Memorial Day marks the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, one of the deadliest episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, when the thriving African American neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma — known as “Black Wall Street” — was burned to the ground by a white mob. An estimated 300 African Americans were killed and over 1,000 injured. Whites in Tulsa actively suppressed the truth, and African Americans were intimidated into silence. But efforts to restore the horrific event to its rightful place in U.S. history are having an impact. Survivors testified last week before Congress, calling for reparations. President Biden is set to visit Tulsa on Tuesday. We speak with documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose new film premiering this weekend explores how Black residents sought out freedom in Oklahoma and built a thriving community in Greenwood, and how it was all destroyed over two days of horrific violence. Nelson notes many African Americans migrated westward after the Civil War “to start a new life” with dignity. “Greenwood was one of over 100 African American communities in the West,” he says. “Greenwood was the biggest and the baddest of those communities.”
AMY GOODMAN: “Mother Africa” by jazz saxophonist Hal Singer and Jef Gilson. Singer was one of the last remaining survivors of the Tulsa race massacre. He died in August at the age of 100. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
This Monday, Memorial Day, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the single greatest acts of racist terror in U.S. history. In 1921, the thriving African American neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was known as “Black Wall Street” for its concentration of successful Black-owned businesses, before it was burned to the ground by a white mob.
The violence grew from a confrontation at the Tulsa courthouse where whites had gathered to abduct and lynch a jailed Black man who had been wrongfully accused of assaulting a white woman. Black residents of Greenwood arrived to stop the lynching. Gunshots erupted, after which the white mob set upon Greenwood for 18 hours of mass murder, arson and looting that would become known as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
An estimated 300 African Americans were killed, over a thousand injured. Ten thousand were left homeless as the racist mob, some of them deputized and armed by Tulsa law enforcement, along with members of the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized the Black population. Airplanes were used to drop dynamite and crude incendiary bombs on Greenwood, ultimately burning over 35 city blocks. Over 1,200 homes were destroyed, along with countless businesses. The actual number of dead will never be known, as bodies were tossed into mass graves or thrown in the river.
Last week, a House Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing to address the ongoing impacts of the Tulsa massacre. Three African American survivors testified in favor of reparations: Viola Fletcher; her younger brother, Hughes Van Ellis, who’s 100 years old; and 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle. This is part of their testimony, beginning with Viola Fletcher.
VIOLA FLETCHER: I’m a survivor of the Tulsa race massacre. Two weeks ago, I celebrated my 107th birthday. Today I am visiting Washington, D.C., for the first time in my life. I’m here seeking justice, and I’m asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921. …
The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave, and that was it. I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot. I will not. And other survivors do not. And our descendants do not.
HUGHES VAN ELLIS: We live with it every day, and the thought of what Greenwood was and what it could have been. We aren’t just black-and-white pictures on a screen. We are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened. I’m still here.
LESSIE BENNINGFIELD RANDLE: It seems like justice in America is always so slow or not possible for Black people.
AMY GOODMAN: Three African American survivors of the Tulsa race massacre, making history as they testified before Congress just ahead of the centennial of the race massacre this Monday. The Department of Homeland Security has said events commemorating the massacre could be a target for white supremacists. President Joe Biden still plans to travel to Tulsa on Tuesday.
This Sunday, a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson premieres on the History Channel. This is the trailer for Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre.
JAMES S. HIRSCH: The destruction was so complete. The suffering was so biblical. The betrayal was so profound.
UNIDENTIFIED: Black communities deserve the opportunity to confront the past.
UNIDENTIFIED: Our city has been stuck since then. We’ve never recovered.
DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: Tulsa was the best place in the nation for African Americans.
MICHELE MITCHELL: We have everything, from hotels, theaters.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: Doctors, lawyers.
MICHELE MITCHELL: People referred to it as “Black Wall Street.”
UNIDENTIFIED: Showing Black people that a new world was possible.
HANNIBAL JOHNSON: The Tribune published a story titled “Nabbed Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.” It was a false narrative to keep Black people in their place, to reinforce white supremacy.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: All across Tulsa, angry whites are now organizing.
JAMES S. HIRSCH: They get their guns. They get their torches.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: At that point, they start moving towards Greenwood.
JAMES S. HIRSCH: All hell broke loose.
ELDORIS McCONDICHIE: The white folks are killing the colored folks.
UNIDENTIFIED: Firing into homes.
UNIDENTIFIED: Bombs dropping from the air.
UNIDENTIFIED: It was just an all-out massacre.
REV. ROBERT TURNER: Not one of those men who participated in the race massacre were ever brought to justice.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: The Tulsa Tribune refused to write anything about the massacre for more than 50 years. Victims were being buried in unmarked graves across the city. The reason we understand the history of the massacre is that certain survivors decided to talk about it.
GEORGE MONROE: My mother saw four men coming toward our house, and all of them had torches.
BRENDA ALFORD: We will be looking for the remains of those who were lost so tragically.
