Editor’s note: A hundred years ago today, after an attempt to lynch a Black teenager accused of raping a white woman was stymied, a rabid white mob numbering in the thousands descended on the affluent and predominantly African-American Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over two days, more than 300 women, children and men were murdered by the mob. Additionally, around 800 people injured and thousands of businesses, homes and churches were razed to the ground by bombs dropped from planes and a rampaging horde that included law enforcement and members of the KKK.
Largely absent from the history books and suppressed in popular culture for decades, the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in recent years has become viewed as a milestone for the brutal realities of white supremacy in America. Today seasoned actor Steven G. Norfleet, who appeared in the depiction of the assault in HBO’s Emmy winningWatchmen, examines the hidden history and legacy of Tulsa 1921 in a guest column for Deadline.
In the acclaimed HBO series Watchmen, I portray a WWI veteran trying to protect his family during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The creative team of Watchmen carefully constructed detail after detail to portray a true sense of this horrific event, showing gunshots fired at unarmed Black men and women and businesses torched while people were still in them. From praying before filming such heart-wrenching material to running through chaos while holding my son, played by Danny Boyd Jr., there was a feeling of heaviness on the set that day.
The specifics of dressing the set quickly reminded me that, while we are reenacting this event for a limited series, what you see in the opening scenes of Watchmen’s first episode absolutely happened 100 years ago. The role opened my eyes on the little knowledge I knew about my own history.
It forced me to research and recognize the truth that has purposefully not been told to us.
Even though I am reminded of how little Black history was taught during my younger years of school, I’m grateful for the people who are now choosing to tell it through entertainment. We are in a time where education and television are truly intertwined, and I believe it’s one of the best ways to learn. Without the knowledge of our history, we are robbed from the foundation of knowing how to tackle our future.
Being completely transparent, writing this column as we approach the centennial of the horrors of May 31 and June 1, 1921 in Oklahoma leaves me with a bittersweet feeling.
The sweetness comes from gratitude knowing that what started off as another acting job has led to helping increase the knowledge of our true American history for millions around the world. The bitterness is being reminded that this is our American history. That this is the history of Black people and unfortunately, history continues to repeat itself. We should not have to commemorate the death of over 300 Black people who were killed simply for being Black and successful. We should be visiting a still-standing Black Wall Street where our Black ancestors created opportunities for themselves, and generations to come kept the Greenwood neighborhood thriving.
Our history is Viola Fletcher, a living survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre who recently testified in front of a House subcommittee praying for justice to one day be served. Our history is the African American men who fought in WWI for their country; a country filled with racism and hatred towards Black people.
Our history holds the power to help our brothers and sisters today to fight for change, fight for justice, fight for what is and should be right. People like Stacey Abrams who swallowed her governor’s race defeat in 2018 and poured her soul into fighting for the rights of voters in Georgia and elsewhere. Ben Crump who tirelessly has been fighting for victims of racial and police brutality such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. They are the examples of Black Wall Street.
I do find some fulfillment seeing this country remembering the lives lost during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I pray the victims and the families of the victims have found some peace in knowing our country is finally shinning a light on what has been only briefly examined. My wish is for this light to grow brighter and brighter. Brighter into the many cities where similar events have occurred. Then even brighter into the eyes of the people who need to see such unjust. We should never shy away from what is true and what is undeniably true is history.
I want to thank every single Black person who paved the way for me. The doctors and lawyers of Black Wall Street are kings and queens in my eyes.
I could only imagine how beautiful the Greenwood community was of so many shades of Black and Brown. Recognizing the horrific moment is key but remembering what the community was and represented before it was destroyed is just as important, if not more. The history of Black people comes with a lot of scars but certainly it’s joined with a lot of joy. This once rich community can show what’s capable of being born again. We can come together and build environments of successful Black people who want nothing more but to support each other.
With opportunities to learn about our history, we must learn from it as well. We must challenge ourselves to make sure such infuriating moments never repeat. Individually, we should be checking if we’re contributing towards the solutions of America’s problems; and realizing there are numerous ways to play your part. Recording police brutality, casting your vote, supporting your local Black businesses, these are just a few ways to keep the legacy of Black Wall Street afloat. Having those hard conversations with people who may not think like you is pivotal to helping change the viewpoint of someone who simply
just may not know better. What may appear as a small step could help create the staircase to true change.
I take pride in writing this piece with the hope it fuels you to research more, listen more, pay attention more to what’s been happening for over 100 years. Me expressing my gratitude to the Oklahoma schools who are fighting to teach their students of the Tulsa Massacre can lead you to make a difference.
Mentioning Carlos Moreno’s new book The Victory of Greenwood may lead you to buy it once it drops, wondering what else about this historical city has yet to be acknowledged. This one article you are reading can be the reason you google “1921 Tulsa Race Massacre” and that alone is progress.
Now being in the days that mark 100 years since racism and bigotry struck Tulsa in full and fatal force, let’s acknowledge the grief and pain from remembering this moment and the strength in knowing we will not allow this to ever happen again.