When my family moved from New York to Tulsa, we set out on what my strict Jamaican, Christian parents identified as a top priority: finding a church. But the churches near us in South Tulsa didn’t recall the Black churches we knew, loved, and attended in the Bronx. So, we made our way to North Tulsa. We found our church, attending for nearly a decade before we learned about the bloody historical events that happened in that part of the city decades before. Events that were artfully depicted in the opening scene of the new HBO series “Watchmen.”
According to HBO, “Watchmen” is “set in an alternate history where masked vigilantes are treated as outlaws.” It’s a comic-book story, that at first drew me in with promises of sci-fi, violence, and drama. But in its first few moments, the show takes on an often-forgotten piece of American history: Viewers are transported 98 years into the past, to the Tulsa Race Massacre.
During the early 20th century, North Tulsa was home to “Black Wall Street,” or “Little Africa,” or, as many call it, “Greenwood” after the main thoroughfare. It once boasted one of the country’s largest concentrations of black prosperity.
But on May 30, 1921, that prosperity was crushed. A Black shoeshine worker, Dick Rowland, needed to use a bathroom designated strictly for “coloreds,” which required taking an elevator. The elevator was operated by Sarah Page, a white 17-year-old. As it is understood, Rowland tripped and, to prevent himself from falling, he grabbed Page’s arm. That simple tripping incident was misinterpreted both in newspapers and by word-of-mouth as an assault on Page. It was the next day, May 31, that “Watchmen’s" opening scenes depict through the eyes of one of the fictional survivors.
White Tulsans took to the streets of Black Wall Street, burning all they could, including every visible sign of Black success, to the ground. In the show, a boy escapes with the help of another Black family. But when he wakes up from what appears to be an assault on the family, it’s dark out and he sees flames engulfing his former home. Just 24 hours after the massacre began, that boy would have seen more than 5,000 Black residents arrested, hundreds of Black folks killed, and 1,256 homes, 191 commercial sites, and even schools and churches swallowed by fires lit by racist rage.
Without aggressively excavating this history, we can forget why cities like Tulsa are mired in such racial inequity now. Today, life expectancy in the ZIP code where swaths of Black Wall Street once stood is 10.7 years less than residents in a ZIP code that makes up much of the southern part of Tulsa, and 9.2 years less than the entire county. This isn’t an accident — the inequity is by design and its origin was captured in vivid detail on the television screen.
Now, just a few blocks west of Greenwood Avenue, right outside the border of Black Tulsa and the ZIP code with lower life expectancy, sits the hub of Tulsa’s most recent revitalization, fueled by government, developer, and donor dollars: new buildings, co-working spaces, swanky lofts, bars, restaurants, and art galleries. That kind of revitalization has yet to find its way to Greenwood or much of the area north of it, where the highest concentration of African Americans in Tulsa still live. While much has changed blocks away from Black Wall Street, it, and the rest of Black Tulsa still live with the legacy of Tulsa’s segregation.
If you’re not careful, you can forget that anything bad ever happened in this part of town. You might start to ascribe Black Tulsa’s lack of progress to the residents, even when there are larger forces at work. In fact, like my parents and I, you can live in Tulsa for a decade, even attend church in this part of town, and not know what happened here. No textbooks, no teachers, and no classmates in my midtown Tulsa school ever talked about the massacre. It wasn’t until the start of high school, when I read a headline in the local paper about pizza restaurants no longer wanting to deliver into North Tulsa neighborhoods, that I began to interrogate the history that had contributed to the divide.
However, through the hard work of community leaders and activists, the massacre will not be forgotten. Because of them, the City of Tulsa is now reexamining the grave sites from 1921, because the hundreds killed in the massacre didn’t receive the funeral processions that the victims of injustice deserve. Instead, many were allegedly dumped atop one another in mass graves.
But remembering shouldn’t just be the province of city officials or even strictly Tulsans. The act of remembering what atrocities have been visited upon Black people and marginalized communities is how we, as a country, start to increase the expanses of our moral imagination. Restoring what was lost begins with our remembrance.
In episode two of “Watchmen," we see what remembering could bring. Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates plays himself, except in the show he is the US Treasury Secretary in Robert Redford’s fictional, 30-year presidential administration. At a kiosk at the Greenwood Cultural Center — an actual building that holds the physical memories of Greenwood, Black Wall Street’s epicenter — Gates tells the main character, Angela Abar (played by Regina King) that reparations are available to the descendants of those who once called Black Wall Street home.
This is where the show takes on an implicit aspirational tone, but also issues a subtle charge to those who choose to remember. Our country has yet to acknowledge that racial reconciliation requires truth telling and that telling the truth about our racist history demands repairing what has been broken and restoring what has been lost. What repair and restoration have the actual survivors of the Greenwood Massacre and their descendants received? Nothing but a couple of commissions and a park that bears the name of a famous Black Tulsan with the word “reconciliation” plastered on its marquee.
Tulsa owes its Black families more than that, and “Watchmen,” so far, shows us what they’re owed and what it could mean. We love to forget that America owes large debts to those whom it has wronged. If we do remember, we’ll realize that America owes Black people what it keeps trying to deny us: a legitimate, unencumbered stake in the American Dream established on our own terms.
Caleb Gayle is a writer and an Emerging Voices fellow at Demos. He is a recent graduate of Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, which he attended as a Paul and Daisy Soros fellow.