A documentary about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre not only explains the full story of the shameful attack on the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa that destroyed a prosperous Black community, but details the complex and inspiring history of African Americans in Oklahoma.
In 2021, when for some time we’d been in the habit, as a culture, of looking back at historical milestones, a major event from 100 years earlier was publicly recalled and commented upon—an event that did not appear in the textbooks from which most white Americans were taught American history—the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. A large Black neighborhood known as the Greenwood District, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which had become a significant example of African American culture and prosperity nicknamed “Black Wall Street,” was attacked for two days by white residents of Tulsa, who burned down 35 city blocks of homes, businesses, and churches; killed hundreds of people, and displaced thousands more. But like so many crimes committed against Black Americans in the years after the Civil War, it was covered up and the victims were blamed as the instigators. But at the dawn of our current century, Tulsa began to make an effort to end the silence and cover-up, and establish the historical facts. There have been several good books and documentaries about this, and on the 100-year-anniversary came a film produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, and directed by Salima Koroma, called Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street.
Many facts that were new to me are brought forth by Black Tulsans who have spent years studying their own history. For instance, some of the Native Americans of the southeastern states were slave owners. When they were forced to leave their homes and migrate to the Indian Territory, which was what it was called before it became Oklahoma, their slaves came with them. Upon emancipation, these became freedmen, and they were granted parcels of Oklahoma land, some of which turned out to be oil-rich. Over time and after statehood, white settlers became the majority, but there was still a core of middle-class African Americans, including many who came from the former Confederacy to start a new life, concentrated in the Greenwood District of Tulsa. The average Black citizen was poorer than the average white, but still there was a greater freedom and autonomy in Greenwood than anywhere outside of Harlem. I was delighted by Koroma’s use of period art, animation, and archival footage to create a picture of Greenwood’s vibrant, bustling public life.
Carefully the film documents the steady pressure from white officials and businessmen to do something about this Black enclave in their midst. Of course they wanted the land, but racism also involved being offended that inferior people should do well. The usual kind of excuse—a young black man touching a white woman—set the conspirators off on their attacks. Complicit in the violence was the white-owned Tulsa Tribune, whose bigoted rhetoric is exposed in the film. To give only one example of the outrageous nature of all this, a group of private planes flew over, shooting guns and dropping bombs on the neighborhood. The film also covers the modern search for mass graves, which were finally found in 2020.
The title Dreamland is from the name of the local movie theater in Greenwood, destroyed by the mob. It also reminds us that there was a dream in which Black Americans were free to live as they chose, a dream shattered by the massacre, but still alive today. Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street is essential viewing for all Americans.