"There was a lot of envy at Black success": Director Dawn Porter on new Tulsa Massacre documentary

"Tulsa was not this extraordinary event. It didn't just happen in a vacuum," Porter said on "Salon Talks"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 24, 2021 4:22PM (EDT)

Rev. Robert Turner leads a protest calling for reparations for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (National Geographic/Christopher Creese)
Rev. Robert Turner leads a protest calling for reparations for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (National Geographic/Christopher Creese)

We are always sold this vision of the American dream, which normally consists of a story about some immigrant who came to America with nothing but a dream of freedom and prosperity. And then how that said immigrant whipped those dreams while having a stomach full of nothing into a mega empire. I can't lie those stories are always romantic and inspiring even though they are lies.  

Not lies because these experiences did not happen, lies because that story is sold as universal and it is not. Black people did not come to this country with a dream –– they were kidnapped, stolen, beat, raped, separated from their families and had their free labor fuel the power needed to transform America into the superpower that many people enjoy today. People argue that things became "even" after slavery without acknowledging the years it takes a people to recover from the unpaid servitude and the trauma endured during capture. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Dawn Porter captures all of this in her new National Geographic film "Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer." 

Porter, whose work has appeared on HBO, PBS, Discovery, Netflix, is currently directing a documentary series with Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry and has now released "Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer," a film that should be required watching. The film shows how  in1921 the affluent black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was looted and burned by jealous white mobs –– leaving 35 blocks of houses and businesses destroyed, over 800 people injured, and an estimated 300 people dead. The remaining residents tried to file insurance claims but were denied because of the color of their skin. On a recent episode of "Salon Talks," Porter and I discuss why we and too many others were never taught about this deadly era of American history in grade school or college. 

You can watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Dawn Porter here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Congratulations on this film. I think it's extremely necessary, timely, and should be required viewing for our citizens everywhere. So, tell us how this project came about?

National Geographic came to me last spring. They were working on a big feature for their magazine with reporter DeNeen Brown. National Geographic studios wanted to do a film and they asked if I would be interested and of course I was interested, but I was also working on two other things. So, I was like, "I'm really interested, but I can't possibly do it." And then the studio exec said, "Well, just meet DeNeen." And then of course I fell in love with DeNeen, this Black female reporter at The Washington Post. I'm a former journalist. I'm just enamored of her process.

So, DeNeen was originally going to be a consultant to the project because she had done so much reporting and she's from Oklahoma. As we started talking, I just thought, "What a beautiful way to make this contemporary, to not just be a historical story, but a reminder that this story is vitally important, not only for all Americans, but there are people whose relatives were killed, whose relatives were victimized, and they're still here and they still need some manner of justice for them." So, I asked DeNeen if she would be on camera and mercifully, she said, "Yes."

Surprisingly, and strangely, but not that strange, a lot of our viewers and readers don't know a lot about the Tulsa Race Massacre, along with the other massacres that you talk about in the film. So, can you just give like a brief history for context?

Yeah. There's a reason why none of us know about this history. I wasn't taught this history. I found out about Red Summer in the making of this film. So, I think that points to a really problematic gap in knowledge, and that's why documentary is so important. So, this year is the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. It was originally called a riot, but that is such a misimpression. It was a targeted effort to kill Black people, to destroy the town of Greenwood, the area of Greenwood, which was known as "Black Wall Street." It was a thriving Black community. 

On May 30th, a young man named Dick Rowland went to use a restroom in a building with an elevator. There was a woman, a white woman in that elevator named Sarah Page. He may have tripped. They may have been seeing each other. No one really knows, but what emerged was a rumor that she had been "assaulted" in this elevator, in the five minute elevator trip. So, the police arrested Dick Rowland. They took him to the courthouse, pending "investigation" and a white mob starting to gather. Black people knew the story of when a white mob gathers with an allegation that a Black man has harassed a white woman or assaulted a white woman. That would be deadly. So, Black people took to the streets, Black men, to try and counter and stop him from being killed, stop him from being lynched.

There was another scuffle during that period. A gun went off. No one knows the origins of that gun, and that started one of the deadliest episodes in American history on American soil, not just against Black people, but on American soil. Ultimately 35 blocks, the entire Greenwood district was leveled, burned, looted by an angry white mob. But, in addition to that, the town was firebombed from the air. Men, women and children were killed, as flaming fire bombs came from planes up in the sky. So, that history, the aftermath of Tulsa, is fairly well-documented.

For a documentarian, this was very interesting and challenging, because there aren't that many images of Tulsa before or after. We were just getting into the age of the moving image. So, this was really, a remarkable thing to have documented, largely by Black people and the Black press.

Just being in Tulsa or just being around survivors and victims, I wanted to know what does some of those millennial and Gen X voices sound like when they talk about this era? What is their language like?

I think that not enough people know about this, and I think we're just starting to get that recognition. But I'll tell you, I'm not a millennial, but my experience was, it was almost a relief, because rumors of massacres and killings, we've known about this in the Black community for decades. The warning, "Don't go here, don't go there, sundown towns, all of these things." When you show people the proof that this happened, it stops the ability to gaslight. "That didn't happen. Why are you all so sensitive? Why are you so afraid?" "We're afraid because you fire bombed my community and destroyed all of our possessions. That is why I'm afraid. That is why I'm worried about police."

