BIDEN: My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre…. [Applause]
KALALEA: On June 1st, Joe Biden became the first US President to tour Greenwood in over a century.
BIDEN: ...Among the worst in our history, but not the only one. And for too long, forgotten by our history.
KALALEA: He talked about the ways the loss was compounded over the years, including by racist federal policies.
BIDEN: Imagine what could have been done for Black families in Greenwood: financial security and generational wealth.
CHIEF EGUNWALE AMUSAN: You know, I call it Centennial fever.
KALALEA: Chief Egunwale Amusan is a descendant. You heard him in the first episode of the series.
AMUSAN: It's extremely bittersweet. It's like, it's extremely bitter. It's extremely sweet. You know, the bitterness is, Greenwood is starting to look like a flea market.
KALALEA: What do you mean? What do you mean?
AMUSAN: You just got, you know, people from all over selling t-shirts and you know, just it's like become this whole vendor fair. So everybody's trying to make a dime off of, you know, Greenwood. And you know, that's good, more power to you, do your thing. But right now it's just so much bigger than that.
AMUSAN: The sweetness is all the world would get to know Tulsa has living survivors. Tulsa has descendants. We got to honor that legacy. We got to honor those forgotten names. We got to honor those people who built what we knew as Greenwood, while also seeking justice for the living.
KALALEA: This is Blindspot: Tulsa Burning. The story of a community set on fire… and what comes next. I’m KalaLea.
Episode 6: The Lesson.
If you want to see Chief Amusan’s family home, you need to use your imagination.
AMUSAN: Everything is destroyed. There's nothing. If you look at any pictures, like I, I've gotten magnifying glasses just to see a mattress. I just want to see something, a spring! I just need to—it's something very unsettling about knowing that you had family who lived on Greenwood and you just want to be able to say it was right there.
AMUSAN: And you can't, you can't distinguish anything.
KALALEA: If you’re in Tulsa, you walk two or three blocks north past the historic Vernon AME Church—and that’s where Chief’s family was living at the time of the massacre. Now, it’s a field of grass surrounded by an industrial area.
AMUSAN: Due to urban removal.
KALALEA: They just haven't done anything with it. They cleared the land?
KALALEA: And if you never heard about the massacre… you’d never know what had happened there.
AMUSAN: I've always said a history unlearned as a history repeated, and we are subject to repeat history if we have not learned from it. And so far Tulsa has not learned from it.
KALALEA: So Chief keeps giving walking tours of the neighborhood. But he's also fighting another fight.
Chief wants reparations. He, like many other descendants, believes the government owes his family for the damages done during the Massacre. He thinks his family’s property would be worth about $200,000 dollars today.
This has been a long fight.
In the years just after the massacre, there were 200 lawsuits filed against the city and insurance companies for losses of about 27 million dollars in today’s money. And from all of those claims, only one resident got anything back. The city paid a few thousand dollars to the owner of a pawn shop that was raided for guns and ammunition.
And the owner was white.
And then there’s the matter of what the attack was called: for years, it wasn’t a massacre, but a riot. And that meant insurance companies could deny claims under their “riot exclusion” clause.
AMUSAN: My family fled. So there was no opportunity for them to ever seek any type of restitution or ask for insurance claims, because it wouldn't have been covered anyway because of the riot clause.
KALALEA: So calling what happened a riot wasn’t just about spreading around the blame. It also removed financial responsibility.
It wasn’t until 1997—more than 75 later—that another major attempt was made to seek restitution. An Oklahoma Race Riot Commission was set up to look at what happened, and to figure out, okay, does the city owe the people of Greenwood anything? And if so, what?
The commission published a report and it said, yes. The City, the Police Department, the Oklahoma National Guard—among others—were responsible. There should be reparations. A memorial was built, and a small scholarship set up. But still, no money was given directly to the survivors or descendants.
AMUSAN: The state government basically told them we don't use tax dollars to pay for past crimes committed against its citizens, right?
KALALEA: So they file a lawsuit. And Chief’s grandfather was a part of it.
AMUSAN: They was just like, we just don't do it. And besides that statute of limitations has run out. That's what the argument was. You waited too late.
KALALEA: Then they tried to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But it wouldn’t hear the case either. Again: it was too late.
And in the years that followed, dozens of survivors died. Including Chief’s grandfather.
