We Never Forgot Black Wall Street: What to Read and Watch, 100 Years Since the Tulsa Race Massacre

Article In The Thread
Library of Congress, American National Red Cross Collection
June 1, 2021

One hundred years ago, an airborne attack, likely the first airborne bombs to hit American soil, set a vibrant Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma aflame. What began as a misunderstanding between a Black boy and a white girl in an elevator, was fueled by racism and became one of the most devastating—yet less taught—events in American history. The 1921 massacre left more than 9,000 Black residents of Greenwood homeless, more than 600 thriving Black businesses burned to ashes, and about 300 people dead. The destruction of Black Wall Street will always be a part of America’s soiled past of racial discrimintation and violence, a history passed down through generations and media even if rarely addressed in school curricula. But its memory can continue to fuel the ongoing conversation in America around race, racism, and social justice. Three members of our New America family recommend essential works to read and watch that continue to push forward this conversation:


Paul Butler, New America President and Chief Transformation Officer
Recommendation: Watchmen (2019)

100 years after the Tulsa massacre, HBO’s Watchmen (not history books) may be the most widely seen reference to the destruction of “Black Wall Street.” This is what art and creative storytelling can do—fill in the gaps and also push us forward. In an Instagram post to Watchmen fans, David Lindelof said that this HBO series wasn’t an “adaption” of the comic book. The new series, he said, “Must ask new questions and explore the world through a fresh lens. Most importantly, it must be contemporary.” That, too, is the challenge for human-centered and equitable public policy. It must work in response to the past, be meaningful in the present, and relevant for the future.

Caleb Gayle, New Arizona Fellow, National Fellows Program
Recommendation: How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (2021)

In How the Word is Passed, author Clint Smith [New America 2020 Emerson Fellow] undoes the overly simplistic, and at times, oft overly optimistic nature of our history. On one hand, Clint helps the reader realize the role of slavery in shaping American history. On the other hand, he helps us realize that American history is in no way limited to the recounting of facts, but instead history reflects what we want to believe about ourselves. History informs so much of who we are and who we want to become. Clint writes, “So much of the story we tell about history is really the story we tell about ourselves.” What his book enables us to do is be that much more honest with ourselves about who’ve we been, who we are, and who we will be. On the 100-year mark since my hometown, Tulsa, was burned during the 1921 Race Massacre, books like Clint’s give us improved language to recast the stories of the massacre in the light of restitution—no matter how painful.

Jahdziah St. Julien, Research Associate, Better Life Lab
Recommendation: The End of Policing (2017)

I read most books voraciously, devouring dialogue and savoring the most succulent elements. Still, there are some, like The End of Policing, that force me to slow down. When I bought it in September 2020, the conversations about defunding law enforcement had been going on for months. So many folks were asking the same question that I’d been mulling over: "Now what?" I finally cracked open The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale in March and am still thoughtfully working through it. Vitale takes his time explaining the origins of policing in the United States and abroad. Providing historical context where needed, Vitale carefully breaks down why policing is an inadequate alternative to social challenges, the shortcomings of police reform, and why the conceptualization of policing itself is at the root of the problem. The End of Policing is food for thought and for action, so I’m taking my time with it and hope you can too.

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