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The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race

In 2020 I came across Tim Madigan's powerful book about the infamous Tulsa Riots. The Tulsa Riots are now, thanks to TV shows like The Watchmen, becoming more explored and the terrible history and great shame being given a platform to discuss and address.

Hi Tim, in 2019 Watchmen became one of the first major TV series to finally put a focus on The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921. Did it surprise you that even after everything that has happened that this salient event in American History still remained locked out of the mainstream culture? 


After I became aware of Tulsa and our race history in the United States more generally (that was more than 20 years ago) I wasn't really surprised that it wasn't a part of mainstream culture. A huge feature of the history of race here was how effectively it was hidden, whitewashed, ignored. That was certainly in the best interests of whites. A big part of my work the last few decades has been to help restore that part of our past to known and taught history, but I always felt that it would take a popular culture event like Watchmen, a miniseries or movie, to really penetrate the consciousness of the nation.


What were some of the feelings and thoughts you had when you first discovered the history of the Tulsa Race Riots?


First, I have to correct you. In the last few years, the nomenclature has been corrected. What happened in Tulsa and in scores of other places across the nation during the Jim Crow era, were not riots but massacres. After a precipitating event, mobs of whites murdered blacks, typically with impunity. My first thought, when I learned about it, I was shocked that I had not known about something so horrific. I was even more shocked when I learned that Tulsa was not some horrible one-off, but completely consistent with that time in our history, unique only in its scope. 


Can you tell me a little bit about how your book The Burning came about?


The Tulsa Massacre was brought to my attention by my editor at a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas. She assigned me to write a story about what happened that ran under the headline, Tulsa's Terrible Secret. That piece led to my book. 


Did you have any apprehensions about writing a book on such a powerful subject?


I didn't have any apprehensions, but again, I was fascinated to learn, for the first time, of the true nature of our race history. 

During your research for The Burning, what were some of the surprising facts you discovered about this unique African-American community?


There is a phrase I hear a lot now among African Americans, who love to point out that their ancestors accomplished so much "in spite of" the trials and challenges they faced. Tulsa's Greenwood community was a great example of that. It was a thriving place of very accomplished people, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, journalists and teachers. That affluence also made it a target of white jealousy, which was a significant contributing factor to what happened.


"Just look at the march in Charlottesville or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those were the same passions that were alive on the streets of Tulsa in 1921."

You got the opportunity to talk with some African-Americans who actually remembered the night of June 1st 1921, what was this experience like for you to get such first-hand accounts? 


Having the privilege to interview those folks was one of the most profound experiences of my career. They still smelled the smoke and heard the gunfire, and told me about those memories in excruciating detail, but to a person, they seemed devoid of bitterness. They treated me with such grace and kindness.


Why do you think The Tulsa Race Riots became such an unspoken subject within America?


It's like what I said before, it was in the interest of the dominant white culture that this history not be known. That said, the conspiracy of silence in Tulsa, how the community kept the massacre so effectively hidden for nearly a century is one of the most fascinating and important stories of American history. 


The Burning has recently been adapted into a book for young readers and now it's 100 years later, how important is it to ensure that we better understand this history and ensure that it is taught and not forgotten? 


One of the nation's greatest failings is how our schools have failed to teach generations of students the full history of America. It is essential that this be rectified and I think that slowly, it is. 


What would you say has been the biggest lesson you've taken away from writing The Burning?


What happened in 1921 and throughout the Jim Crow era remains painfully relevant today. The same dark passions that animated the horrors of Tulsa and so many other places remain in the nation today to an extent that most people would have thought unthinkable. Just look at the march in Charlottesville or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those were the same passions that were alive on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.


And finally, what do you hope readers will take away from this book?


It has been my experience that when white people of goodwill learn about Tulsa and the full history of race in this nation, their hearts are often changed. That was certainly true in my case. They finally begin to understand the depths of the wound that had been festering just below the surface of society for so long. They are often inspired to become part of the healing. That is why things like Watchmen and the expanded readership of my book have been so important. Hearts are changed. 

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