The Second Destruction of Tulsa's Black CommunityRoundup
tags: racism, photography, African American history, urban history, public history, urban renewal, Tulsa
Karlos K. Hill writes a regular interview series for The Nation featuring the stories and work of community activists organizing for justice in Black communities. He is Regents’ Professor and Chair of the Clara Luper Department of African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Donald Thompson is a social justice photographer who lives and works in Tulsa, Okla., and has deep roots in the city’s Greenwood District. Once a thriving and prosperous Black community, Greenwood was largely destroyed in 1921 by a mob of armed white citizens in what has come to be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. During the 1960s and ’70s, Thompson photographed what he terms the “second massacre of Greenwood,” when the city of Tulsa used eminent domain to bulldoze most of what remained of Greenwood’s business district. On the 101st anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, I interviewed Thompson about his more than five-decades-long quest to capture and preserve his beloved community in photos.
—Karlos K. Hill
KARLOS K. HILL: I would like to start by asking you to talk about your relationship with Tulsa.
DONALD THOMPSON: My dad was from Alabama, and my mother was from Louisiana, but they moved to Oklahoma with their parents back in the early 1900s, which is where they met. They left Oklahoma during the Depression and traveled to California as part of the Great Migration. That’s where I was born. After more than 25 years there, they decided it would be better for us to come back to Oklahoma and start all over. So that’s how I ended up here. I had experienced a little bit of racism and bigotry in California, but nothing like I confronted here in Tulsa. It was so thick, so prevalent—truly intolerable. I was shocked and dismayed, to the point that I wanted to go right back to California. I couldn’t understand why people put up with it.
That’s essentially the reason why I became a social documentary photographer. I wanted to show others what I was experiencing and what I was seeing with my own eyes. I wanted to highlight the disenfranchisement that I was seeing in my community—the unrepresented and marginalized people, the oppressive social, political, and economic injustice that they were being subjected to. I wanted to provide an eyewitness account of what was going on. It was, to me, a horrific situation. But I think that as I became more involved with Oklahoma and Tulsa, I began to realize why it was that people put up with it. They were actually afraid to speak up, because of what their parents and grandparents had gone through in 1921. It was a brutal and traumatic experience.
Unfortunately, there are no known photographs of Greenwood’s businesses before the 1921 race massacre. Several photographers had shops there at the time, but they were destroyed by the invading mob. Reverend Hooker, for example, had a photography business on Greenwood Avenue. His shop was burned to the ground, and I imagine that his negatives or plates and his other equipment were all lost in the fire. That is surely the main reason why we don’t have a record of pre-1921 Greenwood that shows the homes and businesses and people that were there.
KKH: How did you become involved with photography, and when did you specifically begin photographing Greenwood?
DT: My interest in photography began in the 1960s, when I was in the Army. I was forced into it, in a sense. I was stationed in Würzburg, Germany, serving as an information specialist and writing stories for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. One day the commanding officer called me into his office and told me that General [Earle] Wheeler, the army chief of staff, was coming to our unit. “We need photographs,” he said. I said, “Well, what do you want me to do? I don’t even have a camera.” He said, “Go into Würzburg and buy one, because we do need photographs, and we don’t have a photography station here in our unit.” So I went into Würzburg and got a little Yashica twin-lens camera. I spent half the night trying to understand how to operate it. I had been given an important assignment, and I didn’t want to mess it up.
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