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HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ depicts a deadly Tulsa race massacre that was all too real

In 1921, a white mob descended on an area of the city known as ‘Black Wall Street.’ They killed as many as 300 black people, historians believe.

A white mob attacked the prosperous black business district of Greenwood in 1921, leaving as many as 300 people dead, and their homes and businesses burned to the ground. (Greenwood Cultural Center)

HBO’s new series “Watchmen” opens with scenes of a race massacre in Oklahoma: Black people shot in cold blood. Black people fleeing businesses on fire. Airplanes flying low and dropping bombs. A newspaper lying amid the burning rubble in the street with the headline: “Lynch Negro.”

The horrific scene seems like a work of Hollywood creative fiction in some alternate universe.

But the carnage actually happened nearly a century ago when a white mob in Tulsa descended on Greenwood, a black business district so prosperous it was dubbed “Black Wall Street.”

The Tulsa race massacre began May 31, 1921, when a white mob set fire to hundreds of black-owned businesses and homes. Historians believe as many as 300 people were killed. More than 10,000 black residents were left homeless, and as many as 40 blocks were left smoldering.

HBO’s new “Watchmen” series is set in Tulsa. That move might seem unexpected, unless you know Oklahoma’s troubled history of racial violence. (Video: The Washington Post)

Black men, women and children who survived were rounded up and detained in camps at the city’s fairgrounds. Survivors of the massacre recounted seeing the bodies of black people loaded onto trains and dumped off bridges into the muddy Arkansas River. Witnesses reported seeing bodies tossed into mass graves.

Now the city is investigating whether those mass graves exist using ground-penetrating radar.

For nearly 100 years, the truth of what happened in Tulsa was kept out of textbooks and only whispered about among survivors. “Watchmen” will be the first time many people will learn about the rampage.

The violence started unfolding the afternoon of May 30, 1921, when “Dick” Rowland, a 19-year-old black man working as a shoe shiner, walked into the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. The city was still fiercely segregated, and the Drexel Building had the only toilet in downtown available to black people.

Rowland stepped into an elevator on the first floor. By the time the elevator doors opened on the third floor, someone heard the white elevator operator, Sarah Page, shriek.

“While it is still uncertain as to precisely what happened in the Drexel Building on May 30, 1921, the most common explanation is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot as he entered the elevator, causing her to scream,” the Oklahoma Historical Society reported.

Rowland was taken into custody.

The Tulsa Tribune newspaper published a story with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator” and ran an ominous editorial: “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

A white mob gathered outside the Tulsa County Courthouse, where Rowland had been jailed. The mob demanded that the sheriff turn over Rowland, but the sheriff refused.

Dozens of black men, including World War I veterans, heard of Rowland’s arrest and rushed to the courthouse to protect him. A struggle ensued. A shot was fired. Then hundreds of white people marched on Greenwood in a murderous rage.

The massacre had begun.

‘They was killing black people’: A century-old race massacre still haunts Tulsa

“Over the next six hours, Tulsa was plunged into chaos as angry whites, frustrated over the failed lynching, began to vent their rage at African Americans in general,” according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“Furious fighting erupted along the Frisco railroad tracks, where black defenders were able to hold off members of the white mob.”

An unarmed black man was slain inside one of Greenwood’s theaters. “Carloads of armed whites began making ‘drive-by’ shootings in black residential neighborhoods,” according to the historical society. “By midnight, fires had been set along the edge of the African American commercial district. In some of the city’s all-night cafes, whites began to organize for a dawn invasion of Greenwood.”

White city police officer “deputized” members of the lynch mob and “instructed them to get a gun and get a n-----,” according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

There were reports that white men flew airplanes above Greenwood, dropping kerosene bombs. “Tulsa was likely the first city” in the United States “to be bombed from the air,” according to a 2001 report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

B.C. Franklin, a Greenwood lawyer and the father of renowned historian John Hope Franklin, wrote a rare firsthand account of the massacre later donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“The sidewalk was literally covered with burning turpentine balls,” he wrote. “For fully forty-eight hours, the fires raged and burned everything in its path and it left nothing but ashes and burned safes and trunks and the like that were stored in beautiful houses and businesses.”

“They tried to kill all the black folks they could see,” a survivor, George Monroe, recalled in the 1999 documentary “The Night Tulsa Burned.”

On June 1, 1921, martial law was declared. Troops rounded up black men, women and children and detained them for days in camps in the city.

For many years, few people in Tulsa spoke about what happened. The massacre, often called the Tulsa race riot, was deliberately kept out of textbooks.

It wasn’t until 1998 that officials in Oklahoma began investigating the claims of mass graves. Investigators used electromagnetic induction and ground-penetrating radar to search for evidence at Newblock Park, which operated as a dump in 1921, and at Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Oaklawn Cemetery.

At each site, they found anomalies “that merited further investigation,” according to the commission’s report. Then in 1999, a white man named Clyde Eddy, who was 10 at the time of the massacre, came forward and told officials he was playing in Oaklawn Cemetery in 1921 when he spotted white men digging a trench. When the men left, Eddy said, he peeked inside the wooden crates and saw corpses of black people.

Based on Eddy’s story, state archaeologists began investigating the section of the cemetery Eddy cited. The effort was led by Clyde Snow, one of the world’s foremost forensic anthropologists who helped identify Nazi war criminals and had determined that more than 200 victims found in a mass grave in Yugoslavia had been killed in an “execution-style act of ethnic cleansing,” according to his obituary in The Post. Snow traveled the world as a human rights expert, searching for people who had disappeared in atrocities and massacres.

Using ground-penetrating radar, they made a dramatic discovery: an anomaly bearing “all the characteristics of a dug pit or trench with vertical walls and an undefined object within the approximate center of the feature,” the commission concluded. “With Mr. Eddy’s testimony, this trench-like feature takes on the properties of a mass grave.”

The commission recommended excavation of the potential mass graves. But city officials decided not to dig for physical evidence.

The case seemed closed until last year.

In 2018, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R) announced he would reopen the investigation into mass graves, calling it a murder investigation. The announcement came days after a Washington Post story detailed unresolved questions surrounding the massacre.

Earlier this month, scientists and forensic anthropologists armed with ground-penetrating radar began scanning the grounds of Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, looking for anomalies that might be consistent with mass graves. The cemetery, which is owned by the city, is just a few blocks from Black Wall Street.

Last week, the city expanded its search to include other areas in Oaklawn Cemetery that were identified by survivors and descendants of white Tulsans.

In addition to Oaklawn Cemetery, the city said, it would use ground-penetrating radar to investigate Newblock Park and Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, which was once known as Booker T. Washington Cemetery.

The city hopes to finish the investigation by December or January.

If the city finds evidence of mass graves, city officials and an oversight committee will decide whether to excavate. The Oklahoma medical examiner’s office would lead the investigation into determining the cause of death.

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