Russell Westbrook is set to work with celebrated filmmaker Stanley Nelson on a docuseries about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The documentary will highlight an overlooked aspect of Oklahoma’s history.
Westbrook, who played for the Thunder for 11 seasons and won the MVP in 2016, has often spoken about the state being home. And the story of the massacre is something that Russell felt he had to tell.
Westbrook spoke about his feelings towards the docuseries with Variety.
This documentary comes at a point of inflection in America today.
The death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery has led to a massive outcry about policing brutality and racial injustice.
Their deaths have sparked a discussion about the fear that African-Americans carry with them daily.
The Tulsa Race Massacre was an example of race relations breaking down and leading towards violence committed against African-Americans. It is a lesson for the present day: respect for our fellow man is needed to break this vicious cycle.
The events of the massacre in 1921 were shocking; black people were dragged out of their homes and shot.
Businesses that had prospered in the Greenwood District, which was located in north Tulsa, were burned to the ground. Airplanes were used to drop turpentine bombs on the area, also known as Black Wall Street.
The atrocity has not been covered in Oklahoma schools until very recently, which is equally shocking. It is essential to read history and understand why events happened as history informs the future.
The Tulsa Race Massacre was set into motion with a flashpoint and two conflicting accounts of the incident. Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner, entered an office downtown and chose to use the elevator.
Rowland needed to use the elevator to reach the top floor of the Drexel Building, where the restrooms for black people was located. Rowland had permission to use these facilities and was a known figure.
The elevator attendant was a white teenager by the name of Sarah Page. The differing accounts started when they were in the elevator together. Rowland tripped and reached out to stop himself falling; Rowland grabbed Page’s arm. Page screamed out, and Rowland fled the area.
Although Dick Rowland had done nothing wrong, rumors and sensationalism soon corrupted the situation. The Tulsa Tribune ran with a story about the incident and accused Rowland of attempting to rape Page in the elevator.
The account in the Tribune fanned the flames; the article tapped into the feeling of resentment that many white people felt towards black people. At the time, whites resented African-Americans who lived in Northern Tulsa due to the African-Americans achieving affluency.
Moreover, racial tensions had escalated since the end of the First World War. Black soldiers came back from the European theatre of war and believed that they had earned equality. The change in attitude coincided with a resurgence in white supremacy.
The clash of ideas led to violence and riots across America in the years following the end of the First World War. The combination of racial tension and the severity of the crime reported usually led to lynchings.
The police chose to shield Rowland in the courthouse; they feared an angry mob of white Tulsans attempting to lynch Rowland. Black people feared the same thing and resolved to protect Rowland from harm.
Chaos ensued. A mob of white citizens burned Black Wall Street to the ground. Archer Street was set ablaze while the whites fired on any black people in the crowd. It was not a riot; it was cold-hearted devastation.
Residents fled Tulsa fearing for their lives; the mob continued to raze the Greenwood District to the ground. The homes of black people were looted, and people were murdered indiscriminately. The crowd stopped the fire department from putting out the flames; the rioters threatened to kill any man who directed a hose at a burning property.
The violence came to an end with the enactment of martial law. Martial law allowed the National Guard to step in and suppress the remaining force. Black Wall Street was a burnt-out shell; the district had no resemblance to the prosperous, thriving area that existed before the violence.
Black people were put into internment camps by the State of Oklahoma and had to carry identification cards. The identification cards stated that they were no threat to white Americans.
An inquiry into the matter led by the Governor of Oklahoma concluded that the cohort of black men who drove to the courthouse to protect Rowland was at fault for the massacre. None of the whites who killed indiscriminately and burned the district down were at fault.
It was a slap in the face and one that the black community in Greenwood tried to forget. The massacre was suppressed; the memories were much too painful to think about. The whites deftly covered the massacre up; the genocide was ignored until very recently.
Black Wall Street was rebuilt after the massacre. City officials intended for the area to be used as an industrial zone; the officials tried to price black people out of the district by requiring buildings to be built with expensive materials. A trio of lawyers fought the case, and it was declared unconstitutional.
Eventually, the memories of Black Wall Street faded. It has been lost to history. Russell Westbrook’s documentary series will look to shine a light on a sordid, dark aspect of Oklahoma’s history. It is time for the Tulsa Race Massacre to be remembered and learned.
Side Note: This was a challenging piece for me to write; it was shocking to read about the vicious violence that was committed against black Tulsans. I had learned about this event in school, but it was a throwaway comment from the teacher; the massacre was not all that significant. I urge everybody to do some further reading on this subject.