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A storyteller’s responsibility

Smithsonian distorts Greenwood narrative

Colorized footage by Solomon Sir Jones in “America in Color: The 1920s”

Courtesy Smithsonian Channel

The Smithsonian Channel aired the first installment of its eagerly anticipated series “America in Color” on July 5. Advance media touted the inclusion of rare movie footage of Tulsa’s early African American enclave, the Greenwood District, and intimated said footage predated the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

But, Tulsa’s under-two-minute “America in Color” segment missed the mark, displaying a surprising level of casualness that risks blunting the remarkable history of the Greenwood District.

The voice-over and scene sequencing seemed to pair text about the pre-Riot Greenwood District with footage of mid-1920s Muskogee. The narrator described the once-bustling community as “a suburb of Tulsa,” and spoke of the “riots” (i.e., plural).

In fact, the Riot stands as a singular event in which Tulsa townspeople massacred their own. The Tulsa tragedy would become the worst single incident of racial violence in American history. Property damage ran into the millions. Hundreds of people died, and scores were injured.

What amounted to a titillating Tulsa history sound bite distorted and decontextualized a complex series of events. In so doing, the Smithsonian piece contributes to the intellectual delinquency of its viewers. When it comes to history, a master storyteller crafts a compelling narrative without resorting to untruths. We should expect no less, particularly from a venerable institutional raconteur like the Smithsonian.   

Tulsan Douglas Miller posted a scathing critique on his blog. Miller raised five objections, paraphrased and elaborated upon as follows.

1.) The film footage does not show the pre-Riot Greenwood District. Most of the footage consists of post-1921 scenes shot by Solomon Sir Jones, a Baptist minister and businessman. Yale University houses his 1924–1928 work product.   

2.) The film ties non-Tulsa footage to the Greenwood District. Muskogee appears prominently in the footage, passing, presumably unwittingly, for Tulsa’s Greenwood District.

3.) The film misrepresents the founding of the Greenwood District. O.W. Gurley, a wealthy migrant from Arkansas, founded the Greenwood District, not a collective of African Americans formerly enslaved by tribal nations (i.e., the “Freedmen”), as suggested in the narration.

4.) The film oversimplifies the cause(s) of the Riot and the posture of the white community. The roots of the Riot include systemic racism, land lust, and jealousy. While white men perpetrated the violence, some white Tulsans recoiled at this gross injustice, actively assisted African Americans, and expressed shame and remorse in the aftermath of the Riot.

5.) The film obscures the rightful legacy of the Greenwood District. The people—their long-suffering and resilience—define the Greenwood District. The Riot rates as a chapter in a bigger, broader, and bolder narrative.

In the early 20th century, the Greenwood District rose to prominence as a premier African American entrepreneurial center. De jure segregation confined dollars within this “Black Wall Street,” a dynamic business hub brimming with risk-takers and deal makers.    

The alleged assault on a white girl by an African American boy lit the fuse that set the Greenwood District alight. Propelled by sensational newspaper reporting, resentment over black economic success, and a racially hostile climate in general, white mob rule reigned.

In the hours between May 31 and June 1, 1921, lawlessness prevailed in the Greenwood District. Fires raged. Mobs prevented firefighters from extinguishing the flames. People, property, hopes, and dreams vanished.

Tulsa’s man-made calamity ranks as an assault, a disaster, a massacre, a pogrom, a holocaust, or any number of other ghastly descriptors, and was a taboo topic for decades.    

Despite overt hostility and resistance, Tulsa’s African American citizens rebuilt the Greenwood District up from the ashes. By 1942, the area sported more than 200 black-owned businesses.

This resurgence would not be permanent. Integration, urban renewal (particularly, the location of Interstate 244), and changing economic conditions sealed the community’s fate. Today, the yet-again-reborn Greenwood District consists of a smattering of residences, coupled with a hodgepodge of cultural, educational, entertainment, and business interests.

The Greenwood District narrative needs no embellishment and no distortion. “Coloring” this history diminishes the power of the truth it took so long to tell. It also masks the fundamental lessons to be gleaned from acknowledging and understanding the past as it was, not as it might have been.

The essence of this saga doubles as our legacy: the triumph of the human spirit. That is an inheritance worth safeguarding.

Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, consultant, and college professor. He writes and lectures about the history of the Greenwood District.

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