Photo courtesy: Tulsa Historical Society
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- In 1994, documentary filmmaker Michael Wilkerson was approached by a friend who had been going through a Tulsa library's archives.
"Did you know there was a race riot in this town?" Larry Bowles asked Wilkerson, an Oklahoma native.
"Larry, I've heard a kind of urban legend that there's a lot of bodies buried in the Arkansas River bed," Wilkerson replied. "That's what I've heard all my life, but I don't know anything about it."
Six years later, after his own painstaking research, Wilkerson has illuminated a horrific chapter of American bigotry and violence with "The Tulsa Lynching of 1921: A Hidden Story."
The 90-minute documentary -- which Wilkerson wrote, produced and directed -- debuts on HBO's Cinemax cable channel at 6:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday (May 31), the 79th anniversary of the riot.
The film's premiere was scheduled Thursday evening in Tulsa at the Greenwood Cultural Center, right in the neighborhood reduced to ruins in the violence.
Through interviews with survivors and historians, and official records, the film compellingly details events that left up to 300 black Tulsans dead, the prosperous black district called Greenwood in ashes and thousands of black residents detained in camps.
Alfre Woodard, Bill Cosby, Celeste Holm, Nell Carter and Roscoe Lee Browne are among the actors whose voices are heard throughout, bringing to life the firsthand accounts of the riot and its aftermath.
A simple act touched off the violence, with complex social and economic issues fanning the violence into unimaginable ferocity.
Wilkerson's film sets the stage: In post-World War I America, black veterans were viewed with suspicion over feelings of empowerment they may have gained in Europe. In addition, the Ku Klux Klan was flourishing (revived by the early cinema hit "Birth of a Nation) and lynchings were common.
"I think it was a mean time, a hateful time across America, if you get to looking," Wilkerson said in a telephone interview from Tulsa.
In that oil-rich city, where prosperity had spilled into the black community, Greenwood gained a national reputation as a "Black Wall Street" filled with black-owned businesses, new homes and churches.
On May 31, 1921, a 19-year-old black man was thrown in jail, accused of assaulting a white female elevator operator. Historians say Dick Rowland may have stumbled against the woman, drawing a cry from her and prompting the allegation.
When Rowland faced near-certain lynching, a small group of black Tulsa residents stood up for him.
But Tulsa also was home to some 3,000 Klan members, the film says, many of them veterans feeling the pinch of an economic downturn. The black community's defiance was greeted by mob anger that found its outlet in mass killings and the wholesale burning and looting of Greenwood.
Among the rioters were hundreds of men commissioned by the police as "special deputies," the film says, including one said to have remarked: "Now you can go out and shoot any nigger you see and the law will be behind you."
"There's a black veteran who could not believe that this mob would kill a veteran," historian Don Guy recounts. "And as the mob got closer to his home, he put on his uniform and stood out in the front yard at attention. The mob killed him, and burned his house."
Some Tulsans took to the skies in still-rare airplanes to attack black homes and fleeing residents with turpentine bombs, the film said.
In the aftermath, city officials blocked outside aid and then moved to sell off black-owned land.
Although the exact number of dead remains cloudy, an American Red Cross estimate put the toll at about 300. The official city estimate was rosier: Only 36 people had died.
There have long been rumors of bodies tossed in the river and buried in secret graves.
And the very fact of the riot has been buried just as deep. Although other racial clashes of the period were public knowledge, this one was locked away in survivors' memories and dusty files.
It wasn't until 1996 that Tulsa recognized the anniversary of the riot. The next year, the state Legislature created the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, an 11-member panel that has worked to uncover what occurred and discuss possible restitution.
Wilkerson, a former state homicide investigator who turned to filmmaking, approached the project as both history and a mystery to be solved.
"I was pretty good at catching people who kill other people," Wilkerson said.
Criminal prosecution wasn't his intent; he wanted to set the record straight. Even decades later, however, some survivors remained fearful of revealing the past.
"They said, 'Mike, you don't know what it's like to be terrorized.' ... I got real close to a lot of 'em and they just wouldn't talk. Gradually, some came around and decided it was the right thing to do. It took guts."
Those who appear on camera are aged and frail, but their voices are strong. "You know, I'm supposed to be gone. I'm 101 years old and I'm not supposed to be alive," says Mabel Little. "But God left me here for a purpose. I had an experience -- I have never met anyone that had the same."
Perhaps the most haunting words are those of the late Mary Parrish (voiced by Alfre Woodard), a riot survivor who told the story of Greenwood and its destruction in the 1921 book "The Events of the Tulsa Disaster."
Parrish recalls the aerial attacks, the carloads of armed and rampaging whites, the "bricks, ashes and twisted iron" left after Greenwood burned.
"We were horror stricken, but we could not shed a tear. At that hour, we mistrusted every person having a white face or blue eyes," she wrote.
What Tulsa may owe the victims and their descendants is being debated.
"Those (rioters) in 1921 took away about 12,000 people's legacy, their economic legacy. They took away everything these folks had," said Wilkerson. "Think what condition your life would be in if somebody darted back a generation and decimated your(family).
"That's why I believe something ought to be done, and I believe something will be done. Oklahomans have a great feeling of fairness."