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A new Cinemax documentary explores the 1921 Tulsa race riot, where one misstep on an elevator led to mass killings. 

Hidden History

One of the more shameful episodes in 20th-century U.S. history is given lengthy treatment in "The Tulsa Lynching of 1921," a new documentary written and produced by Michael Wilkerson.

The 90-minute video offers up the details of a brutal race riot in Tulsa, Okla., just about this time of the year in 1921.

Tulsa was a boom town in the early 1900s. Its citizens had the greatest per-capita wealth of any city on earth. With an economy based on oil, the city boasted of its opera house, the Petroleum Club and a vigorous Chamber of Commerce. It didn't brag, however, about its Ku Klux Klan, with a membership exceeding 3,000.

Prosperity in Tulsa wasn't limited to white residents. The city's Greenwood section was home to wealthy blacks, flourishing black-owned businesses, lovely homes and beautiful churches. It had earned the right to be called the Black Wall Street.

Less-successful whites in Tulsa envied Greenwood's success. Many of them had returned from service in World War I not long before. Many had brought weapons home with them. Many couldn't find jobs. It was a dangerous group: men with military know-how who were armed and unemployed.

The riot began when a black man named Dick Rowland stumbled into a white elevator operator as he was stepping into her car in a commercial building. He was a bootblack. He'd been given permission to use the restroom on the building's top floor. The woman's startled cries led to the assumption that she'd been assaulted, and Rowland was arrested.

The riot started on the evening of Rowland's arrest, when a group of about 500 blacks marched toward the jail after hearing rumors that Rowland was to be lynched. They were met by more than 3,000 armed whites who had been deputized by police. "Now you can go out and shoot any n—— you see," they were told.

Truckloads of whites began to roam through Greenwood, killing indiscriminately, and looting and burning homes. Firefighters were prevented from getting into the neighborhood. Blacks fled with nothing more than the clothes on their backs as civilians in biplanes dropped kerosene bombs on black homes. Telephone lines and railroads were blocked to keep word of the destruction from getting out. By dawn, Greenwood was little more than ashes and rubble.

The National Guard arrived just after dawn. Their first action was to set up camp and fix breakfast while Tulsa's black section burned. By 11:30, martial law was declared and any blacks left alive in the city were rounded up and placed in concentration camps.

The "official" death count was 37, but the documentary points to evidence of at least 300 deaths, and possibly hundreds more.

There is nothing remarkable about "The Tulsa Lynching of 1921" itself, and, at times, it seems to depend too much on the repetition of scarce historical images. What is astounding is the story it
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