Deneen L. Brown is an award winning reporter for the Washington Post. On May 31st, 2021 the documentary she produced titled Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten will debut on PBS. This new documentary takes a comprehensive look at the 1921 massacre, the history of racism in this country, and the ongoing fight for reparations. EBONY had the honor of speaking with Deneen about this necessary labor of love and what she hopes audiences will take away from it.
EBONY: This month commemorates 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre and the destruction of “Black Wall Street.” To those who may not be familiar, what did this event represent and why is it as significant to us as it is?
Deneen L. Brown: This was one of the worst acts of racial terror committed against Black people in America. It began in the late evening of May 31st and went on into June 1st. As it has been documented, it all began with a teenage Black boy named Dick Rowland. Dick Rowland was a shoe shiner. One day he went into a building and into an elevator with Sarah Page (also a teenager) who operated the elevator. People in this building hear Sarah scream from the elevator. Dick takes off running, and runs to Greenwood (the prosperous Black community where Black Wall Street was located), and is later arrested. The local white owned newspaper The Tulsa Tribune played a huge role in the massacre happening. Black WWI vets marched to the courthouse and were ready and willing to fight. A white man confronted a veteran, and the veteran said “I’ll use my gun if I have to.” A gunshot goes off and a white man is hit and the white mob descends in Greenwood.
This event had huge implications of lynching in its wake. What was feared is exactly what came to be. City officials took no action to quell the energy. Public officials even provided arms for white civilians during this incident. As many as 300 Black people were killed. This event is significant to us because of how blatantly we were attacked during a time where we were defying all the odds in our own community.
This documentary seeks to get justice for those affected and forgotten through this tragedy, how long has this been an initiative?
This has really been an issue since slavery. Right after the massacre in 1921, Black people went to the courthouse demanding reparations. Historians say the damage was $1.5 million dollars; all claims for reparations were denied. The city commission approved two claims by white people for the loss of ammunition and guns and they were paid. Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma were complicit and should pay reparations. Much of these details can be found in the Tulsa Race Riot Report from 2001.
In what ways do you feel that you personally connect to this project outside of producing it?
My people are from Oklahoma. My great grandmother actually lived in Tulsa. I was born in Oklahoma, and spent time as a child in Tulsa. About five years ago I started writing with a retrospective blog through The Washington Post called “Retropolis.” I was assigned to go to Montgomery, Alabama to attend a memorial ceremony that recognized the horrific lynchings of the past. I went on a tour through some other southern states after that and ended up in Tulsa with my father.
I asked my dad to go to Black Wall Street to have lunch one day, and realized that the area had become gentrified. The Washington Post ended up sending me back to Tulsa to tell Tulsa’s story and from there I was able to connect and work with activists on the ground. I wrote the story for the Post, it ended up on the front page. As a reporter and as a native Oklahoman, I’m driven to tell this story.
In this budding age of new Black entrepreneurship, what do you hope new Black business owners will get from watching this documentary?
There’s a great scene where Johnathan, the director, found a young entrepreneur who wants Greenwood to become a Black Silicon Valley for Black entrepreneurs. They would like to build it back up to what it used to be. Hopefully, that scene inspires new Black entrepreneurs to take initiatives. I hope they see the economic strides Black people made in Greenwood right before it was destroyed.
What do you believe it takes for legislative action to be taken on this and other important Black issues?
According to my reporting, the descendants of these gruesome acts are still crying out for justice and reparations. According to my interviews, wealth was lost in 1921 and those affected are still seeking to take the proper measures to see their initiative through.
I believe we are living in an age where more people are willing to listen and empathize with just causes, maybe more than ever. Do you believe that this documentary is coming along at the right time to reach the masses?
Yeah, I do actually. After the horrific killing of George Floyd, there’s a new energy surrounding issues of racism; the time is right for the story to be told.
In recent years I have begun to learn more about Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Massacre, but I had never delved much into the photographs of the event. You make a point in this documentary to highlight the audacity of white people being pictured with guns after attacking Black people. What role do you believe that audacity plays in the inequities that Black people continue to experience in this country?
According to my reporting and interviews that I’ve conducted, white people went to Greenwood and took pictures with guns of them over dead Black bodies and turned them into postcards. It is a continuation of the false notion of white supremacy. This false notion gives white people this false right to kill Black people. This has been an issue throughout the world with colonization or in this country with slavery, Jim Crow and police brutality.
There’s no question that a huge goal of this documentary is to highlight the importance of the U.S. taking accountability for its involvement in this massacre. What would you consider a success for you once this project is shown to the world?
I hope people are inspired from watching it and that people walk away wanting to make sure that they are anti-racists. I want them to speak up against injustices when they see it. I want people to want to be better people for themselves and impact their communities positively.
Watch Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten on PBS Monday, May 31st.