THE TULSA race riot of 1921, believed to be our country's deadliest race riot, is remembered in a powerful documentary that debuts at 5:30 p.m. today on Cine max.
Although the official death toll was placed at 36, the Red Cross and some historians placed the actual count at more than 300. Thousands of black residents were detained in camps. More than 40 blocks of the prosperous Greenwood community, known as "Little Africa" in the film, were looted and burned.
Tulsa filmmaker Michael Wilkerson details the horrors of Oklahoma's holocaust in "The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story" through interviews with survivors and historians and extensive research.
An impressive array of actors - including Tulsa natives Alfre Woodard and Mary Kay Place, Bill Cosby, Ed Asner and Mike Farrell - brings firsthand accounts of the riot and its aftermath to life.
Most of those accounts are from a journal from the late Mary Parrish, played by Woodard, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson, a former agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, said he was inspired to tackle the project because a colleague had discovered accounts of the long-forgotten riot at the library and from a conversation with Coretta Scott King, widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., on an airline flight five years ago.
"She shared with me some pretty intimate details about the time Dr. King was spirited away by local law enforcement down in the South," Wilkerson said. "She experienced the horror and dread of not knowing where your people were and fearing that they were dead."
Wilkerson said Coretta King learned through a phone call with President John F. Kennedy that her husband was being held in a Southern jail.
Wilkerson's film sets the stage for a similar injustice against black Americans. After World War I, black veterans were viewed with suspicion because of their desire to experience more of the freedom that they had seen in Europe, according to the film.
The Ku Klux Klan, revived by the popular movie "Birth of a Nation," was flourishing with about 3,000 members in Tulsa, and lynchings were common.
White residents and Klan members were envious of the prosperity of Greenwood, which had earned a national reputation as a "Black Wall Street."
On May 31, 1921, a 19-year-old black man was jailed, accused of assaulting a white elevator operator. Historians believe Dick Rowland may have stumbled against the woman, who accused him of rape. An editorial in the Tulsa Tribune encouraged the lynching of Rowland.
A few blacks decided to stand their ground against a possible lynching. Their defiance was greeted by mob anger, resulting in the mass killings and the wholesale burning and looting.
Telegraph lines were cut, and the railroads were blockaded, effectively blocking communication with the outside world.
Brig. Gen. Ed Wheeler Jr., author of the first published article on the riots in the late 1960s, said: "That's exactly what the mayor, city commission and KKK wanted. It gave them an opportunity to clear out the entire African-American part of the city without being interfered with, and they were doing it very systematically."
The documentary reported hundreds of men were commissioned by the police as "special deputies."
More than a dozen airplanes were used to attack black homes and fleeing residents with turpentine bombs, according to the film. Black corpses were tied to bumpers of cars and shot at.
Parrish wrote in her journal: "We were horror-stricken, but we could not shed a tear. At that hour, we mistrusted every person having a white face or blue eyes."
The National Guard arrived the next morning from Oklahoma City. By then, Greenwood was in shambles.
To compound the tragedy, the film reported that Tulsa city officials refused outside aid for victims, then moved to sell off the black-owned land.
It wasn't until 1996 that Tulsa recognized the anniversary of the riot.
The following year, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed to investigate what occurred and discuss possible restitution.
Commissioner Pete Churchwell said the final report will likely include a copy of the documentary, Wilkerson said.
More than 600 people attended the premiere of the documentary May 18 at Greenwood Community Center, the site of the riot.
Wilkerson's documentary has been criticized by the Tulsa World and the Dallas Morning News for historical inaccuracies.
"They all think they have the score on what took place," Wilkerson said. "The niche historians will second-guess you."
Both newspapers criticized the title because there was no lynching that day.
The title, however, refers to the tragedy of the entire black community being "lynched" through the massive bloodshed and destruction of property.
There undoubtedly are some inaccuracies in the special. No one knows for sure what happened 79 years ago. But the story on the whole is well-researched and chronicles an important part of history.
The modern-day tragedy is that it will play only on Cinemax, available to only 15 million homes, instead of on a broadcast network. Once Cine max's rights expire, it is worthy of airtime on OETA or another broadcast network.
Staff writer Mel Bracht can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 475-4106. The following fields overflowed: SECTION = Oklahoma NOW! FOOD - RESTAURANTS - NUTRITIONArchive ID: 808355