When Watchmen on HBO begins, it includes scenes from a horrific race riot that resulted in many deaths in Tulsa in 1921. If you’re watching this and wondering if those riots really did happen in American history, the answer is yes. The Tulsa Race Massacre happened and it is a dark and terrible chapter in the history of America.
This article has minor spoilers for the beginning of Watchmen and the timeline setting.
Yes, the Horrific Tulsa Massacre of 1921 Really Did Happen
When the pilot for Watchmen opens, we’re in Tulsa 1921 during a major race massacre. There’s a huge riot and white protesters descend upon a prosperous black neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, looting and destroying the neighborhood and killing hundreds. This attack resonates in the series and carries forward all these years later into 2019.
This all takes place before the series diverges from real history into an alternative timeline. Sadly, the Tulsa Massacre really did happen in real life in 1921.
According to History.com, the Tulsa Race Massacre (or Tulsa Race Riot) took place from May 31-June 1, 1921. This is a dark, dark chapter in American history. A white mob attacked the residents and businesses of a peaceful and largely black neighborhood called Greenwood, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hundreds of people died and thousands became homeless.
Director Nicole Kassell told Slate that an “enormous amount of time” went into planning those scenes, including reading The Burning by Tim Madigan.
At the time in 1921 before the riots, Tulsa was prosperous, but vigilante justice was also common. Most of Tulsa’s black population lived in a thriving business region called Greenwood. It was so successful it was sometimes called Black Wall Street, History.com shared. Tulsa was known nationally for this affluent black community, Tulsa History shared.
It all started with an accusation made against a black man named Dick Rowland who was on an elevator with a woman named Sara Page. Tulsa History says the accounts became more exaggerated with the retelling, until armed black and white mobs faced each other at the courthouse. This bled over into Greenwood, where white rioters looted the district and the National Guard had to be brought in. Some of those white rioters were deputized and given weapons by the city, History.com notes. They looted and burned the district. They threatened firefighters with guns.
The violent riots left an official count of 36 deaths, but now that number is believed to be as high as 300. More than 800 people were injured and 35 blocks were destroyed. The Red Cross estimated that 1,256 homes were destroyed by fire and 215 more looted. Businesses, a hospital, churches, and more were destroyed.
You can learn more about the race riots in the videos below. The first is from Emory University.
The next video was created by CNN.
And this video is from the Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.
No one was prosecuted for what happened. There was a media blackout at the time, and many in other parts of the country had no idea about the horrors in Tulsa that day.
As for the charges against Rowland, those were later dismissed.