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'This is still being suppressed': OU professor's book of recovered photos preserves history of Tulsa Race Massacre

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Williams Dreamland Theatre

The Williams Dreamland Theatre sign hangs off the skeletal remains of the building after the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.

Editor's note: In commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, The OU Daily Enterprise team has assembled five stories about the Greenwood District's past, present and future for our summer issue of the Crimson Quarterly magazine. Click below to read more.

"Our theme is ‘the church that faith built,’ and because of faith, we’re still there.”

  – Sharlene Johnson, chair of Mount Zion Baptist Church joint board

Once a gathering place for the city’s Black community, Mount Zion Baptist Church stands empty with smoke billowing from it, shortly before being burned to the ground, in an image from the Tulsa Race Massacre. 

Today, it continues to act as a place of community for its members, who meet in a large building similar to the one in the image. But its members haven’t forgotten its history. 

Sharlene Johnson, chair of Mount Zion’s joint board, said when the church started in 1909, it was held in a one-room frame building. Construction began on a larger building, on the same land the church is on now, in 1916. The first services were held in the new building in April 1921 — two months before white Tulsans would burn the building to rubble.

Johnson said all of the Greenwood District was attacked because of racism and bigotry, but Mount Zion was a special target because white rioters wrongly believed it to be the headquarters and ammunition storage for the Greenwood community. She said she learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre growing up in Chicago, but when she moved to Oklahoma in 1977, she found that event wasn’t taught locally. 

“This is your history, it’s national history,” Johnson said. “But it wasn’t taught here, it was ignored for years and years. … This is a history that you can’t keep silent.” 

After half a century without pictures of the massacre readily available, OU professor Karlos Hill compiled images like the ones of Mount Zion and others as part of his latest project, “The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: A Photographic History.” His photobook is centered on the experiences of Black survivors and is intended to contextualize images taken by white participants.

In his research on the massacre, Hill has seen countless images depicting destruction, damaged buildings and, simultaneously, the wrecking of the hopes and dreams of a prosperous Black community. But in his mind, one stands out from the rest — an aerial image of a smoky sky above a smattering of buildings, with a caption scratched across the bottom of the picture. 

Smoke rising over Tulsa

A photograph shows a burning cityscape during the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 1921.

“This photograph really encapsulates for me what actually had occurred,” Hill, who serves as the African and African-American Studies department chair at OU, said. “And so it was certainly a massacre. We believe that nearly 300, if not more, Black people died as a result of the violence. But for me, the violence was about ‘Running the Negro out of Tulsa,’ it was about expelling Black people, not just killing them but putting fear and expelling them from Tulsa.” 

Hill — who’s one of the professors of OU’s The Tulsa Race Massacre: 100 Years Later course — said his “scholarly mission” is to discuss the massacre in a way that honors victims, survivors and their descendants. 

“Terroristic violence, such as what occurred in Tulsa, has been central to the Black experience,” Hill said. “We can’t understand ... anything about the Black experience really, without understanding the experience of terror and how terror shaped the community.” 

Scott Ellsworth is a University of Michigan Department of Afroamerican and African Studies professor, and the author of “Death in a Promised Land,” the “first-ever comprehensive” Tulsa Race Massacre history, who reviewed Hill’s proposal. He said both Tulsa’s Black and white communities covered up the Tulsa Race Massacre after the fact, but for different reasons. 

Man holding guns in Greenwood

A man holds a gun in each hand in front of a smoke-enshrouded Greenwood during the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.

He said white Tulsans concealed the event because they knew it would harm the city’s image, while, like Holocaust survivors, Black Tulsans didn’t want to talk about the history because it was so painful. He said many Black residents didn’t first learn about the massacre until the 1970s and ’80s despite having family members who endured the loss of  their property and livelihoods because of it. 

Ellsworth grew up in Tulsa and experienced the coverup firsthand. He said, as a child, he remembers hearing adults talking about bodies floating down the Arkansas River and machine guns atop buildings, but adults’ tones would always shift when he entered the room. He didn’t first learn about the massacre until he was about 12. 

“On the one hand, the people who wanted to suppress the story, they were very successful,” Ellsworth said. “And there’s no question about it. But along the way, as John Hope Franklin said, the city lost its sense of honesty, and it lied about itself and its past, and we are finally back, yet we are now recovering that and recovering our sense of honesty.” 

Hill said in many cities that have experienced racial violence, residents feel a level of shame about what occurred, especially on their watch. He said, in Tulsa, city leaders were part of the “conspiracy of silence” — though, in the aftermath of the massacre, some public officials expressed remorse and promised reparations for victims, according to “Death in a Promised Land.”  

“There was a sense of ‘What have we done, how could we have done this, we are going to make this right?’” Hill said. “And so we know that that happened, that these words were uttered. But then later, we know that there were these multiple attempts … to suppress the history, and so I think that grows out of the fear of accountability, as well as the kind of shame connected to having been involved and having allowed what occurred to occur.”

For decades, there were no public ceremonies, memorials for the dead or events to recognize the Tulsa Race Massacre as white Tulsans attempted to improve the city’s public image. The Tulsa Tribune removed its May 31 front-page story from its bound volumes, and experts found police and state militia records of the massacre were also missing. 

Hill said in the attempted concealment, some of the most incriminating photos — like the ones depicting the dumping of bodies in mass graves — were destroyed. He also said it was impossible for city leaders and police officers to have been unaware of the digging of mass graves, as the city was under martial law from 11:30 a.m. June 1 to 5 p.m. June 3

“And now that, 100 years later, we’re still trying to figure out where (mass graves) are, just speaks to the complicity of city authorities and all those involved,” Hill said. “And we still don’t know. … This is still being suppressed.” 

