Capturing the history of our country is key in discovering the true fabric of our nation.
For many the story of the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921 is not even forgotten history, it’s an event that has never been brought to their attention to begin with.
Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook is trying to change that. He’s one of the executive producers of “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre,” which is set to premiere Sunday, May 30 at 8 p.m. on the History Channel. Westbrook, with award-winning directors Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams, tells the story of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which was one of the most promising areas for Black opportunity in the entire nation. Black businesses, Black banks, and Black doctors were flourishing in the Greenwood community until the evening of May 31, 1921, when white mobs destroyed the Greenwood community over two horrific days.
Donnell Beverly is an executive producer on the project for Russell Westbrook enterprises. Beverly spoke exclusively to Deadspin about the impact of the 2-hour documentary and nearly two and a half years of work that he and Westbrook put in to help bring this story to the forefront.
*Responses edited for conciseness and clarity*
“It’s an extremely powerful story,” said Beverly. “This massive part of American history that’s just been intentionally hidden, quite frankly, for Black people specifically you know, to know about this history is important as we kind of translate what’s happening today in the world.”
Beverly said that Westbrook didn’t hear about this story until he was a young adult playing in Oklahoma with the Thunder. And for Beverly himself, it wasn’t until a few years after Westbrook moved to Oklahoma that he found out about this crucial piece of American history. It’s an experience that many people can relate to, considering the event is consistently overlooked, if not intentionally omitted, throughout history curriculums and in mainstream media. This is where the motivation came for Beverly and Westbrook to bring this story to light.
The story of Greenwood and Black Wall Street is one of the most unique stories in American history because it shows not only Black struggle and Black oppression, but it is predicated on the self-sufficiency of Black people and Black excellence as a whole. According to Beverly, highlighting all of these aspects was one of the hardest parts of telling this story, but it was vital.
“Unfortunately what happened in history, one doesn’t happen without the other in regards to the tragic going to the rebuild and the perseverance,” said Beverly. “I would say that was just the hardest part of just trying to showcase what was the most impactful part because everything was just as important to the viewer.”
“It’s inspiring as well, hopefully, this story just isn’t about.. Hey, this just happened and burned down but also it just shows how the perseverance of Black people, you know once again [we] persevered everything that’s thrown at us and you know once again continue to fight.”
The ramifications of the Tulsa massacre have had effects far beyond those two deadly days. In a country where Black people continue to be on the lower end of the racial wealth gap, destroying thriving communities that constantly produced opportunities for Black individuals in a time where Black people had nothing undoubtedly contributed to where we are today.
“When you think about, American history overall, you know, a hundred years ago wasn’t that long. The Civil Rights Movement? Wasn’t that long ago,” said Beverly. “Economic empowerment can really drive a community. Businesses within that community hire in the community hire from the community, that sustainability that they were able to create…. if that massacre never happened who knows how that shapes America today.”
The story of Black Wall Street in Tulsa is a piece of American history that the masses need to know. It’s a story of innovation, devastation, and strength. Westbrook, Beverly, and everyone associated with this project deserve credit for finally bringing this story to a national audience.
“We want all people. But, you know, black people especially to walk away feeling inspired and empowered,” said Beverly. “We can go through anything and persevere and we can then affect the next generation.”