On May 31 and June 1, 1921, thousands of armed white Oklahomans terrorized, looted, and burned to the ground the Greenwood District, a thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, that spanned more than 35 city blocks and was home to nearly 11,000 residents. The violence stemmed from an accusation that a young Black man named Dick Rowland had assaulted a young white woman in a downtown elevator on May 30. The mob killed an estimated 300 Black people and reportedly buried many of them in unmarked mass graves. Despite white city leaders’ subsequent refusal to provide restitution to the victims, the survivors in Greenwood rebuilt their community. More than 100 years after what we now call the Tulsa Race Massacre, there are still lingering historical silences and unresolved questions. In his new book, Built from the Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, America’s Black Wall Street, freelance journalist Victor Luckerson brings into focus the key decisions and actions that led to the massacre. I met Victor Luckerson, a former staff writer at The Ringer and business reporter for Time, in 2021 when I was completing my own book on the massacre, which combined survivors’ oral testimony with photos of the destruction. More so than previous books on the massacre, Luckerson dispels mythologies about the creation of Greenwood, its destruction, and its aftermath. I recently talked with Luckerson about his reasons for writing the book and why it was important for him to publish it now.
—Karlos K. Hill
Karlos K. Hill: Built from the Fire is an impressive book. You lived in Tulsa for nearly four years while you were writing it, and you have produced a remarkable portrayal, telling new stories and centering new voices in new ways. But the timing of its publication is interesting. The book is coming out almost two years after the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. You were there when the centennial commemorations were happening, and in fact you were involved in them. So why is two years later a good time to release a book on the race massacre?
Victor Luckerson: The centennial was a moment of ceremony, but it was not in any way a moment of finality. I’ve had to wrestle with the knowledge that the issues in Tulsa are not resolved. Despite all the ceremony and pomp of 2021, the city still has not provided restitution for massacre victims. And many of the post-massacre issues that have held Greenwood back—such as redlining, urban renewal, and job discrimination—have yet to be addressed at all. So I felt that it was extremely important to be able to re-elevate this story after the centennial events. I think having a text that can turn those issues into an accessible narrative while having the academic and journalistic backing to say, “Here is documentation of the wrongs that occurred,” is really compelling. It’s important for in-depth journalism to continue, to provide an ongoing account for the people in this community that will help to demonstrate what their issues are.
KH: Can you share why it was important for you to embed yourself in Tulsa during the years you spent researching and writing the book?
VL: It was a transformative experience for me to do the work in that way. Earlier ,I was a national journalist for Time magazine and also for the Ringer. So I did what we in the industry sometimes call “parachute journalism”: I would go to a place for four or five days and figure out whatever I could figure out, and then I would write the best thing I could possibly write on the basis of that limited amount of time and interaction. I spent a few days in Tulsa in 2018 on the anniversary of the race massacre, and that’s when I wrote my first feature about the Greenwood community. It’s funny to look back at that now, because I obviously knew so little then compared to what I know today. I strive to establish a human connection to the people I write about, and you can’t create intimacy without building trust. Nor can you build trust with someone without spending time with them. So it was important for me to do that so that I could go deeper in this book than I had in my earlier work. And I don’t think I could have done it if I had been flying back and forth or only doing phone calls. I think this project stands out because I actually became a member of this community in the process.
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KH: Could you elaborate on the organization of the book and the thematic choices you made?
VL: The cover describes it as an “epic story,” and I think that fits the bill. Greenwood deserves to have an epic. It deserves to be cast within an almost larger-than-life frame. And I hope the book accomplishes that. Despite being an obviously important historical event, the Tulsa Race Massacre tends to be portrayed in a depersonalized way. Even in the The Watchmen, for example, the people getting shot are shown only from behind. So I wanted to put the focus on real people and tell the story through them. The Goodwin family provides a great framework for the book, helping to give it a narrative grounding. The Goodwins traveled from Jim Crow Mississippi to Greenwood when it was seen as the “Eden of the West.” While living in this so-called Black utopia, they saw their home destroyed, their businesses destroyed, their hospital destroyed, their entire community burned to the ground—and yet only a month later, in July 1921, J.H. Goodwin and his wife, Carlie, obtained a building permit to start rebuilding. In the 1930s, their son Ed bought the Oklahoma Eagle newspaper, often referred to as “the voice of Black Tulsa,” to help keep the community’s history alive. Ed’s own children grew up to be doctors, activists, and attorneys; his granddaughter Regina is now in the state legislature. So thematically following that one family helps keep readers engaged as they follow along on this epic journey.
KH: There are other families in Greenwood with a similarly long history in the community. So why did you choose the Goodwin family as your focus?