AMUSAN: I often think how do I contain this degree of, of, of anger, right? Of resentment. Knowing that my grandfather died the same year that they denied them reparations. Denied them their day in court. Not because they didn't have a valid case, but because the statute of limitations had run out.
KALALEA: And then, in 2020, Chief signed onto a new lawsuit seeking restitution. And it’s got a rather unusual origin story.
AMUSAN: We witnessed Oklahoma sue pharmaceutical companies because of the nuisance that the opioid addiction crisis caused.
KALALEA: Just a year before, the state of Oklahoma sued Johnson & Johnson. The state basically said: Johnson & Johnson, you guys make opioids. You knew they were addictive. You lied to us. And now we have all of these problems from child abandonment to homelessness to crime.
It was a rather unconventional thing for Oklahoma to try. But it worked. The judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay 572 million dollars to address the opioid crisis in the state.
In Oklahoma specifically: A public nuisance is legally defined as something which affects — an entire community or neighborhood.
AMUSAN: Well, when we looked at that, we said, wait a minute. This sounds like the destruction of Greenwood. Like literally, in every form and fashion, the consequences, the, how it affects the families, how it affects your future wealth and ability to get a job or, or be functional in society. All of those things directly impacted us.
KALALEA: So last fall, a team of lawyers representing the survivors and their descendants filed that new lawsuit against the City of Tulsa and its agencies. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was presented—legally—as a public nuisance.
That case is pending now, but the mayor of Tulsa wants it dismissed.
BYNUM: I think getting into trying to make cash payments to people... It divides the community on something that we really need to be united around.
DAMARIO: That's how we right wrongs in America is by money, monetary damages. That is how wrongs are righted.
KALALEA: Damario Solomon-Simmons is the lead counsel on the latest lawsuit.
DAMARIO: There's no way that someone can say, man, I really don't know, but the thing that's most damning and most disappointing and frankly just maddening is that you have a significant amount of people here in Tulsa, power structure, those who've benefited from the massacre and those who continue to benefit from the continued harm. They know what happened. And yet they still say, we are against reparations, we're against justice.
KALALEA: Yeah so why hasn’t this happened, Damario? Why do you think that it’s taken so long for something to happen, like, honestly?
DAMARIO: I mean the truth of the matter is, it has not happened because it's America and particularly people here in Oklahoma and Tulsa, they don't want to provide money and resources to Black people. This country has such a strong anti-Black motif, DNA, just belief that we're just not worthy.
DREISEN: If there were any case where restitution should be paid, it should be this case.
KALALEA: Last year, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch published a report called “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa Oklahoma.” It was written by Dreisen Heath, a researcher.
DREISEN: You have the courts filled with the same white people that want to destroy you. And then you're before these courts and there are, you know, legal ramifications for which your case is not even heard on its merits because of things like statute of limitations.
KALALEA: Dreisen is hopeful that the new public nuisance lawsuit will lead to actual restitution. But she also doesn’t have a lot of faith in the justice system.
DREISEN: Can we examine the fact that, you know, victims and survivors and descendants of race massacres have not been able to seek any restitution in the courts because the courts are set up to deny that anyway.
KALALEA: When reparations have been paid in the U.S.—for interned Japanese Americans, or for victims of the Rosewood massacre in Florida—it didn’t happen in the courts, it happened through legislation.
CONGRESSMAN STEVE COHEN: I welcome everyone to today's hearing on continuing injustice, the Centennial of the Tulsa Greenwood race massacre.
KALALEA: That’s why it’s so meaningful that there was a congressional hearing a few weeks ago. The whole thing was televised. The testimony was held in the Capitol building in a stately room decorated in a lot of navy blue. You can see about 10 congressmen and women sitting in front of these large American flags. Now given COVID, the room was rather empty—but most of the witnesses were there in person. Even two of the three known survivors—siblings, who are 100 and 107 old. They had made the trip to the DC to testify. And so did Chief.
COHEN: Our next witness is Chief... [mispronunciation]
KALALEA: That’s not how you pronounce his name but Chief didn’t look bothered. He was wearing a light grey suit and black eyeglasses. He took off his mask, and sat up straight in his chair.
