On the night of June 1, 1921, a white mob invaded an affluent black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., burned and looted more than 1,000 homes and businesses, and killed an unknown number of residents.
The long-ignored night of terror has recently attracted more attention. A special Oklahoma state commission conducted an investigation and produced a lengthy report in 2001. And now it is the subject of a play called "False Creeds," which centers on a teenager who discovers, in 1995, how his once well-to-do family suddenly lost its home, its place in society and much more.
"It was the largest single incident of racial violence in U.S. history," said Scott Ellsworth, a contributor to the riot report and author of a book on the subject, "Death in a Promised Land."
The play, written by Darren M. Canady, won the national Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition for graduate-student playwrights and will be presented at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre on Feb. 9 through March 4. It's directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, who worked with Canady on the play last summer at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut, where she serves as artistic director. Canady was a student at New York University when he won the competition, conducted by the Alliance under a grant from an anonymous donor.
Canady, 25, is from Topeka, Kan., and based the play on "Race Riot 1921: Events of the Tulsa Disaster," a book by Mary E. Jones Parrish, who compiled accounts by black survivors. He also used stories told to him by his grandmother, Mattie Evans, who grew up in the Tulsa area.
‘The Black Wall Street’
Despite severe restrictions on where they could live and shop, blacks established a community in Tulsa's Greenwood section with a library, a hospital, successful businesses and numerous doctors, lawyers and other professionals. The area was so wealthy that it was dubbed "the Black Wall Street."
"There was a group of people who said separate doesn't mean we are all poor," Canady said. "They were so successful at it that it made them a target."
The play's modern-day teenage character, Jason, "has this idea about who he is and what his family is and what their history is, and he finds out that there's a whole different side to the story," Canady said.
The story of the riot was suppressed in Tulsa, Canady said. Ellsworth, a native of the city, agreed.
‘A mark of shame’
"It was a mark of shame, and they realized that talking about it was not going to be helpful for the development of the city," he said. "And in the African-American community, there was reluctance to deal with the dark aspects of the past."
Jason receives a mysterious "memory box" from his grandmother, who was a child when the community was attacked. As he examines the contents, events unfold beginning hours before the riot, when his family still enjoyed upper-class status. By the next day, his great-grandmother and her maid are equals.
"There's a point with Jason where he doesn't want to know, some of it because it's too painful," said Warner Miller, who plays Jason.
Jason jumps in and out of the action, which took considerable skill on the playwright's part, Goldberg said. "It's hard to construct a narrator who has so many facets and doesn't just act as a mouthpiece," she said.
The play's title refers to an expression used by Parrish. "The Tulsa disaster has ... dissipated some of our false creeds," she wrote. "Some of our group who have been blessed with educational or financial advantages are oft-times inclined to forget ourselves to the extent that they feel their superiority over those less fortunate."
It starts with a shootout
The riot began with a shootout as a group of black men tried to stop a lynching. Police treated the event as a black uprising, and hundreds of whites were immediately deputized. During the night, 35 blocks of Greenwood were demolished, some by the deputies, and survivors were herded to detention centers. Many of them lived in tents for months.
More than 50 blacks were charged with rioting, although most charges were dropped. Tulsa's police chief was suspended, but no whites ever went to prison.
Estimates of fatalities, including about a dozen whites, range from the upper 30s to 300. "A generation of men they made vanish," Jason and his great-grandmother say near the end of the play.
Lawsuits and insurance claims by black citizens were rejected. A federal appeals court ruled in 2005 that later attempts to sue were barred by the statute of limitations.
"False Creeds" is the first professional production for Canady. He is working on two other plays, one called "Right On," about a reunion of one-time black radicals, and another titled "How I Saved Hip-Hop," a satire about the music industry.
To encourage productions of the play elsewhere, the Alliance scheduled its performance early in the season so that artistic directors who see it will still have time to mount it next season, said company spokeswoman Marci Tate. Scripts have also been sent to theater companies around the United States.