“They didn’t talk about it.”: How historians helped Tulsa confront the horrors of the past | Oklahoma

TaThere was nothing in town to commemorate it here. During the half semester, when he devoted himself to local history, the teacher did not mention it.White schoolboy Scott Ellsworth Residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma wondered what was the darkest secret of the city.

“I’m 10 and 11 years old, and I’ve occasionally heard neighbors talking about what we called” riots “at the time. “I started listening to the corpses flowing down the Arkansas River and the machine guns on the roofs of the town, but I didn’t really know anything.”

Everything changed when one day in 1966, a local library set up a microfilm reader, and Ellsworth and his friends ate in the daily newspaper from 1921. “We weren’t sophisticated enough to put everything together, but at that point we knew that the skeleton of the closet was true.”

The truth that can no longer be denied is on May 31, 1921 and June 1, 1921. A white mob attacked An estimated 300 people were killed and more than 800 were injured in attacks and arson on businesses, homes and churches on Black Wall Street in Tulsa. An airplane dropped an explosive in the area and destroyed it on the ground. It continues to be one of the worst ethnic violence in American history.

Tulsa is now 100 years of bloodshed Commemorative ceremony featuring Joe Biden, Candlelight Vigil, History Center unveiling, Tulsa Juneteenth Festival and other events and performances in the Greenwood district.

But helping Ellsworth embark on a journey to end the culture of silence required years of in-depth research by Ellsworth. Confront the racist past. While studying history at a university in Portland, Oregon, he decided to make the genocide the subject of his thesis. He returned to Tulsa in the summer of 1975, but found it difficult to break the taboo.

“Records were lost and destroyed,” he said on the phone from Ann Arbor, a college teacher. University of Michigan“The clerk was like blowing me away in the office, but I couldn’t put this together at all. It was almost impossible to find a photo, but one of the Greenwoods after the slaughter. I saw it, it looked like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, or Frankfurt, and everything was gone.

Ellsworth made a breakthrough when he encountered a collection of city rosters that pioneered phone books listing the names of all individuals and businesses. “I noticed that there is a lowercase” c “inside the parentheses about every 10th name. I realized that this means “colored”. This is a list of all African American people and businesses.

“I was trying to figure out what the Greenwood business community was like, so I went to the city’s technician’s office and got a taped” plat “. Then I looked up the directories in these cities and wrote down all the addresses, what I did, and who lived there. Since then, the business community has come alive to me. It wasn’t just statistics. “

Eventually Ellsworth chased William D. Williams, A retired African-American teacher who was 16 years old when the slaughter took place. “I drive to his house and sit down and explain who I am. He’s a cool guy to me. I said,” This interview can’t be helped. Where should I end it? I have to think about it, “and politely left.

It took years of research by writer and historian Scott Ellsworth to help Tulsa confront a racist and violent past. Photo: Courtesy Ruth Killick Public Relations

“Then I remembered my map and spread it out on his kitchen table, and suddenly he just mesmerized, stared at it, moved his fingers from address to address, and shook his head with a smile. I created a map of his youth, with a name he hadn’t even thought of for 70 years.

“Suddenly he looked up and said,’OK, tell me what you want to know.’ I thought it would be an hour interview. We talked for four hours and at that moment He was exactly that person, and thanks to him being in the right place at the right time, he was able to preserve the history of what happened. “

Ellsworth adds: He was waiting for a journalist, TV crew and professor. He wasn’t waiting for a 21-year-old white kid from the edge of the town, where people came to kill him and his family. I appreciate him for giving me the opportunity to talk to me. “

Three years later, Ellsworth returned to Tulsa to book his treatise. Williams associated him with other older African-American survivors who spoke for the first time. The author has a deep bond with them.

“They have never been interviewed. They didn’t talk about the slaughter in their family. I eventually became their witness. It needs to be me. It wasn’t. It could be you or someone else. It happened to be me. It was one of the best professional moments in my life. “

Conversely, Ellsworth found it almost impossible to admit that whites were involved in the genocide (no one was charged with criminal charges). At one point he visited a white police officer who was happy to talk about his career, but when it came to the topic he was silent.

“He had a scrapbook of his photos in uniforms and so on. Now that he’s in the pre-digital era, when I rent a 35mm camera to take photos, I suddenly turn the pages and all the photos are cluttered. He picked up the book and said, “No, I can’t take a picture,” so I’m very excited. People didn’t want to talk about it at all. It’s like a family of German soldiers. Who wants to talk about this?

At the time of Ellsworth Death in the promised land – The first comprehensive history of the slaughter – was published in 1982 and the survivors held a launch party, but the local white media largely ignored the book. However, the author states: “This was the most stolen book in the county library system in Tulsa for years. They would even steal a copy of the branch. So I only sent a box of books once a year. is.”

The secret of Tulsa was revealed and I couldn’t forget it anymore. 75th anniversary of the 1996 massacre Attracted the attention of the national mediaA year later, the Tulsa Race Massacre Committee was formed to carry out the long-awaited investigation and claim compensation.

Ellsworth began a search for a mass grave of unmarked victims, but was stalled in 2000 due to political controversy. In 2019, the activity resumed at the request of the mayor.Combined with hard work and luck, 12 fragile pine caskets and remains Discovered last October The most important cemetery in the city at the time of the slaughter.

“Of course, I was thrilled. This was more than 20 years of research, but given these people, the reality is sad and hopeless. But to be honest, I’m WD Williams and this story. I remembered the other survivors who really led me in and thought about how happy they were. I really thought about them. “

The mass grave of Oak Lawn Cemetery will be excavated on the 100th anniversary. That is another step for Tulsa to face himself. But it does not necessarily bring peace and reconciliation to cities that remain deeply separated along racial boundaries.

“The story of the slaughter has been actively suppressed in the white community for 50 years,” Ellsworth recalls.United States and Icon Book In england.. “Researchers were life-threatening and work-threatening.

“Some people don’t want to talk about this at all. They just want to cover it up. Others are embarrassed about it. Others are heartbroken. For generations growing up in Tulsa. People were trying to learn about it now, without knowing it, but that’s causing stress. “

But for nearly half a century there was silence in the African-American community, he added. “Many survivors suffered from PTSD throughout their lives, like Holocaust survivors. Others didn’t want to burden their children with these stories, so there were descendants of my age who didn’t know until their 40s that their grandparents had lost their homes and jobs. . They didn’t talk about it. “

“They didn’t talk about it.”: How historians helped Tulsa confront the horrors of the past | Oklahoma

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