The first time Scott Ellsworth learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre it was by happenstance. He and his friends, sixth graders at the time, were goofing around inside the new downtown Tulsa City-County Library, where they discovered a microfilm reader.
A librarian saw them messing with it and pointed out a nearby filing cabinet filled with microfilmed rolls of old Tulsa World dailies. The first reel they fed into the machine was from June 1921 and suddenly stories from the massacre came into view.
Ellsworth recounts his nearly five decades of work researching the Tulsa Race Massacre in his new book “The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice,” which is available May 18. Magic City Books is hosting a ticketed virtual launch day event with the author.
While Ellsworth hasn’t lived in Tulsa in decades, he’s been a constant visitor throughout the years while doing research for two books as well as through his late 1990s work on the original 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission that resulted in him co-writing the 2001 report with John Hope Franklin, Don Ross, Maxine Horner and others.
“I'm Tulsan through and through,” says Ellsworth, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he’s a lecturer in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. “I insist whenever I come to town I'm going to Claud’s, getting a chicken fried steak at Nelson's, going out to the White River Fish Market, all that stuff. I love my hometown, and I'm always happy to be back in it.”
On May 11, Ellsworth took part in a TulsaPeople Q&A to discuss his new book and what’s to come after we move beyond the 100th commemoration of the tragic event later this month.
You published “Death in a Promised Land” in 1982 while earning your PhD at Duke. Fast forward to now and you helped write the commission report in 2001 and now there’s your new book. Did you ever imagine this would be your life’s work?
When you're 21, you can’t imagine six months from now much less than anything else. No, not at all. No. And that's been astonishing to me that “Death in a Promised Land” has been in print for 39 years. I mean, that just kind of blows my mind.
[While in seventh grade, Ellsworth’s classmate Jackie Gresham was murdered.] I'd always been haunted by Jackie's death. My plan around 2018 was I wanted to look for new book, and I thought maybe I'll write a book about how ‘60s culture kind of crashed upon conservative, middle America. I thought maybe there was something there, and I didn't know what it was. I started coming back to Tulsa. I started spending a lot of time at police headquarters going through the records. They had interviews, all that stuff.
In early 2019, the deputy mayor [Amy Brown] reached out to me about the grave investigation. My agent on a Friday said, “you know, maybe you could write a book where you talk about both looking into Jackie's death and then your work for the graves.”
I thought, well, that's kind of a weird idea, but he's a smart guy. I'll think about it. By Saturday night, I realized, if I don't tell the story about the cover up and uncovering, because I'm one of the few guys still around who knows all that, it's just not going to get told. So the book proposal came together in about 48 hours. I mean, it just did BAM! Just happened like that.
You write about how after you published your first book the buzz wore off and there was nothing until after the 1995 OKC bombing, which led to the State’s riot commission. Then after you help write and publish the report there’s another long lull of nothing happening until the last year or so. Are you surprised at all to see the amount of attention that is on Tulsa and the race massacre as we near the 100th commemoration?
Absolutely. When you think about all those days when we're just trying to get the story out, trying to find the records all that. Absolutely, there's no question about it.
There's no question in my mind at all that “Watchmen” has just had a gigantic impact. I heard from people in England. Lots and lots and lots of young people have learned about it from “Watchmen.” It's almost like at a certain point it's gained a momentum and things begat other things.
After the 75th anniversary and all of that attention, that sort of created a cottage industry of books about the massacre. There were like a dozen or something. And still, there's plenty that are happening right now. I'm really quite surprised at the degree of attention that's happening right now.
Why do you think that is? We have LeBron James and Russell Westbrook producing documentaries and there’s more as well.
I think there are different reasons. With LeBron and Russell, I think they're interested in American History and African American history, and they saw this as an important story that wanted to tell.
I also think that with the murder of George Floyd, with these other killings, with this awareness of all of that nationwide, I think that's played a role in all this. In the book I talked about that we're in this age of reevaluation of who our heroes are and all of that. And again, the other thing that's been a constant this entire time for 45 years has been people will hear about this and say, “Well, why haven't I heard about this before?” They are still just amazed at this event, and the more the word goes, that is going to help build interest.
