What is the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?

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Watchmen on HBO: What is the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre?
Watchmen takes place in Tulsa, OK, home of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Pic credit: Mark Hill/HBO

Watchmen is coming to HBO with its premiere on Sunday night. Most fans know of the source material from both comic books and the movie world, but there is a real-life historical moment that plays into the series.

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One thing that people might take notice of when Watchmen premieres on Sunday night is that the show takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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While that seems strange, Damon Lindelof explained at the Summer 2019 TCA Press Tour why he chose Tulsa for the location of Watchmen on HBO.

“Four or five years ago I first read The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nihisi Coates and I subsequently read a lot of his writing, and that was the first time that I heard about black Wall Street and what happened in Tulsa in ’21, and was sort of ashamed and confused, and embarrassed that I had never heard about it before, and then bought a book called “The Burning” where I learned all about it, and that was the beginning of my education.”

With that in mind, here is what you need to know about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote The Case for Reparations in 2014 and referenced the events that took place in Tulsa in 1921.

In 1921, a white mob leveled Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The full story was told in the 2013 book The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

That is important because the truth was hidden for many years and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa to talk to survivors from the 1921 race riot.

It wasn’t until that time that a commission authorized by the Oklahoma legislature finally affirmed the event over 80 years later.

The event was horrific. It all started with a misunderstanding. A black man and a white woman (the elevator operator) were on an elevator. When the door opened, the woman screamed and the man left the scene.

The woman claimed she had been assaulted and the rumors spread that he raped her on the elevator in the short time they were together there.

An arrest warrant was issued for the man and he was taken into custody. That is when a large white mob showed up at the jail and demanded the man to be turned over to them for a lynching.

The police refused, and soon the black community learned what was happening and came to his aid. A white man with a gun threatened one of the black men and the gun went off. It was the white man who was shot.

This is when the riots started and when they finally concluded, Black Wall Street, where these people lived, was burned down.

The reason it was called Black Wall Street was that Tulsa, Oklahoma had one of the best thriving black communities in 1921. The businesses on Black Wall Street were all successful and the black people were rich.

That also caused a lot of jealousy from the white community, who were angry that the black community was successful and the white community was poor.

There were too many white attackers involved and they burst through the barricades and burned down 35 city blocks. Several black residents were shot dead in the streets. Hundreds to thousands of men, women, and children died on that day.

The black victims never received any restorations because the Tulsa government called it a riot when most involved considered it a massacre.

Tulsa Race Riot and Watchmen

The original Watchmen comic books saw the United States and Russia on the brink of a nuclear war. The world’s smartest hero was Ozymandias and he developed a plan to fake an alien attack in the comics (Doctor Manhattan was the attacker in the movie) to force the world to work together.

It ended the nuclear threat and only cost the world millions of lives.

For the Watchmen TV show, Lindelof saw the Tulsa race massacre as a good stand-in for the U.S. and Russia conflicts from the past.

“What in 2019 is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Americans and the Russians?” Lindelof asked. “It is race and the police … There is no defeating white supremacy — it’s not going away. There are no easy answers and grandiose solution.”

Watchmen airs on HBO on Sunday nights at 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT.

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