The Tulsa Race Massacre and Red Summer of 1919 with DeNeen Brown

In this interview, we meet DeNeen L. Brown, a reporter at The Washington Post. After her story on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was published on the front page of The Washington Post in 2018, the mayor of Tulsa announced the city would reopen an investigation into the search for mass graves that may contain bodies of Black people killed during the massacre, which historians call the single worst incident of racist violence committed against Black Americans in U.S. history.


DeNeen also discusses the history of the Red Summer of 1919, when a reign of racist terror massacres and lynchings swept more than 25 cities across the United States and how this set the stage for the Tulsa Race Massacre.


Finally, DeNeen talks about the ongoing investigation in Tulsa that began in 2020, when scientists working on the investigation discovered a mass grave in the city’s public cemetery, and what has happened since.




Laura: Thank you for joining us for our annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. We are so honored to have DeNeen Brown from the Washington Post join us today. DeNeen, you were our keynote speaker and it was fantastic. We just got to listen to you. Before we get started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background for the viewers.

DeNeen: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I am DeNeen Brown. I am a reporter for the Washington Post. I’ve been a reporter for 35 years. I’m also an Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland. I’ve covered a lot of things at the Washington Post. I started out covering night police, homicides in DC, I was a copy editor, I was a feature editor, education reporter. I was also a foreign correspondent and did a lot of work in the arctic on climate change, and I wrote on indigenous populations in the arctic. That was just an amazing job.


Laura: What was that like? It was on my bucket list. I did not make it to the arctic, but I can’t imagine having the opportunity to spend some time there.


DeNeen: When I became a foreign correspondent, my first job, and I kid you not, was to travel on an icebreaker through the northwest passage. So, I flew from Washington to Toronto to Edmonton to Yellow Knife and then landed in a little town called Resolute, which is at the top of the map. It’s a little dot and it’s a town where many arctic explorers will fly to and then they’ll take off on their northern expeditions. And then I got on a helicopter and flew to the ice breaker which was waiting for me on the sea ice and the captain told me as I was getting on the helicopter, he said, “If we should have a water landing, wait for the propellers to stop turning, and I’ll open the door and we’ll get out.” And I said ok, and I jumped right in the helicopter and I found out later that if we landed in the arctic seawater, we might survive two minutes. But that was my first assignment. I saw polar bears and saw how the sea ice was melting from the top and started reporting on climate change.


Laura: What an amazing first assignment and also powerful to be able to write on climate change, but yeah, I can’t imagine. If we have a water landing, don’t worry about it. And Resolute feels like the right name. I think you’d have to be pretty Resolute to be able to live there.


DeNeen: It was my first time seeing 24 hours of daylight.


Laura: Amazing. I’ve only seen a little bit of that when I was in Norway for a summer, but I don’t think I slept at all.


DeNeen: Did you see the Northern Lights?


Laura: Yes, amazing. One of the great things about being a writer is you get to go all different places. Well let’s talk about your presentation today. It was incredible. Today you were talking a lot about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which remarkably, some people don’t know about and it’s now getting a lot more attention because you’re doing some excavations at Oak Lawn Cemetery. And you also talked about the 1919 Red Summer, which really led into what happened in 1921. Can you tell us more about that. You did some really remarkable reporting that came out in 2018 and for viewers that don’t know the story, it would be wonderful to start from the beginning and tell them what it is.


DeNeen: Sure, so the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre began on May 30, 1921. The trigger event for the massacre began, historians say, when Dick Rolland, who was a black teenager, he was a shoe-shiner in downtown Tulsa, went to use the restroom in a building called the Drexel Building. The Drexel Building had the only restroom available to black people at the time in a segregated Tulsa. And the story goes he got on an elevator operated by Sara Page, who was a white elevator operator. It was a wire caged elevator. When the doors opened again, Sara let out a shriek. Kind of an ear-piercing shriek. And Dick Rolland took off and ran. Well there was a nearby department clerk who heard Sara shriek and he called the police.

Later, Dick Rolland was arrested and he was taken to the courthouse in downtown Tulsa. The headline in the Tulsa Tribune the next day read “Nab Negro for Attack on Girl in Elevator”. Historians say that headline was a whistle call to the clan that had been gathering in Tulsa and so hundreds of white people marched to the courthouse in downtown Tulsa demanding that Dick Rolland be released so that they could lynch him.

