How HBO shows helped raise awareness of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Lovecraft Country Season 1, Episode 2 - Courtesy of Eli Joshua Ade/HBO
Lovecraft Country Season 1, Episode 2 - Courtesy of Eli Joshua Ade/HBO /

June 1 marked the 100th anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history: the Tulsa Race Massacre. The campaign of racially motivated insurrection cost up to 300 lives, and left approximately 10,000 Black people. The event has long been left out of history curriculums, with many not even aware that the massacre took place. However, the magnitude of the event is finally being acknowledged, in part because TV is paying more attention to it: both Watchmen and Lovecraft Country on HBO highlighted the killings and brought new recognition to Black struggle in the United States.

What Was the Tulsa Race Massacre?

Earlier this month, President Biden named the Tulsa Race Massacre “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” It is an accurate description.

On Memorial Day weekend, 1921, Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white 17-year-old. An armed lynch mob soon descended on the Tulsa courthouse, and shots were fired as police attempted to defend the building. Twelve people were killed in the gunfire. Mob violence followed, and White rioters rampaged through Black Tulsa neighborhoods, including the famed Greenwood District, which was known as “Black Wall Street.”

Tulsa Race Massacre Aftermath (Public Domain)
Tulsa Race Massacre Aftermath (Public Domain) /

While Dick Rowland’s arrest may have been the spark that led to the insurrection, many in Tulsa had become jealous of the prosperity of the Greenwood District; the area had exploded in population and expanded to border on White neighborhoods. The district included Black attorneys, real estate agents, entrepreneurs and doctors.

The carnage destroyed over 35 blocks, some destroyed by bombs dropped from private aircraft. Eight hundred people were admitted to hospital, thousands were left homeless, and a 2001 state commission found that anywhere between 75 to 300 were killed. A modern equivalent of $32.65 million of damage was done by the mob.

There were no convictions for anyone involved in the violence, and a program of silence followed, with the event scrubbed from local, state, and national histories.

Raising Awareness

The magnitude of the Tulsa Race Massacre slowly began to be recognized to the point where an Oklahoma Commission recommended substantial restitution back in 2001, but many remained unaware of the event until it became prominently featured in two high-profile HBO shows: Watchmen and Lovecraft Country.

Set in an alternate reality where superheroes emerged during the Cold War and went on to change society, Watchmen is based on the iconic Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic of the same name. A 2009 adaptation directed by Zack Snyder came out to mixed reviews, but the TV adaptation  from Damon Lindelof took things in a different direction, setting its story decades after the end of the original Watchmen updating the material for the current climate.

The Tulsa Race Massacre is central to the narrative, and is depicted in at the top of the premiere episode, acting as a historical counterpoint to the main storyline set amidst racist violence in modern Tulsa. We see a young boy watching a silent film in a cinema. A loud noise shakes the theater, and after running outside, he finds the city under attack, and loses his parents in the chaos. Escaping thanks to a stranger, the boy’s plight only grows when his guardian angel is shot by the mob.

Viewers on Twitter were shocked that these events were based on a true story, with many having no idea that the massacre ever took place.

Lovecraft Country, meanwhile, follows three Black Americans as they undertake a road trip through the Jim Crow-era south to find a missing man, the father of protagonist Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors). The journey turns into a struggle to survive against two kinds of terrifying monsters: creatures from the realm of the Elder Gods and 1950s-era racism.

In the ninth episode, “Rewind 1921,” three of the characters travel back to 1921, just before the Tulsa Massacre. The episodes portray the extreme violence dealt out by White mobs, and all three barely make it back alive.

While The New York Times objected to the episode and series in general, saying Lovecraft Country was “exploiting [the past] for the purposes of its convoluted fiction,” others disagreed, with cinematographer Michael Watson telling Entertainment Tonight that the show served as “education wrapped in entertainment” and that “It was important to highlight” this often forgotten piece of history.

Watson points out that “Tulsa 1921 was a huge talking point, and the most important elements we wanted to show were that the Black community was thriving, also that they didn’t just flee. Many of them stood and fought back.” Michael K. Williams, who played Atticus’ father Montrose, agreed. “I look up to the late great Nina Simone, and she always said, ‘An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.’ And what a great opportunity to have this gift and have this platform and to be able to tell this type of narrative in this time,” he said.

In a speech on June 1, President Biden acknowledged that history had willingly forgotten events in Tulsa 100 years ago, and there can be little doubt that many still remain unaware of one of the darkest moments in our nation’s turbulent history.

While many will undoubtedly denigrate Watchmen and Lovecraft Country as being “woke” or “pushing a political agenda,” this is often simply a way of saying that we don’t wish to face uncomfortable truths about our history and society. Watchmen, Lovecraft Country and HBO should be praised for their bravery in acknowledging our painful past and refusing to engage in the effort to erase the scar of the Tulsa Race Massacre from history.

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