The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Our history has been so consciously suppressed,’ says historian John Whittington Franklin on America’s relationship with Black history

John Whittington Franklin is a historian. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

John Whittington Franklin, 68, is a historian and the son of scholar John Hope Franklin. His grandfather Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer, survived the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and penned the first known memoir of the event. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.

Your family has a long and storied connection to Oklahoma and that tragic event.

I’m the fourth generation to come out of the Oklahoma experience. My great-grandfather was born in 1820 and came to Oklahoma as a slave to Chickasaw Indians in the 1830s. He was a Black cowboy and farmer. Then my grandfather was the seventh of his 10 children. My father, who was 6 when the massacre occurred, lived in the town of Rentiesville with his siblings, which is where my grandfather lived before he moved to Tulsa to open his law practice.

Ground was broken for a park named after my father in [2008], but there was already a park named after my grandfather in the 1970s. It was my grandfather who was the massacre survivor. I started going to Tulsa every year since I was 2, and it’s been 66 years now.

How did your family pass along the story? Is there a particular moment when they sat you down and said, “You need to know this part of your history”?

You have to remember that I was growing up in the household of a historian, so I was learning about all of our history at the same time: the Malian Empire, Ghana, Frederick Douglass. And I was learning all of that at home because I was not getting it at school. I was in Brooklyn public schools, where they were teaching us about Peter Stuyvesant, but they never told us Peter Stuyvesant was a slave trader. I learned about it in my household with all my other Black history.

That surprises me a little. It wasn’t presented to you as a special, singular event in the history of your family — the defining “never forget” story?

No. I had to learn the whole family history. About how my family got to Oklahoma in the first place. Most people don’t know that American Indians owned slaves, so that’s the first part of the history that I learned as a child. And that my great-grandfather fought in the Civil War on the Union side because the five so-called civilized tribes were Confederate supporters. He had to escape from his owners to fight on the Union side. I learned all that very early.

There is, rightfully, much focus on the massacre. But when we talk about “Black Wall Street,” the story of how the community came to be is largely untold. Where did the wealth come from?

Most of the eastern half of the state was given to African American and Native American people, and then petroleum and natural gas were discovered after. So Black Tulsa’s wealth was from the land, from farming and the petroleum and natural gas on their land. That’s what makes Tulsa different from Atlanta or Durham or Wilmington or Raleigh, the other Black economic centers. So this was a level of wealth that created not only a prosperous African American middle class, but also the services to cater to them: hotels, restaurants, furriers, jewelry stores, professional offices.

If you’ve been to Tulsa, it’s a city of extreme wealth. This is where Phillips 66 money is from, where Howard Hughes made his money. The Rockefellers became involved there. Tulsa was the oil capital of the world in 1921, before those resources were found in Texas, California and Saudi Arabia. So all that is associated with oil — storage containers, pipelines, the machinery to extract the oil — that’s what makes White people very wealthy at the time. And the African American community was somewhat on the outskirts of all that, selling oil leases and also working for extremely wealthy White people.

With so much wealth and opportunity available, why the resentment from the White community toward the Black community?

Because only the rich White people were getting wealthy — or wealthier. The oil workers were poor Whites who were jealous of these African Americans with material wealth, with homes, with things they could not dream of having.

When you next get a chance to go to the Smithsonian African American Museum, you can hear the people who were awakened in the night by these White mobs, and as they come downstairs to the living room they see their grandfathers and fathers marched out under gunpoint and taken to various places of detention. They also saw these poor Whites loot their homes of their mothers’ pianos, their fathers’ photographic equipment, the children’s piggy banks, the women’s jewelry.

Black women for the next several years would see White women wearing their jewelry and have to walk up to White women and say, “Your husband did not buy you that jewelry. You took it from me, and I’m going to take it back.” They used the massacre as an opportunity to steal from them.

As a historian, does it bother you that most of America probably knows the Tulsa story because of the HBO series “Watchmen” instead of history books? Do you see that as an opportunity, or a problem?

Our history has been so consciously suppressed — African history, the history of Africans in this hemisphere — that I see it as my daily duty to inform whomever I encounter about our history. They don’t know it. They haven’t read it. I don’t care if they’re Black, White, Asian, Latino or Native — they don’t know the history. What they’ve been given is a surface, cursory analysis that is meant to appease. It’s a much larger issue of education. Tulsa is just one example.

It’s interesting that this year’s 100th anniversary commemoration, and the effort to elevate this history, comes up against what appears to be an ongoing effort to negate much of the same history.

The state just passed this “hide your head in the sand/no critical race theory should be taught” law signed by the governor and endorsed by the Republican mayor of Tulsa.

For a hundred years we have battled to make this truth known. Teachers in Tulsa have had a hard time because White parents don’t want it taught, Black parents are resistant to having it taught. They don’t want to hear it. The mayor does not want to admit that White citizens bombed the community. But we have filmed footage. When I took those images to Switzerland with a delegation from Tulsa, people from around the world thought it was pictures of Europe during World War II. We explained that it was the result of White supremacy in the United States in the 1920s.

What do you hope comes out of this year’s commemoration, the documentaries, the events, the news articles?

I see two goals: One, that every child and teacher in the state knows about this history. And that’s no mean feat. When the Oklahoma City bombing happened, for example, the state said it was the “worst bombing in Oklahoma history.” We had to remind them about 1921 and say, “No, it’s not. Sorry.” The media in Oklahoma had never even heard of it. So that’s the first thing. But also it’s fascinating that, as with lynchings, we know who the victims are but we don’t know who the perpetrators are; their identities have been suppressed to this day. Who dropped the turpentine bombs? Who owned the airplanes in 1921? We know of one Black pilot with his own airplane in Tulsa. Who owned the other planes? How is it that I, as a scholar of the 18th and 19th century, can find out who did things in, say, 1736 or 1835, yet suddenly it’s 1921 and we have this blank spot? I don’t believe it. When journalists — White journalists — who tried to investigate this in 1971 for the 50th anniversary, they received death threats, and they were told this was not worth stirring up. There is ongoing suppression of the knowledge of history, and that needs to be resolved.

Who protects these stories for the future? Do you think we’re creating enough historians?

We have a wonderful crop of young men and women coming along, especially young Black women. You see lots of young PhDs working on interesting projects. They are much less interested in slavery and what they think is ancient history and much more focused on the ’60s, the ’70s. The materials are there, and the archives are rich with information.

Eric Easter is a writer and producer in Washington. This interview has been edited and condensed.