If there is one calamity in U.S. history that captures the lengths to which white people were willing to go to impede Black economic progress after the Civil War, it’s the Tulsa race massacre. But that ugly rampage has not gone quietly into history. The devastation brought upon the city’s Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street, still reverberates as Tulsa mourns the massacre’s 100th anniversary on Monday.
For decades, scholars and journalists have worked against stiff obstacles to unearth the painful truth of the massacre. The most recent accounts, including a Human Rights Watch report by Dreisen Heath titled “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument,” indicate that white mobs burned down more than 1,200 homes, businesses and Black-owned institutions, including churches and schools. Thousands of Black residents were displaced, forced to relocate to nearby states in the aftermath. The actual death toll is unknown, but historians estimate that as many as 300 Black residents died, the bodies of some believed to be lying in unmarked graves.
Scott Ellsworth’s “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice” offers a moving and humane portrait of the massacre, drawn from the author’s extensive investigation as well as his experience as a native Tulsan. While Ellsworth traces his own journey researching the massacre since the 1970s, he also places Black Tulsans and their memories at the center of his narrative. Ellsworth, a professor in the Afroamerican and African studies department at the University of Michigan, builds on his earlier book “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” mining archives, historical newspapers and oral histories to enrich our understanding of the violence, which lasted two days.
Ellsworth grabs the reader’s attention early in the book with his portrait of the Greenwood district. One can sense the vibrancy and character of the neighborhood, a place that encouraged Black economic power. The utopia-like feeling that emerges in the early chapters, however, slips away as Ellsworth recounts, with great care and sensitivity, the barrage of attacks on the Black community. We hear from victims and witnesses whose voices are often ignored — Tulsa’s Black residents who speak their truth and express their pain over what was lost.
In his telling of the massacre, Ellsworth directly confronts the politics of public memory: What do we choose to remember about our history, and why?
In Tulsa, the desire to forget has predominated. Documents have gone missing, and media and official accounts obfuscate. Ellsworth recounts coordinated local efforts to erase the massacre from the historical record. He notes that newspapers refused to make note of it, even on its anniversaries. “By the mid-1920s,” he writes, “both the Tulsa Tribune and the Tulsa World had quit mentioning the riot in stories and articles, a practice that would last for decades.” On the anniversary in 1936, the Tribune wrote nothing about the massacre and instead recalled society events from 15 years earlier such as a luncheon and a senior prom. “Oklahoma history textbooks published in the 1920s and 1930s,” Ellsworth observes, “made no mention of the riot whatsoever. It was as if it hadn’t happened.”
Ellsworth finds traces everywhere of attempts by local and state officials to suppress history. He describes how researchers and investigators have all encountered the same issue: missing documents, pages ripped out of newspapers and police records mysteriously absent. Some members of the Black community were also silent about the events because of the trauma associated with the massacre and a fear of reprisals. That reluctance to speak out, along with the willful silencing of history by authorities, reveals a larger story about how Black people’s experiences are often rendered invisible.
Even new residents of Tulsa were often warned not to mention the massacre or acknowledge those whose lives were forever changed by it. Ellsworth recounts that a woman who taught at the University of Tulsa in the late 1940s was reprimanded by university officials when she dared to bring a survivor of the massacre to speak to one of her classes.
Ellsworth pursues not only tales of the massacre but also tangible evidence: the remains of the victims. His goal, as he puts it, was “to make some kind of new contribution to our understanding of the riot.”
When he asked himself what “big issues” were still “unresolved,” he came up with two simple questions: “How many people died in the riot? And where were they buried?” he writes. “And that’s what I decided to try and find out.” By seeking out these difficult answers, Ellsworth makes clear that he is deeply committed to exposing the details of the massacre and its aftermath. He refuses to shy away from the history — no matter how uncomfortable.
And he doesn’t shy away from another important topic: financial reparations. As he implicitly argues in this vital book, one of the underlying reasons White officials and residents evaded the topic of the massacre was to avoid considering redress. To confront the massacre means acknowledging the immense loss of Black life, property and wealth. It also means considering steps to repair the damage.
In 1997, the Oklahoma legislature passed House Joint Resolution 1035, which authorized the creation of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission — later renamed the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission — to research and report on the event. That panel, which Ellsworth advised along with historian John Hope Franklin, recommended to the legislature in 2001 that it create 500 endowed scholarships for north Tulsa youth and provide direct reparations (up to $150,000 per family) to survivors. After the commission issued its report, Oklahoma legislators passed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act. The act was largely symbolic — it did not address all of the commission’s recommendations. No reparations were paid to survivors of the Tulsa massacre.
“The Ground Breaking” sends a powerful message at this 100th anniversary: that reconciliation is possible only when we directly confront the truth of a
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of “Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom” and a co-editor of “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.”