MICHIGAN — Historian Scott Ellsworth remembers growing up in Tulsa, OK and no one really talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre. He said whenever he entered a room, adults always changed the subject.
“I heard what I would’ve called Urban Legends: the bodies floating down then Arkansas river, the machine guns and airplanes. You just couldn’t find out anything about it. It was just impossible to know,” Ellsworth said during a Zoom interview last week. “It wasn’t until I was a college student that I really started looking into it seriously.”
Since his days at Duke University, he began studying the massacre and continues to do so today as a professor of African and African American Studies at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.
“I think the first thing to know is this was the worst single incident of racial violence in all of American history. That in the course of about 16 hours, more than 1,000 African American businesses and homes were looted and burned to the ground by a white mob,” Ellsworth said. “Nearly 10,000 people were made homeless. We don’t know to this day how many people died.”
What did Greenwood (Black Wall Street) look like over 100 years ago in Tulsa?— Lauren Edwards (@LaurenEdwardsTV) May 31, 2021
(Thank you historian Scott Ellsworth - @ScottEAuthor - for your insight. He wrote the book "The Groundbreaking" on the Tulsa Race Massacre. Catch the story on @FOX17 ) pic.twitter.com/25ZiZ2JTjz
He said researchers believe that anywhere from 70 to 300 people died in the massacre and it all began when a Black teenager was accused of attempting to sexually assault a white elevator operator.
Ellsworth detailed the event in his book The Groundbreaking: The Tulsa Race Massacre and the American City’s Search for Justice. It was released on May 18. Monday marks 100 years since it happened.
“A white lynch mob showed up at the courthouse that grew to as many as a thousand people,” Ellsworth said. “Eventually 75 African American World War I veterans, all of whom were armed, went down to the courthouse presented themselves to the sheriff and offered their help in protecting the prisoner. They were turned away.”
Ellsworth said that as they left a white man tried to take their guns, a shot went off and the massacre began. Within a day, the Greenwood neighborhood, which was called Black Wall Street, was gone.
Ellsworth described the area as vibrant because it had two newspapers, over a dozen churches, 30 restaurants, law firms, doctors offices, schools, a public library, and two theaters — one that sat 750 people and another that sat 1,000 — all of it Black owned and operated.
“It was a place where for African Americans in the early 20th century, the American dream was working. You had a small minority of merchants who were really doing quite well. They lived in very modern one and two story wooden homes with automobiles and chandeliers and pianos,” Ellsworth said. “You had another class of 100 or more African American tradesmen, tradeswomen, tailors and dressmakers who just served an all-Black clientele.”
There were many who worked in the white communities as maids and janitors and were paid well, he said, and they spent their money in Greenwood.
It was also a place for arts and culture, he said. Jazz was popular and W.E.B. DuBois spoke there.
However, by June 1 it was destroyed.
“The massacre, 35 square blocks were absolutely reduced to ashes and cinders. The photographs of Greenwood after the massacre look like Hiroshima or Nagasaki,” Ellsworth said. “The white businesses and political leaders in Tulsa told the world that ‘We’re ashamed of what happened. We’re going to rebuild the community.’ They didn’t. In fact, what they tried to do was steal the land where the community was to prevent rebuilding.”
He said the Black community defeated a restricted fire ordinance in order to rebuild. The American Red Cross showed up too, providing tents and building materials to get Greenwood “back on its feet.” All the Black people who worked in the white neighborhoods returned a week later.
“I wanted to tell, of course, the story of the massacre but I wanted to tell how the massacre was covered up for 50 years and what’s taken nearly 50 years for us to get the story out,” Ellsworth said about The Groundbreaking. “But I also wanted to write a book for other Americans and other towns and other cities. We’re at this pivotal point in our history where we are now looking at our past differently, trying to figure out who our heroes are.”
Since Ellsworth book was released former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke said it was “heartbreaking and inspiring.” It’s been given 4.7/5 stars on GoodReads. And, Oprah added it to her list of Best Books to Pick Up in May.
However, Ellsworth said what he treasures most are the survivors he met and interviewed for his book. When he and his team discovered a mass grave in October last year, he immediately thought of them.
“We interviewed 300 people in Tulsa: survivors, eye-witnesses. We found records no one had seen. We’d been aided by some top archaeologists and forensic scientists,” Ellsworth said. “But, I have to say, one thing in the new book that The Groundbreaking is that readers get to know this incredible small group of survivors who really kept this story alive. I became very close to a number of them. They had a huge impact on my life.”
Ellsworth said the team will begin exhuming the bodies in June to learn more about their lives and more about what happened that night. The plan is to give them, including the 75 veterans who showed up at the courthouse 100 years ago, a proper burial and memorial.
“I think that readers are going to find some hope in the book in that it gives people a pathway on how you in your community can start thinking about ‘well let’s really be honest about our background. Let’s open up those areas that we’ve skipped over before and try to learn about them,’” said Ellsworth. “I think as a country if we can all get on the same page as to what our history was then I think we can unite and move forward together.”