A lot of the history and mythology of the Race Massacre has been passed down through oral tradition. How did you navigate all the theories and rumors when starting the mass grave search?
I always said we needed at least two pieces of substantial independent evidence that pointed us to a certain spot. So you couldn't just say, “Oh, my great granddad told me there, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” You had to be able to link it to a real person, a real event or real set of records. Like in Oaklawn, there had been this rich oral tradition that massacre victims are buried there, but it was vague, and (forensic anthropologist) Clyde Snow told us you can bury 100 people in a 10-foot by 10-foot square hole, so you need to really have a specific place.
Then our big breakthrough in Oaklawn was Dick Warner finding those old funeral home ledgers that prove that there were unidentified and identified massacre victims buried there, but it still didn't tell us where. Then we had this account from the sextons of the cemetery, handed down year after year saying that they were buried in this one area where there weren't any graves in the Black part of the cemetery. We also had this set of crepe myrtles that a sexton had planted as a memorial. So that seemed pretty good. And what happened? We did ground radar in July, and it’s nothing. Instead, we found a bunch of ‘30s landfill.
We knew that there were at least 18 African Americans buried by white funeral home people in Oaklawn. Then Betsy Warner kind of crack the code on how the sextons buried people in the potter's field. We got lucky, and we found it. You have to have more than one piece of evidence. The technology isn't that good. It's not like on “CSI” where you point this thing and see a skull. It's not like that at all. So we don't really quite have the technology that's good enough, so you just have to use common sense and just try to extrapolate as much as you can from the oral evidence and other written evidence, too.
Take me back to the cemetery during those days. What was it like for you being a historian being down in the dirt in that hole and seeing all what was going on? What was that like for you after 40 years of work to be there in Oaklawn when they found bodies?
It was very moving, very emotional. As soon as the archaeologists first saw the first outlines of the first two coffins, side by side, all of a sudden I realized oh my God, I could see them too. And they kept coming two and two and two and two. That was very complicated. It was of course thrilling having done this for so long of time, but there's wistfulness and sadness, too, because these are real people. This gets very real here.
I mentioned in the book the first thing I thought about were those survivors that I'd known who said, please go and do this, please find out what happened. Those people I thought somewhere they're smiling, and I really thought of them. They've driven me to do this work as much as anything else.
What would it mean to you to be able to find another grave site? You spend a lot of time in your book discussing the Newblock Park site and the area known as the canes (just west of downtown on the Arkansas River). There seems to be high confidence on that one based on witness accounts you share in the book.
The Booker T. Washington Cemetery is a complicated situation. I believe they're not very many massacre victims buried there. I believe they were buried by Black Tulsans. Once they got out of the internment camps, they would find human remains near their property or on their property, and we know about this gentleman who had a truck and they took them out there. So this was the Black community burying their own. There's every reason to think that this was done with honor and respect and love, so I've never felt a burning need to exhume those remains. I think we can memorialize them.
At Newblock Park and the canes and they're really kind of one site. That's a whole other issue. There's a lot of evidence I did not put in the book. We have lots of people talking, “my dad came back and he said he was forced to have done it.” There's the Bob Patty photo memory. The photo with the steam shovel. I think if we could find it that would be the Holy Grail. And certainly, as long as I'm kicking I'm there to help make that happen.
So your work is far from done.
I think I'm stuck now. I think this is a permanent class that I'm never going to graduate from. I'm going to do other stuff, too. But no, this isn't going to go away.
Are there other pieces to the story that you want to find?
Yeah, there's a lot of stuff. Obviously, we want to find out how many people died, and we may never know, but having a better handle on that. There are mysteries after the first fighting sort of slowed down at the courthouse and whatnot, we have these white men that are organizing other whites to get ready for this invasion. Who were those people? I would love to know who they were.
There's conflicting evidence on whether the Klan was organized in Tulsa before the massacre or not. I err on the side of caution that I don't think they were. But were they? That's something we don't know.
