And then they were gone. More than one-thousand homes and businesses. Restaurants and movie theaters, churches and doctors’ offices, a hospital, a public library, a post office. Looted, burned, and bombed from the air.
Over the course of less than twenty-four hours in the spring of 1921, Tulsa’s infamous “Black Wall Street” was wiped off the map—and erased from the history books. Official records were disappeared, researchers were threatened, and the worst single incident of racial violence in American history was kept hidden for more than fifty years. But there were some secrets that would not die.
A riveting and essential new book, The Ground Breaking not only tells the long-suppressed story of the notorious Tulsa Race Massacre. It also unearths the lost history of how the massacre was covered up, and of the courageous individuals who fought to keep the story alive. Most importantly, it recounts the ongoing archaeological saga and the search for the unmarked graves of the victims of the massacre, and of the fight to win restitution for the survivors and their families.
Both a forgotten chronicle from the nation’s past, and a story ripped from today’s headlines, The Ground Breaking is a page-turning reflection on how we, as Americans, must wrestle with the parts of our history that have been buried for far too long.
About the Author
Scott Ellsworth is the New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Game, winner of the 2016 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. He has written about American history for The New York Times, TheWashington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Formerly a historian at the Smithsonian Institution, he is also the author of The World Beneath Their Feet and Death in a Promised Land, his groundbreaking account of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Scott lives in Ann Arbor, where he teaches in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.
Praise for The Ground Breaking: "Immensely readable and thoroughly engaging, The Ground Breaking is a remarkable blend of history and memoir that could not be more timely and informative. Taut, tense, and meticulously composed, Scott Ellsworth's elegant narrative is both mesmerizing and enlightening."—Gilbert King, Pulitzer prizewinning author of Devil in the Grove
“This is a book that fuses history and memory with the unresolved search for justice for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. It is also a searing story of Ellsworth’s personal journey as he struggles to unearth and come to terms with these events, and the journey of a community as it moves through forgetting, denial, and finally some grudging acceptance of what happened. The horrific events of 1921 have been called a riot, a disaster, a pogrom, and finally a race massacre. Ellsworth shows how each renaming is a direct result of the persistent efforts of those who would dig up what had been carefully and deliberately hidden. This book should be essential reading for anyone interested in an honest grappling with our racial past and with the task of moving forward.”—Kenneth W. Mack, Professor of Law, Harvard University
“The persistence, empathy and painstaking research of The Ground Breaking move us much closer to the justice that the victims of Greenwood, and the people of America, deserve. Heartbreaking and inspiring.”—Beto O’Rourke
“In a time marked by raw nativism, gangster capitalism and white supremacy off its leash, well-funded mobs winked at from above committed racially-driven mass terror against Black citizens and American democracy. Those who find themselves mystified when America's white power movement storms the U.S. Capitol in 2021 need to take a good look back at Tulsa, Oklahoma a century ago. The talking heads chant ‘This is not who we are’ because they are wholly in the dark about who we have been. Scott Ellsworth not only tells the gripping story of one of America's worst racial atrocities but shows us how we can uncover our past and come to grips with our future. His literally ground-breaking research and engaging prose pull us toward the call of justice today.”—Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair, Poor People's Campaign, and author of The Third Reconstruction
“America cannot address the crisis in which we find ourselves because we are unwilling to acknowledge the road that brought us here. We are determined to look away, as if hiding the empty cake plate will help us lose weight. What we stand to lose instead is the hope of our democratic heritage. Scott Ellsworth is willing to dig, and willing to help us to see who we have been in hopes that we will rise to who we must be. The Tulsa Massacre of 1921 is one of the most significant and revealing episodes of American history, and one we must confront in order to find our way. The Ground Breaking will rattle you, and it should. It will move you toward a harder wisdom, and it must.”—Tim Tyson, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, author of The Blood of Emmett Till, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power and Blood Done Sign My Name
“A vital history of a racially motivated mass murder a century ago...An essential historical record surrounding heinous events that have yet to be answered with racial justice.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Scott Ellsworth's absolutely riveting book does more that chronicle the Tulsa Race massacre of 1921 and its literal exhumation. With a stunning combination of objectivity and empathy, it demonstrates how even in polarized times we can come together in pursuit of truth. Though concerned with past events, it explores every stratum of the American city now—from City Hall, to dive bars, to homeless encampments, to the living rooms of the wealthy and the poor, regardless of color or creed. Anyone interested in America's future should read it as a template for the reconciliation that lies ahead."—Tim Blake Nelson, actor, Watchmen and Just Mercy, and Tulsa native
“There is no more scholarly or elegant telling of this uniquely American story—the horrible hours a century ago when Tulsa’s black community was obliterated by a white mob; the breathtaking conspiracy of silence that followed; the long coda to the tragedy that is still being written. But this book is also a memoir and it is Ellsworth’s story that has found its way most deeply into my bones. He was the white Tulsa boy changed by an early experience of virulent racism. He was the scholar who dedicated his life to unearthing what happened. He became a truthteller and an example for us all. I believe that the path of true racial reconciliation runs through millions of American Whites, whose hearts would be changed if they only knew our history. To those people I would simply say this: Please read this book.”—Tim Madigan, award-winning author of The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 "[L]ong awaited."—Smithsonian Magazine