Prior to HBO and Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen (2019), not many Americans knew much about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Heck, not many Tulsans knew too much about the mass tragedy either. As someone who grew up in Tulsa, I assure you that the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921 did not surface in my public-school history classes. What I did know about the event was through metaphorical whispers and through discussions with one witness to what happened on those days. And when I interviewed Watchmen star Tim Blake Nelson (who spent his formative years in Tulsa), his sentiment was the same. Quite simply, this Greenwood-district event — the total decimation of what Booker T. Washington dubbed as “Black Wall Street” and one of the most horrific instances of racially-motivated violence in U.S. history — was excised from the books. Lindelof became aware of the massacre after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (2014) in The Atlantic. The rest is unearthed history, albeit still in process.
That unearthed history is literal (the digging for alleged mass graves) and a huge chunk of what a new PBS documentary, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten (directed by Emmy-winning Jonathan Silvers), details while contextualizing the tragedy alongside systemic racism that persists today. The film duly dives into how hundreds of Black-owned businesses burned to the ground after a false accusation of violence against a Black man. All told, a violent white mob (which carried rifles and dropped firebombs) killed up to 300 Black Tulsa residents and left thousands without homes; and this documentary charts the Greenwood community’s resilience and ongoing efforts for renewal, justice, and reparations. The project features interviews with Greenwood descendants and several local leaders, including current Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (a Republican), along with civil rights activists, including Greg Robinson II. We spoke with Robinson about this documentary (spoiler alert: he is not a fan of Bynum) and his hopes for the future.
Like many people (including Tulsans), I didn’t know massacre details until around the year 2000 when I spoke with Clyde Eddy, who claimed to have seen a mass grave being dug in 1921. What does the centennial most represent to you?
I’m glad to be talking to a Tulsan! Certainly, the one thing that this 100-year marker has done is that it has finally shone a light on this tragedy but also the greatness that was Black Wall Street. We can now get to work on doing something about it. That is the gift of this commemoration period. I am stressed about it, though, because it is not an anniversary of independence. It’s not something that great that happened. It’s actually the destruction of the American Dream and what was the Dream for those Black Freemen and what they built, and it is truly a reminder of the work that we have left to do. There’s been no justice, and part of why the silence is so maddening and so frustrating now is that we’re just beginning that fight for justice.
In this documentary, you discuss how reparations were flat-out (and stunningly) denied to survivors.
Yes, and when you understand how Black Wall Street was built, then you understand that there was [also] no payment for insurance claims, and there’s been no one held accountable from a criminal standpoint. Absolutely nothing. For me, yes, I am proud of what my ancestors built here. I’m happy that there’s finally a light on that, but my eyes are more focused on making sure that we do what’s right, specifically while the last survivors are alive. I do think about the fact that Mother Randall and Mother Fletcher are each 107 years old. Are we going to get justice for them while they’re still here to see it? For me, that’s at the heart of this moment.
People don’t understand why reparations are so important for this tragedy. Decades of business prosperity were wiped out for Black Tulsans, not only by the massacre but, later, as you described it, through “urban renewal.”
What people don’t realize a lot of times is that it was within the next decade, before 1930, that Greenwood actually came back. Because of the way the state was built at the time, you had 50 all-Black towns. So even though Greenwood was destroyed, you had city laws and policies that were put into place to make it difficult. Things like having to rebuild with fire-retardant materials, only two-story structures. Even though those were put into place to mitigate the rebuilding of Greenwood, it was rebuilt and thriving again by 1930. Actually, the height of its business success was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was then that this concept of “urban renewal,” or as we sometimes call it in the Black community, “urban removal,” began to occur. Greenwood was originally built in an area of downtown that was rife with manufacturing buildings, so it became easy to come in and blight out areas and use eminent domain and take that land for construction.
There’s still a very telling geographical dividing line in Tulsa, too.
To this day, Highway I-244 runs right through the Greenwood business district and community. We have to remember that Greenwood was 40 square blocks, and all that remains is one avenue. So for us, we try to tell the realization that it wasn’t just those two days that threatened to put the nail in the coffins of Black Tulsans, but it was the ensuing systemic racist policies, marked by things like urban removal in the 1960s, and we continue to be marked by racist and systemic policies that still see the northern part of Tulsa cut off from the city and every tangible data category, down to life expectancy, you see North Tulsans suffering. To this day, Kimberly, if you are born in North Tulsa like I was, you are at risk of living a decade less than somebody who’s born on the other side of town. I think that can directly be tied to racist policies like urban renewal.
To make things even more pronounced last year, Trump came to town amid protests of George Floyd’s death. In Tulsa, the Black Lives Matter mural on the street was the first one removed by a U.S. city after Juneteenth. So was there any element of surprise for you on how this went down, given the city’s history?
