June 4, 2020

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Ninety-nine years after a mob of white Tulsans murdered and destroyed a community of black Tulsans, the Tulsa (Oklahoma) World created a project to document what happened in the Tulsa Race Massacre.

On the anniversary of that date, May 31, people protested in cities around the country after a black man, George Floyd, died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The timing was a coincidence. But the timeliness is not.

“It has a direct impact on how we all live our lives today,” said Kendrick Marshall, an assistant city editor who spent the last year and a half writing about what happened in Tulsa 99 years ago.

Reporter Randy Krehbiel, who’s reported on the massacre for the last 20 years and wrote a book about it, begins the project with this:

In 1921, Tulsa was home to one of the most prosperous African American communities in the country.

Businesses flourished along Greenwood Avenue — dubbed Black Wall Street, according to tradition, by the great educator Booker T. Washington. Residential neighborhoods spread out in a bustling community of several thousand souls.

In a little more than 12 hours, it was gone.

The massacre officially took the lives of 37, Krehbiel reports, though it was probably more like 300. In all, 35 blocks were destroyed.

And, until the last few years, it was a history that wasn’t acknowledged.

“There are a lot of people who grew up in this area who didn’t know what happened until recent years,” said Mike Strain, managing editor of the Tulsa World. “It was covered up. It really was just unspoken.”

Marshall found that, too, when he started reporting. He moved to Tulsa eight years ago from Chicago, and he’s the only African American editor and reporter on the news desk.

“I remember one person telling me ‘I’ve been living near the Greenwood district my entire life and I never learned that I’ve been walking up and down these streets where a massacre happened,’” he said. “And that stunned me.”

So one year before the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the World created a place for that history to live and for people to explore for themselves — archives, FAQs, photos, documents, a timeline and coverage mostly made up of short stories meant to help people move through the history.

This is just the foundation of the project, Strain said. Coverage will continue throughout the year.

“We want not just people here in Tulsa to be exposed to this history,” Marshall said, “but we want the entire country to be exposed to this.”

The project was produced by several on staff, including Krehbiel and Marshall, who wrote about the change from calling what happened a riot to a massacre and a church that was burned to the ground and rebuilt. It also examines the role of the media, including a piece in the Tulsa Tribune that helped trigger what happened.

When the World has previously reported on the massacre, they heard from angry readers that they’re just “pouring gas on the fire” or “picking at a scab,” Strain said.

“We did not get that this time,” he said.

Related: Southern newspapers played a major role in racial violence. Do they owe their communities an apology?

The ongoing project is meant to advance the conversation in Tulsa, Strain said, and that might make some people uncomfortable and even upset.

“But I just think it’s important that people understand what happened here and why it’s still important today.”

And today, like so many recent days, reporters at the Tulsa World are covering protests sparked by recent events with a long history.

Looking back on this time now in 20 years, or 50, or 100, Marshall said, the story of what’s happening shouldn’t be written by politicians or journalists, but by the people on the streets working for change.

“They should be the sole curator of how this time in history is recognized.”

Image via Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa


Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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