TULSA, Okla.—A group of white men were laughing together over beers outside a sports bar in the historic Greenwood District in Tulsa, Okla. Despite the jovial atmosphere nearby, The Oklahoman Editor for Opinion & Community Engagement Clytie Bunyan reminded me, “We’re on sacred ground.”

It was June 12, 2024, and I was in the Sooner State for the American Press Institute’s Local News Summit focused on journalism and rural community engagement, where I met Clytie. She kindly took me a tour of the historic site of Black Wall Street—a once prosperous Black business district that thrived in a time of severe racial oppression. There, 103 years ago in 1921, a white mob massacred the neighborhood’s Black residents and business owners, dumping many of their bodies in unmarked mass graves.

The massacre, known historically as the “Tulsa Race Massacre,” began after Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old Black man, entered an elevator that Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl, was operating on May 30, 1921. It’s not clear what happened, but reporters said she screamed, and the two ran out of the elevator.

Though Page refused to press charges, local news coverage demanded blood. The next day, the white-owned Tulsa Tribune ran an article with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” Within 24 hours, Black Wall Street was on fire as the armed white mob murdered hundreds of Black residents and displaced thousands more while destroying homes and businesses across 35 blocks.

Mt. Zion Baptist Church
After a white mob destroyed their place of worship in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Black congregants rebuilt Mt. Zion Baptist Church in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Okla. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The white terrorists razed the community to the ground, and few physical remnants of the Black community that once bustled there a century ago remain today. But signs of perseverance are everywhere, from artist Marlon Hall’s “Doorways to Hope” project under the North Elgin Street bridge to the nearby Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a Black house of worship whose congregants rebuilt it on its original site in the 1950s—three decades after its destruction.

But the bridge itself symbolizes the fact that America continued to work to destroy Black Wall Street even as residents attempted to rebuild in the years after the massacre. “That’s the second time Black Wall Street was destroyed,” Clytie told me, pointing to I-244 above. In the 1970s, state planners decided to run the Interstate straight through the heart of Black Wall Street, cutting the community in half and paving the way for a final devastation just as new highways were a way to destroy historic Black communities across America, from Dallas to New York City.

After the Massacre, the Coverup Began

Most of the people you’ll see around historic Black Wall Street today are white (partly because Oklahoma State University is located right beside Mt. Zion Baptist Church). And while there are memorials like John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park and the Pathway to Hope along the edge of the ONEOK Field baseball park, Clytie told me that the history of Greenwood remains unknown to many Oklahomans.

I wish I could say that surprised me. But as a journalist from Mississippi whose work has often focused on learning about and educating others on our past while reporting on current events, it didn’t.

Doorways to Hope art installation under a highway bridge
Artist Marlon Hall’s “Doorways to Hope” is a project designed to honor the “living legacy” of North Tulsa. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Whether it’s our history of white terrorism and lynching, the motives behind Mississippi’s 1890 Constitutional Convention (and the Jim Crow laws it created that remain in effect today), the work of civil rights heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer or the truth about the segregation academies that popped up in response to public school integration, I know that both white politicians and white media leaders have whitewashed and papered over much of our history.

It’s what white supremacy does.

In fact, in Mississippi and across the country, we’re seeing greater efforts to censor reality and cover up America’s shameful legacies than we have in decades. The intellectual heirs of those who fought to preserve white supremacy don’t want us to read books like Mississippian Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give.” They don’t want us to learn about systemic racism or to hear academic ideas that interrogate (see the so-called “critical race theory” bans). They’re even demonizing the very concept of “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

In Tulsa, white residents boasted about the massacre in its immediate aftermath, proudly sharing photographs of the destruction on postcards (just as white Americans did across the U.S. with macabre photos of the victims of white terrorism)—grotesque souvenirs that would later become essential records for historians. But not long after the press fanned the flames that lit the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre ablaze, white officials set to work to keep future generations in the dark about that history.

