Reframing History: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
Host Angela Glover Blackwell w/ Guest Dr. Hannibal Johnson
Radical Imagination opens with a deep dive into the 1921 massacre of hundreds of Black people in the thriving business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. We examine how history books erased that atrocity and distorted so much of Black history. Host Angela Glover Blackwell talks with Hannibal B. Johnson, historian and Education Chair for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, about the radical effort to make the story of Tulsa's Black Wall Street part of Oklahoma’s K-12 school curricula. Join us and probe the question: How can reframing history impact the future?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:06)
Welcome to Season 3 of the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Many people may think of history as something that is static, recorded, done, but the fact is history is constantly unfolding, evolving, and being rewritten. In this first episode, we go deep into the history of a massacre that unfolded almost a century ago in a thriving Black financial district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. We look at how our stories have been represented, distorted or not told at all. And we try to understand how history is shaped through the efforts of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Centennial Commission. For years, they have been pushing to include an often overlooked part of Oklahoma history into the K thru 12 school curriculum. For more on this, we're joined by Tulsa based author Hannibal B Johnson. He is an attorney, historian, and the education chair of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission. Hannibal, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Hannibal B. Johnson: (01:15)
It's great to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:17)
How did you first hear about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (01:22)
I moved to Tulsa in the mid-eighties, out of law school to join a law firm. And one of the things I was asked to do as I began to be involved in the community was to write for the black newspaper called the Oklahoma Eagle. And at one point, I was assigned to write about the history of Tulsa's Greenwood District, which I knew little-to-nothing about. What is today Oklahoma was once Indian territory. Then in the late 1800's, a part of Oklahoma was opened up for settlement. So there were land runs and land lotteries, a number of people of African descent participated in these land runs and land lotteries thought Oklahoma would be a place for resettlement of people of African descent who lived in the deep South. So they encourage people to migrate to Oklahoma.
Hannibal B. Johnson: (02:20)
Tulsa became a destination, in part, because of the discovery of oil. The Greenwood district, the Black community kicks off in 1906. A fellow named O.W Gurley who would migrate to Oklahoma and the land run of 1889, ultimately settled in Tulsa, bought some land, created some businesses, sold other parcels to other Black folks. This became a viable business community. Because of Jim Crow, segregation, Black people were forced essentially to do business between and among one another. And the Greenwood district began to boom...
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:54)
Could you paint a picture for us of what Black Wall Street was like in 1921?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (03:08)
So this was a 35 square block area; and what you could find were grocers and restaurants and barber shops and beauty salons and movie theaters, taxi cabs, hotels, haberdasheries, dry cleaners, all manner of businesses that you would see populating main street America, right, except this was a Black community, Black-owned, Black-operated businesses. Also in this community were a number of doctors and lawyers and other professionals, dentists and accountants and such. So this was a thriving, teeming kind of main street, Black community.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:58)
What exactly triggered the mob of White men to take up arms and carry out the massacre?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (04:04)
One is pure garden-variety, jealousy. You see this community of Black people with relative wealth and you're a White person living across the tracks in this community. You think, "Those people don't deserve that. That's what I should have and I don't have that." So that's a kind of jealousy that existed. Land lust, the Greenwood community was located on a parcel of land at a downtown and was desired by corporate and railroad interests. So that was a factor. The structural systemic racism that existed in the United States more broadly was a factor, as was the presence of a domestic terrorist group.
Media clip: (04:44)
CBS reports presents the Ku Klux Klan. Klux Klan is a secret organization...
Hannibal B. Johnson: (04:48)
The KKK had a huge presence in Oklahoma. Beginning in the early 1920s, spanning to the end of that decade. And then there was a particular media outlet called the Tulsa Tribune, which published a series of inflammatory and incendiary articles and editorials that really fomented hostility and the white community against the Black community. So those are the fundamental causes of the massacre.
Hannibal B. Johnson: (05:16)
Tulsa was a tinderbox or a powder keg needing only some sort of catalytic event to set alight the smoldering embers of the community. Two teenagers, a Black boy who shined shoes downtown, and a White girl, Sarah Paige. There was an incident on an elevator in which he's alleged to have assaulted the white girl. She claimed assault initially, but recanted the story; refused to testify against the boy whose name was Dick Roland. But by the time she got to the point of recanting, it had gotten out of control because the Tulsa Tribune published a story entitled, "Nab Negro for attacking girl in an elevator." In the story, the Tribune essentially alleged that Dick Roland had attempted to Sarah Paige and broad daylight in a downtown public building. And he was up in arms and that's how the mob began to assemble. They set fires, they shot people. They prevented the fire department from putting out the fires. The police were complicit because they deputized some of the people in the mob that invaded the community and destroyed it, in what's now called the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:30)
Were the people of Greenwood able to recover from this?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (06:35)
So what's remarkable about the story is the human spirit. Most of the Black people in the community did in fact say in Tulsa. They did, in fact, rebuild. In 1925, the Black community in Tulsa hosted the National Meeting of the National Negro Business League, which was Booker T. Washington's Black Chamber of Commerce. This is four years after the community was virtually wiped off the face of the earth.
