Cultural Recognition of the Tulsa Race Massacre: Background information when reading The Ground Breaking

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The Ground Breaking

An American City and Its Search for Justice

by Scott Ellsworth

The Ground Breaking by  Scott Ellsworth X
The Ground Breaking by  Scott Ellsworth
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  • First Published:
    May 2021, 336 pages

    May 2022, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Scott C. Martin
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About this Book

Cultural Recognition of the Tulsa Race Massacre

This article relates to The Ground Breaking

Print Review

Screenshot from Watchmen featuring the words Tulsa 1921In The Ground Breaking, Scott Ellsworth notes that for many Americans, the first exposure they received to the events of 1921 in Tulsa came from a dramatic portrayal on an episode of the HBO series Watchmen that aired October 20, 2019. The show received credit for spurring a renewed interest in the Tulsa Race Massacre in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the event in 2021.

That many Americans did not know about the Tulsa Race Massacre is not surprising. While it dominated world headlines in the immediate aftermath, the story of the sacking of Greenwood and the victims (estimates vary, but it is believed that 75-300 were killed and around 200 more injured) quickly faded from the news. While many major events have generated more than just newspaper headlines, inspiring books, songs, plays and large and small screen adaptations, until relatively recently, the massacre in Tulsa was as absent from the cultural scene as it was from formal media and academic literature.

Many people and organizations are making up for lost time. Since the turn of the millennium, multiple museums, from the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington D.C. to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, have created new physical and virtual exhibits about the Tulsa Race Massacre, blending in personal accounts with surviving artifacts. There has been an uptick in books and articles focusing on Tulsa in 1921 (including The Ground Breaking), all with the intent of educating the public and ensuring that the world does not forget as it did in the years following the event.

As shown by the Watchmen episode, forces outside academia have also sparked public interest. Another example is the Bitter Root graphic novel series, created by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene. It focuses on a Black family fighting supernatural monsters corrupted by hate, racism and fear. A key plot point for the series comes from the Tulsa Massacre, which many of the main characters of the series escape, but not without significant losses. The authors used the history of Tulsa and racial violence in America to advance their plotlines and characters while also bringing public attention to these issues.

Several NBA players have made significant investments of time and money to raise awareness about Tulsa as well. On an episode of the ESPN series The Undefeated, George Hill of the Philadelphia 76ers discussed how he uses his fame and status in the NBA to educate folks about Tulsa. LeBron James used his production company, SpringHill, to produce a documentary about the massacre.

Another NBA player, Russell Westbrook, helped produce a History Channel documentary, Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre which premiered on the 100th anniversary, May 30, 2021. While Westbrook, a California native, currently plies his trade with the Washington Wizards, he spent the bulk of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, leading the team to the 2012 NBA Finals and winning the 2016-2017 Most Valuable Player award. Along the way, he became a revered figure in Oklahoma. Scott Ellsworth, author of The Ground Breaking, was interviewed for the documentary, and it received rave reviews.

After the blitz of centennial commemorations, including a highly publicized visit to Tulsa by President Biden, it seems unlikely that the massacre will recede into obscurity again as it did after 1921.

Screenshot from HBO's Watchmen, courtesy of Den of Geek

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Scott C. Martin

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Ground Breaking. It originally ran in June 2021 and has been updated for the May 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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