At the same time, there were black veterans who had gathered in Greenwood, which at the time was an all-black community not far from downtown Tulsa. They marched to the courthouse to protect Dick Rolland and to prevent the lynching.

There was a struggle that ensued between the veterans and the white mob. One of the members of the white mob said to the black veterans, “What are you gonna do with that gun?” and the black veteran who had fought in WWI said, “I’m gonna use it if I have to.” A struggle ensued, a shot went off, a white man was hit, and historians say all Hell broke loose.

After that, the mob marched on Greenwood, this all-black community of Tulsa that at one point was so prosperous that Booker T. Washington, the philosopher, called it Negro Wall Street. You had black millionaires, they owned oil wells, there were luxury hotels, there were Model T cars. It was just a prosperous bustling economy and as this mob marched onto Greenwood, they began killing people indiscriminately. Killing black people.

I always say it’s very much like that movie, The Purge, where they were just killing black people. They killed children, black women, black men, elderly couples. They set fire to houses. Historians say that Tulsa was the first US city that was bombed by air. There are eye-witness accounts in white men in airplanes flying over Greenwood dropping homemade turpentine bombs on the houses and businesses in Greenwood. There are pictures of the smoke billowing out of these houses and businesses from the top.

As many as 300 black people were killed during that massacre that occurred over two days. It ended on June 1, 1921.


Laura: it’s hard to… It kind of leaves you speechless. It’s hard to imagine that happening and really from what I read, the entire neighborhood was devastated. Completely gone. 300 people murdered brutally. What happened in the aftermath of that?


DeNeen: Well, it looked like a bomb had gone off on Greenwood. The community was completely devastated. It was reduced to smoldering rubble. Many of the black people who survived the massacre were rounded up into what historians called concentration camps, and I don’t use that word lightly, but that’s what they called them. Those who survived the massacre were taken to the fairgrounds, the convention center, and other places in Tulsa and they were held at gunpoint until white employers could come vouch for them. Many were released only if their employers could vouch for them and then they were made to wear green tags.

While many of these people where in the convention center and these camps, city officials went about burying the bodies of the black people who were killed during the massacre. Survivors say that the bodies were buried in mass graves or dumped in the Arkansas River. There are some accounts of the survivors bodies thrown on trucks. And it was just a devastating time. Many black people escaped to all-black towns that surrounded Tulsa. Some went to Kansas City, Wichita, Topeka, Chicago, California. So, millions of dollars of black wealth vanished in that massacre. It was utterly devastating.


Laura: with that horrific event and I can’t believe… There must have been many people who were injured and then perished from their injuries. Were people being rounded up? Was there any care for them? I can imagine it went far beyond the 300 who were massacred. There must have been a crazy long-term effect from this.


DeNeen: Yeah, so according to my research, more than 800 black people were injured during the massacre. Some ended up living in tents because their homes had been burned, but there was a particular account of a great doctor whose name was AC Jackson. Dr. AC Jackson and the Mayo brothers had deemed him the greatest Negro surgeon in America. He was one of the world’s best doctors. He had tried to defend his home, his wife and children from the mob, and when the mob encountered him defending his home, they said, “if you come out with your hands up, you’ll be protected.” So, Dr. Jackson, this great doctor came out of his house with his hands up and they say that a young white ruffian shot him. Dr. Jackson would later die of internal bleeding at one of these internment camps, because the black hospital had been burned to the ground.


Laura: It’s hard to fathom. When you were researching the story and talking to these people and learning more about their experience, did you come in with some knowledge of what had happened or were you also shocked about what you heard once you were on the ground talking to the people of Tulsa?


