Smithsonian Channel mangles Greenwood history

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There was some excitement among Tulsa history buffs when it was learned that the Smithsonian Channel would be showing colorized clips from home movies showing Greenwood, Tulsa's historic African-American district, as it was in the mid-to-late1920s. Instead we have another instance of the erroneous notion I call the "Greenwood Gap Theory" -- the idea that Greenwood was never rebuilt after the riot -- this time being promulgated by one of America's most respected cultural institutions.

The Smithsonian Channel is not available on cable TV in Tulsa, but the program, "America in Color: The 1920s," is available to watch on the Smithsonian Channel website, free of charge. The segment on Greenwood begins about 16 minutes into the program and lasts about 90 seconds.

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As American Heritage reported back in September 2006 (noted here on BatesLine a few days later), Oklahoma historian Currie Ballard had acquired 29 cans of film that had been taken by Solomon Sir Jones, a black Baptist preacher, who had been assigned by the National Baptist Convention "to document the glories of Oklahoma's black towns." Yale University has made the Solomon Sir Jones film collection available for viewing online. The stills above are from Film 18; the stills below, from the offices of the Oklahoma Eagle in 1927, are from Film 2.

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It's disappointing that Arrow International Media (producers of this Smithsonian series) chose to present images of a prosperous Greenwood (and Muskogee) circa 1925, followed by film of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. The order of presentation and the narration leave the viewer with the impression that the riot destroyed the prosperity shown in the Jones films when in fact, the Jones films depict the triumphant resurgence of the Greenwood community after the riot.

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It's understandable that a member of the general public, knowing about the 1921 Riot and seeing the area as it is today, might leap to the conclusion that Greenwood was never rebuilt. But the producers of the Smithsonian video had access to all the information they needed to tell the complete story.

Doug Miller of Müllerhaus Legacy, a publishing house in Tulsa, debunks the Smithsonian presentation with precision and passion.

I was initially excited today to see that the Smithsonian Channel was including Greenwood in a new documentary entitled "America in Color." But, upon watching the section that discussed Greenwood and the race riot, I was saddened to see an almost total misrepresentation of the the film footage. I immediately saw significant errors and omissions that, in my opinion, rob Greenwood of its rightful legacy.

As you'll read below, the mistakes are many and were so obvious that I can only assume they were made knowingly with the intention of elevating narrative above fact. It's a practice that has become common place in the news media today. Sadly, it has apparently also filtered down to historians. Before supposing that these errors don't really matter, I hope you'll read my entire post. I outline the errors that I think matter very much. And I explain why.

Miller lists and rebuts five egregious errors in the segment: (1) None of the footage shows Greenwood before the riot, as the narration implies. (2) Much of the street footage shown was actually from Muskogee, as Rev. Jones's meticulous title cards clearly indicate. (3) Greenwood's founding is misrepresented. (4) The riot is depicted as an attack motivated by universal white resentment against Greenwood's prosperity; the reality, documented in contemporary news sources, is much more complex.

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The fifth error does the greatest cultural damage:

Fifth, and most damning: the film says nothing of Greenwood's rightful legacy. Perhaps I should not single out this film on this point. Most tellings of the Tulsa Race Riot are, in my opinion, guilty of doing the same. I have long been of the opinion that the rebuilding of Greenwood needs to take its rightful place as one of the single most powerful and inspirational stories of Black America's fight to overcome the injustice of segregation and racial inequity. When one fairly considers the breathtaking scope of the destruction, the speed of reconstruction, the opposition to rebuilding (even within the black community), and the defiant independence with which the community achieved all they did, one cannot help but be moved at the level of the soul.

Yet, while the story of the riot is advertised far and wide, very few Tulsans and even fewer outsiders know the glorious story of Greenwood's rebuilding. From my own personal interactions, I dare say that most Tulsans believe that Greenwood's history ended in 1921. Many people are shocked to find out that Greenwood reached its economic peak in 1941 and continued to thrive well into the 1960s.