AMUSAN CONGRESSIONAL TAPE: Thank you, Mr. Chair, and the esteemed body. My name is Chief Egunwale Amusan. I'm the grandson of Raymond Beard senior….
KALALEA: More than 20 years after he first learned about what happened to his grandfather, Chief was finally able to speak on his behalf.
Chief made his case—that his family fled Tulsa after the massacre, that they were dispersed across the country and lost contact with one another. And that he does not want to wait until the 200th anniversary for some form of justice.
AMUSAN CONGRESSIONAL TAPE: ...When I look my oldest son in the eyes, I wonder if the charred baton of justice will burn in the palms of his hands, or if it will be cleansed with and cooled in the river of restitution.
COHEN: Thank you, sir. We appreciate your testimony and your work.
DREISEN: And if you were in the hearing room you would hear the sobs and the cries from the audience.
KALALEA: Dreisen also testified in front of the House Subcommittee. She told me after the hearing that she sees the damage in every area of life.
DREISEN: When white supremacy is entrenched in all institutions, culture and practices, the structural violence is going to show up in many different ways, in red lining, urban renewal, eminent domain, race-based zoning, highway construction that further creates this delineation between what north Tulsa and South Tulsa look like, and the conditions of poverty, the conditions of inequality in schools, food access, employment, job access and entrepreneurial activities in north Tulsa, the deprivation of life in north Tulsa, where Terence Crutcher is killed in the middle of the street.
KALALEA: Terrence Crutcher—the twin brother of Tiffany Crutcher, who you heard about in the first episode of this series.
DREISEN: You know, abusive policing conditions that are rooted in poverty that are clearly not disconnected from the Tulsa race massacre.
KALALEA: A couple of days after Chief spoke on the House floor, the “Tulsa-Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act of 2021” was introduced. It would allow descendants—not just survivors—to seek reparations through the courts. And there would be no time limits, no statute of limitations.
Now the chances of this bill passing are slim.
But Driesen says even if it does, it wouldn’t be enough to break the cycle. There’s another—perhaps even bigger obstacle—to address.
DRIESEN: You cannot reconcile if there is no shared understanding of this history, and that you can't reconcile if your state legislature is also working to pass, sign a bill into law that would potentially impact Tulsa Race Massacre curriculum from even being taught in schools.
KALALEA: How do we learn FROM the massacre if we can’t learn ABOUT it? That’s coming up next. This is Blindspot.
This is Blindspot: Tulsa Burning. I’m KalaLea.
KARLOS HILL: I remember asking students how many of you are from Oklahoma? More than half of the class hands go up.
KALALEA: Karlos K. Hill is chair of the African and African-American Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma.
HILL: How many of you from Tulsa? a few hands go up, and then how many of, you know, would say that you know, about the history of the race massacre and only two hands kind of went up. Sheepishly. Like… yeaeehhhh kinda.
KALALEA: Professor Hill isn’t an Oklahoma native. He moved there five years ago, to teach at the University.
Now these were college kids, who were studying the history of lynching. But when Professor Hill started asking questions about Tulsa… like, what do you know about the massacre? What have you heard?
HILL: It wasn't substantive, you know, they were talking about what happened as a riot. They were talking about, it has something to do with, uh, an allegation of sexual assault and, the community being destroyed, but there wasn't a lot of meat on the bone, so to speak. And so I got curious and began to ask around K through 12 teachers that I was, in conversation with but there was no, there was no curriculum. There was no lesson plans, and there were no resources. And so I was shocked by this.
KALALEA: Until just last year, the public schools there did not teach the massacre as part of its curricula for grades K through 12. And when it comes to funding for public education, Oklahoma is ranked 48th in the country.
TAPE: Well, good morning, this is our Q and A following our second session for the Tulsa Race Massacre Educator Institute.
KALALEA: And so, back in 2018, Professor Hill set about creating a program. He leads these trainings in which teachers in schools throughout the state learn the history and prepare for tough conversations in the classroom.
HILL (TAPE): Thank you, Tamara. Can everybody -- can you hear me, Tamara?
KALALEA: This year the 10-week course happened on ZOOM:
HILL (TAPE): We are studying history, we are talking about history, but we are making history.
HILL: And so what we try to do is to not be formulaic and say, this is how it should be done in your third grade classroom.
KALALEA: Instead, the program starts with teachers becoming aware of their understanding and individual privilege.
