In Tulsa, Oklahoma, even a century later, no one talks about what happened in the city one spring day 100 years ago.
Late in the afternoon of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black shoe-shiner working in segregated Oklahoma, needed to use the bathroom. The only public restroom he was allowed to use was the one for colored people at the top of the Drexel building in downtown Tulsa; to get there, he had to take an elevator operated by Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white teenager.
While there are conflicting reports about what happened in the elevator, what we do know is that a clothing store clerk on the building’s first floor heard what he thought was a woman screaming. Not long after, the building’s elevator doors opened, and Rowland quickly exited, looking flustered. Page, behind him, appeared to be in a state of distress. Assuming that Page had been sexually assaulted by Rowland, the clerk called the police, thus setting in motion a chain of events that would devastate the Black citizens of Tulsa. Over the next 14 hours, 35 city blocks in Tulsa’s Black neighborhoods were burned, an estimated 800 people were injured, and hundreds were killed in a riotous response to the accusations against Rowland.
I’m a Black man from Oklahoma, so that history is my family history. A cousin was murdered during those hours, and to keep his memory alive, my family on my father’s side tells the story of what happened in Tulsa that day—including that they were never able to find our cousin’s body. I know the story of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre because it is my story, as that cousin’s descendent. But today, as a professor at Oklahoma State University, I’m always shocked by how few students from this state know that these events even happened at all.
One would think that a film about the massacre, a monumental, devastating moment in this country’s history, would have been made in these intervening years. American filmmakers have never shied away from making movies about this country’s difficult history: There have been numerous movies about slavery, about Jim Crow, about the Vietnam War. There have even been movies about America’s inaction to the genocide in Rwanda, a story whose national footprint is likely much smaller than that of the Tulsa massacre’s. Yet when it comes to the more than 30 race-related massacres that occurred in this country between 1917-1921, even before the one in Tulsa, there has only been one movie made: John Singleton’s 1997 Rosewood, about the 1923 race massacre that destroyed the town of Rosewood, Florida.
I think the reason why the story of what happened on May 30, 1921, in Tulsa has been absent from much of media is clear: Americans are not willing to address the entrenched viciousness of its racism—and the fact that that viciousness still exists and has deep repercussions today.
Consider the events of May 2020, nearly 99 years to the day after the events in Tulsa: We had what appeared to be a national, collectively outraged response to the (white) police killing of (Black) George Floyd. Cities all across this country erupted in wide-scale public protests against the police. The NBA postponed games, because players—and not just Black ones—refused to play in solidarity. Companies as varied as Nike, Apple, and Domino’s Pizza issued statements decrying racism and voicing their commitment to support Black lives; some even put their money where their mouths were. This latest, potent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began just a few years ago, shocked me. I felt that maybe we had crossed a Rubicon of sorts, and we would actually see systemic, societal change. I was full of hope.
And then, the seasons changed. Life moved on. The outrage I thought might improve things for the inherently disadvantaged Black people in this country evaporated. There were no substantial policy reforms. There was no real shift in the ways that Americans talk about or respond to racism. We had a moment of anger, and then life went back to its unsatisfactory normal.
This return to the racial status quo, where Blacks and other people of color are disempowered and societally marginalized on the basis of their race alone, occurred for the same reason that American studios continue to pass over the rich, important stories of our country’s race massacres: We—that is, the majority-white powers that be in Hollywood—are willing to address the well-known history of slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights movement, but we do not want to address these more local, comparatively recent, and just as affecting, incidents of major white-on-Black crime.
It’s not that the American studio system is completely ignorant of events like the Tulsa race massacre or other race riots; Rosewood aside, much has been made about the L.A. race riots in recent years, for example. And in 2019 and 2020, the HBO series Watchmen and Lovecraft Country actually featured Tulsa’s race massacre within their storylines. But instead of reckoning with the straightforward history of the event and its social reverberations, Tulsa is referenced as a touchstone for past trauma that motivated character behavior. There is a difference between featuring historical bloodshed like the one in Tulsa as a plot point for a character’s backstory in a work of fiction and centering the narrative as a whole around the deep-rooted effects that these events had on Black people in this country and the country itself.
What I am asking for here is that more media works to tell the truth about the evil past of this country—in its totality, beyond the oft-retold history of slavery. Because the damage done to people of color has only grown since slavery’s end; new events throughout the intervening centuries have created new wounds and widened existing gaps in our societal hierarchy. I want films and shows and books and podcasts that remind audiences of how malicious and depraved white people have been toward people of color. I want these to be widely consumed so that everyone can appreciate the miracle of Black love, resilience, and creativity that has continually survived white America’s best attempts to undermine it.
Consider this: When the infamous film Birth of a Nation came out in 1915, the number of people who joined the Ku Klux Klan skyrocketed. The violence depicted in that film directly inspired scores of race-related violence in American cities over the next few years. This one film alone, whatever its creative intention may have been, begat more racial strife than would have existed without it. Representation in media matters, from who is on screen to whose stories are told and how. Movies and TV shows and books and plays can inspire behavior, positive and, clearly, otherwise. We need mainstream work that shows just how repressive, abusive, and grotesque the people in power have been toward Black people throughout the United States’ short history. It didn’t stop with slavery; race-related violence continues today, and the horrifying events of yesteryear echo throughout all of it.
Once we reconcile this truth and admit that hundreds of Black people have been killed for the crime of being Black for centuries—since after slavery, before the Civil Rights movement, and before the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd, I won’t have to shock my students with the story of one of the worst race massacres that happened just down the street.