“I want American history taught. Unless I’m in the book, you’re not in it either. History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.”
James Baldwin – Writer and Activist (1924 -1987)
It was on May 31st, 1921 when the Tulsa, Oklahoma “Race Riot” began, and for some 16 hours whites motivated by racial hatred, attacked and assaulted residents of the black community of Greenwood. The ensuing carnage continued through June 1st, and left in its wake a path of destruction that included, 10,000 homeless blacks, 6, 000 black residents whom were locked up supposedly for their own safety, over 1, 200 residences covering some 35 City blocks destroyed by fire, as well as the burning down of two black hospitals.
When it was all over, roughly 800 people, the majority of whom were white, had incurred a number of injuries. The Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics reported 36 official deaths during the violence (10 whites and 26 blacks), but the number of unofficial deaths reported by a Red Cross social worker gave estimates of nearly 300 deaths. Property and personal losses were estimated to have been in excess of $1.5 million.
In the early 20th century, southerners who lived through the American Civil War and World War I moved to the region. Many held prejudicial beliefs toward blacks. In an effort to further assert white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan and others lynched, beat and destroyed the property of blacks or sympathizers.
The catalyst for the riot, was the story that a young black man, Dick Rowland, had assaulted a white female named Sarah Page in an elevator. Rowland denied the accusations but was taken into custody. Due to an earlier lynching in Tulsa of a white man, blacks feared for Rowland’s life and attempted to offer additional manpower to the sheriff in order to protect him. However, the sheriff refused and sent them home.
The back-and-forth of Rowland’s supporters and a mob of angry white men eventually resulted in a shootout between the two groups and the conflict escalated into what has been considered as a heroic effort by blacks to defend themselves and their community, much to no avail.
Rumors, incendiary reporting by the newspapers- using phrases like “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator (Tulsa Tribune),” and “To Lynch Negro Tonight (headline used by racist newspaperman Richard Lloyd Jones),” played a major part in spurring the violence that resulted in the killing of innocent men, women and children. Yet, the facts surrounding the incident were never clear, and as a result, many of Tulsa’s residents and Americans, to this day, know very little surrounding the incident.
The ultimate irony to this horrific tragedy occurred when airplanes left over from World War I were used to shoot residents and to drop firebombs on the buildings. This also marked the first time in American history where planes and bombs had been used against Americans on U.S. soil. The Oklahoma National Guard’s response was even suspect because of the amount of time it took them to respond. Eventually they did arrive to end the remaining violence.
The Greenwood District was known as America’s “Negro Wall Street” or “Black Wall Street” and was considered to be the nation’s wealthiest black community at the time due to the efforts of the black professionals living in the community. Residents of the community included doctors, lawyers, dentists, clergymen, nightclub owners, movie theater owners, the presence of two independent newspapers, churches and groceries.
They even had the ability to raise capital and participated in the oil boom. Everyone in the community contributed to its success and their legacy was totally devastated, burned to the ground and undocumented by history and city leaders. This rarely mentioned event was omitted from many state and local historical records.
Wood added, “I felt the responsibility to get this play to community theatres and or universities that could appreciate the subject matter. Many consider the racial conflict as one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States.”
Academy Award nominated songwriter (“Raise it Up”) Tevin Thomas, while growing up in Tulsa, had heard of the story from Mrs. Wilson (now deceased), an older woman who was his neighbor on East Young street in Tulsa. The story and the people’s lives it represented inspired him to write a screenplay and create a musical composition based on those events.
Thomas and his friend, Award-winning playwright John Lisbon Wood believed the story and history of the 1921 Tulsa riot had to be told. “We are currently reviewing and looking for collaborative partners and financial opportunities to take the production to mainstream universities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), this is a really well done artistic endeavor that will truly enlighten the audience,” said Thomas.
Both men are no strangers to the challenge of making their vision of the play a reality. Thomas, over the course of his career, has acted in theatre and worked with or performed with entertainment greats like Jay-Z, Babyface, Roberta Flack, Nile Rodgers, Ashford and Simpson, Mary J. Blidge and others.
Wood started out as an actor, and appeared in dozens of TV and movie roles including “Magnum P.I., Darkman, Beverly Hills Cop II, Hawaii 5-0, to name a few.
As a playwright, Wood wrote the one-man Off Broadway show, “The Rarest Bird,” which was based on the life of Actor Montgomery Clift. In addition, Wood and has been associated with numerous productions, which have received various awards and recognition by film festivals and critics. Together, he and Thomas collaborated on the theatrical production “Dreamland Burning.”
Wood stated, “I went ahead and researched the riot thoroughly, and then I wrote the play. It originally was quite long and there were so many fascinating details on the people involved, and the nature of Greenwood and the nature of Tulsa, and the people who lived in Greenwood and their lives such as Captain Jackson, who was a hero during the Civil War; all these people were just amazing.”
So, with the help of Corya Kennedy Channing, Continuing Lecturer and Director, Purdue Theatre Company (Calumet Branch) Indiana, Dreamland Burning made a successful 2011 debut to a cheering audience. The performance was praised as an important new piece of theatre chronicling the black man’s struggles in America.