Until recently, the memory of what happened in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood had been buried with its victims. Today, exhuming the city’s past also means confronting its present.
Once a thriving Black community, Greenwood was built on oil and the wealth that springs from its wells. Booker T. Washington had called it “Negro Wall Street.”
But in 1921, a White mob destroyed Greenwood. Fueled by allegations that a Black teenager attacked a White female elevator operator, the mob burned the neighborhood to the ground, killing as many as 300 people and leaving thousands homeless. The local police joined the mob, as did National Guard troops, who attacked what one guard officer reportedly called “the enemy.”
Many of the dead were then dumped into unmarked graves.
When 60 Minutes producer Nicole Young and correspondent Scott Pelley set out to tell the story of the Greenwood massacre for this week’s broadcast, they visited the Vernon AME Church. In 1921, the mob had burned the church, leaving only its basement intact. Once the smoke cleared, Greenwood residents returned to that basement to resume worship, and as the community rebuilt, the church became its spiritual heart.
At the church last December, Young and Pelley assembled members of the congregation and asked them to tell the oral histories they had learned about Greenwood from generations past. Many people said their families had been afraid to speak of the massacre, for fear of retribution.
“They didn’t talk about it in our family,” said Therese Anderson Adoonie, a Tulsa resident. “But what I do know is that my father grew up watching them rebuild from ashes.”
Among those who had gathered to tell their ancestors’ stories was Rev. Joey Crutcher, whose grandmother had survived the Greenwood massacre before fleeing Tulsa. Almost a century later, Crutcher’s son, Terence, was shot dead by a White police officer in the same city.
In 2016, Betty Jo Shelby fatally shot Terence Crutcher as he was standing next to his vehicle in the middle of a street. He was unarmed. Although a jury later acquitted Shelby, who now works as a deputy sheriff in a neighboring Rogers County, the shooting spurred protests and renewed a national debate over race and policing.
“There was absolutely no justification whatsoever, with all the backup, for Officer Shelby to pull that trigger,” Tiffany Crutcher, Terence’s sister, told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker in 2017.
Just as Crutcher’s death drove people to the street in protest, the death of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police last month has once again inflamed the conversation about police violence and racial bias.
In Tulsa, it is a debate that has continued for almost a century.
“Tulsa still has a deep racial divide,” 60 Minutes’ Young said. “You still have a Black side of Tulsa. You still have a White side of Tulsa. There’s still a railroad track dividing both sides of the town and a highway that was built in the ’60s right through Greenwood.”
After Floyd’s death on Memorial Day—the same week the Tulsa race massacre occurred 99 years ago—the Rev. Robert Turner of Vernon AME church led a protest through Tulsa to remember Black Americans who have been killed. The crowd chanted Terence Crutcher’s name, among others, “whose lives were taken by racists in power—their perpetrators not brought to justice,” Rev. Turner wrote in a statement.
In Tulsa, long-sought justice will be the focus next month as test excavation begin searching for the remains of the victims murdered almost 100 years ago.
“The massacre was always important, which is why 60 Minutes was there,” Young explained. “But now, seeing the heartache of a nation, of a community, of a people, understanding the dark history of America in all its ugly forms, all of the hard conversations are more important now than they ever have been.”
The video above was produced by Will Croxton and Brit McCandless Farmer. It was edited by Will Croxton.
Photos courtesy of Tim Landes/TulsaPeople, Tulsa Historical Society & Museum, Greenwood Cultural Center, Oklahoma Historical Society, University of Tulsa – McFarlin Library and AP Images/Tulsa World
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