The 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma race riots were maybe the most deadliest and devastating in American history. Taking place over an 18 hour period, between May 31 and June 1, 1921, the riots started when a group of angry whites attacked blacks in the Greenwood district, known as “Black Wall Street,” the wealthiest black community in the entire United States at the time.
After the devastation ended, the entire Greenwood neighborhood had been burned to the ground, including two black hospitals, 35 city blocks destroyed, over 1200 homes lost, 10,000 black people homeless, over 6,000 black people arrested by the police, and the numbers of those who lost their lives range anywhere from 55 to over 300. However no official statistics of those killed were taken.
But even today, knowledge of the riots is practically unknown to most people, and is rarely talked about. It is another example of African American history that has been lost, forgotten or betrayed – an ugly side of American history too conveniently swept under the rug.
However that may start to change, as, previously announced, there are a number of film and TV projects in the works that will focus on Black Wall Street:
— Octavia Spencer has been attached to star in a two-night event mini-series, “Tulsa” (working title), which was in development at the OWN network as of late 2015. The mini-series will center on Mattie Clay (Spencer), a journalist from Tulsa who moved to Chicago with the hopes of getting off the society pages and away from racism. Mattie’s journey eventually brings her back home to Tulsa where she must face the demons of her past and decide where her future lies. Further details as to who will be writing, directing and producing the project, along with possible broadcast dates, weren’t announced, and we don’t know at this time whether it’s even still in development.
— In addition to that project, WGN America announced last year that it had partnered up with John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Company (following the hit series “Underground”) for another historical series – this one on Black Wall Street – with Tika Sumpter also on board to executive produce. This project however will be set prior to the above race riots in 1921. Instead the Legend/Sumpter series is to be set during the oil boom of the 1910s, and will examine the prominent African American community that built and lived in the city. But with recent news of WGN America’s parent company, Tribune Media, being bought by Sinclair, and the announcement by the CEO of Sinclair that they plan by reduce spending on high-end original series, the Black Wall Street project may be dead – at least at WGN. Legend and Sumpter could take it to another network. We’ll wait to hear on what happens next…
— And announced most recently, from Zero Gravity Management and director Tim Story’s production shingle, The Story Company, a feature film about the 1921 race riots, based on the book “Holocaust in the Homeland: Black Wall Street’s Last Days,” by Dr. Corinda Pitts Marsh, has been put into development. A summary of the book reads: “Holocaust in the Homeland” tells the story of one of the darkest days in US history. Envious locals in Tulsa dubbed the Greenwood section “Black Wall Street” because of its economic success, but that success was obliterated by a riot in 1921. The riot completely razed Greenwood, destroying the lives of its 10,000 residents. This account sees the events through the eyes of a fictional reporter. It offers perspective and hope. The events of Memorial Day, 1921 were hidden for the better part of a century, but knowing the truth about that day is critical to understanding ourselves and our motives and will ultimately make us all safer in an unsafe world. Today, just as in 1921, media hype too often obscures truth and embraces hype because hype is more interesting. The truth about this event must no longer be kept secret. Follow Sam Stackhouse, an old man remembering, as he discovers truth and wisdom. If you’d like to pick up copy click here. Story will direct from a screenplay penned by Christopher Kubasik; Story will also produce via his The Story Company, alongside Christine Holder and Mark Holder of Zero Gravity.
All three of the above projects are certainly on our watch list and we’ll update you as each makes progress towards completion.
In the meantime, an interesting add-on I received today that’s worth sharing, which comes courtesy of the Smithsonian; newly digitized footage that shows scenes of “Black Wall Street” filmed by Reverend Harold Mose Anderson, titled “Reverend Harold Anderson’s Black Wall Street Film,” which was shot between 1948 and 1952, was almost lost in a the fires that erupted during the riots, and has been preserved and made available for use by the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center.
Anderson lived in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, initially sometimes referred to as “Little Africa,” and would of course later be known as “Black Wall Street.”
According to the Smithsonian, Reverend Anderson played a major role in the neighborhood’s resurgence. He was also a successful businessman who owned 2 of the neighborhood’s movie theaters, as well as a skating rink, a bowling alley, a shopping strip, and the Golden Gloves boxing tournament which he was responsible for bringing to the Greenwood, making it accessible to African American fans. His goal was to make sure that the dollars spent by black people in Black Wall Street would stay in the community which would in essence guarantee its future.
The vibrant footage captures everyday life in the 1940s in the Black Wall Street neighborhood, documenting the people in various places, and the many businesses that thrived at the time. Certainly a historic document, the film provides those of us alive today, a record of a significant time and place in not just African American, but American history.
After Patricia Sanders donated the film to the Archives Center, the institution secured grant funding to preserve the 16mm black-and-white reversal film. As a result, a new negative and print, as well as digital copies, ensure that the film will live on.
Check out a 3-minute sample of “Reverend Harold Anderson’s Black Wall Street Film” below (Note: there’s no audio):