HILL: Teachers getting clear about their experiences, how it shaped their perspective, how it's created a view of the world, um, that may include or exclude stories like the race massacre. So often, teachers, particularly white teachers, will say that's not my story, that's not my history. But the race massacre is your history. You, as a teacher, just have to do the work of understanding your relationship, your social location in relationship to this history.
KALALEA: I'm so curious now. I'm, like, what do you say when a white teacher says to you, this is not my history. How do you convince them otherwise? I really want to know exactly what you say to them.
HILL: You know, and it's really not my job to convince them to have a different relationship. They're going to have to want it. They're going to have to want to try to come to terms with it.
And so I'll give you an example. One of the exercises that we do at the very beginning of the Institute is have teachers tell us their Oklahoma origin story. How did you come to Oklahoma and why? And then what we do is lay out to them the history of how black Americans came to Oklahoma and why they came to Oklahoma. And we asked them to compare and contrast why they came versus black migrants and how that created a different relationship to Oklahoma as a place, but also its history. And so helping teachers to begin to unpack that relationship is what we try to do.
GOVERNOR KEVIN STITT: We can or should teach this history without labelling a young child as an oppressor, or requiring that he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex. I refuse to tolerate otherwise.
KALALEA: That was Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt speaking in May. He had just signed a bill called HB 1775. And it could upend everything that Karlos has been working for.
HILL: I think it's going to have a chilling impact on the teaching of this history. And it's really, really disappointing.
KALALEA: The bill takes aim at teaching students—in grade school through college—what’s being called Critical Race Theory. It’s an academic concept that’s not new—it goes back to the late 70s. It teaches that the inequities we see today are the direct result of the racist structures and laws that have been in place for centuries.
Critics of critical race theory say that it encourages white students to feel sadness, regret, or guilt. The wording of the law isn’t especially clear. But the murkiness seems to be the point.
Already, a community college in Oklahoma City has postponed a race studies class that included the teaching of white privilege. Administrators say they weren’t sure it was allowed under the new law. I spoke on background to a college professor in Tulsa ... just to get their sense of what can and cannot be taught under HB 1775.
Here’s how the professor understood it:
You can teach the ideologies of Bull Connor (the politician from Alabama who was a fierce opponent of civil rights)... but you CAN’T teach anything having to do with Malcolm X (the Muslim minister who advocated for self defense).
You can teach Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech… but you CAN’T teach Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which called for civil disobedience.
And in the case of the Tulsa massacre, you CAN say that it happened... but you CAN’T mention that thousands of white people were to blame.
Basically, nothing that could potentially make one race or ethnicity feel bad about themselves or potentially make a student feel responsible for racism.
So, just when a frank conversation about history was taking shape, this law could shut it all down. And Professor Hill says, that’s not a coincidence.
HILL: Barriers are being put in place. Impediments of being put in place. Fear is being created, drummed up around the teaching of it. And so this is, you know, a direct assault on the teaching of histories of Oklahoma American history from the vantage point of people of color.
KALALEA: So you're saying that this is a, that you see this as some sort of backlash.
HILL: Absolutely. It's a backlash and the backlash has been, you know, years in the making.
KALALEA: This is one of a dozen similar bills or laws around the country, all aimed at restricting how American history can be taught in schools.
When you learn about systemic racism and the legacy of racial violence, when you really engage with what happened in Greenwood, what happened to people whose homes were looted and then burned and firebombed, whose children had to hide under beds, whose parents were shot execution-style... it might not be possible to avoid feeling overwhelmed—even shame or guilt.
HILL: You don't walk away from that saying America is fine. It's great. We have it, no problems. We are a great nation with just getting better and better every year.
And so this is really a fight over who gets to, and excuse the way I'm framing this, but this is the, in some ways how it's thought about—who owns this story? Who gets to tell this story? Who gets centered in this story?
KALALEA: And Karlos says that engaging with the facts and the feelings they inspire… it’s necessary for both reconciliation AND reparations. As one of my mentors used to say repeatedly: in order to move on, you gotta walk through it—not around it.
HILL: When people care, they engage with the history, they do things, that they wouldn't do ordinarily. That can mean showing up to events, that can mean giving money to causes. That can mean joining organizations. That can mean even just having conversations with friends and family about that history. If you care about the history of America's black victims of racial violence, you live in the world differently than if you are indifferent or simply ignorant about it.