DeNeen: Yeah, I had heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I had been doing reporting on history and what happened to black people in history for the Washington Post and had written other stories about events that had occurred in Tulsa, so when I went to Tulsa in 2018 to visit my father and step-mother who live in Tulsa, we had lunch on Black Wallstreet at a soul food cafe. I was aware of the massacre, but what struck me during my lunch was I knew that this was the site of one of the most horrific terrorist massacres in US history, but there was new development in the heart of Greenwood. There was a minor league baseball stadium, a new apartment building, a yoga studio, a yogurt shop, and I just thought, “Oh my God. Black Wall Street, the site of this horrific massacre, is being gentrified?” There, at the time, there didn’t seem to be any memorial or indication that was related to the massacre to memorialize what had happened and it really struck me at my core. So, I went back to Washington and talked to my editors about what I saw during my visit in Tulsa and my editors sent me back to Tulsa to do more reporting. And that’s when I started reporting actively on the history of the massacre and what had happened in its aftermath.


Laura: Your 2018 article really caught the attention not just of the nation, but of Tulsa, and the mayor of Tulsa at the time. Can you tell us more about that?


DeNeen: Yeah, so, I don’t take any credit for this, because the activists were on the ground in Tulsa the whole time calling for attention to what happened in the massacre. But, in 2018, I wrote a story for the Washington Post that ran on the front page. The headline was “They Was Killing Black People” and the story raised questions about an investigation that occurred in 1998. At the time, the city and state had formed a commission called the Tulsa Race Riot Commission and it was charged with investigating what happened during the massacre. That commission also made several recommendations including paying reparations to the descendants and survivors of the massacre, recommendation to form a state scholarship for students impacted by the massacre, a recommendation to erect a memorial, and also a really important recommendation to physically search sites in Tulsa for mass graves. That meant excavation.

But at the time in 2001, when this report was released, the mayor at the time decided to close that investigation without excavating at various sites where scientists had found anomalies under the ground. So, it seemed like the investigation was over. When the mayor decided to close it, people went back to their other jobs, and then I came in as a reporter asking questions. Well, why was it closed?

So when my story was published on the front page of the Post in September 2018, the current mayor of Tulsa, GP Bynum held a community meeting in North Tulsa. He was talking about plans for development in North Tulsa, which was old Greenwood, and there was a minister who was sitting in the back of the room during that meeting and he stood up at the end of the meeting, and he told me he held a copy of my story and he said he would not have this land to develop had there not been a massacre. What are you going to do about it? And that’s when the mayor announced he would reopen the search for mass graves.


Laura: It’s really remarkable in so many ways. First that it has taken so long and there were attempts thwarted, but over the last couple of years, quite a bit has happened with the excavation. Can you tell us more about that?


DeNeen: Yeah, so in 2018, the mayor announced that he would reopen the search about the mass graves. I remember getting a call about the meeting and I got the mayor on the phone and he said, because I was thinking, he wants to reopen search, so surely he would have the approval of the city council, and he said, “No, he has that authority to re-open the search itself as mayor,” and that he would treat this like a murder investigation. That it was an open murder investigation and he told me that if there were mass graves in the city of Tulsa, we need to find them. We need to find them, and give them proper burial. So, the city began its search including using ground penetrating radar at various sites in the city. In December 2019, they announced that they actually found anomalies beneath the ground that looked like mass graves. In July of 2020 the city actually broke ground in an excavation in Oak Lawn Cemetery and then in October of 2020, scientists found a mass grave. State archaeologist Matt Castlebeck said this is a mass grave and they found multiple coffins containing human remains. More than 30 coffins at the time. The city just expanded its search, including another excavation last week, and on Friday, they found 12 more coffins in that mass grave. Then on Saturday, they found 5 more coffins, so it’s an active search of this pit, which they called the ‘Colored’ section of this cemetery. It was a segregated cemetery. So, they found a mass grave. It contains dozens of coffins that were unmarked. This was unmarked site. No one really knew what was under the ground there, and now that they have opened the site for excavation, they see that there are coffins there.

Officials say they’re still unsure whether these remains are connected to the Tulsa Race Massacre. They’ll do DNA analysis and other investigations, including forensic investigation, to determine whether these were victims of the massacre. One of the scientists told me they would be looking for gunshot wounds and any kind of trauma, including burns, that might indicate that these remains are connected to the Tulsa Race Massacre.


Laura: What does this mean for the people who are descendants of people who were murdered during the Tulsa Race Massacre? I understand that at least some have been identified at this point, or at least possibly?


DeNeen: No, there is still ongoing investigation to determine if they were victims of the massacre. They did find a skeletal remain with multiple gunshot wounds, one bullet still lodged in the shoulder of the remains, so again, it’s an ongoing investigation to determine whether the remains that they found in this mass grave are connected to the massacre.


