‘Watchmen’ brings 1921 Tulsa massacre to the fore: Three questions

Why We Wrote This

How can racial injustices from years past be addressed? As the 1921 Tulsa massacre shows, a crucial step – in addition to reparations – is raising awareness and ensuring the event doesn’t fade from memory.

GREENWOOD CULTURAL CENTER/TULSA WORLD/AP/FILE
Mount Zion Baptist Church burns after being torched by white mobs during the 1921 Tulsa massacre. The incident – little known to most Americans – is depicted in HBO’s new “Watchmen” series.

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The 1921 massacre of black people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was largely forgotten, even by those living in the state. But in recent decades, that’s been changing: The 1921 Race Riot Commission issued a report that led to reparations for survivors and descendants, several books have been written about the incident, and now the HBO series “Watchmen” depicts the massacre, in which as many as 300 black people died.

The 1921 incident started with accusations that a black teenage boy had attempted the sexual assault of a white teenage girl. Tensions escalated as armed groups of black and white people squared off outside the courthouse where the accused rapist was thought to be. The next day, a white mob mobilized around the border of Greenwood, a racially segregated neighborhood. Businesses were set on fire and stores were looted.

As part of commemorations of the event (now called a massacre rather than a race riot), a $25 million museum will be unveiled in 2021. Hannibal Johnson, a curator for the museum who has written about the massacre, sees a three-pronged strategy for moving forward: “acknowledgment – acknowledging these traumas that existed in our communities ... apology where necessary and appropriate ... and then atonement.”

When HBO’s new series “Watchmen” depicted a 1921 massacre of black people in the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, many viewers assumed it was fiction. After all, this is a fantasy show in which a blue-skinned superhuman walks around the surface of Mars in the buff.

But the slaughter of as many as 300 black people actually happened. HBO’s show, which is about the threat of white supremacy, has many wondering why they were unaware of this incident.

What happened in Tulsa in 1921?

It started with accusations that a black teenage boy had attempted the sexual assault of a white teenage girl in an elevator. Although police doubted her story, a Tulsa newspaper ratcheted up racial tensions. (The first “Watchmen” episode includes a glimpse of its inflammatory headline.) On May 31 of that year, armed groups of black and white people squared off outside the courthouse where the accused rapist was thought to be. There was an exchange of gunfire. White people chased retreating African Americans through the racially segregated but prosperous neighborhood of Greenwood.

“There was, of course, jealousy of the relative success of the black people in the Greenwood District, because at the time, white supremacy was perhaps at its apex nationally,” says Hannibal Johnson, author of “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.” “In [1919’s] Red Summer – red being a reference to the blood – there were more than 25 major instances of civil unrest that were racially motivated throughout the United States.”

On June 1, 1921, a white mob mobilized around the border of Greenwood. At 5 a.m. a whistle sounded and an attack began. Businesses were set on fire. Stores were looted.

“Stories are legion of black people seeing white women wearing their dresses 20 years afterwards,” says Tim Madigan, author of “The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.”

At least six airplanes swooped over the town, says Randy Krehbiel, author of “Tulsa, 1921: Reporting a Massacre.” However, he notes, there is considerable dispute as to whether the planes dropped bombs, as depicted in “Watchmen.” Another discrepancy: Ku Klux Klansmen wearing white robes, as shown in the HBO series, “almost certainly didn’t happen” until slightly later in Tulsa’s history, he says, but racism was already pervasive.

By the time Oklahoma’s National Guard restored order, death toll estimates ranged from several dozen to 300.

Why was the massacre largely forgotten, even by Oklahomans?

In 1999, when Mr. Madigan was a journalist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas, an editor showed him a wire story about the 1921 Race Riot Commission. Initiated by former Oklahoma state Rep. Don Ross, the commission issued a report detailing the massacre.

Mr. Madigan recalls reading about the slaughter as his editor waited. “I looked at her and I said, ‘This can’t be right. I mean, how could we not have known about this?’ And she said, ‘I had the same reaction.’”

The incident wasn’t taught in Oklahoma schools, says Mr. Madigan, who published his book on the massacre in 2001. He thinks that white shame and guilt, coupled with fear of prosecution for murder, meant few talked about what had happened. Then, too, African Americans were afraid to speak out because they feared retribution, Mr. Johnson says. It became a taboo subject.

How does the massacre influence race relations today?

The Race Riot Commission report led to reparations in the form of payments to survivors and scholarships to African American descendants. In 2021 – the 100th anniversary of the event – the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission will unveil a $25 million museum. More than just a memorial, it will include a gallery designed to provoke dialogue around critical issues of race.

“For me, there’s a relatively straightforward, three-pronged strategy that we need to engage with to move forward,” says Mr. Johnson, a curator for the museum. “That is acknowledgment – acknowledging these traumas that existed in our communities all throughout the country. Apology where necessary and appropriate for the harms caused to the people victimized by these tragedies. And then atonement.”

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