Summary and book reviews of The Ground Breaking by Scott Ellsworth

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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  • Published:
    May 2021, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Scott C. Martin
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Book Summary

More than one-thousand homes and businesses. Restaurants and movie theaters, churches and doctors' offices, a hospital, a public library, a post office. Looted, burned, and bombed from the air.

Over the course of less than twenty-four hours in the spring of 1921, Tulsa's infamous "Black Wall Street" was wiped off the map—and erased from the history books. Official records were disappeared, researchers were threatened, and the worst single incident of racial violence in American history was kept hidden for more than fifty years. But there were some secrets that would not die.

A riveting and essential new book, The Ground Breaking not only tells the long-suppressed story of the notorious Tulsa Race Massacre. It also unearths the lost history of how the massacre was covered up, and of the courageous individuals who fought to keep the story alive. Most importantly, it recounts the ongoing archaeological saga and the search for the unmarked graves of the victims of the massacre, and of the fight to win restitution for the survivors and their families.

Both a forgotten chronicle from the nation's past, and a story ripped from today's headlines, The Ground Breaking is a page-turning reflection on how we, as Americans, must wrestle with the parts of our history that have been buried for far too long.

Chapter 1

1921

Close your eyes and you can almost hear them.

It's a Thursday afternoon on a long-ago spring day. In the alleys and on the back porches it is still jacket weather. For even though the dogwoods and redbuds are in bloom, and bursts of sparrows explode out of the trees and bushes, in the shadows there's a lingering coolness in the air. Only they don't care. For today is the maids' day off and they've congregated, in twos and threes and fours, to stop and gossip along the sidewalks and storefronts. Gone are their uniforms, the long white aprons and striped dresses and peaked caps. Gone are the mops and the dust rags, the yes ma'ams and the no sirs, and the lye soap, starch, and bluing. In their place are smiles and laughter, felt hats and bobbed hair. Today is a day to exhale.

They aren't the only ones out and about. Up and down Greenwood Avenue, a small parade of humanity can be seen. There are ditchdiggers and shop owners, a mother with young children, an old man-born a ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Overall, this is an engaging and well-researched work about the long-term impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Given that much of the primary information disappeared over the years, it is remarkable how much Ellsworth found. The subject matter can be difficult to study, especially for those who grew up in and have a deep association with Tulsa, like the author, but it is important to learn and remember what happened not only over those two days in 1921, but in the years afterward...continued

Full Review Members Only (736 words).

(Reviewed by Scott C. Martin).

Media Reviews

New York Times
[C]andid and self-aware...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...The Ground Breaking makes for sobering reading; but it also sheds light, and some of it is hopeful.

The Guardian
Indispensable…impeccable… Scott Ellsworth has produced a much-needed book that acts like a mirror. Though documenting a particular place and time, it helps us understand the race-based and sectarian turmoil that is so pervasive today…Fast-paced but nuanced, it’s an impeccably researched update of [his] literary debut.

Oprah Daily
Ellsworth, whose previous book on the massacre, published in 1982, was entitled Death In A Promised Land, with his latest masterful work of history, illuminates the hard, never-finished work of unlearning racism and nurturing truth. He also prompts us to question how many other American stories and voices remain buried, waiting for dedicated historians with Ellsworth's persistence and passion to uncover them.

Washington Post
Scott Ellsworth’s The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice offers a moving and humane portrait of the massacre...Ellsworth makes clear that he is deeply committed to exposing the details of the massacre and its aftermath. He refuses to shy away from the history — no matter how uncomfortable.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The author delivers a brilliant update that recounts the events [of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921] with the swiftness of an especially grim crime thriller...An essential historical record surrounding heinous events that have yet to be answered with racial justice.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[R]iveting...Interviews with survivors and reflections on the debate over reparations and the social, economic, and racial divisions of modern-day Tulsa add depth to Ellsworth's portrait of a community attempting to heal from an unimaginable injustice. This eloquent, deeply moving history isn't to be missed.

Library Journal (starred review)
A thoughtful exploration of the importance of collective memory. It is particularly poignant as 2021 marks the centennial of the massacre. A must-read for all who are interested in how history continues to impact the present.

Author Blurb Gilbert King, Pulitzer prizewinning author of Devil in the Grove
Immensely readable and thoroughly engaging, The Ground Breaking is a remarkable blend of history and memoir that could not be more timely and informative. Taut, tense, and meticulously composed, Scott Ellsworth's elegant narrative is both mesmerizing and enlightening.

Author Blurb Kenneth W. Mack, Professor of Law, Harvard University
This is a book that fuses history and memory with the unresolved search for justice for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. It is also a searing story of Ellsworth's personal journey as he struggles to unearth and come to terms with these events, and the journey of a community as it moves through forgetting, denial, and finally some grudging acceptance of what happened. The horrific events of 1921 have been called a riot, a disaster, a pogrom, and finally a race massacre. Ellsworth shows how each renaming is a direct result of the persistent efforts of those who would dig up what had been carefully and deliberately hidden. This book should be essential reading for anyone interested in an honest grappling with our racial past and with the task of moving forward.

Author Blurb Beto O'Rourke
The persistence, empathy and painstaking research of The Ground Breaking move us much closer to the justice that the victims of Greenwood, and the people of America, deserve. Heartbreaking and inspiring.

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Beyond the Book

Cultural Recognition of the Tulsa Race Massacre

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 ...

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