The other thing though that emerges for me, that is also not part of our history, is the story of Black resistance, the story in Washington, D.C. There was a mob in front of the White House, that was resisted by Black people. Thurgood Marshall's father noted that it was African American men returning from war who had fought bravely. They took their rifles and went down, and as one of our historians says, "The Black people won that day." So, we were not just mowed down like sheep, but it was this constant, efforted resistance.

The other piece of it that to me was so mind-blowing is examining the reasons for these massacres. There was a lot of envy at Black success. That really was the motivating factor. Greenwood was a prosperous community, and by prosperous, not everybody was wealthy, but they were living a calm, peaceful, self-sustaining life. Just people living their lives, going to church, and prom, and going to be barbers, and hairstylists, and drugstore workers, just living peacefully. That was enough to cause envy.

It challenged the narrative that Black people were lazy or non-intelligent, or couldn't help themselves. It challenged all those slavery stereotypes. So, it had to be destroyed. Understanding that we were targeted because we were successful, that's a mind trip. Right? What a difference that makes to me, and to my kids, to say, "There was so much envy. It wasn't just a random hatred of dark skin. It was envy at success. We are successful and that caused this targeting." It doesn't erase the pain, but I think the shifting of that narrative is important.

In this era where they're trying to erase critical race theory, are the people in Tulsa getting this education? Are they constantly being reinforced, or is it kind of glossed over as well?

I think there's a split, like much of America. Tulsans have told me they still are not learning this in school. The mayor of Tulsa says that in our film. He did not learn this and his relatives were alive. Once he started hearing about these race commissions, he went and asked his grandparents who confirmed that it had happened and he was shocked. So, I think in the Black communities, particularly in Tulsa and the other cities, not in schools, but at home you would hear stories, but that's not the same as putting context around the breadth of the entire experience. That's why I wanted to cover not just Tulsa, which is a very important story, but some of the massacres that occurred before, because Tulsa was one in a long line of similar types of episodes in America.

You're from Baltimore. There was a massacre in Washington, D.C., where Black people were mowed down in front of the nation's Capitol, where "Birth of a Nation" was shown in the White House, cementing the stereotype of the savage Black male lusting after white women. That was the narrative. Most Americans saw that story. That penetrates your psyche. That leads to the fear of the Black people, of Black men. That's the image that was cemented. So, I don't think we're where we need to be, in terms of the education, but now with these films, with something called the Google, there's no excuse for people not understanding it. You learned about this far earlier than most Americans. I did not know this history until I started making this project.

Once you know, the question is, what do you do with that understanding and how do we teach all children this?

What are some of the main points you want your viewers to walk away with?

I want people to understand that Tulsa was not this extraordinary event. It didn't just happen in a vacuum. It was part of a systemic campaign against Black people living their lives. We saw that in more than 25 cities across America, in this concentrated period. It really was a reign of terror against Black people. Understanding that, there's also a story of rebirth and rebuilding. I want us to focus on that too, that there's Black ingenuity and creativity and resilience and resistance. Also, that is part of our story. So, I came away from this series, this film with a pride in knowing how people, under these incredible opposition, were able to make a good life. The story I tell my children is, "You come from a strong people." The most severe opposition to your life has been thrown at Black people, and that's why we called it "Rise," because it is not just a story of terror, it is a story of resistance.

I really want people to watch this film, but I will say this, one character let me down, when he said he thinks that money is not the answer because the citizens of Tulsa shouldn't have to pay something that happened a long time ago. That made me really upset because the taking away of somebody's money and livelihood was the answer then, and we see the long-term effects of what's happening now. My question to you is, what do you think the government's responsibility is in all of this?

I think understanding what happened. And we can start with Tulsa because I think that's an easy case. The residents of Tulsa, and we show this on screen, documented their material losses. This did not get into emotional pain, or the cost of rebuilding. They documented loss of furniture, jewelry, possessions, homes. They submitted them to insurance, like all good Americans do, insurance that they had been paying for. That is the reason why Tulsa Massacre was described as a riot, because then it would be an exclusion from insurance. So, no insurance repaid these people for their losses.

In addition to that, more than 6,000 Black people, all of the residents of Greenwood, were interned in an internment camp in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If the denial of the loss of your documented losses and the placing of American citizens in an internment camp guarded by the National Guard is not a reason for reparations, I don't know what is.

Do you think they'll do anything?

I think there's going to be a lot of pressure. I don't know the answer to that, but that's kind of up to like you and me and everybody else. It's really important to me that one of the reverends who's leading the call for reparations in Tulsa, and he says, "I agree with reparations paid to Japanese citizens who were interned, to Holocaust survivors that Germany made to them. Why aren't Black people entitled to the same full benefits of humanity, as other groups?" So, I think that's a question that to me, there's only one answer to.

I think your film is going to push us all in the right direction. It's brilliant, and I want you to tell everybody where they can see it?

"Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer" premieres on National Geographic, Friday, June 18th, and then it is available on Hulu. So, there's no reason for any of you all not to see it.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dawn Porter Interview Rise Again: Tulsa And The Red Summer Salon Talks Tulsa Tv