed west. And from these towns, Greenwood was the biggest, the most successful and the best of these towns.”
“One of the extraordinary parts of this narrative is how great and vibrant the community of Greenwood was from its beginnings...when O.W. Gurley purchased the first lots of land all the way up to 1921, when it was decimated by white mobs,” Williams added. “That’s one of the great discoveries or revelations that I had was seeing the images of greatness—I can’t say it any other way. Two generations, perhaps, out of enslavement and look at what we achieved—what we demonstrated— [that] we could be self-sufficient. Our response to segregation was—OK, we’re going to do it in our neighborhood [and] in our community. We’re going to create stores, hotels, doctors, lawyers, etc.”
The documentary also touches on the current excavation project to recover the remains of the over 300 victims of the massacre, many of whom were buried hastily without death certificates or other records, which The Root reported on last year. To “give credit where credit is due,” Williams honors Mary E. Jones Parrish.
“She was the first person to create a written record of what happened shortly after the massacre and part of her unpublished novel at the time was to reflect on and talk about the fact that there were Black people who were buried,” he recalled. “[Their bodies] were tossed into unmarked rooms, so it was always known, and that is part of the great denial of the city of Tulsa over the years—[the city] refused to acknowledge that.”
Further, Tulsa Burning explores the integration of African American and Native American/Indigenous relations in Tulsa, providing a rich historical connection that I was previously unaware of. It was something Williams regained a deeper understanding of while filming this documentary.
“One of the things that I didn’t know about as well was the background of the term ‘Freedman,’ Williams said. “Many people probably have heard this terminology, but the fact that the five civilized tribes came from the American South during one of their great devastations, the Trail of Tears, [and] brought enslaved Africans with them in some instances. When emancipation finally reached Oklahoma territory—some would say, perhaps pejoratively, ‘Indian territory’—enslaved Africans were set free and hence the ‘Freedmen’...they became freed men.”
As we reflect on and commemorate the past 100 years, we also look toward progressing in the future. So, how do we continue to honor those who were brutally killed as well as the remaining survivors experiencing ongoing trauma from this experience?
“It is a centennial of the atrocity, but it’s not a time for celebration. I think there’s some complexity and confusion about how a community should respond to anniversaries,” Williams mused. “So let’s think about how we as a nation respond to 9/11. It’s not a party. It is done with great reflection and dignity. I would hope that African-American audiences who watch this will reflect about our greatness, about what happened to us because of white supremacy—perhaps it’s lighting a candle, a moment of silence, a moment of reflection of what happened in Charleston—and then take the knowledge and be willing to engage others, whether it’s others in our community who have not seen it, whether it’s our children who maybe are not watching it and talking to them about this. We don’t want our history to be buried. We want it to be known and certainly to have conversations outside of our community so that we can hopefully be part of the process towards mitigating, reducing, and—probably not in my lifetime eliminating the mechanisms of white supremacy.”
Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre premieres Sunday, May 30 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the History Channel.