“The truth about Tulsa … was systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young white ears,” Tom Hanks wrote in a New York Times opinion piece on June 4 calling for schools to teach about the 1921 race massacre — one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in U.S. history — to students as early as the fifth grade. “I find the omission tragic, an opportunity missed, a teachable moment squandered,” he continued.
In fact, instructing about the two-day attack, in which white mobs ravaged more than 1,500 Black-owned homes and businesses in the city’s thriving Greenwood district (the area earned the moniker Black Wall Street), has largely fallen to the small screen. When HBO’s “Watchmen” debuted in 2019 with an opening scene depicting the brutality of the Tulsa massacre, some viewers were shocked to learn it was based on an actual event.
Since then, series like “Lovecraft Country” have put the massacre on the national radar, and this month alone, more than 10 projects about it are airing. Among them: Stanley Nelson and Russell Westbrook’s History channel doc “Tulsa Burning,” LeBron James’ “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street,” PBS’ “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” and NatGeo’s “Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer.” In addition, several podcasts have drawn audiences to the story.
In the music community, Motown Records endeavored to commemorate the 100th anniversary with the May 28 release of the album “Fire in Little Africa.” The brainchild of executive producer Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson of the Woody Guthrie Center and the Bob Dylan Center, the collection features dozens of Oklahoma-based artists, who came together to record 143 songs over five days across six studios, several built in a mansion formerly owned by one of the massacre’s masterminds, KKK leader Tate Brady.
“I think it’s really difficult to merge historical, factual evidence with art and make it palatable to where it sounds dope,” says Johnson. After teaming with two architects of Tulsa’s dynamic music scene, Steph Simon and Dialtone, they recruited 60 artists and provided each with a flash drive of historic background and context. “Part of our job was to provide resources that weren’t always there,” he adds. “People were really digging deep and trying to connect with it.”
The result is a mesmerizing collection of songs that relays not just important messaging in this era of racial reckoning, but conveys emotions reflecting the horrors of white supremacy in the form of standout tracks “Elevators,” “Creme of the Crop” and “Shining,” the latter of which is accompanied by a video imagining what Greenwood and greater Tulsa might have looked like had it not been for the devastation of May 31, 1921.
“We were undoing trauma,” says Johnson, who also notes that a documentary about the album is in the works. “Everybody knew it was a bigger purpose. The artists, some of whom are direct descendants of people who were massacred 100 years ago, came together and recognized this is our opportunity to tell the story authentically and truthfully.”
Indeed, education takes different forms, such as the $18 million, 7,000-square-foot Greenwood Rising History Center, which opened June 2. But not all of the commemorative events have gone smoothly: A June 4 concert headlined by John Legend and featuring a keynote by Stacey Abrams was canceled on May 29 due to “unexpected circumstances with entertainers and speakers.” Sources tell Variety the Grammy winner backed out because he wanted to show his support to the survivors who did not feel comfortable attending the event.
Local reports cite a legal squabble over funds earmarked for living descendants: The commission organizing the concert purportedly pledged $100,000 to each survivor along with a $2 million reparations fund; attorneys for the survivors demanded that the stipend be raised to $1 million each.
Writing on Twitter the night before the centennial, Legend remarked, “The road to restorative justice is crooked and rough — and there is space for reasonable people to disagree about the best way to heal the collective trauma of white supremacy. But one thing that is not up for debate — one fact we must hold with conviction — is that the path to reconciliation runs through truth and accountability.”
The controversy, along with debates over whether white benefactors funding costly projects is more performative than substantive, has dinged Tulsa’s effort to showcase its resurrection as an epicenter of music, art and entrepreneurship. Still, Johnson says, “If you come to Tulsa and see the Black people, everybody has a smile on their face right now. We have experienced the frustration, the pain, rage, but also the resilience.”