UNIDENTIFIED: This is so beautiful, and sad at the same time.
UNIDENTIFIED: We need to do something about what happened in Tulsa.
DAMARIO SOLOMON-SIMMONS: There cannot be any justice ’til there is proper respect, restitution and repair.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre. The executive producer of the film, NBA star Russell Westbrook, who played for the Oklahoma City Thunder for over a decade.
We’re joined now by one of the documentary’s directors, Stanley Nelson. His previous films include Freedom Summer, Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till.
Stanley, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s an honor to have you with us again. Lay this out. I mean, this is a story that, as we can see throughout this film, and of course from our own education, was so suppressed for so many decades. Go back in time. Talk to us about Black Wall Street and why so many African Americans came to Oklahoma.
STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, I think one of the things that’s so fascinating about the story is that African Americans, in the decades after the Civil War, migrated west. You know, we think of that famous saying, “Go west, young man.” Well, African Americans went west. You know, when we think about Americans in covered wagons, we don’t think about — usually think about African Americans, but African Americans went west, in covered wagons, on horseback, on foot, to try to start a new life and try to start a life where they could live with dignity and peace.
And they did that. And they did that in Greenwood. And Greenwood was one of over a hundred African American communities in the West, some small, some a little larger, but Greenwood was the biggest and the baddest of those communities. It was a very, very successful community that had businesses, you know, a skating rink, movie theaters, grocery stores, lawyers, doctors, everything. It was really a self-contained community. And that may have been one of the problems with their white neighbors.
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, I was so struck by the history, where you talked about African Americans coming north from the oppression of the Deep South, and actually a number of them — and they called it Indian Country, going to Oklahoma — a number concerned about Oklahoma becoming a state, that it would reinforce the racist laws of the rest of the United States.
STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, one of the things that’s so fascinating is that Oklahoma was a territory, and so it was kind of free. You know, it was the home of the Land Rush, and Black people took part in that. And there was a move to make Oklahoma kind of a home, a Black state for African Americans. But once Oklahoma became a state, then the racist Jim Crow laws took effect, and Black people, that had kind of been free in Oklahoma, were then persecuted.
AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip from your documentary, Tulsa Burning, that features several historians and descendants describing Greenwood’s history as the Black Wall Street.
HANNIBAL JOHNSON: Greenwood was a community of necessity. It was a segregated enclave. Black folks couldn’t ply their trades or purchase goods and services in the larger white economy, so they created their own economy. That economy became successful because Black folks did business with one another and kept dollars largely in the Black community.
MICHELE MITCHELL: What happens in Greenwood is that segregation, which is not necessarily desired, segregation actually enables Black businesses to thrive, Black professionals to thrive.
UNIDENTIFIED: It was a district where, in fact, money, dollars, could turn over five or six times.
KARLOS HILL: In Greenwood, you could — as a Black person, you could advance. And you had a number of individuals in the community that were prospering.
WILHELMINA GUESS HOWELL: “My uncle, he was a physician. His name was Andrew Jackson, lived up on Detroit Street in the 500 block, sort of a hill right up that street. Detroit in those days had the nicest houses. The Negroes did. The principal of the school lived up there. We had dentists up there. We had wonderful doctors. And my uncle, I told you, his name was Dr. Jackson.”
JOHN W. ROGERS JR.: My great-grandfather’s name was J.B. Stradford. He grew up in Kentucky. His parents were slaves. And he was able to get a law degree, go to Oberlin College and really start his entrepreneurial career in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Stradford Hotel was one of the largest Black-owned hotels in the United States. It was a beautiful building. And leaders from throughout the country, when they came through the Midwest, would often stay at the Stradford Hotel.
MICHELE MITCHELL: You have Black entertainers that are playing there, jazz being a really important scene. We think about jazz in Kansas, in Kansas City. It’s also important in Greenwood.
KARLOS HILL: Because of the success of Greenwood, Booker T. Washington coined the phrase, Greenwood as the “Black Wall Street” or the “Negro Wall Street” of America.
AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Tulsa Burning, that’s going to air on History Channel on Sunday. Stanley Nelson, talk about why you chose to take on this subject, to add to your remarkable opus of work.
STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s more reasons than one. One, it’s an incredible American story that needs to be known — you know, the building of Black Wall Street, the building of Greenwood, and also the devastation and destruction. But also, it was really challenging, because we’re telling two stories at once. So we’re also telling the story of 2020, 2021, as Greenwood searches for the remains of African Americans who were buried in mass graves, unmarked. And we didn’t know what we would find or what they would find. And so, we’re telling the story of 1921, of Greenwood, and also 2021 in Greenwood.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, 2020, because when Trump went on the 99th anniversary of Tulsa, so much was raised. I want to go to another clip from your documentary, Tulsa Burning, of Reverend Robert Turner of the Vernon AME Church on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, the only surviving structure from before the massacre.
