Major History FAIL: Yet Another Misrepresentation of Greenwood
I was initially excited to see that the Smithsonian Channel was including Greenwood in a new documentary entitled “America in Color.” But, upon watching the clip shared by the Tulsa Word which purports to show Tulsa’s Greenwood district before the 1921 race riot, I was dismayed to discover an almost total misrepresentation of the film footage. I immediately saw and heard significant errors and omissions that, in my opinion, rob Greenwood of its rightful legacy.
The mistakes are many and so obvious that I can only assume they were made knowingly with the intention of elevating narrative above fact. It’s a practice that has become common place in the news media today. Sadly, it has apparently also filtered down to historians. Before supposing that these errors don’t really matter, I hope you’ll read my entire post. I outline the errors that I think matter very much. And I explain why.
First, the timing is completely wrong. Absolutely none of the footage the narrator claims to be Greenwood BEFORE the riot is as he describes it. Some of what is shown is, indeed, Greenwood. But it is Greenwood five years AFTER the riot. As you’ll read below, this is an incredibly important distinction.
How do I know this? Beyond the obvious fact that the film shows cars that came about after the riot, all the footage was pulled from a remarkable collection shot by an influential Baptist minister named Solomon Sir Jones. The entirety of the known Jones collection was filmed between 1924 and 1928. For reference, the Tulsa Race Riot (which, by the way, was a “siege” not a “riot”) occurred right after Memorial Day celebrations in the Spring of 1921—five years before the Jones film.
Second, most of the street scenes were not even shot in Tulsa. Most of the streets scenes containing traffic and building fronts were shot in Muskogee in either 1925 or 1926. I cannot imagine why the film makers did this. As seen in the attached image, Jones’ movies are filled with title cards showing dates and locations. You literally cannot miss them. And it’s not as if the Smithsonian editors didn’t have plenty of the correct material to work with. Film 18 from Jones’ collection includes a lot more than the few seconds of Greenwood they actually show. It is filled with wonderful footage illustrating Greenwood Avenue after it was rebuilt. It’s a must see.
Third, the founding of Greenwood is misrepresented and thus misunderstood. According to the film, Greenwood came into existence as a place where “former slaves were given land after the Civil War.” I will profess that I don’t know all I should about Greenwood’s rich history. But I do know that Greenwood wasn’t established until 1906—over 40 years after the end of the war. While there may have been some cases in which a few older former slaves were given land, Greenwood was an exciting and thriving development that was founded as a commercial enterprise with a self-segregated policy of black-only citizenship. Just like all of Tulsa, Greenwood was successful on purpose. Those who built it didn’t come here because it was free. They came to build their fortune.
Fourth, the feelings of Tulsa’s white community toward Greenwood are grossly misrepresented. The narrator says, “But Tulsa’s whites don’t like what they see …” Not only is this a shocking oversimplification of the complexities of race relations during the oil boom, it’s also a downright lie. Tulsa’s white community depended heavily on black labor. Despite the undeniable systemic bigotry that existed at the time, Tulsa’s white employers paid their African-American employees well and worried incessantly about the stability of Greenwood. In fact, long before the riot, stories criticizing the city for its inadequate attention to Greenwood were common in the Tulsa Morning Daily World. Even the leading mouth-piece for racial animosity, The Tulsa Tribune, decried the lack of development and services in Greenwood—not the excess. In an otherwise disgusting editorial on conditions that led to the riot, Tribune associate editor Amy Comstock blamed not the success and abundance of Greenwood’s development, but the lack and inequity of it.
The most accurate depiction of those who raided, looted, and burned Greenwood is not a general blanket statement of “Tulsa’s whites,” but rather a politically and socially motivated mob of largely ignorant and lower middle class working whites. Even as the mob was rioting, Tulsa’s white business leaders where holding an emergency meeting at city hall trying to figure out how to stop them. White businessmen, some of whom feared that their own livelihoods depended on a healthy Greenwood, took urgent personal action to try to put an end to the violence. Other members of the white community protected and cared for black women and children during the riot. After the riot, white Tulsans participated in relief drives held by churches, businesses, and civic organizations throughout the city. In addition to donating money and goods, many volunteered in cleanup efforts, sheltered homeless families, and provided financial services for the rebuilding. For generations, Tulsa’s white community was so ashamed that such a horror had occurred in their own back yard that they spoke very little of the event—hardly the reaction of a community that was pleased with itself.
Fifth, and most damning: the film obscures Greenwood’s rightful legacy. By representing the rebuilt post-riot Greenwood as that which was destroyed five years earlier, it leaves the viewer with the clear impression that Greenwood was defeated. Perhaps I should not single out this film on this point. Most tellings of the Tulsa Race Riot are, in my opinion, guilty of doing the same. I have long been of the opinion that Tulsa, as a community, ought to put the Rebuilding of Greenwood in its rightful place as one of the single most powerful and inspirational stories of the fight to overcome the injustice of segregation and racial inequity. When one fairly considers the breathtaking scope of the destruction, the speed of reconstruction, the opposition to rebuilding (even within the black community), and the defiant independence with which the community achieved all they did, one cannot help but be moved at the level of the soul.
Yet, while the story of the riot is advertised far and wide, very few Tulsans and even fewer outsiders know the glorious story of Greenwood’s rebuilding. From my own personal interactions, I dare say that most Tulsans believe that Greenwood’s history ended in 1921. Many people are shocked to find out that Greenwood reached its economic peak in 1941 and continued to thrive well into the 1960s.
No, the white mob did not win. Greenwood won. And that should be what every Tulsan remembers best about the legacy of Greenwood. It is a story of remarkable victory, not defeat and destruction. To say otherwise is to deny the inconceivable achievement of every African American father and business leader who died protecting their community and their families during that horrific event. And, those who chose to defiantly stay in Tulsa to rebuild.
I recommend you set aside the Smithsonian’s unfortunate handling of history and, instead, enjoy Solomon Sir Jones’ complete collection of films for yourself. You can watch them in their entirety by going here.
While we must never forget the horror and injustice of Tulsa’s race riot, I would encourage you to do this as well: The next time you visit Drillers Stadium or look towards downtown, take a moment to honor both those who perished in the riot and those who fought like hell and succeeded in pulling victory and fortune out of the ashes. Instead of merely telling the story of loss over and over and over again, include with it the real ending: the victory of Greenwood.