“They realize this is a big PR problem because they’re boosting the city. They want it to grow and grow. And these stories of destruction and martial law and train service being interrupted, they realized that was a problem. So they tell the world that white Tulsans are ashamed of this and we’re going to rebuild the Black community and they don’t do that at all,” Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth remembered being twelve and playing with a microfilm machine at a library when he saw a huge headline: “75 killed in race riot.” The next one: “martial law declared.” He wrote his senior college thesis on the massacre using maps and old phone books to trace descendants and survivors. His first book on the subject was “Death in a Promised Land.” It was published in 1982. He said that’s roughly when people started to talk about the event more, and noted that it was the second most stolen book out of the Tulsa library system.
“People didn’t want it available or they wanted it so bad to learn,” so he sent a box every year so they could restock.
In fits and starts, the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre began to receive more attention from leaders, politicians and even Hollywood. All the while, Tulsans begin to talk about what happened more, working to find descendants and, most importantly, survivors. Today, there are three left: siblings Viola Fletcher, 107, and Hughes Van Ellis, 100, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 106.
Tulsans will tell you that over the last two years, key events have forced Americans to begin to come to terms with what happened a century ago.
First, the HBO show “Watchmen” opened the first episode with the Tulsa Race Massacre: Families fleeing, buildings burning and Black people being murdered. The event is central to what has become a hit TV show, which also features something activists are fighting for to this day: reparations to the descendants.
Then there’s former President Donald Trump’s decision to hold his first campaign rally since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in Tulsa on June 19, 2020, or Juneteenth, a day that celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from slavery. In the midst of anti-racism protests across the world, the decision drew intense backlash. The Trump campaign delayed the rally until the following day, just miles from the Greenwood district.
Nehemiah Frank, a descendant who founded the local news organization, Black Wall Street Times, said the Trump visit sent Black Tulsans scrambling to throw a “big ass” Juneteenth celebration as counterprogramming.
“We just started mobilizing. We’re like “we’re about to throw the biggest Juneteenth we’ve ever had. It was huge and it was successful and it was a very diverse crowd. So we were America,” Frank said. “That’s when people were like, ‘oh, we need to help them.’”
Then came another turn. In October 2020, an investigation for mass graves of victims actually found one — at least 12 coffins buried in the Oaklawn Cemetery. The exhumation process began Tuesday, the day of Biden’s visit, and is expected to take weeks.
Ellsworth is part of the team that found the graves. “We have kind of one shot at doing this. They’ll be able to determine age, gender, racial characteristics, cause of death. But the idea is this isn’t going to become somebody’s dissertation. The idea is to get the information as quickly as we can. And then have them reburied with honor,” Ellsworth said. “The community would like that to happen in Greenwood, which I hope it does.”
Over the Memorial Day weekend, hundreds have flocked to Tulsa for a slate of events surrounding the Greenwood District, culminating in Biden’s remarks. The president is set to tour the cultural center, meet with survivors and descendants and speak in the afternoon.
Sitting in the wine cellar, Bruner said both Biden’s visit and the visit of his Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this year mark “the introduction to the conversation.”
“Now we’re moving on to the real story, the real action, the real opportunity,” Bruner said. She considers Tulsa the crucible to the ever-changing conversation about race in this country: from policing to education to housing to healthcare.
“Basically these are the same issues that we’ve been grappling with since the founding,” said Bruner. “One of our greatest strengths is the fact that we are not a homogeneous society, but it’s also our greatest challenge. In many ways, we struggle to get past this. But it’s not a matter of getting past it. It’s a matter of deeply enmeshing yourself in this issue and working it out.”