More than 90 years after the fires from the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot were extinguished, a metaphorical cloud of smoke seems to linger still, casting a shadow on America’s heartland.
The clash between whites and blacks in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood resulted in the destruction of hundreds of buildings, injuries to over 800 people and the deaths of at least 39, records show.
While violence of that scale is rare these days, clashes between whites and blacks continue decades later, whether its the Tulsa Good Friday murders in 2012 when two white suspects randomly shot five black individuals, or last month’s confrontation between police and black residents in Ferguson, Missouri.
The racial friction that still exists across the country and the coverage of hate crimes in Middle America are the topics of a documentary that will be shown this month in Oklahoma City.
Hate Crimes in the Heartland explores racially motivated crimes spanning from the riots to the murders in Tulsa.
“I had heard about the Tulsa Race Riot before,” said filmmaker Rachel Lyon. “And then the 2012 Good Friday murders happened and I literally leaned forward when the news broke and said, ‘Oh my god. This is a pair of bookends; this is the story of hatred in America told over a period of 100 years.’”
That moment inspired Lyon to produce Hate Crimes in the Heartland, which began showing earlier this year. As Lyon takes her film to the western United States, she plans to hold a local premiere Sept. 13 at the Oklahoma History Center.
“I’m always looking for ways to excite people today about history, and often, if there is a relevant story that kind of harkens back to what happened in the past, it’s a good way to link people in,” Lyon said.
The film is not just a story of history; it’s a tale of Oklahoma history. Leaders at Northeast Church of Christ in OKC felt the documentary would be a good way to not only help its congregation, particularly young people, learn about the past but also reignite a modern-day conversation about the role of race in America.
“People of faith can take part in bringing a national dialogue that is designed to bring racial reconciliation,” said Arnelious Crenshaw, senior pastor at Northeast Church of Christ. “I think it’s right that it take place in Oklahoma City because in 1921, right down the turnpike, you had a race riot that was really a race war.”
Northeast Church has spent the past year celebrating black history, and partnering with the filmmaker to debut the documentary here seemed like a natural step to take.
“Psalm 78 says to tell your children the dark stories also,” said Dwayne Case, the family life minister.
Hate Crimes in the Heartland has partnered with schools and organizations like Harvard Law School and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Northeast Church is the first faith-based organization to partner with the film for a showing, Crenshaw said.
“I don’t believe that the government can change the heart,” Crenshaw said. “Laws, regardless of how well-meaning, cannot change the heart. The institution that is best designed for that is the church, and that’s why we are part of this.”
The film debut is 6:45 p.m. Sept. 13 at the Oklahoma History Center, and a panel discussion will follow. Northeast Church hopes to spark a conversation on race throughout the region, and it also has plans to make the month of September a time to focus on the family.
“What we are doing from the pulpit is a month-long teaching on family,” Case said. “We want to explore how this issue of race affects our families. There are other congregations … across the city, and their pastors are doing sermons on the family.”
Northeast Church is no stranger to finding ways to connect modern and historical issues with its congregation and community. A local forum was held following the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, which fueled a national debate on race in 2012. The church also brought survivors of the 1921 riots to OKC and honored them.
“We thought it was important that our children got to see that this is real history,” Crenshaw said. “You cannot change what you won’t confront.”
Lyon believes there are a lot of similarities between 1921 and present-day America.
“I think that we have a simmering brew in the background as we did during the 1921 riots,” Lyon said. “The race issue is still a factor today.”
The film explores the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and also examines the 250,000 hate crimes committed in the United States each year.
“There has been a sharp increase in violent hate crimes, whether based on religion, sexuality or most often based on race,” Lyon said. “The film and outreach project speaks to media, race, crime and punishment in a way that encourages constructive dialogue.”
Since its first showing earlier this year, Hate Crimes in the Heartland has received the Paul Robeson Film Award and has been a catalyst for dozens of forums across the eastern United States that have brought together all types of people to discuss the role race plays in America today.
“We had a screening here in Cincinnati that was supported by a combination of African-American churches, Muslim organizations and [Jewish] synagogues, and we found that there was a great conversation that got going with people saying things that weren’t always comfortable,” Lyon said. “What we found was there is a tremendous resource in the people of [faith] to take on the tough issues and look at it as a community.”
Hate Crimes in the Heartland OKC premiere
Friday, Sept. 13: Reception 6 p.m., screening 6:45 p.m., discussion 7:45 p.m.
Oklahoma History Center
800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive