In Black Americans' centuries-long struggle for equality, the infamous 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Okla., is a particularly heinous chapter: A white mob murdered Black men, women and children in Greenwood, a community known as "Black Wall Street." In an era when lynchings were so common that the term "red summer" was coined to describe white supremacist terrorism, Tulsa stands apart.
In Victor Luckerson's "Built From the Fire," the atrocity that destroyed the thriving epicenter of Black Tulsa — but remained buried in U.S. history for decades — stands in for a larger American story: how white fear and resentment has sabotaged racial progress and claimed Black lives, in the present and past.
In cinematic prose, Luckerson follows James H. Goodwin, a descendant of slaves and small-town grocer toiling in segregated Mississippi. In the early 1910s, he answered the call of a new, verdant, fertile state being settled in the Southwest. Hearing that a Black man could "live life unmolested" by racism in egalitarian Oklahoma, Goodwin moved to Tulsa, raising a family and helping build what became one of Black America's crown jewels.
By the late 1910s, however, Jim Crow had swooped in. Goodwin and other Black Tulsans chafed under new ordinances restricting everything from streetcar seating to where Black maids working in white households could reside. Frustration boiled into anger in May 1921, when a squad of Greenwood men, some of whom had seen combat in World War I, took up arms to stop the lynching of a Black teenager suspected of accosting a white woman.
But a larger white mob — armed and itching to take Greenwood down a few pegs — chased the defenders from the downtown jail back to Greenwood, then rampaged through the neighborhood, killing indiscriminately while looting and torching buildings. By dawn, two dozen Black corpses lay in the street, homes and businesses were smoldering ruins and hundreds of traumatized residents had become refugees in their own city.
In introducing the horrific massacre in the first third of the book, then weaving in the Goodwin clan's remarkable rise from the ashes, Luckerson uses the deadly rampage less as a climactic set-piece and more as a framing narrative for the ensuing century. Within that frame is a picture familiar to Black Americans: Systemic racism, coupled with willful white ignorance and political maneuvering, crushed a brilliant example of Black self-determination — one that had glittered so brightly that both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois took notice.
Over 500 meticulously footnoted pages (and with two front-cover subtitles), "Built From the Fire" offers a case study of how present-day Greenwood, and dozens of other struggling Black communities, got here. Luckerson reserves his final chapters for green shoots of hope, including James H. Goodwin's great-great-granddaughter, Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin, a new generation of entrepreneurs resurrecting the neighborhood's storied past and a movement pushing Tulsa to account for its crimes, including reparations.
It's an uphill climb against steep odds, but not all that different from the one J.H. Goodwin scaled 100 years ago.
Which, indeed, is part of the problem.
A former editor at the Star Tribune, Joseph Williams has written for Smithsonian, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
'Built From the Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa's Greenwood District, America's Black Wall Street'
By: Victor Luckerson.
Publisher: Random House, 672 pages, $30.