- Ingvard Ashby
The 1.5 million viewers who watched Watchmen premiere on HBO earlier this month saw a recreation of a defining moment in Tulsa’s history and heard songs from the 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, but we’re guessing the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department was less than thrilled about it.
“HBO’s Watchmen opens in 1921 during the Tulsa Race Massacre,” wrote Esquire’s Matt Miller, “a deeply disturbing real stain on American history, where, on May 31, 1921, a mob of white people attacked a black community. … We see men in KKK white firing guns at helpless men and women. We see planes actually dropping bombs on this small community. It’s chilling, and although Watchmen takes place in an alt-history, this event actually took place.”
Many details of the massacre remain uncertain due to attempts by authorities at the time and The Tulsa Tribune — which published an incendiary front-page article that reportedly incited violence — to erase the event from history, but according to the report released in 2001 by since-renamed Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, an estimated 100-300 people were killed during the massacre; more than 1,200 homes were “deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed” along with businesses, churches, schools and a hospital and a library; and “not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level.”
Nearly a century later, investigators are searching for the location of a suspected mass grave, but considering the massacre was left out of school history curriculums in the state until at least 2000, the new comic-book-inspired HBO series by Lost and The Leftovers co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof is likely the first time many people, possibly even some Oklahomans, have heard about it. The series — set in an alternate 2019 in which police wear masks and actor Robert Redford is president — does change at least one fact about the massacre’s aftermath. In Watchmen’s world, the government actually followed the commission’s recommendation that “reparations could and should be made” to descendants of the victims.