Illuminating a mostly forgotten but deeply chilling event, “The Tulsa Lynching of 1921” documents what is probably the worst race riot in American history. Director Michael Wilkerson tells the harrowing story cleanly and very effectively, using a combination of recollections by now-elderly witnesses, commentary from historians, celebrity voice-over readings of contemporary accounts, and an impressive collection of black-and-white photographs and some film depicting the destruction of an entire black community.
In 1921, Tulsa was considered the “Oil Capital of the World,” and the black community was among the most prosperous in the nation. The Greenwood section of town was known both as “Little Africa” and as “The Black Wall Street.” The film does an excellent job of concisely laying out the various conditions that set the stage for the riot, from the return of unemployed (and heavily armed) veterans from WWI to the popularity of the film “Birth of a Nation” and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The catalyst for the violence was a misunderstood incident where a black man named Dick Rowland accidentally fell onto a white female elevator operator, who screamed for help. As historian Don J. Guy points out, though, this wasn’t the real incident — that occurred at the local newspaper, The Tulsa Tribune, which published an afternoon article distorting the event and calling for a lynching. By that evening, crowds of white men were gathered at the jail seeking blood, and violence soon broke out between them and a much smaller group of blacks.
Supposedly to keep the public order, the sheriff began deputizing any white citizen who wanted to join the police force, and soon hundreds of Klansmen, now representing the law, began organizing what, in the words of historian and retired General Ed Wheeler, was effectively a military operation.
By the next day, over 300 blacks had been killed, over 1,200 homes had been burned, and the surviving African-American population of Tulsa was forced into confinement. Those who were vouched for by whites were released, but made to wear ribbons that immediately bring to mind the later yellow stars used by the Nazis to mark the Jews.
The newspapers continued to refashion the incident, and all copies of the initial incendiary article disappeared. The city council passed laws that effectively made it impossible for the black community to rebuild, and a tent city was created to house the impoverished homeless population.
Wilkerson presents a fascinating story, which is even more horrific for its having remained under-acknowledged. The eyewitnesses who were children at the time relate some specific details that make the story even more vivid — a white man, for example, telling of a young girl happily handing out gum that clearly had been looted from a black store. The written accounts, read without any ornate interpretation, give a strong sense of the total shock of the incident. This is a film that could certainly become a staple of history classes.