The appalling history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma is becoming better known, albeit a century later. But journalist Victor Luckerson understands that what happened following those horrific events, as the survivors persevered and rebuilt, is also an important part of this history. In his debut book, Built From the Fire, Luckerson tells the story of the massacre, the people who restored the Greenwood district of Tulsa after that violent night in 1921, and their descendants who continue to fuel and inspire change.
The book is divided into three parts as Luckerson chronicles the last century of Greenwood’s history. Part 1 recounts the district’s beginnings circa 1901, when a segregated slice of oil-rich Tulsa became a destination for Black Americans looking for a future that the Jim Crow South would not deliver. But hope dimmed after the widespread race riots of 1919’s “Red Summer.” Black soldiers returning from World War I, where racism in the military meant menial assignments and segregated units, found that their service also failed to earn them equality at home. Yet Greenwood prospered, with movie theaters, dance halls, restaurants, hotels and a newspaper with a distinctly Black voice.
Luckerson fills every page with humanity distilled from his prodigious research. For example, there’s Dick Rowland, a young Black worker who got caught in a malfunctioning elevator with a white girl on May 30, 1921, the day before the massacre. She screamed, and he was almost lynched. Loula Williams, a successful Black entrepreneur, escaped the mob the night of May 31 but lost almost everything she had built—and later lost her mind. Prominent community member J.H. Goodwin diverted white terrorists from his home possibly because he passed for white.
During the night, Greenwood’s thriving businesses were reduced to smoking rubble. White rioters, including many citizens who were spontaneously deputized as policemen, stormed into the area and dragged people from their homes, shot them in the street and burned everything in their path. Planes even dropped explosives as they flew low over fleeing families. Luckerson holds nothing back in this description of hell, so terrifying that for years, survivors kept silent and such lurid history went untaught. But this, as Luckerson makes clear, was only the beginning.
Part II follows Greenwood’s survivors as they began the daunting task of salvaging, rebuilding and fighting back. Their descendants reclaimed the city’s entrepreneurial spirit while becoming civil rights activists and adamant reformers. Part III brings Greenwood into the still-turbulent present, as Goodwin’s great-granddaughter Regina, a Democratic state representative, pursues a relentless legislative quest for justice. As the search for the massacre’s mass graves continues, recovery from the gentrifying urban-renewal wrecking ball of the 1970s makes progress and demands for reparations intensify, Luckerson’s point is clear: Greenwood is alive again.