‘Terror of Tulsa: The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street’ Digs Into Historical Racial Violence

By Tracey Onyenacho Jun 19, 2020

This Juneteenth (June 19), many Black-led grassroots groups and organizations will take to the streets to continue the fight for Black lives. A day steeped in the tradition of celebrating freedom, Juneteenth has turned into a cry for justice and specific demands, such as defunding police.

Award-winning documentary filmmaker and Firelight Media co-founder Stanley Nelson will join the Movement for Black Lives’ national call to action today with a panel conversation discussing "Juneteenth, Tulsa, and the Path Towards Economic Justice."

Nelson has produced and directed documentaries on many of the Black freedom movements throughout history. From "The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution" to "Freedom Riders," Nelson’s documentaries have depicted the struggle for Black liberation by exploring the stories of those who laid their lives on the frontlines for freedom. Nelson’s newest documentary, "Terror in Tulsa: The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street" (set to be released in 2021) tells the story of Black entrepreneurs who used their businesses to financially support themselves after the abolition of slavery and how what they built was destroyed by white mob violence.

Colorlines spoke to Nelson about the importance of knowing Black history, recognizing the persistence of Black entrepreneurship despite racial brutality, and the current uprisings for Black people’s lives in the historical context of Juneteenth.

CL: Why do you think it’s important now more than ever for people to know the history of Juneteenth?

SN: It’s important that we know any history of African Americans which we don’t know; and African Americans don’t know our own history. It’s one holiday that we have, or one day that we have, that is central to African Americans and important for African Americans as African Americans, right? So, we have a few of those that we have as national holidays. Martin Luther King’s birthday, everybody celebrates that, and everybody knows what that is, but we don’t have a lot of special days as African Americans and it’s important that we have those.

After slavery was supposedly abolished, Black people in Tulsa gathered their resources to create and sustain a slew of businesses since they never got their 40 acres and a mule. You’ve teamed up with Russell Westbrook to make the documentary, “Terror in Tulsa: The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street” about this. What can your documentary about Black people’s search for economic freedom tell us what we don’t already know?

One of the stories that we cover in "BOSS: The Black Experience in Business" is the story of Tulsa. And we were only able to give it eight minutes or so in that film, so there was a lot more story to tell. I think there were over a hundred different Black towns and cities that were formed in the West as Black people, after the Civil War, left the East and moved west, searching for freedom and dignity and the idea of building our own community. And that happened over and over again. Greenwood, in Tulsa, was probably the most successful. And I think it’s important to understand. And you’ll see this in the new film we’re working on is that it’s important to understand how we got where we were, that Black people throughout history built successful businesses.
rnAnd so many times, those businesses were destroyed either by the system that existed in the United States, where banks would charge Black people more, or wouldn’t loan Black businesses money, or charged them more interest than they would charge white people. Or, they were outright burned out of their businesses, with the other extreme, by mobs. And a lot of times, that happened because the businesses were successful and white folks were just jealous, and they knew that they could burn down and destroy and kill Black people with impunity. It’s important that we understand that it’s not because African Americans didn’t form businesses, didn’t want that economic independence, didn’t work hard for that economic independence, and are not still working hard for that economic independence, but [that] the businesses were destroyed.

You’ve made so many documentaries about the history of Black people. Why Tulsa and why now?

There’s been new footage that’s been uncovered of Greenwood, which is incredible. And the idea of the film will weave history with the present day. So, we’ll talk about the work that’s being done in Tulsa today to find the mass grave for the African American people who died. We’re supposed to already start excavating those graves, but because of corona, they had to push that back. But it’s supposed to be done in August. So, there’s new information there, and it’s a story that’s evergreen. I don’t think anybody’s really told the story in all its fullness and that’s what we’re looking to do. 

If you were to make a documentary about the current uprising for Black lives, how would you shape the story to reflect the current fight for justice and freedom?

It depends. It depends if I’m making a film today and trying to get it out tomorrow. It’s a film about an ongoing struggle and it’s very hard to know where it’s going to end, right? And so, it’s really where we are right now. In filmmaking, it’s about what’s happening right now and how we got there. One of the things that I think that I would try to do is use all these people who are filming, their camera footage, their phone footage, because everybody’s filming these marches, everybody. They’re the ones who are up close. They’re the ones who are right in the middle of it. And a lot of times, the stories that you hear from people who were in the marches, in the protests, are not the stories that you hear on the news. And you see them. I mean, you can turn on the TV right now. They’re walking down the street with their cameras up and filming. I think there’ll be a bunch of really crazy, interesting films that come out, that put us in the middle of the protest rather than the back, to a degree, with the reporters from the networks.

What’s your vision of freedom and liberation?

I think it’s where every man and woman is judged according to their worth and what they participate, where we are allowed freedom to work and live and love and be ourselves in peace, and silly things like the color of our skin are not the determinant factor. That’s what people were looking for when they went west and moved to Tulsa and other places in the West, for that. I think that’s what the protesters are out there protesting for. And that’s what we all want, is a chance to try to live our lives and prosper and be happy, without somebody stepping on our neck.

On Juneteenth (June 19), Firelight joins the Movement for Black Lives’ national call to action with a panel conversation discussing "Juneteenth, Tulsa, and the Path Towards Economic Justice." The discussion, featuring Stanley Nelson as a panelist, will be taking place on Zoom at 4 pm ET. You can register for the discussion here