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Tulsa 1921 and Today

Resources for Learning the History of Racism in the United States and Discovering Black Lives in Film

by Brandon Priddy, Public Services Librarian

I recently started watching the new HBO series Watchmen, which opens with scenes from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.  Although the show came out last year, watching it now feels incredibly timely and I was compelled to research the massacre, an event that I was unfamiliar with until seeing the show.  According to the Gale U.S. History database:

“On May 30, 1921, a black man, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, entered the elevator of the Drexel Building. The elevator operator was Sarah Page, a young white girl. People heard a scream coming from the elevator and saw Rowland running out. Accounts of the incident vary, and there is no conclusive evidence of what happened. Apparently, Rowland tripped over the girl and startled her…Rowland was arrested the next day, and the police started an investigation. Charges against Rowland were later dismissed, but that day, the allegations inflamed the white population of the city…That night, a mob of white men gathered in front of the courthouse where Rowland was being held and demanded that the police hand him over…The sheriff and his men barricaded the building to protect Rowland. Shots were fired during a struggle when a white man tried to disarm a black man, and a violent conflict erupted. 

The outnumbered black men, pursued by the white mob, ran back toward the Greenwood business district [referred to as "Black Wall Street," a successful African American neighborhood]. The whites started a rampage in the district, looting and destroying personal property and burning down the neighborhood…leveling more than 35 blocks. Thousands of people were left homeless, and hundreds were injured…Thousands of the city's black population were imprisoned, with some held in jail for as long as eight days. None of the whites were prosecuted…The exact number of people killed during the riot was never determined; only 37 deaths were confirmed but estimates put the true number of fatalities closer to 300. There were reports of many uncounted deaths and hidden mass burials.” ***1

Although the Watchmen TV series is fictional, the real life events surrounding the Tulsa Race Massacre echo strongly today over a hundred years later with the recent murder of George Floyd and our country’s continued struggle with racism.  I strongly recommend you check out the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum’s resource page on the massacre.  Unfortunately, the Library does not currently have access to Watchmen in a streaming format, but you can also sign up for a free week long trial of the HBO service if you’d like to see the series.  If you’re looking for more information on this historical event or would like to learn more about racism in America, I have compiled a short list of resources:

Free Library service Hoopla has the audiobook Tulsa Massacre Of 1921: The Controversial History And Legacy Of America's Worst Race Riot by Charles Rivers Press and read by Stephen Platt.  The book “examines the conditions and events that led to the riot, the damage done, and the aftermath. Along with pictures depicting important people, places, and events, you will learn about the Tulsa race riot of 1921 like never before.”

Free Library streaming video service Kanopy has several excellent documentaries on the history of racism in the United States.  The Uncomfortable Truth: The History of Racism in America by the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation which “provides individuals, teachers and classrooms with learning materials to help shed light on American history that is often either misunderstood or skipped over.” 

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: “This definitive four-part series documents a brutal and oppressive era rooted in the growing refusal of many Southern states to grant slaves freed in the Civil War equal rights with whites. A life of crushing limitation for Southern Blacks, defined by legal segregation known as "Jim Crow" - after a minstrel routine in which whites painted their faces black - shaped the social, political and legal history of the period. In 1954, with the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the Jim Crow laws and way of life began to fall.”

I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin and Race in America: An Oscar-nominated documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, “explores the continued peril America faces from institutionalized racism” and is “a journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter. It is a film that questions black representation in Hollywood and beyond. And, ultimately, by confronting the deeper connections between the lives and assassination of these three leaders, Baldwin and Peck have produced a work that challenges the very definition of what America stands for.”

Whose Streets?: An Unflinching Look at the Ferguson Uprising: “Told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement for justice, WHOSE STREETS? is an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising. When unarmed teenager Michael Brown is killed by police and left lying in the street for hours, it marks a breaking point for the residents of St. Louis, Missouri. Grief, long-standing racial tensions and renewed anger bring residents together to hold vigil and protest this latest tragedy. Empowered parents, artists, and teachers from around the country come together as freedom fighters.”

Several companies have also offered free resources during this time.  Warner Bros. has made Just Mercywhich stars Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan and Django Unchained’s Jamie Foxx, for free to stream during the month of June.  The film is based “on the nonfiction memoir by law professor and Equal Justice Initiative executive director Bryan Stevenson. Jordan plays Stevenson as he graduates Harvard Law in the 1980s and moves to Alabama, inspired to help death-row inmates appeal their sentences. He ends up defending Walter (Jamie Foxx), a man accused of murdering a white woman, and placed on death row even though the evidence proves his innocence. It’s expressly a film about systemic racism and the failures of the American justice system, and about the importance of standing up against prejudiced policing.”  ***2 You can watch the film for free here.  

The Criterion Channel has also offered free movies that focus on Black lives this month, including the works of Oscar Micheaux, Maya Angelou, Julie Dash, William Greaves, Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunye, Khalik Allah, and Leilah Weinraub.  While Criterion is a paid service, you can watch these select movies for free.  For example, just clicking on Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta will start playing the video in your web browser.  You do not need to signup for an account.  

Later this month, the Library will be hosting a virtual program examining some of Pittsburgh’s unique Black History.  On Monday, June 22nd at 7PM, Samuel W. Black will present his lecture The History of the Pittsburgh Courier via Zoom.  The Pittsburgh Courier was an African-American weekly newspaper published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 1907 until October 22, 1966.  By the 1930s, the Courier was one of the leading black newspapers in the United States.  Samuel W. Black, Director of African-American Programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center, will share the fascinating story of the paper’s legacy. You can register for the program here.  I hope you can join us for this wonderful program and that these resources help foster better understanding and healing.  


 ***1 "Tulsa Race Riot May 31-June 1, 1921." Historic U.S. Events, Gale, 2019. Gale In Context: U.S. History, Accessed 8 June 2020.


If you missed our June Citizen Soldiers video, here is the link for that program:

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