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Tale of survival: Documentary tells story of extraordinary Black community in Tulsa

A Black-owned business during the “Black Wall Street” days of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center)

Sam Pollard knows the power of film.

“Goin’ Back to T-Town,” which he made with Joyce Vaughn, is resonating with audiences 100 years after the events happened.

The film tells the story of Greenwood, an extraordinary Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that prospered during the 1920s and ’30s despite hostile segregation.

Torn apart in 1921 by one of the worst racially motivated massacres in the nation’s history, the neighborhood rose from the ashes, and by 1936, it boasted the largest concentration of Black-owned businesses in the United States, known as Black Wall Street.

Ironically, it could not survive the progressive policies of integration and urban renewal of the 1960s.

The film is told through the memories of those who lived through the events. It is narrated by Ossie Davis and was first aired in 1993. “American Experience” will present an encore broadcast at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8, on New Mexico PBS.

A band marching on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Courtesy of Greenwood Cultural Center)

“It was a story that I didn’t know much about, the Tulsa race riot and massacre,” Pollard says. “We learned a lot about it while we were on the ground.”

Cameo George, executive producer of “American Experience,” says being able to pull this film out of the vault for rebroadcast is a special opportunity and a reminder of the unique legacy of the series.

” ‘Goin’ Back to T-Town’ is a film that was made for the series nearly three decades ago, and yet it is shockingly relevant today,” George says. “The story of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre was hidden for generations, but as of last year, forensic experts began searching for the mass graves of Black Tulsa citizens who were killed by white mobs. This film features some of the last recorded eyewitness accounts from survivors of that atrocity.”

Smoldering ruins of homes in Black neighborhood following the racially motivated massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Even before the Civil War, African Americans – some free and some enslaved by Native Americans – were settling in the territory of Oklahoma. By the turn of the century, Black communities began to dot the landscape – more than 27 by the early 1900s. But none of them was as extraordinary as Greenwood in Tulsa.

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the all-white Legislature passed laws designed to keep Blacks separate and in their place: schools, hospitals, businesses, even telephone booths were segregated. But seven years earlier, a group of Black businessmen had purchased a small piece of land in the northeastern section of Tulsa. They called it Greenwood, and as segregation grew in white Tulsa, Black businesses – and Black life – thrived there.

But no one could have foreseen what would happen on the night of May 31, 1921, after newspapers falsely reported that a Black man had attacked a white woman in an elevator. When angry white people gathered outside the courthouse where the accused was being held, Black residents came out to prevent a lynching. A scuffle broke out, and shots were fired. Rioting ensued, and a white mob looted and burned Greenwood to the ground.

When the night was over, city officials put the death toll at 36; newspapers listed almost 100 deaths. The Red Cross reported more than 300 were killed. More than 35 blocks of Tulsa’s Black community burned, and over 4,000 people were left homeless. The search for remains of additional victims continues to this day.

Undaunted, the people of Greenwood refused to leave. Black citizens began to rebuild a new Greenwood from the ashes, making it stronger and more alive than ever.

After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in public schools, integration slowly came to Tulsa. White businesses competed for Black customers, hurting the neighborhood. But the final blow came when a new expressway was built through the heart of Greenwood, cutting the community in two. Its business establishments never recovered.

“I don’t think racial segregation is a good thing,” Greenwood resident Jim Goodwin says in the film. “But the quality of our lives, in many respects, was better in the days of segregation, and the challenge today is to make it as good or better.”

Filmmaker Sam Pollard

Pollard says production started on the film in 1991.

He believes the story resonates today because we saw the same type of insanity on Jan. 6 when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“It’s fascinating to see what happened recently and think back to the same type of insanity happening in Tulsa now 100 years ago,” he says. “In Tulsa, white people felt like Black people were stepping out of place. This isn’t an anomaly. When people feel like they aren’t treated right, they attack. We keep repeating the same mistakes.”

Pollard says the film is a testament to the resilience of the Black community in Tulsa.

“The community survived,” he says. “With integration and highways going through these communities, they survived in some way.”

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