Laura: It must be a puzzle to try to find the mass graves in the first place. I imagine historians, story telling, talking to people, descendants of survivors who heard stories growing up… You have a personal connection to Tulsa as well. Did you ever hear anything from family members or people you talked to on the ground?


DeNeen: Well, my aunt told me that black people whispered about this massacre. There was a real fear that it would happen again. White people had stopped talking about this massacre because the perpetrators were still alive and they had taken pictures… Some of them had taken pictures of themselves standing over black people and had made postcards to mail around the country. It was a thing for lynching and massacres. So, for nearly 100 years, it was silenced. It was left out of textbooks. It was left out of history books. Those who survived it talked about it in whispers.

So, my connection to Tulsa is that my father lives there. He’s a descendent of Creek Freedman. My paternal grandmother was born in Boley, which is an all-black town very close to Tulsa and we know that many black people escaped Greenwood and headed for the black towns in Oklahoma. I know that my paternal great-grandma lived in Tulsa, but I don’t know her. I don’t know much about her.

But, for those who are descendants of both survivors and victims of the massacre, there is lingering generational trauma from the massacre. It was a traumatic event, so that trauma is passed from generation to generation to generation.  It is important to find the people who went missing during the massacre who were killed, who were buried in mass graves. Descendants tell me that it’s important to give them proper burials.


Laura: Absolutely. It casts such a long, dark shadow over the city. This is really more of a subjective opinion question, but do you feel this process could help in some very small way with the trauma that people have experienced and continue to experience?


DeNeen: Well, according to my reporting, the people on the ground in Tulsa tell me that in order for there to be healing, there has to be truth and reconciliation and repair, so this process of searching for mass graves is searching for the truth of what happened. So, in order for the healing to begin, you have to start with acknowledging the truth.


Laura: The truth, absolutely, acknowledging and exposing that and helping people understand what really happened. And you mentioned in your presentation that it wasn’t just Tulsa. There was at least, it sounded like, 30 more events that were similar that happened across the nation. Could what’s happening in Tulsa be an inspiration for this to continue in other places?


DeNeen: In my interview with the mayor of Tulsa, GT Bynum, he actually told me that he gets calls from other officials in other cities and they’re watching Tulsa. Tulsa has created a blueprint for how cities and towns across the country can deal with the racist terror history that occurred there. The lynchings and the massacres. Historians tell me that there are more than 30 racist terror massacres that have happened against black people that occurred in this country. There are cities and towns across this country where lynchings and massacres have occurred. They include those massacres that occurred during the Red Summer of 1919.

That was a particular reign of terror that occurred in the summer of 1919. It’s called the Red Summer to describe all the blood that flowed in the streets that summer. The Red Summer includes massacres that occurred in Washington DC, Omaha, Nebraska, Chicago, Illinois. One in particular that I’ve done a lot of research on is Elaine, Arkansas, and historians told me there that they believe that as many as 800 people were killed in Elaine, Arkansas and it’s hard to really wrap your head around these massacres, but when I went to Elaine to do research for the documentary Rise Again Tulsa and the Red Summer, I met with descendants of the Elaine, Arkansas massacre and there’s generational trauma, they want the city or state to search for mass graves. It was a horrific event.

One thing that’s different about Elaine is that it’s a rural area in Arkansa. So, when the white mobs descended on Elaine in September of 1919, they literally had to walk for miles across acres of land to hunt for black people who were collecting cotton and again, they don’t know where those people are buried. There’s a mound that descendants and survivors point to and say, “the bodies are buried there”, but Arkansas is not searching for these victims in the same way that Tulsa is. So, there are really horrific events that occurred across this county and it’s just really really sad.


Laura: It’s really hard to hear. It really does just leave me speechless again that so many of these events occurred and there has been no resolution, no move to make this right in some way for whatever can be done and asking the people who were affected, what do you want, what can we do? I hope that Tulsa can be an inspiration moving forward. This is a forensic DNA conference, so coming to speak here, we really appreciate that. Why was it important for you to come and talk to this particular group?