Hannibal B. Johnson: (07:09)
The community peaked as a business community in the early to mid 1940's. Remarkable character, determination and resilience by the Black folks who populated Tulsa's historic Greenwood District. And that is the overarching story, the human spirit.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:29)
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we continue the conversation about the Tulsa Race Massacre with author and historian, Hannibal B. Johnson. Stay with us, more for when we come back.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:07)
And we're back with author and historian, Hannibal B. Johnson. What's interesting is that the effort to get the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre taught in the state's public schools isn't new. This has been the work of many people over decades. How far back does that ever go?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (08:26)
Many people would tell you that there's been a conspiracy of silence to sweep this history under the rug and there's truth in that. The massacre itself happened in 1921, but for decades upon decades, after that, this history was not reflected in the regular curriculum, nor was it taught, in general, as a supplementary matter. It was really only after the convening of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, that report drew international attention. And it really provided the impetus for looking at what's being taught in our school systems and how we are further marginalizing communities of color by excluding their history from mainstream curriculum.
Media clip: (09:17)
The issue of teaching the Tulsa Race Massacre is something the state is still working on. State school superintendent Joy Hoffmeister says that they are adding new curriculum embedded in.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:27)
How did the most recent effort to incorporate this history more widely into schools come about?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (09:32)
Currently the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission has been working with the state Department of Education, local school districts, like Tulsa public schools, to do a better job of incorporating this history. Tulsa public schools, for example, right now, is working on ways to incorporate this history of K-12, as a matter of social studies. We've been working with the state Department of Education to include some of this history on the material that's tested in state mandated tests, because that's another incentives for teachers to actually teach this history. And then finally, we're looking at ways to get textbook manufacturers who generally produce textbooks that cover regions and not, not simply States. We want these textbook manufacturers to know that this history is important, not just a matter of Oklahoma history, but as a matter of American history. It needs to be included. This hard history is history that we ignore at our own peril.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:30)
So the first effort brought attention and encouragement to teach. What's happening now is more deliberate, more specific, more widespread — It sounds like. Is that accurate?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (10:43)
Yeah, absolutely. It's more grassroots. People are often appalled that the worst incidence of domestic violence in American history happened and they're not familiar with it.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (10:59)
Why is it important to edit, re-edit, and reframe history?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (11:05)
Well, the history that has been inculcated in so many of us is, sadly, in so many ways, a false narrative. You have some people who talk about, 'You want revisionist history'. Well, if history was written incorrectly, it needs to be revised. So people who look like me, and I happened to be Black, for the most part or written out of history. And when we were included, we were marginalized and minimized, and it's only of late that our voices are being heard. And we are beginning to realize that it's important for us to tell our own story and to create our own films. We need to continually look at our past and make sure that it's accurately recorded and reflect it. And that sometimes requires revision.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:58)
How did 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission come to be?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (12:04)
State Senator Kevin Matthews decided back in 2015 that we needed to coalesce around this history as we approached the hundredth anniversary. So he created the Centennial Commission, which consists of a number of elected governmental officials, community citizens, to think about what we can do to recognize this important moment in our history; and among the things that we're doing is creating a history center called Greenwood Rising. There'll be a world-class facility that tells the narrative of Tulsa's historic Greenwood District. We're offering grants for creative ideas to entrepreneurs and others, spurring economic development in the Greenwood District.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (12:48)
This year, we'll mark 100 years since the massacre. In your most recent book titled, Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with It's Historic Racial Trauma, you make the distinction between the Tulsa of today and the Tulsa of a century ago. But you also emphasize the importance of reflecting on Tulsa's Greenwood District in all of its splendor and squalor. Why is this so important to you?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (13:15)
Well, we know that as we commemorate the Centennial on May 31st and June 1st, we'll have people from around the country who are watching us and reporting on this historical narrative. And the question on people's minds is, "How is Tulsa different in 2021 as compared to 1921?" And the people here, we Tulsan's need to be prepared to respond to that question. I think we are in many ways, emblematic of communities all across the country who have suffered historical, racial trauma. Now we know for example, in this country in 1919, the summer and fall of 1919 was dubbed by James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP, "Red Summer" — red was a metaphorical reference to the blood that flowed in the streets from more than two dozen so-called 'race riots,' 'throughout the United States. We know that lynching claim scores and scores of lives for years and years, and close to 5,000 African-American lives between 1877 and 1965. So the challenges we face as Tulsans are the challenges that other people face and other communities across the country. How do we address these historical wounds that have been left — certainly not fully closed, partially open — for decades and decades? And what is the consequence of not having address them sooner?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (14:54)
Would we be in a better place in terms of race relations? Would we be in a better place in terms of neighborhood segregation? Would we be in a better place in terms of educational attainment for all?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:19)
The story of what happened in Tulsa in 1921 is part of our collective racial trauma in America. How can reframing the historical record really help us to deal with that trauma?
