TULSA, Oklahoma — More than 100 years after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the city is prioritizing its investigation into what happened. Historians believe as many as 300 people died, but original reports from the 1920s state 36. At the end of 2022, 32 unidentified burials had been found, and those excavations are just the beginning of what some experts say is a step in correcting known history.
By definition, history is the study of past events but too often, it's been said history is written by the victors.
"The nation and the world are coming to the realization, 'Wow, this wasn't in my history book, but it's real history,'" said Phil Armstrong, the interim director of Greenwood Rising.
As the executive director for the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, Michelle Place says over time, that's begun to change. She points to the current moment— a moment some would describe as a turning point.
"I really believe that our history books, tales of history have always been told by the victors," Place said. "So, I think that's what we're in the middle of is this reckoning and more people asking questions and curious and not buying into what we've been told always."
In Tulsa, more than 100 years after the nation's deadliest massacre, leaders and advocates are working to discover exactly what happened in 1921. They are filling gaps in the city's history and providing information that most never knew.
"And they all repeated the same things: 'I was shocked.' 'I was embarrassed,' that 'I didn't know and then I got angry; why don't I know this?'", Armstrong said.
Greenwood Rising serves as a Black Wall Street history center that has created a space for the stories that were once lost and the facts never written in history books.
"This is a narrative museum. We are telling a story, a true story of history," Armstrong said. "Because it was meant to be here to educate. For people to come from all over the world, all over the city, all over the country and never ever have to say, 'I never knew this.'"
Surfacing the facts of the Tulsa massacre is in big part about racial reckoning. In 1921, Jim Crow and white supremacy played a huge role in the destruction that occurred. People were killed, families were never given answers, and it wasn't until recently, excavations began to try to identify unmarked graves. It's no longer just the victors telling the narrative; now, the stories of those on the other side are on display.
"This was their lineage, their life, and our community took time to spend millions of dollars to build something that would acknowledge that," Armstrong said.
Rewriting history isn't unique to Tulsa.
"I would say that Tulsa is no different than any other community that has a difficult past," Place said.
For generations, Indigenous populations have been fighting to have their voices heard. Experts say some of their histories haven't been published or accurately portrayed. Another example points to the recent push to remove confederate statues.
"You look at Confederate monuments and why are we taking those down," Place said.
Experts say the statues misrepresent history and glorify people who perpetuated slavery, and in turn, people want to see the missing side of those stories portrayed.
"We're not erasing history; we're just looking at it from another viewpoint," Place said.
No matter what part of history we are discussing, you need both sides of any story to accurately represent the past.
"This is inspiring more work towards what does racial reconciliation look like, and sometimes it begins with let's acknowledge that it was here," Armstrong said. "There were communities like this all over the country, and I hope 20 years from now we'll see people tell their community stories about we had one of those here too."
People like Place and Armstrong say it's the responsibility of the current generations to right the wrongs of the past, no matter how long ago those events might have occurred.
"The past causes the present and affects the future," Place said.
"A group of people who forget their past are (sic) destined to repeat it. The consequences of not going back in history to reveal things that were either not accurately recorded...or misrepresented causes you years later to invariably repeat the mistakes of the past," Armstrong said.