VL: Much of this book is about the power that can come with land ownership and how Black people have been dispossessed of so much land over time. If you’re standing at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street in Tulsa facing north and you look to your right, you’re going to see the Oklahoma Eagle building—the only property in the area that is still owned by a Black family. So it was almost natural for me to choose to write about this family who figured out how to persist in this neighborhood. The Goodwins are worthy of study and celebration, because they made it. They’re still here. And because they’ve had so many different roles and functions in the community, they ended up being a great through line from early Greenwood all the way to the present day.
KH: Are there things you discovered during the course of your research that surprised you or challenged any preconceived notions that you might have had about Greenwood and the massacre?
VL: I came into this project buying into the mythology of Greenwood as a Black utopia and planned to use the book to explain the lessons we could learn from these people and the unbelievable success they achieved. But when I began reading The Tulsa Star to learn more about the neighborhood at the time, I was struck by all the complaints about the lack of paved sidewalks, the lack of basic utilities—no plumbing, no lights. So I had to reconcile that reality with the image I’d had in my mind of this place of unparalleled Black success. And as part of that, I took a look at what the city of Tulsa was doing back then, and I learned that these services were being requested in Greenwood but not provided. The city council records from those years tell a very different story about a neighborhood that had a lot of ambition but was being held back by the powers that be in white Tulsa. Through perusing the city council minutes and talking to a few people, I began to pick up on the vibe of Greenwood and the community, and I realized that the more intimate history had been suppressed. So I needed to show that Greenwood was not like a snow globe, a sort of pristine place that was abruptly shaken up on May 31, 1921.
In reality, there were a lot of politics unfolding on the outside that were having an impact on the neighborhood. There was an overall radicalization of Oklahoma as a Jim Crow racist state that was happening over time. I had to move past the idea of Greenwood as a Black utopia, and in doing so, I discovered a resilience narrative. The residents of Greenwood did rebuild, and the fact that they were able to do so is amazing. In a resilience narrative, I think the lingering trauma can sometimes be lost. In 1925 the National Negro Business League held its annual conference in Tulsa. A large and successful entrepreneurship event, it seemed to prove that Greenwood was back. But at the very same time that the conference was taking place, Loula Williams, one of the community’s most successful and iconic entrepreneurs, was in a sanitarium being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the race massacre four years earlier. I contrast those two events in the book to convey a fuller picture of what was happening in Greenwood.
KH: Are there particular discourses that you hope the book will have an impact on when it comes to how we think about and talk about the massacre and the history that surrounds it?
VL: The book as a whole doesn’t focus on the massacre, but I carefully structured the three chapters that are devoted to it. In the first of those chapters, my intention was to illustrate that the city of Tulsa failed to protect Greenwood. There were many points at which the police department and other government officials could have made different decisions that would have prevented what ultimately happened. There was a juncture on May 31, for example, when the Tulsa police could have taken Dick Rowland out of town, and that would have defused the situation. And at the point later in the night when the city had to decide between deputizing white people to stop a Black insurrection or fanning out the police to protect Greenwood from the growing mob, they chose the former. I felt that it was important to establish, with documentation, all those times the city failed to do its duty. That, in my opinion, is also the most logical path to reparations.
In 1994, the Florida legislature approved reparations for a race massacre in the town of Rosewood—one of the few times in America when a state government has compensated Black people in that way. The entire premise of the argument in favor of reparations there was that the state of Florida had failed in its duty to protect its citizens. So in the three chapters I wrote about the Tulsa Massacre, I was careful in how I walked through those mechanical grounds so that people could clearly understand that the city of Tulsa did not do what it could have and should have done to protect the community. And that, I think, is more than enough to argue in favor of reparations today.
KH: In your four years in Tulsa, you developed a relationship with Greenwood and with the people connected to its history. How do you view your relationship with the community now? And what do you think that relationship will look like in the future?
VL: My time here has been extremely solitary and communal at the same time. Covid hit maybe four or five months after I moved to Tulsa—right when I was beginning to make connections and develop relationships—so for the most part I was working alone. I was producing a newsletter every two weeks called Run It Back, and I was doing a lot of freelance work for different outlets, so I did have some opportunities to talk to people, but not to the extent I had hoped to when I moved here. And yet I still get stopped when I’m in Greenwood by people who address me by name and say how excited they are about the book. It’s been really affirming to get that kind of love even though Covid reduced my ability to meet with people one on one. Going forward, I do think it’s important for me to maintain a relationship with Greenwood. This book is a commercial product, and it’s going to make a lot of money for Random House. I want to make sure that some of that money makes its way back to Greenwood, that it somehow benefits Black folks from Tulsa. And even if I don’t end up living here indefinitely, I plan to use my writing and journalism in ways that will highlight the challenges and injustices that Greenwood continues to experience.