Trying to recover a forgotten history is one thing; rescuing a history that has been actively suppressed is another.
On May 31 and June 1, 1921, white mobs descended on the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Okla., shooting and pillaging their way through a vibrant and prosperous Black enclave, reducing it to rubble. Low-flying airplanes dropped burning turpentine balls, leaving an entire block in what one eyewitness described as “a mass of flame.” An all-white local contingent of the National Guard turned a machine gun on the Mount Zion Baptist Church, systematically raking the walls with heavy fire until the stalwart building gave way in a cascade of shattered glass and tumbling bricks.
“At taxpayer expense, a House of God has been demolished,” Scott Ellsworth writes in “The Ground Breaking,” a new book that begins by recreating the bloody events of 100 years ago in a propulsive present tense. Ellsworth then goes on to trace the story of what has happened since, from silence and cover-up to sustained attempts to learn the full history. Last year, an excavation found mass graves that likely belong to some of those who were killed, and just last week, the massacre’s three known survivors — the youngest is 100 years old — testified before a House Judiciary committee that is considering reparations.
Awareness of the massacre has even made its way into pop culture, with a pointed allusion in Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” (“Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime”) and a central plot point in the HBO series “Watchmen.”
Ellsworth himself is a key figure in this story. His 1982 book, “Death in a Promised Land,” was one of the first full histories of the massacre, and in 1997 he served as a consulting historian to the state-sponsored Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. A native Tulsan himself, Ellsworth grew up in the white part of town; the only Black people in his world were the men who hauled the trash on Fridays. As a child in the ’60s, he had heard nothing but vague whispers about “the riot” until he and his friends were tooling around the city’s new library one summer and decided to see what they could find with the microfilm reader.
There, they read old newspaper stories about injuries and deaths and a “race war.” Ellsworth, who was 12 at the time, remembers his feelings of bewilderment alongside an awareness that he had uncovered something that adults were trying to keep hidden. “Something had happened,” he writes. “The riot was real.”
“The Ground Breaking” narrates a lifetime of discovery — from that summer in the library through Ellsworth’s years as a historian, talking to survivors and their descendants, trying to piece together a past that few wanted to remember. The triggering incident was the allegation, almost certainly false, that a young African American man had sexually assaulted a white teenage girl; the fighting started after a group of Black World War I veterans arrived at the courthouse to protect the accused from a gathering lynch mob.
Among white Tulsans, Ellsworth encountered a mix of shame and defiance. Photographs and official records had disappeared. Someone had even cut out relevant parts of The Tulsa Tribune before the newspaper was committed to microfilm. Black Tulsans, too, had their own reasons not to revisit what happened. What they had lived through was horrific — Ellsworth himself has likened it to an American Kristallnacht. Many of those who had survived didn’t want to burden their children with such trauma.
He did find some Black survivors who wanted to talk — but not to him, at least not at first. In the mid-1970s, Ellsworth introduced himself to W.D. Williams, who was a 16-year-old high school student in 1921. Williams had been waiting for decades to tell his life story, but Ellsworth knew that he “sure as hell” hadn’t been waiting to tell it to someone like him: a young Reed College student who hadn’t written a book or even an article yet, and “had grown up on the same side of town that, 54 years earlier, the people who had tried to murder him, his mother and his father had come from.”
“The Ground Breaking” is filled with moments like these — candid and self-aware, undergirded by Ellsworth’s earnest efforts to get at this history, and to get it right. Where the history of the massacre wasn’t obscured, he found it distorted, deformed by conspiracy theories or attempts to both-sides it. Part of what makes this book so riveting is Ellsworth’s skillful narration, his impeccable sense for when to reveal a piece of information and when to hold something back. During his research he seized on any numbers that were available. He found one particularly rich source in medical statistics compiled by Maurice Willows, who arrived in Tulsa in 1921 to lead the first coordinated response by the American Red Cross to a man-made disaster.
In his report, Willows listed the number of hospital admissions and the number of people requiring urgent care. But he didn’t include the number of dead, and he explained why: “Figures are omitted for the reason that NO ONE KNOWS.” A century later, Ellsworth says, “that is still the case.”
“The Ground Breaking” makes for sobering reading; but it also sheds light, and some of it is hopeful. Ellsworth makes clear that Oklahoma is decidedly not a model of racial reconciliation — it was the only state where not a single county voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and where all of those counties voted twice for Donald Trump. Yet with last year’s exhumation of those graves, it’s also where Tulsa’s Republican mayor has committed to doing something that Ellsworth calls unprecedented: deliberately setting out to locate the remains of those murdered by racist violence. The history of homegrown bigotry and selective amnesia might be very old, but this, Ellsworth writes, “was something new.”