KALALEA: Why do you think that is Karlos?
HILL: All of it continues to impact us today, continues to impact mass incarceration impacts, uh, police violence, or police brutality against communities of color, recognizing the ways in which that history shows up today, forces conversations about what we need to do today.
And there are many who want to say let's move on. Um, you know, all we do is create division in talking about it. That's always a refrain from sort of conservatives who will countenance listening to the argument, but then there's just those who are opposed, right? Just, just, just opposed. Who, who see American history through rose-colored lenses, because they can.
KALALEA: Yeah. Yeah. And when you say move forward, would you say that's code for no reparations?
HILL: Oh, yes. This code for not dealing with this history in any substantive way.
KALALEA: Decades ago, the writer, James Baldwin wrote:
“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.”
This, to me, is the root of the problem. Monsters making monsters who have become fearful of the people they held captive, the people they tortured with impunity. And we’re all suffering because of it.
My ancestors, African people, did not ask to come here and work themselves to death but they did. And what frustrates me the most is that with all of this knowledge, Black people are still being painted as criminals or suspects or the “bad ones”—even when we do well for ourselves. Whereas the thousands and thousands of white Americans in Tulsa (and elsewhere) who stole, killed, burned or looked the other way, were allowed to return to their lives as if nothing happened. They were simply frightened people who had had a tough day.
To the descendants of the perpetrators: what would your life have been like if your parents, uncles, grandparents, neighbors had been punished—labeled as criminals, locked up or put on death row? Where do you think you would be today?
For hundreds of years, criminals have roamed free in this great country of ours. And in many cases, they’ve been called our leaders. And their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have not only benefited from their crimes but are emboldened by them. And they are rarely held accountable.
What happened to the residents of Greenwood continues to take place in cities all over. Massacres of small and large proportions—tearing us apart, leaving only heartache and desperation behind until there’s nothing. And this no longer applies just to Black or Brown communities. Poor wages, defunding of schools, addiction, police brutality, evictions, mass shootings, insurrections plague us all. All of us are no longer safe … anywhere.
I grew up in a small community like Greenwood—except that just about everyone was broke. But like Greenwood, it was a place where everyone looked after everyone’s children, where people borrowed sugar, eggs or a few dollars, where Ms. Julia knew Ms. Thelma’s business and that’s just how it was meant to be. Our lives were intertwined … and that communal bond was the most valuable thing we had. So I know that beyond the material wealth, so much more was lost in Greenwood.
And despite the focus on wealthy people and their losses, I know that most of your families were struggling day after day.
To the survivors and descendants: I think of you all the time, including the people and families I have not named as part of this series. I’m sorry you have to miss work, use your vacation time, pay lawyer fees and be away from your families to fight for justice.
My question to you is: How can we—all of us—help ease your pain?
To learn more about what happened to the residents of Greenwood who you’ve heard about in this series, go to our web site. wnycstudios.org. We’ve also got a reading list there.
Blindspot: Tulsa Burning is a co-production of The History Channel and WNYC Studios, in collaboration with KOSU and Focus Black Oklahoma. Our team includes Caroline Lester, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Joe Plourde, Emily Mann, Jenny Lawton, Emily Botein, Bill Moss, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Bracken Klar, Rachel Hubbard, Anakwa Dwamena, Jami Floyd, and Cheryl Devall. The music is by Hannis Brown, Am’re Ford, and Isaac Jones -- with performances by Ngofeen Mputubwele and Krystal Hawes.
Our executive producers at The History Channel are Eli Lehrer and Jessie Katz. Raven Majia Williams is a consulting producer. Special thanks to Amanda Aroncyzck and the team at Planet Money for their reporting. We collaborated with them on an episode about reparations. You can find that on their website.
Thanks also to Jennifer Lazo, Andrew Golis, and Celia Muller.
Much gratitude to Melissa LaCasse, David Krasnow, Ave Carrillo, and the New Yorker Radio Hour team, Seth Markle, Sarah Slim Lopez, Kane Casanova, Alex Gallafent, Isabel Lester, my patient neighbors and the incredible teams at New York Public Radio and The History Channel, who have supported this series.
I’m KalaLea, thank you for listening.