Black Wall Street in the Modern Imagination

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

Recently, a television series about superheroes—presumably the most escapist entertainment there is—opened its debut episode with a scene so shocking that it left some viewers wondering if they had stumbled upon the wrong show. In it, we watch through a child’s eyes as a peaceful, prosperous street in 1920s Tulsa falls under siege to a band of terrorists, many of whom wear the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Amid the chaos of gunfire and explosions, the attackers loot the stores, burn the buildings, and execute the citizens at random. The victims are well-to-do African Americans, many of whom are dressed in formal attire, and the attackers seem to enjoy destroying the wealth that their black neighbors have generated. In a particularly ghastly moment, a white man parades in front of a high-end clothing store, sporting a leopard-print coat he has just stolen from the display window.

Given that the series, HBO’s Watchmen, depicts an alternate history of America, some people wondered if the incident in Tulsa actually happened. But even more people, I suspect, wondered if such a street, with its prominent black-owned business, even existed—or could have existed—during the worst years of the Jim Crow era.

The answer to both questions is yes. And with so few people aware of this history, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and numerous other media outlets devoted space to the story. CNN, for example, opened its article on the topic with this blunt statement: “The Tulsa race massacre in the ‘Watchmen’ premiere was real.” Tulsa, in fact, is one of the few places in which segregation essentially backfired for white supremacists. By the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907, a black community had been growing there for years, thanks to the discovery of oil and the resulting industrial boom. Limited to the Greenwood section of Tulsa, African Americans practiced the kind of self-help that leaders like Booker T. Washington encouraged. Before long, their hard work created a neighborhood so prosperous that its main street, Greenwood Avenue, came to be known as Black Wall Street.

But this focus on economic prosperity came at the expense of political power. Despite having their own schools, hospitals, theaters, and newspapers, there were virtually no black citizens in the halls of power, and only a few on the police force. With attacks on black communities spreading across the country at this time—peaking in the “Red Summer” of 1919—an attack on Greenwood appeared inevitable. And when the local white-owned newspapers called for the lynching of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman, the fuse had been lit.

There remains a tendency to call what happened next a “riot”, a term which arguably spreads the responsibility too far. The incident can be more accurately described as a paramilitary attack on a civilian target, complete with a new technology: aerial bombardment (yes, that part of the show is real, too). Over a thousand homes were destroyed, and hundreds of African Americans were killed. Just as ominous, an entire history was erased. It was not until 1997 that the state convened the Oklahoma Legislative Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Four years later, that commission formally acknowledged the premeditated nature of the attack, and recommended legal settlements for survivors’ families which, to this day, have not been paid. (For a quick video summary, click here.)

Now, full disclosure: I had a brief cameo in Watchmen in which I play a version of myself. In this alternate timeline, I’m the Secretary of the Treasury, overseeing reparations for the descendants of the Tulsa massacre. This turned out to be a provocative choice for the creators of the show. Many viewers argued that making the story about race somehow made it too political, as if there were some apolitical way to explore the themes of conflict and power in America, from Jim Crow to Donald Trump.

Indeed, the text of the 1986 graphic novel on which the show is based has been interpreted in wildly different ways. Those who value the story as a celebration of 1980s right wing politics—namely the “law and order” policies of the era—were the most vocal in their critique of the new show. But those who saw the original source material as a biting criticism of the excesses of the Reagan era tended to find common ground with the star of the series, Angela Abar (played by Regina King). Abar, a police officer, slowly unravels the truth of this world, and discovers how the Tulsa massacre and other injustices have consequences that ripple well into the 21st century.

For both fans and critics, this is perhaps the most upsetting theme: the idea that we cannot escape these terrible things, certainly not through “civility”, nor through passing compromised laws, nor even by organizing a commission. But there remains a hopeful aspect as well. By discovering her past, Abar gains a clarity that no deliberate erasure of history can undo. In the real world, we do not have the benefit of simple flashbacks to explain things, which makes the tasks of discovery and reclamation all the more vital for moving forward.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
January 2020