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Author draws parallels between Osage Reign of Terror and the Tulsa Race Riot

TULSA, Okla. — The parallels between the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Osage Reign of Terror are undeniable to David Grann.

Near the end of his remarks at the University of Tulsa’s Presidential Lecture Series Oct. 22, the author of “Killers of the Flower Moon” pointed out the connections between the pair, separated by about 60 miles.

Also known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the massacre stemmed from a May 1921 encounter between a black shoeshiner, Dick Rowland, and a white elevator operator, Sarah Page in a downtown building’s elevator. Although the actual specifics of their encounter have become hazy over the years, Rowland was accused of assaulting Page and arrested. The encounter eventually led to a white mob storming the segregated community’s thriving black commercial district, also known as Black Wall Street, as well as predominantly black neighborhoods. Almost 200 black-owned businesses were destroyed, along with more than 1,200 homes.

Both the riot and the Osage Reign of Terror, Grann observed, were long excluded from public discussions of history and stemmed from similar racial and cultural divides in their communities that ultimately led to millions of dollars in losses.  

“It’s the same period,” he said. “Both involved people with money who were seen as less than human. It’s the same toxicity.”

The massacre has garnered new national interest in part due to its inclusion in an HBO television show, “Watchmen.” As is the case with the Osage Reign of Terror, the official number of recorded fatalities associated with it is thought to be substantially lower than the actual body count. Additional efforts are underway in Tulsa to try to locate long-rumored mass graves dug in the riot’s aftermath.

Among the threads connecting the two was a private investigator hired by Ernest and Mollie Burkhart, the family prominently featured in Grann’s book. Prior to coming to Pawhuska, the investigator worked for the Tulsa Police Department and was among the officers who responded to the riot. 

“There is definitely an intermingling,” he said.

Grann did not offer up any updates on the Martin Scorsese-directed film version of his book, which is currently in pre-production. However, he did acknowledge that he did not write the book with a movie in mind. Calling it the hardest thing he’s ever written, it was instead completed with the victims in mind, complete with their pictures hanging on a wall during the writing process.

“It’s too late to restore justice for the victims, but I hope to restore history and a sense of the past,” he said.