Journalism Professor Unearths Grim History of Century-old Tulsa Race Massacre
Journalism Associate Professor DeNeen Brown looks out over the Arkansas River, possible dumping site for bodies of victims of the Tulsa race massacre, during filming of a documentary about the 1920 event. It left an African American district of the city in rubble (below).
They marched DeNeen Brown down a street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, hands above her head, in the footsteps of Black people soon to be killed.
But those victims had preceded her by nearly 100 years. At her back that day in the summer of 2018 was not an enraged white mob, but a pair of activists—a Black history-focused local tour guide and a city politician—both determined not to allow the orgy of killing and burning that started here in May 1921 to be forgotten.
Brown, an associate professor of journalism in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and a longtime Washington Post reporter, teaches her students about a stage in reporting where intense immersion in research, setting and real-life characters all boil over into a profound understanding. Then they’re ready to write. “That point came for me walking with my hands up, like a prisoner, toward a convention hall where some Black men were taken who never came out,” she said.
Brown’s story, which ran on The Post’s front page, went viral, exposing the wider world to the shameful story of the destruction of Greenwood, a thriving African American community wealthy enough to be nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” After a vaguely described encounter between a white female teenager and Black male teenager in an elevator led to a gun battle over a reported lynching attempt, its white neighbors decided to wipe it out, killing perhaps 300 residents, leveling 40 square blocks and leaving 10,000 Black Tulsans homeless.
In addition to continuing her coverage of this topic in The Post and National Geographic, she is featured in a pair of documentaries marking the 100-year anniversary of the massacre: “Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten,” which debuted on PBS on May 31, and National Geographic’s “Red Summer,” which debuts Friday on the eve of Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The incident also inspired the plot of the latest revival of the “Watchmen” comics franchise on HBO in 2019; the series featured a shocking, factual scene of a biplane bombing an African American neighborhood—likely the first airborne attack against U.S. citizens within the nation’s borders.
“There was tremendous resentment at the appearance of wealth and the desire for equality in the African American community held by local whites—and this isn’t my analysis, but what they said to newspapers at the time,” said C.R. Gibbs, a Washington, D.C., independent historian featured in “Red Summer” who has studied racial violence after World War I.
Following riots and massacres in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, Florida and elsewhere, he said, a blanket of silence descended, memories faded, witnesses died and perpetrators were never held responsible. Although the nation seems more willing in 2021 to confront such history than in previous decades, Gibbs warns, “It is hard to teach a lesson when the evidence for the lesson is continually wiped out.”
The present-day gentrification of Greenwood, and corresponding loss of history, was what initially drew Brown to the story. She’s a native Oklahoman who had lived for a few years as a teen in Tulsa, where her father is a minister. She can’t remember when she first heard of the massacre, but said, “There was a heaviness to that place I felt, and often still feel when I go back.”
In the city, her work has been like a bulldozer scraping away a century of enforced silence about the murders. A copy of The Post was held up at a municipal meeting following her first story’s publication, and the white mayor—whose family has long hailed from Tulsa but who was an adult before he heard of the attack—reopened an abandoned investigation searching for mass graves of victims.
The silence is not unique to white Tulsans either, said Vanessa Hall-Harper, the Tulsa Ward 1 councilwoman who was there when Brown walked with hands up, imagining herself marked for death.
“When I asked my grandmother about it, who was born in 1921 and grew up in the aftermath, she was disturbed I even asked about it—she would only discuss it in a hushed voice,” said Hall-Harper, the city’s first Black female council chair. “Now it’s in the open, and that’s why we’re so thankful for DeNeen.
“She is almost singlehandedly responsible for the national and worldwide attention we are getting now.”
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