Photo montage of crowds of people watching the fires burning in the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921.
Photo montage of crowds of people watching the fires burning in the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921.

Truth and Justice in Tulsa

The Ground Breaking unearths the sinister history of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

By Josh Cox ’18 | May 25, 2021

Words are flying from every corner of the packed auditorium. Members of Tulsa’s Black community crowd the forum of the public oversight committee for the Tulsa Race Massacre Grave Investigation. They are there to ensure the committee understands the significance of the official search for the riot dead, an endeavor which had only just begun in 1998, almost eight decades after the event. The tension is palpable, almost visible like a heat shimmer. Which makes sense—the pressure has been building for close to a 100 years. A voice rings out: “They don’t want the truth to come out.” 

This is hardly an exaggeration; the horrific events of Tulsa’s 1921 race massacre were purposefully obscured for decades. More than anything, The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice, by Scott Ellsworth ’76 is a testament to how easily history can be suppressed, altered, erased, or forgotten. 

In 1921, the nightmare began with an ambiguous downtown encounter between two acquaintances: Dick Rowland, a Black shoe shiner, and Sara Page, a white elevator conductor. Detectives question Page about the incident but seem unconcerned: she presses no charges against Rowland and no all-points bulletin is dispatched. But rumors fly; the next morning, officers arrest Rowland and hold him in the courthouse jail. A lynch mob of armed, angry white men gathers outside. The town’s new sheriff, out-of-towner William McCollough, defies the fanatical crowd, refusing to cede Rowland into their custody. 

As the tension mounts, a small group of 20 Black veterans arrive and offer to defend the courthouse. The sheriff declines and they leave, but their presence sends a violent panic through the white crowd. Soon the mob has grown to more than 2000 men. When false rumors reach the Black veterans that the white mob is taking the courthouse, they rally 75 of their own to offer support once again. When they arrive they find the situation even more precarious. The sheriff declines them once more, but this time, as they are leaving, a white man accosts a black veteran, asking him what he plans to do with his gun. The veteran replies that he will use it if need be. A struggle ensues. Soon a shot rings out, the first of the uncountable multiple that will rip through the air that night. Those shots and the murders that accompany them will only be the beginning.

Ellsworth pulls no punches with his tense chronicle of what happens next, when the white Tulsans descend on Greenwood, the heart of Tulsa’s black community. He describes in matter-of-fact detail the execution of an elderly black couple who were kneeling in prayer when white aggressors broke into their homes and placed pistols to their heads. He reports the buildings looted, burned, and destroyed when a frenzied white mob ripped through the Black district, murdering at will, aided by the police, national guard, and airplane bombs. And he straightforwardly recounts the fate of a legless, blind, black man who was attached to a car by one of his stumps and dragged throughout the city.

Yet despite these atrocities, for many years the history of the massacre was not well known. Ground Breaking explores why and how.

Ellsworth grew up in Tulsa. As a kid, it was clear that something had happened, but it wasn’t until he was 12 years old that he would learn what. Boredom led him and his friends to the Tulsa City-County Library, where he was first introduced to the microfilm reader. It was through this piece of machinery that he would learn the truth about the Massacre by reading through old issues of the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune.

By the time Ellsworth left Tulsa to attend Reed College in 1972, he had set aside his interest in the Massacre. When he began casting around for thesis topics, however, he suddenly remembered the “race riot” he had read about. He sought out the director of Reed’s Black Studies Program, Prof. William McClendon, who pushed him to dig deeper. That summer he went back to Tulsa to research and write. And the immensity of the tragedy finally hit home.

“For as I slowly wrote out all the names of the businesses that had been destroyed, the human dimensions of the loss slowly took root inside me. No longer was it thirty-five square blocks or eleven hundred homes and businesses that had been looted and burned. Now the losses had a name. They were Mary Hoard’s hair salon, Arthur and Annie Scarbough’s tailor shop, and Dr. Travis’s dental office. And with the physical destruction came other losses as well, from dreams of sending a child to college to having a nest egg to pass along to the next generation.”

Six years after graduating, Ellsworth turned his Reed thesis into a book, Death In a Promised Land. Published in 1982, it was the first complete history of the massacre. But it only told part of the story—it focused on the event more than the erasure. So almost 40 years later, he returned to the subject once again.

One of the strengths of this book is the power with which Ellsworth conveys the human dimension of the tragedy. Another is the respectful, yet personal manner in which he writes about the survivors and their descendants, particularly in the tender passages when he recounts the stories of those to whom he has grown especially close.

These relationships are the driving force behind one of the book’s main themes: what happened to the bodies of the massacre victims. After a conversation with George Monroe, a friend and mentor who survived the massacre, Ellsworth realizes how important this question is to Tulsa’s black community. He makes it part of his mission to find the bodies—a quest that becomes a roller-coaster of anxiety as he and his community partners are constantly stymied by various obstacles.  Even here, however, he writes with a deft clarity that ensures the reader shares his frustration but is too excited by the prospect of discovering what happens next to put the book down. 

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, Editor's Picks, Thesis