DeNeen: Well, thank you. It was a great invitation. I think the reason that I decided to come talk is because I’m not a scientist, I’m not a lawyer, not a forensic anthropologist or archaeologist, but I came to tell the stories as a storyteller. As a writer and a journalist, I wanted to share some of the stories of those people who survived these massacres and the witnesses who saw what happened, and I was hoping that by sharing the stories, it would inspire the people in the audience who are doing this work to really engage and leave here perhaps fired up and ready to go find these pieces of history to help the survivors and descendants of these victims to help them heal. To help them heal by perhaps finding those in mass graves. Not only in Tulsa, but those across this country. So, it was my challenge to them to perhaps leave here and go find the bodies.


Laura: I have been working with this audience for about 12 years now and I don’t know if you could find a more engaged group, so having you speak here, I hope it moves mountains. I hope that we have you back and have so many more stories to tell about how these resolutions and using forensic DNA to really let people know what happened and connect them to people who are alive today; both survivors and descendants and educating children going forward so that nothing like this ever happens again. Do you want to talk about Rise Again? I would love to hear about that.


DeNeen: Rise Again Tulsa and the Red Summer is a National Geographic documentary. It was released in June of 2021 to mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. That film is directed by Don Porter, who’s a phenomenal phenomenal film maker. And the film really covers Tulsa, but it also includes the events that happened during the Red Summer of 1919 which I argue and some historians say set the stage for Tulsa. The Red Summer of 1919 set the stage for the Tulsa Race Massacre. During the Red Summer of 1919, there were more than 97 lynchings and dozens of race massacres targeting people of the black communities across this country. That film helps to tell the story of the other massacres that led to Tulsa that set the stage for Tulsa and the patterns that you’ll find in many of the massacres are much the same. White mobs descending on black communities and black neighborhoods sparked by what historians say is wealth envy. To subjugate the black people that were prospering, many times they began with an accusation, false accusation, of a black man assaulting a white woman which would spark this kind of murderous rampage of the mob. It’s just hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine what people endured.


Laura: it is. It’s a horrible example of history repeating itself that quickly in a row that summer and then far beyond it had impacts moving forward. Are you still working on articles related to this? What are you working on now? If you can speak to it? What’s next for you?


DeNeen: Yeah, thank you for asking. I’m still writing stories about the excavation in Tulsa. I just wrote a story last week about that discovery of 12 more coffins. I get calls from people across the country asking me as a reporter to report on what happened in their town or their community. Today, just as we were leaving the opening of the keynote, a woman stopped me in the crowd and asked me if I’d heard of the massacre in Arkansas and she showed me a picture and said, “This is my great-grandfather. He was shot in the face in that massacre that occurred in Catcher, Arkansas.” And she said, “Can I call you? Perhaps you can write about this?” So, I try to write as many stories as I can to help uncover what happened in this history, because many of these events have been covered up and they have been white-washed out of history books and out of text books. I often meet really smart, educated people and they’ll tell me, “You know, I never heard of Tulsa. I never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Why didn’t they teach us this?”  And as they say in the documentary, because they didn’t want you to know. So, it’s imperative that we tell these stories, that we uncover the truth of this history. So, as you say, it won’t happen again. It’s imperative that we do the work of pursuing the truth.


Laura: Absolutely, without the truth and knowledge, how can we grow and learn and move forward? Yes, nothing should be hidden. It’s well past time. We so appreciate you being with us. Is there anything else that we didn’t talk about that you want to share and make sure it gets out there?


DeNeen: Well, I just want to say that I’m a reporter. I’m a journalist. I’m not a scientist, and it’s my mission, to as I said before, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted in my work and to pursue the truth as a journalist and to maintain the appearance of objectivity. So my job again is just to report, report, research, research, and just write, write, write and try to write these stories with as much power as I can to evoke the soul of the story. So, once the story is published, it moves readers. And it’s left to readers to pick up where the story left off. Pick up and actively try to find answers and pursue the truth.


Laura: Please keep doing that. We appreciate it and it’s not easy work. Watching what has happened in Tulsa is so moving and I do hope it does spark a revolution to continue that work everywhere else.


DeNeen: That’s a great word, revolution. I like that. Hope that it sparks revolution to uncover the truth in other cities. Thank you. It’s been an honor to be here.