No, the white mob did not win. Greenwood won. And that should be what every Tulsan remembers best about the legacy of Greenwood. It is a story of remarkable victory, not defeat and destruction. To say otherwise is to deny the inconceivable achievement of every African American father and business leader who died protecting their community and their families during that horrific event. And, who chose to defiantly stay in Tulsa to rebuild.

Miller is absolutely right on all points: Most people assume that the Riot is the reason that so little of Greenwood remains (and that the neighborood to the west is vacant except for a few eerie Steps to Nowhere).

Miller is right, too, that the rebuilding of Greenwood is an inspirational story of African-American resiliance, perserverance, and initiative in the face of violent racism that every Tulsan, every American ought to know.

So why is there this preference for the Greenwood Gap theory, the notion that "Greenwood's history ended in 1921"? Why is the rebuilding rarely mentioned in discussions of the Riot?

I have two hypotheses: One speaks to local political concerns and the other deals with national cultural sensitivies.

The local hypothesis is that Tulsa's civic and cultural leaders found it more pleasant to leave people with the incorrect impression that Greenwood was never rebuilt than to face their own culpability in its second destruction. If you remind people that Greenwood was rebuilt, bigger and better than before, according to eyewitness accounts, it raises a question in their minds: Why isn't it here anymore? And the answer to that question raises questions about decisions made, mainly in the late 1960s, by people who were still alive and active in city government and community affairs for decades afterward:

  • Who signed off on the decision to run I-244 right through the heart of Deep Greenwood?
  • Who decided that the Greenwood and Lansing Avenue commercial districts should be demolished?
  • Who decided to demolish the original Booker T. Washington High School, a building that had survived the 1921 Riot?
  • Why were the promises of new and better housing, retail, and community facilities never fulfilled?
  • Who among African-American community leaders lent their support to these plans?
  • How is it that a well-intentioned, progressive program like Model Cities, part of President Johnson's War on Poverty, resulted in the destruction of Black Wall Street?

It's easy to imagine city leaders thinking: Better that Tulsans should blame long-dead city leaders and anonymous rioters for the destruction of Greenwood than to wonder about the judgment of present-day leaders who signed off on its second destruction.

Some day, someone needs to write the history of urban renewal in Tulsa, with a particular focus on the Greenwood District and Model Cities.

But these local factors would not have influenced the writers and producers of the Smithsonian documentary.

This is the most generous spin I can put on it: They couldn't believe that Greenwood was rebuilt so quickly after the riot (or at all), so they assumed that the dates on the films were incorrect and that the scenes of prosperity predated 1921.

My hypothesis regarding Greenwood and national cultural sensitivites is twofold: First, that the story of Greenwood's reconstruction would undermine the left-wing narrative that only government action can right societal wrongs, which are the result of capitalism and individual liberty. This was the gist of OSU-Tulsa Professor J. S. Maloy's objection to my 2007 column about the Greenwood Gap theory, expressed in a letter to Urban Tulsa Weekly: "The free market will always indulge racism, ignorance, fear, and sheer pettiness of spirit in the name of profits. Only a democratic process--public investment constrained by public consultation--can do better." While his letter to UTW is not online, the original version of my rebuttal is here, detailing my sources and inviting him to do his own investigation. Maloy's apparent ideological commitment to the superiority of government action to voluntary action led him to disbelieve documentary evidence to the contrary.

Second, that the reconstruction of Greenwood and the resilience of its people raises uncomfortable questions about present-day American culture. If Tulsa's African-American community could rebuild within a year, despite government-imposed obstacles, despite the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, what was it about the character and social capital of that community that we lack today?

TAKE ACTION: Tulsans concerned about an accurate portrayal of Greenwood's resurgence can contact the Smithsonian Channel and urge them to issue a correction and to edit the narration and sequence to reflect the correct locations and chronology.

We would love to hear your thoughts. Send Smithsonian Channel your suggestions, comments, questions, and concerns to contact@smithsoniannetworks.com or call us at 844-SMITHTV (764-8488).

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on July 3, 2017 12:29 PM.

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