Russell Westbrook Sheds Light on 1921 Tulsa Massacre with Doc: 'It's Important That We Understand'

The NBA star tells PEOPLE that he hopes to "inspire and educate" others with his new History Channel documentary Tulsa Burning

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook. Photo: Tim Warner/Getty

Russell Westbrook is making sure America never forgets the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre with a new documentary airing May 30 on the History Channel.

"I'm making sure I can bring it to light and make sure people understand exactly what happened," Westbrook, 32, tells PEOPLE about his documentary Tulsa Burning.

The film, which premieres next Sunday night at 8 p.m. EST, re-examines one of the deadliest and most under-taught incidents of racist violence in U.S. history.

The Washington Wizards star, who played his first 11 seasons in Oklahoma City, is an executive producer on the film.

"I wanted to be able to not just understand it, but educate people around me and help inspire other people, African American people, that have Black-owned businesses and understanding our origins and see how it can now shape our present and our future," Westbrook says.

"I didn't know anything about the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Black Wall Street," Westbrook says about the prosperous, 35-square block Black community in Tulsa that was burned down by a mob of white rioters from May 31 until June 1, 1921.

For more than 48 hours, the white mob killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed more than 1,200 businesses in the booming economic community known as "Black Wall Street."

The History Channel says the massacre was "one of the most tragic moments in our nation's history, yet this harrowing event is largely unknown to many Americans."

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Bodies of Black residents were buried in mass graves, where a highway now runs through — something Westbrook says was a "red flag" to him while playing in Oklahoma City and learning more about the massacre.

"To me, that basically means that they want people to forget about it and not understand it and not be educated on it," Westbrook says, adding that "we don't learn much" in U.S. schools about Black history.

"When I see some of that, it not just saddens me, but it puts me in a position where I feel like I have to be able to help make other people understand why this is," Westbrook tells PEOPLE.

"It's important that we understand and see what was here, what was our history and understand why people are trying to forget about this particular time in history, and why nobody's talking about it, and why nobody understands it," the nine-time NBA all-star continues.

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty

Westbrook's Tulsa Burning documentary recounts the horrific killings and highlights excavation efforts last year by the city and calls for restitution by survivors, their descendants and local activists.

"At the time, Tulsa was the best place in the nation for African Americans," civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons says in the film.

To this day, Tulsa has not paid reparations to the survivors or their families, despite a 2001 commission report recommending the city should.

On Wednesday, three living survivors testified in front of Congress to ask that reparations be paid after the booming Black business community was literally burned to the ground.

"I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street," Viola Fletcher, the massacre's oldest living survivor, told lawmakers. "I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams."

"I have lived through the massacre every day," Fletcher, 107, said.

Marco Naprin, a local descendant featured in one scene during the documentary, looking on as crews excavate the mass grave in search for bodies, says in the film: "There might not ever be no closure, but the awareness is there."

The 1921 Tulsa Massacre
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Everett/Shutterstock
The 1921 Tulsa Massacre
The 1921 Tulsa Massacre. Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty

Westbrook tells PEOPLE he's been working with Emmy Award-winning director Stanley Nelson on the project "for a couple of years," with the goal of releasing it on the 100th anniversary this weekend.

"I wanted to create a film that is factual and educational, and that's inspiring," Westbrook says. "And that's something that I stand for and that's something that I want to be able to show the world."

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook. Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty

The NBA's 2017 MVP says that while focused on basketball, he's working every day on social justice initiatives like Tulsa Burning or his Why Not? Foundation, which promotes empowerment and provides resources surrounding education, employment and mental health for at-risk communities nationwide.

"It's my job," Westbrook explains.

The NBA star says he's "learned a lot with this project alone" in simply understanding the sacrifices the Black community has made in U.S. history and to this day.

"With this film, I hope to just inspire and educate people about what happened," Westbrook says. "And at the same time, to see how we can help change our present and our future."

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