‘Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten’: ‘Watchmen’ Dramatized the Tragedy, a New Doc Will Fill in the Blanks

“Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” will premiere Monday, May 31 on PBS, the network announced Tuesday. The documentary explores the tragedy which unfolded over 24 hours (May 31 – June 1, 1921), while linking the horrific incident to the history of anti-Black violence — including the one-year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 — and Black resilience.

“The reason that we embarked on this film was to expose a buried truth, both literally and figuratively, in the suppression of the history of the massacre, and the injustice done, not merely to the victims and survivors, but to the
 generations that followed,” said Jonathan Silver, who directed the documentary, during the PBS virtual panel. “It was deeply shameful to me as a human rights journalist to learn about this massacre only two years ago. Our goal here is not only to build awareness that leads to change, but to see that change happen in the short term, and this is a perfect opportunity, on the centennial of the massacre.”

It’s an important piece of mostly forgotten American history that HBO’s alternate history series “Watchmen” dramatized on a grand scale, while making its themes current. After the first episode aired in the fall of 2019, Google searches of the horrific event received a boost, and eight months later, when then President Trump flew to Tulsa to rally with thousands of his supporters on the weekend of Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, the event sparked protests, with many pointing to Tulsa’s contentious racial history, which helped generate even more interest in learning about the 1921 massacre.

“Much of Black history was left out of our textbooks in the United States, which meant thousands of school children did not know about this history,” said DeNeen L. Brown, a Washington Post journalist who has been reporting on the Tulsa massacre and the city’s efforts to uncover mass graves. Brown also produces and appears in the documentary. “It was a deliberate act to make sure that people did not know about it. Many of the city leaders in Tulsa set out to cover it up. They called it an embarrassment.
 Many of the white people would not talk about it because their grandparents were perpetrators in the massacre.
 And many of the Black people often whispered about it, because some had a fear that it might reoccur.

Following World War I, Tulsa was recognized nationally for the Greenwood District, its affluent African American community, where “Black Wall Street” lived. But Tulsa was also a very racist city. The Ku Klux Klan was active, segregation was the order of the day, and lynchings were common throughout the state.

When Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black teenager, walked into an elevator in the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa to use the segregated restroom, Sarah Page, the white elevator operator, reportedly squealed. The exact facts are in dispute, and Rowland was never actually prosecuted, but he was arrested and taken to a courthouse, as a white mob gathered outside. A group of Black men arrived to defend Rowland against whites who were enraged, despite not having any real details about what transpired. And after an initial violent skirmish, which left 10 white and two black citizens dead, white Tulsans launched a devastating air and ground assault in the Greenwood district. After it all ended, the neighborhood had been burned to the ground, and the number of fatalities estimated at around 300 people.

“Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” chronicles present-day public efforts to memorialize the Tulsa Race Massacre and other racial violence, and how Black and white communities view such efforts. The documentary features interviews with civil rights activists, lawyers, and Black community leaders, including Oklahoma State Representative Regina Goodwin, a descendant of victims of the massacre, Tulsa activist Greg Robinson II, and Eric Stover, founder of the Human Rights Center at University of California, Berkeley School of Law, who has investigated numerous acts of genocide and mass murder over many decades.

The George Floyd killing was just one in a series of murders of Black people not necessarily linked to Tulsa, that consolidated mass outrage, leading to last summer’s mass protests. But Tulsa had its own George Floyd moment a year before, as Goodwin explained, in 42-year-old Derrick Scott, who was arrested on May 20, 2019 when officers confronted him after receiving reports that someone was brandishing a firearm. A medical examiner’s report listed Scott’s probable cause of death as a collapsed right lung and cited physical restraint, recent methamphetamine use, heart disease, and emphysema as contributing factors. The manner of death was listed as “unknown,” but video of the arrest told a different story.

“He died in a similar way, with a cop’s knee on his neck, as he said, ‘I can’t breathe’, and the nation did not see that video,” Goodwin said. “So, to the point of Black folks experiences, often it’s not recorded, and it’s not seen by a national or international audience. Unfortunately, it has been kind of our lot as long as we’ve been living. And when it’s all said and done, 100 years later, we’re still not having justice, we’re still seeing a Breonna Taylor murdered in her own home.

The film couldn’t be coming at a better time, against the backdrop of a racial reckoning in the U.S., and director Silver believes the environment is perfectly suited for its release.

“I believe that the protests of last summer led people to ask questions and made them receptive to understanding where the anger and indignation come from,” he said. “This film is a small part of that answer, but we need a national conversation about racial terrorism, racial injustice, and systemic racism. Everyone in this country is now hyper-aware, and if this film can do anything, it’s a way of giving some fundamentals about the suppression and oppression of a people, not merely a subset of people, because this is American history, not Black American history.”

“Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten” premieres Monday, May 31 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), PBS.org, and the PBS Video app.

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