A green park backlit by sunshine. A tower like art installation stands at the center
The Tower of Reconciliation at the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park symbolizes Tulsa’s efforts to preserve the legacy of Black Wall Street and the massacre that destroyed it. Photo by Ashton Pittman

As University of Michigan Professor Scott Ellsworth, the author of “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” told History.com, “The businessmen, the political types and whatnot all realized fairly quickly that they had a huge PR problem with the massacre.” Soon, newspaper accounts of the carnage went missing from city records—including the Tulsa Tribune article that had helped inflame the riot. Not until the 1990s would efforts to remember Black Wall Street, and to record the recollections of its remaining survivors, truly take hold.

History.com attributes at least some of the revival of that history to the reporters who flooded the state in the wake of the 1994 Oklahoma City Bombing by anti-government extremists and learned about the massacre ahead of its 75th anniversary. Of course, the true leaders of those efforts were Black community members, survivors and their families who were determined to preserve history for future generations.

‘He Must Begin With the Past’

Tulsa’s past shows us how the media can help shed light on history but also how we can destroy—quite literally, in the case of the 1921 massacre.

We see these destructive tendencies today every time reporters hype racialized stories about rising crime (even when crime rates are down) or when news publications repeat and help inflame fear-mongering about violent immigrants (even though immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than U.S.-born American citizens).

A very colorful mural on the side of a building
Tulsa’s artists have long worked to keep the memory of Black Wall Street and its legacy alive in the Greenwood District. Photo by Ashton Pittman

But we can also be part of the solution. We can report the news while educating our audiences about (or at least reminding them of) the history that led us here.

That means reporting like Donna Ladd’s on the legacy of inequality in Noxubee County Schools, which told the story of how white supremacists used violence to prevent Black children from getting education and revisits the Red Summer of 1919—which preceded the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Or Nick Judin’s story on the Jackson water crisis that explored the legacy of structural racism and white flight that presaged a failure to maintain the water system in Mississippi’s capital city.

Or Shaunicy Muhammad’s reporting on efforts to remove a statue of Andrew Jackson from Jackson City Hall that tells the true history of the too often venerated slave-owning seventh president who paved the Trail of Tears and devastated Indigenous lives and communities.

Or Heather Harrison’s story on celebrations in Columbus, Miss., that recalled the history of emancipation in Lowndes County and 1964’s Freedom Summer.

Or Torsheta Jackson’s reporting on the debate over legislation for private-school vouchers that traced the policy issue back to its origins in the backlash to desegregation.

Or Aliyah Veal’s culture story on the induction of “Coming of Age in Mississippi” writer Anne Moody’s induction into the Tougaloo College Hall of Fame that reminded readers of her civil rights work.

Or my story on anti-racist protests at Oak Grove High School in Lamar County, Miss., that traced tensions at the school back to the legacy of white flight from Hattiesburg’s public schools.

I’m thankful to the American Press Institute for the opportunity to attend the summit in Tulsa, where we had vital discussions on community engagement in rural areas. I even got an opportunity to explain and share about how our solutions circles work at the Crirec with participants from around the country. But I’m also thankful that the organizers chose a city with such a pertinent history that reminded me why the work we do is so important and necessary—especially in a time like this.

It is more important than ever for journalists to use our platforms to keep the memory of history alive and never to fuel the kind of hatred and anger that can lead to atrocities.

A small framed quote hung on a fence that reads "If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present; he must begin with the past." - John Hope Franklin
Dr. John Hope Franklin was the son of B.C. Franklin, one of the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. His words are featured on the Pathway to Hope memorial walkway in Tulsa, Okla. Photo by Ashton Pittman

While walking along the Pathway to Hope in Greenwood, Okla., at sunset, I saw a sign on the wall with a quote from the late Oklahoma historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, a Black civil rights advocate who is also the namesake for Reconciliation Park; his father, B.C. Franklin, was among the survivors of the 1921 massacre.

“If the house is to be set in order,” John Hope Franklin said, “one cannot begin with the present; he must begin with the past.”

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Crirec, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].