There's a lot of stuff that we just still don't know, and for years people would say, “Oh, it's all just rumor. We don't really know. You'll never know what happened.” Well, that's not true. We know a lot about what happened, and we know what happened at a certain hour at a certain corner at a certain place. But there's more to come. At this point, it'll probably be written records, maybe diaries and letters that people haven't seen. I think some demographers could do a lot of work with city directories and figure out how many people left. There's just a lot of stuff.
I spoke to a gentleman on the phone two weeks ago. His grandmother was Cherokee, and she was about 15 at the time of the massacre. She told her grandson, who's now elderly, that when she was a little girl at the time of the massacre, she saw African Americans hanging from trees that had been lynched. Now, we've heard this story in the past, but I've never had the actual name of a specific person who saw this. Obviously, it's going to be secondhand information. We can't interview her, but I can find out where she was living at the time. Does that hook up with other stories? It's detective work.
What are the stories we need to tell after the centennial because that's a reoccurring theme in your book. We hit these big anniversaries, and there's a lot of publicity and talk about it and then it just kind of goes away. I don't think we're going to have that extreme because of Greenwood Rising and the many other things happening. But what are we supposed to do after the 100th commemoration?
I think we need to do a few things. We need to be honest with our sons and daughters and tell how the past was. Oklahoma school kids, they aren't snowflakes or rogue robots. They can handle it. Obviously, there's some very dark and disturbing parts, but you know the story of Greenwood is also a story of the resilience of people who refuse to leave, people who said no this is my town. They built it and they rebuilt it again. So I think there's a lot of positivity that you could find about this.
There were heroes and heroines during the massacres. Those stories can be told as well. But I think that we just need to be upfront and honest. The other thing, and I think this is a tragedy. This is one of my other goals: there's been so much of a focus on Black Wall Street that what has gotten lost were these remarkable 75 African American veterans. I bet none of them knew Dick Rowland. I bet not a single one of them knew who this person was, but they were not about to have a racial brother be lynched in Tulsa. Not only did they risk their lives, some of them also gave their lives. To me they’re as American as the farmers of Concord bridge who fired the shot heard around the world. They’re not trying to break him out. They're just trying to make sure he gets a trial, even a rigged Jim Crow trial. I think that there should be a statue to them right in the center of downtown.
The other issue is that the massacre isn't just a Black story. This isn't a Greenwood story. This is a Tulsa story. Now, the story of the massacre involves as many, if not more, white people than it does African Americans. I think we need to bring the story downtown, and we need to bring it to neighborhoods across town.
Why is it hard for people to admit or accept their family's history that you know, from before they even knew them 100 years ago? Because it seems like that's part of the problem is that there are people who don't even want to talk about the past and their family tree and what could have been?
Well, I think that's normal. I certainly wrote about that a lot in "Death of a Promised Land” and talking about how we construct a past that we live with. Neither you nor I or anybody reading this piece, we don't want to dwell on the bad things that we've done. We just want to talk about the good stuff. I think that's just how a normal human thinks.
But I think that also it's important to remember the story of the massacre was actively suppressed in the white community for 50 years. You had whole generations of white kids growing up in Tulsa who'd never heard of this, and it was also suppressed publicly and in the African American community as well, which I talked about. It's been difficult for families in these last 30 years to learn about how this happened here. It's been hard for people to come to grips with that.
Right now, in our country and in Great Britain as well, we’re coming to terms with slavery. Who do we name buildings after? I have no idea where the process will come out, but we're undergoing all this re-examination of who are our heroes? Who are we as a people? Who do we want to emulate and who do we not want to? Those aren't easy things.
Do you enjoy this period of time as a historian watching the country grapple with all this?
Oh, I don't know. That's a really good question. I have a story from my own family. So on my Ellsworth family side I have great uncles who are like twice removed. Two guys who won the Navy Cross. They were both admirals, and one of them won the Medal of Honor. That's a point of pride in our family. But he won the Medal of Honor in 1923 in Veracruz when the United States Navy invaded Mexico and whatnot. I've always been proud of it, but I have my sons who are 19 and learning a different view of Latin American history, and they're less keen on it.
But all this is kind of normal. Times change. How we look at the past changes, and maybe it turns out that grandma wasn't so bad after all. She was OK. But you can't define everyone forever on just one thing. Everybody's complicated.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.