When the HBO series “The Watchmen” debuted in 2019, it featured a stunning opening scene — a murderous race-fueled massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The much-anticipated series, based on a graphic novel, was supposed to be about superheroes. Still, it dove straight into one of America’s darkest chapters of racial violence, and for some watching, it had to be fiction.
Fort Worth journalist and author Tim Madigan wasn’t surprised by the response. As a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Madigan was handed an assignment to write about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — an even he had never heard of it.
“To say I was surprised is an understatement,” Madigan said.
Imagine the surprise to millions of viewers watching a superhero TV show faced with an accurate depiction of the violence of that night?
Madigan said in the moments after the show debuted, hundreds of thousands of people searched the internet for more information about the violence depicted in the show. In some way, what played out on television was mild compared to the reality of the day.
The story of what happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 31 and June 1 of 1921 marks one of the worst chapters of racial violence in American history, and the perpetrators of these acts were those in city government, law enforcement, and the white community, which administered an appalling toll against Tulsa’s Black population.
In a day of fighting, which included armed white men firing away from airplanes, an estimated 300 Black residents of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhoods died, hundreds more injured. The community, known as the “Black Wall Street,” was looted and burned. Black veterans of World War I mounted resistance in spots, returning fire and killing an estimated 50 people. Even more shocking is the story ended up being squirreled away in the back pages of history — or not even discussed at all.
The first academic paper about what happened in Greenwood did not get published until the mid-1940s. People forgot about the events that occurred in Oklahoma. Now, it’s part of a full-fledged national conversation about America’s past and reckoning with racial prejudice. Events over the weekend will commemorate what happened in Tulsa, including a neighborhood tour by President Joe Biden.
In 1996, Tulsa formed a commission to investigate the events of 1921, beginning a five-year look at the city’s role in the massacre. The resulting findings were made public in February of 2001, including the suggestion Tulsa should pay reparations. Madigan’s book was published one month later and readers greeted it with silence.
“No one read it,” Madigan admits to the release of “The Burning, The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.”
Well, some did read it, and it’s not the only book about what happened in Tulsa. There’s also a new understanding of racial justice in America as Oklahoma prepares to mark the centennial of those events on June 1.
“In my book, I tried to tie what was happening in the United States at the time,” Madigan said during an interview with the Herald-Banner. “What I learned was what happened in Tulsa was completely consistent with everything that was going on in the nation with regards to race. It was unique only, perhaps, in its magnitude.”
As World War I came to an end in 1918, racial violence exploded across the United States, including here in Texas. This time also marked a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Many scholars suggest the 1915 release of “Birth of a Nation,” the D.W. Griffith epic, helped inflame racial violence during this period.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that learning that history really changed my life,” Madigan said.
After publishing his newspaper article about Tulsa in 2000, Madigan tackled Fort Worth’s history of racial violence — recurrent across Central and Northeast Texas for years. In 1930, a race riot erupted in Sherman, Texas, where the courthouse burned.
“It was just a really ugly time,” Madigan said. “Again, I was just not aware of that era.”
Here in Greenville, there were reports that as many as 400 men were members of the Ku Klux Klan. In December of 1921, one of the largest KKK rallies in the state of Texas was held here. Newspaper accounts said the rally was a spontaneous event, but it attracted an estimated 600 hooded marchers and 25,000 people.
Horrific acts of racial violence permeated Hunt County for the decades before the 1920s and would remain in place through the Jim Crow era. In 1908, Black teenager Ted Smith, accused of sexually assaulting a white girl, was set on fire along Washington Street, near the Hunt County Courthouse steps, as thousands watched him die in agony.
In Tulsa, the racial tensions of that period had percolated for years, but it was hard to imagine the fury that would be unleashed upon Greenwood.
The violence of June 1, 1921, left hundreds of destroyed businesses and homes, thousands of people homeless, and the Black community’s wealth in Tulsa vanished in a single night. In the months to come, various plans to redevelop the land included provisions that banned wood-framed construction, rezoning of former neighborhoods into industrial sectors that would strengthen the boundary between Blacks and whites. Still, there was also a concerted effort to cover up the facts of the event.
“Initially, Tulsa leaders were contrite,” Madigan said. “As soon as the glow of the national media was extinguished they changed their tune. Frankly, they tried to prevent residents from rebuilding. There was some celebration among the whites, they put notches in their guns to commemorate how many Blacks they had killed, and there were postcards of the aftermath that were proudly exchanged.”
Madigan said he believes the attack on Greenwood was an organized and coordinated event.
“Who was directing them?” Madigan said of the white mob. “No one knows for sure but it’s quite clear they put themselves as strategic points along Greenwood, and at 5:08 a.m., there was a whistle from a factory or a steam engine, and the attack began.”
In the end, Madigan said he believes the violence in Greenwood set a tone on how whites across the nation would handle Black progress — one that would take decades to shatter.
“We want to just put the good out there and try our best to hide the darkness,” Madigan said.