Reconstructing the Neighborhood Destroyed in the Tulsa Race Massacre
Using maps, newspaper clippings, testimonies and more, a team of graphics editors created an interactive 3-D portrait of the community that was burned down in 1921.
A hundred years ago, in Tulsa, Okla., a violent white mob stormed a flourishing Black neighborhood and burned it to the ground. As many as 300 people were killed and hundreds were injured. Property loss claims came to $1.8 million — $27 million in today’s dollars. A community that had thrived in the face of racial oppression was devastated.
This week, journalists at The New York Times published the interactive article “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed,” a 3-D virtual tour of that neighborhood, Greenwood, where the atrocity took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921. Reporters mapped businesses, wrote short profiles of residents and documented the profound loss of human life and generational wealth.
Greenwood was known as America’s Black Wall Street and was filled with grocery stores, restaurants, schools, churches, theaters, hotels and newspapers. The violent white mob was fueled by resentment toward this success, and the destruction it caused was hidden for decades.
“We wanted to bring it back to life,” Haeyoun Park, an assistant graphics editor who oversaw the project, said of Greenwood. “It was this amazing place, 60 years after emancipation, built by Black people for Black people.”
For the last few months, over a dozen journalists on the Graphics desk worked on various interconnected elements of the project. The visual journalists Yuliya Parshina-Kottas and Anjali Singhvi gathered voluminous amounts of archival material, including insurance maps, census data, city directories, audiotapes, testimonies and newspaper clippings, all of which would form the raw material for reconstructing the neighborhood.
To reconstruct the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue, the heart of the business community, Guilbert Gates found additional, hard-to-find archival materials that helped Mika Gröndahl to build a 3-D model of the buildings. The model would then be used to create the 3-D animations of that Greenwood block. Mr. Gröndahl also relied on archival photographs to accurately produce details like windows, electrical poles and cars in the street.
To generate an aerial view of the neighborhood, Lingdong Huang used machine learning to read flat maps of Tulsa and translate them into 3-D buildings. He also wrote a computer program that let the team manually input accurate heights of buildings using data on the insurance maps. Jeremy White created the interface that would allow readers to effortlessly scroll through a tour of the historic neighborhood.
To determine where individuals lived and worked, the team analyzed census data from Ancestry.com, and it wrote software to convert text from the digitized 1921 Tulsa city directory to a searchable database. The journalists gleaned more detailed information on specific individuals and their stories through newspaper articles.
“We really tried to recreate the spirit of Greenwood through the people who lived there and honor the lives of the African American people who made Greenwood what it was,” Ms. Singhvi said.
Ms. Parshina-Kottas said the vividness of these accounts could offer readers an opportunity to draw parallels to modern society.
“Racial violence remains a really big issue in this country,” she said. “I was hoping that forming this intimate connection to the people impacted by the Tulsa massacre would get readers to think about events of today.”
Audra D.S. Burch, a National correspondent, spent a week in Tulsa and met people whose grandparents and great-grandparents survived the massacre. The descendants shared their family stories and walked Greenwood Avenue with her, passing locations where their relatives once owned businesses. They discussed the issue of reparations and how to honor the victims of the massacre without exploiting their stories, Ms. Burch said.
“For them, the neighborhood’s history is personal and ever-present,” she said.
As Ms. Burch reflected on her reporting, she thought about how the residents of this neighborhood built a life and community not long after slavery ended.
“I kept coming back to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Greenwood pioneers and what that kind of freedom must have felt like,” she said, “and the resolve it required to rebuild from ashes.”
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