Hannibal B. Johnson: (15:33)
Addressing this history makes many of us really uncomfortable, but if we're going to make progress, we have to work ourselves through the period of discomfort and travel farther along that road to reconciliation. I think reconciliation is a process or a journey and not a particular point. I think we'll always have work to do. But the fact that we can't complete our work in a finite definite way in a particular person's lifetime cannot be an excuse for not doing anything. Arthur Ashe famously said, "Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can."
Hannibal B. Johnson: (16:18)
I get people asking me all the time who are concerned about race relations, 'What can I do'? Well, you can certainly do something and you probably know what you can do, but you're not going to change the world overnight.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:30)
Hannibal, thank you for speaking with us.
Hannibal B. Johnson: (16:32)
My pleasure. I'd love to do it again.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:35)
Hannibal B. Johnson is an author, attorney, and historian, and he's the education chair of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:49)
We often think of history as past and imagination as future, but history that is distorted to justify misdeeds and oppression can dwarf and misdirect imagination. Hannibal Johnson is demonstrating the importance of applying radical imagination to correct and disseminate history, to reframe the narrative, and join the courage of our ancestors to the struggle for liberation today.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:24)
And as part of our new partnership with Unfinished, an enterprise driving change to strengthen our civic life in the digital age, we'll be bringing up a question at the end of each episode. And we hope to engage with you, our listeners, as we continue the conversation online. And our first question, "How can reframing history impact the future?" We and our partners at Unfinished invite you to reflect and respond to this question at radicalimagination.us or online using hashtag #radicalimagination and hashtag #unfinished.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (18:18)
Radical Imagination was produced by Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andres Caballero, Antonio Cereijido, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Jess Alvarenga, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw Dameron, Elisheba Ittoop, Rosana Caban and Gabriela Baez. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Rachel Gichinga, Ferchil Ramos, Eugene Chan, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian and Vanice Dunn. Radical Imagination is supported by Omidyar Network, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Pivotal Ventures: a Melinda Gates company, and Unfinished. Our theme music is composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Segiura. And I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:25)
Next time on Radical Imagination, Solidarity Economics.
Guest Clip: (19:28)
"When we root ourselves in solidarity, we begin to see that we must raise the minimum wage."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:34)
That's next time on Radical Imagination.
Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, and consultant specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, human relations, leadership, and non-profit leadership and management. He has taught at The University of Tulsa College of Law, Oklahoma State University, and The University of Oklahoma. Johnson serves on the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission, a body charged with planning, developing, and implementing activities appropriate to the 400th anniversary of the arrival, in 1619, of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia. He chairs the Education Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and serves a local curator of its world-class history center, Greenwood Rising. His books, including Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma, chronicle the African American experience in Oklahoma and its indelible impact on American history. Johnson’s play, Big Mama Speaks—A Tulsa Race Riot Survivor’s Story, was selected for the 2011 National Black Theatre Festival and has been staged in Caux, Switzerland. He has received numerous honors and awards for this work and community service.
Greenwood Avenue: A piece of art begins to tell the story of Black Wall Street
Tulsa Massacre Doc From 'Good Trouble' Director Set at Nat Geo
Goin' Back to T-Town
- Goin’ Back to T-Town tells the story of Greenwood, an extraordinary Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that prospered during the 1920s and 30s despite rampant and 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 boasted the largest concentration of Black-owned businesses in the U.S., known as “Black Wall Street.” Ironically, it could not survive the progressive policies of integration and urban renewal of the 1960s. Told through the memories of those who lived through the events, the film is a bittersweet celebration of small-town life and the resilience of a community’s spirit.