REV. ROBERT TURNER: When I came to pastor Vernon Church in Tulsa, I knew nothing about the history of this church. One of my trustees gave me a tour. And when I saw the cornerstone outside — and the cornerstone is still there — it reads, “Basement erected 1919.” I said, “Is that the same one we have?” He said, “Yes, that’s the same basement that you just walked through.” “So, it survived the 1921 race massacre.” He was like, “Yes.” I was like, “Do you know what this is?” He was like, “What?” I said, “We have something left. Right? All is not lost.”
AMY GOODMAN: And nearly 100 years after the Tulsa race massacre, a team of scholars is working to uncover the unmarked graves, that Stanley Nelson just referred to, of victims, with hopes of identifying some of their bodies. In this clip of Tulsa Burning, we hear from Brenda Nails Alford, a descendant of James and Henry Nails, who owned businesses in Black Wall Street.
BRENDA NAILS ALFORD: I always knew that my grandmother had to hide in a church for some reason, but I never knew what that meant. Family members would come to town. My great-uncles would come to town. And maybe we’d be driving around, and we would pass Oaklawn Cemetery. Someone in the car would always say, “You know they’re still over there,” the victims of the race massacre. And everybody in the car would agree. And I always had a little thing about that cemetery, growing up as a kid, because I was like, “What’s over there?” And I would find out so many, many years later that the family member and community members were there.
REV. ROBERT TURNER: But in 1921, the people who were killed, people who lost lives, loved ones, they never had the benefit of having a funeral. That touches me at the core — and it should, any conscious human being — the fact that we just dumped bodies of human beings, of patriots, of veterans, of teachers, of husbands, of wives, children in mass graves. Nobody ever had a chance to say goodbye.
AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Reverend Robert Turner of Tulsa’s Vernon AME Church. Stanley Nelson, what most surprised you as you did this research?
STANLEY NELSON: I think one of the things that was so surprising is that there’s film footage of the building of Tulsa. You know, the people were so prosperous and so proud of what they were building that in 1920, early in 1921, they made movies and took pictures of their homes and their businesses. And that’s really rare. And there’s also still pictures and movies of the destruction, so that we see it. And so, you know, as a filmmaker, it was a gift, because it’s really a window into what happened. And that really surprised me, because you don’t often find film footage of just African American communities, you know, being themselves, from the early ’20s.
AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip from Tulsa Burning. It features Brenda Nails Alford, descendant of James and Henry Nails.
KARLOS HILL: This is not just a story of victimization. It’s also a story of resistance. It’s also a story of courage and resilience. And that can’t be forgotten.
BRENDA NAILS ALFORD: My grandfather, he was a very proud, college-educated shoemaker, who did everything he was, quote-unquote, “supposed to do.” He got his education. He worked hard. He started the businesses. And still that wasn’t enough. And so, in this day and time, my question is: When is it enough? When are we enough as a people? They did everything that they could do. They wanted to be successful. These were proud, upstanding members of our community, who simply wanted a piece of the American dream — and truly received a nightmare.
HANNIBAL JOHNSON: At the end of this experience, no white person was convicted of an offense related to killing people or destroying the property in the Greenwood District. None. And that is not surprising. And really, you know, when you think about the context, it’s not surprising at all.
AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, historian Hannibal Johnson. And finally, this clip from Tulsa Burning about the aftermath of the deadly attack.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: They’re being led away at gunpoint to these so-called internment centers around town, the fairgrounds, the municipal auditorium, the baseball park.
HANNIBAL JOHNSON: To get out of these centers, people generally had to have a green identification card, countersigned by a white person that was willing to vouch for them.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: So, here you are. You’ve been illegally arrested by white civilians. You have no idea what’s happened to your loved ones if you’ve been separated from them. If that was your uncle, your brother, your son, your father, you’re going to never know what happened to them.
KARLOS HILL: We have to acknowledge that the destruction to the community was intentional. It was conscious. It was systematic.
HANNIBAL JOHNSON: When the dust settled, somewhere between 100 and 300 people were killed. At least 1,250 homes in the Black community were destroyed.
MICHELE MITCHELL: Thirty-five square blocks, 36 square blocks, 40 square blocks, just obliterated.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: You could see the iron, you know, metal bed stands where there used to be homes.
KARLOS HILL: Two million dollars in Black wealth went up in flames. Right? That was never recouped.
SCOTT ELLSWORTH: And for people who didn’t know what happened to their loved ones, identified as well as unidentified, African American massacre victims were being buried in unmarked graves across the city.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet another clip from Tulsa Burning. Stanley Nelson, as we wrap up, the issue of reparations, 100 years later?
STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things the film does, and does so well, is it makes you think about reparations. You know, it’s such a fraught word. But I think that you understand what people mean and why people ask for reparations, once you see the film and know the story of Tulsa, which is a real representation of the problems that Black communities suffered through.
AMY GOODMAN: And you certainly help us do this in this remarkable documentary. Stanley Nelson, the award-winning director of the new documentary Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern on the History Channel.
And that does it for our show. Our condolences to our dear colleague Miriam Barnard. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.