But Ellsworth said, just as a lack of photos helped conceal the Tulsa Race Massacre, the availability of those pictures today can help unequivocally prove the event happened. 

“There was nothing that provided more evidence for the massacre than these photos,” Ellsworth said. “So I think that’s one reason they were very, very hard to come by. And we’ve now come full circle with Professor Hill’s book. For the first time ever in book form, there’s going to be this magnificent collection of massacre photos. And there’s no way that someone can look at this collection and say that this didn’t happen.” 

Johnson said reparations were never promised to the church, even though Mount Zion pastor Reverend R.A. Whitaker invited members of Tulsa’s City Council and the city’s police chief to the ruins of the building to confirm there were no weapons hidden in it after the violence. The building was rebuilt in 1952, but the funding for construction was raised by congregants and donators, not granted by insurance companies.  

Hill said his book doesn’t argue for reparations specifically, but it supports them. 

Men marched to Convention Hall

Black men are marched out of Greenwood with their hands up near the end of the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 1921. 

“A big part of the reason why Black people did not receive restitution in 1921 is that city leaders framed it as a riot,” Hill said. “And certainly the insurance companies framed it as a riot, and that shielded them from having to pay for the damages that Black residents and ... Black businesses suffered.” 

Hill said he chose the project because he predicted it could be done by the 100th Race Massacre anniversary, but the research was slow. He said the work has consisted mostly of archival research, using resources made available by the University of Tulsa, the Tulsa Historical Society, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa, the Greenwood Cultural Center, the John Hope Franklin Center, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

Hill said he also used information from a database created by the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, which contained transcriptions of interviews with about 80 survivors collected between 1997 and 2001. He also said he drew from Mary Parrish’s “Events of the Tulsa Disaster” — the first survivor account collection, originally published in 1922 — and smaller oral history projects. 

Research on the book started in 2017, Hill said, but he started focusing on the project more heavily in 2018. He said the book was released March 18. 

“I am happy because I feel like … the book is really a community-engaged piece of scholarship,” Hill said. “And it’s leaning in and bearing witness to experiences of survivors and their descendants. Of all the writing that I’ve done … this is probably the most important thing — and probably will remain for a long time the most important thing that I’ve written.”

Hannibal Johnson, an attorney and Tulsa Race Massacre expert who reviewed a draft of Hill’s book, said he believes the photographic history covers the event from a different perspective than many other books do. 

“For me, the overarching story is a story about people, it’s about the indomitable human spirit,” said Hannibal Johnson, who works on Greenwood Avenue — once a central part of Black Wall Street. “It’s about a Black community in Tulsa. The massacre is an event that happened in the context of community. It’s an event that’s emblematic of this historical racial violence throughout the U.S.” 

Johnson said there’s value in making as many Tulsa Race Massacre resources as possible available to the public.

“We need multiple touchpoints to this history that can engage with people at various ages and stages and learning styles,” Johnson said. “And so for some people, pictorial narrative is actually quite helpful for visual learners, people who want to get a quick overview of the history. It’s a really important way to tell the story.”

Hill said there’s a popular assumption that if people are educated on past acts of racism, it will be easier to prevent racism in the future.

“I think awareness is key (and) I think education is essential,” Hill said, “but it’s not enough. … The way in which you make sure that these things don’t happen again is you hold people accountable for what occurs.”

Hill referenced a quote by Ida B. Wells, a journalist and activist whose work in part focused on lynching, stating that “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

“That was her way of not just holding the city accountable but holding Black people accountable,” Hill said. “If you want lynching to end, then we as a people have to make the cost of taking a Black life so high that white lynch mobs decide that it’s not worth the risk.” 

Hill said while he thinks forms of racial violence have shifted since then, the same concept applies — disincentivizing and discouraging participation in acts of racism, and holding those who do participate accountable.

A century after the massacre, Ellsworth said he thinks opinions of the event in Tulsa are still divided. He said he thinks the Black community wants to highlight the Greenwood District’s status before the massacre and how it was rebuilt. He also said the United States is in an “age of re-evaluation,” allowing for more discussion of painful aspects of its history. 

“Statues are getting replaced, who our heroes are are being questioned, new heroes are being suggested,” Ellsworth said. “So we’re undergoing this tumultuous period where we’re trying to wrestle with our pasts and understand it, and that’s vital that we do that. It’s very important that we do it. But that’s not to say it’s not difficult, so those difficulties are certainly mirrored in Tulsa.”

The effects of the violence, depicted in Hill’s book, continue to affect Tulsa’s Black community. 

The Greenwood District has suffered from the creation of Interstate 244 in 1975, Sharlene Johnson said, which split the area down the middle and again imperiled Mount Zion. She said Greenwood — which was 35 square blocks at its height — exists as only about a quarter of a block now. 

However, Johnson said Mount Zion continues to remain active in the community. 

“The church is still thriving,” Johnson said. “But that’s through the grace of God. … Our theme is ‘the church that faith built,’ and because of faith, we’re still there.” 

Mt. Zion Church

Mount Zion Baptist Church in its rebuilt form in Tulsa on March 13.

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Ari Fife is the OU Daily assistant news managing editor and a junior journalism major minoring in international studies and political science. Previously, she served as the summer editor-in-chief, a senior news reporter and an SGA beat reporter.

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