Let’s put that into context. Tulsa was also the place where Trump came to town to do his rally. And let’s remember that it was originally scheduled for the 99th anniversary weekend of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It was then moved but only to the weekend of Juneteenth. When we understand the white supremacist rhetoric that Trump provided, we also must understand that the city’s leadership, Mayor Bynum but also state leadership (including Governor Stitt), opened our state up during a time that lacked safety and also opened up our arms during a very sensitive time to someone who espoused safety for violence. That’s the very same type of violence that destroyed the Black Wall Street/Greenwood community in the first place. Saying all that, was I surprised that we would be the first in the country to remove it? No, I was not surprised because it was right in line with the protecting of white supremacist ideology that we’ve succumbed to in the past century.
In turn, that weekend’s events felt like a microcosm of what occurred throughout the U.S. in response to Black Lives Matter protests.
I was incredibly disappointed because this is an opportunity for Tulsa to be the city that we want to be and to correct the mistakes of the past and to do something and be a model of the rest of the country. Unfortunately, I see us wanting to talk the good game and say we want to move forward, say we want to be a more equitable city, say we wanna be inclusive, but we do not have the courage to stand up to white supremacy. And the reason that it bugs me is that it was a lack of courage to stand up to the Ku Klux Klan, it was a lack of courage to stand up to angry whites who were mobbing and rioting and burning and looting in 1921 that allowed the murder of Tulsans to occur, a century ago. What have we learned since then about standing up to white supremacy? That’s the frustrating question. Not just as a Black person but as a Tulsan and someone who loves this city, it just bugs me to the end. I wish we could be the model for the country, and I keep seeing us falling short of that mark.
Speaking of frustrating, I saw your Facebook post on Bynum and House Bill 1775, which limits the teaching of race relations in schools and which he supported. There are mixed feelings about him regarding his track record on race relations. On one hand (and as Bynum points out in this doc), he was (outwardly) the person who opened the investigation into alleged mass graves in 2018. But like you said, he doesn’t exactly push white supremacy away.
I think Mayor Bynum is a great politician. I was there when he first pronounced that he was opening the investigation, and the truth was that there was an article in the New York Times with Councilwoman Vanessa Hall Harper, calling for that to occur. I do want to name that. Like so many things in this country, we give white males a lot of credit for doing politically expedient things. I think he did a politically expedient thing then, and I’m on the citizens’ oversight board for that, and certainly, I appreciate him doing that because someone had to, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that — just a week ago — he, as a sitting member of the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, looked at HB 1775 and, in his words, told those of who were opposing that bill, including his own commission, that they need to read the bill, that it’s no big deal, and he agreed with Governor Stitt signing it. So it’s an example of his politically motivated actions. I would ask the country to look at the timing of when Mayor Bynum has done certain things. He will say one thing to get Black voters on his side. As soon as an election is over, he begins to push a more conservative-sympathetic type of narrative. He’s done the same thing with police reform.
Are you speaking about the Tulsa police shooting of Terence Crutcher?
He came to the home of Terence Crutcher’s family. He sat with them and said, “I’m going to do everything to bring your family justice.” For four years, he had the opportunity to do that, to bring police reform and justice to that family, but over and over again, he’s sided with the Fraternal Order of Police. He’s been on national TV, disparaging Terence Crutcher, saying that his death was caused by a drug addiction and not by a police officer, so I don’t have any more empathy for Mayor Bynum. He was in the seat of power, and he could have done something, and he’s shown what he cares about. That’s not about advancing racial equity for Black Tulsans, it’s about advancing his political career. And I harken back to the words of Martin Luther King, who at one of his lowest moments, sitting in a Birmingham jail, that it is not the Ku Klux Klanner that is the African American’s greatest stumbling block but the white moderate, who is more devoted to order than to justice. To me, Mayor Bynum and many of our Republican officials right now really embody that white moderate mindset. I’m not calling them racist, but I am saying that they sympathize with white supremacy and allow it to permeate, and the people that it is coming back is Black Tulsans, the very people that the state system has kept back most since it became a state.
It’s time for us to wrap, but during last year’s Juneteenth events, you declared, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Do you ever envision a time when you’re able to no longer be sick and tired?
You know, I was having a conversation with Terence Crutcher’s twin sister, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, who started his foundation, and we were talking about reaching that mountaintop. She simply reminded me that we might not reach it, and that’s not our job. Our job is to fight like hell for justice every day and to let God do the rest. I think that’s the spirit that Fannie Lou Hamer had when she said those words, and I think that’s the spirit that all of us have to carry with us.
PBS’ ‘Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten’ will air at 9:00pm EST May 31.