MSNBC's Trymaine Lee Examines 'Traumatic' Impact of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in New Documentary

Blood on Black Wall Street: The Legacy of the Tulsa Massacre is streaming now

MSNBC's Trymaine Lee Examines 'Traumatic' Impact of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in New Documentary
Photo: Ernesto Guadalupe

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee wants to remind Americans that the country's legacy of trauma and racial violence is not such a distant memory.

Lee's new digital documentary, Blood on Black Wall Street: The Legacy of the Tulsa Massacre, investigates how the deadly onslaught of racist violence devastated a once-thriving business hub and impacted generations of Black Tulsans, who have faced segregation, gentrification and financial hardship as a result of the massacre.

Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of White rioters burned down the Greenwood District in Tulsa, a prosperous Black community within the Midwestern city known as "Black Wall Street." The White mob killed hundreds of Black residents and destroyed more than 1,200 businesses.

"It really is a bloody, shameful stain on American history," Lee, 42, tells PEOPLE. "Some people have struggled to recoup what was stolen from them, and others have inherited pain and trauma from the massacre that continues to bear down on them today."

He continues: "We wanted to show the resilience that this community had back then, and in so many different ways, how they have tried to fight and piece back together their lives ever since."

MSNBC's Trymaine Lee Examines 'Traumatic' Impact of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in New Documentary
Brock Stoneham

Blood on Black Wall Street, out now, features archival footage from the event and interviews with descendants of survivors, community leaders and activists.

Below, Lee opens up about the emotional experience of filming the documentary and what he hopes viewers will take away from it.

PEOPLE: What was the most impactful moment for you while putting together Blood on Black Wall Street?

TRYMAINE LEE: There were two stories in particular that struck me: the first is the story of Joi McCondichie who, when we spoke, told me the story of her grandmother, Eldoris, who was just 9 years old when the massacre occurred. As the White mob was burning down buildings and airplanes were dropping bombs from the sky, she was fleeing with her family on railroad tracks and ended up ducking into a chicken coop to hide from the bullets and the bombs, fearing for her life. I have a daughter who's turning 9 this summer, and I could not imagine a little girl experiencing all of that fear and violence, unsure if they'll survive. Eldoris also didn't tell her children and grandchildren what happened until they were much older. When Joi asked her grandmother why, she said she feared that if she said anything about what happened, it could happen again.

Another story is when Dick Rowland was in custody, a White mob assembled outside the police station to lynch him, and Black World War I veterans showed up to protect him. We don't hear much about that part of the story. The Black community tried to to fight and did fight to protect their families and their property and their community, but they were simply out-manned. The Black folks in this country have been fighting back against White supremacist violence for a very long time.

MSNBC's Trymaine Lee Examines 'Traumatic' Impact of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in New Documentary
Brock Stoneham

What is something about the Tulsa Race Massacre that you think is often either misunderstood or not acknowledged enough?

It's the complicity by all the forces that be to keep this bloody event secret. It wasn't written about in textbooks or newspaper articles at the time, and if it was covered, the coverage was racist and inflammatory, which helped spread the carnage and violence. Then later, many articles depicting what happened disappeared from the library. People just didn't talk about this. The Black community didn't, in part, because many were so traumatized, they didn't want to speak about it, and the White community wanted it buried, literally and figuratively. So we haven't fully fleshed out the complicity of local officials, who really put the onus of the destruction on Black folks, that they were responsible for their own demise.

They're also still trying to find the graves of the hundreds of people believed to have been murdered for so long. For years, the city government would not fund or allow any exploration or excavation of possible grave sites. We've also underplayed the massacre by calling it a "race riot" for so long, which put the onus on the community that was actually destroyed and bore the brunt of the bloodshed and violence. We're still learning a lot.

What are you hoping people walk away thinking, or feeling, after watching Blood on Black Wall Street?

There are a lot of people who have never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre, so it's a valuable history lesson, but I also think we can use Tulsa as an example to better understand where we are now in terms of race relations and the racial wealth gap in America.

Mainly, though, this is a story about resilience. It's a story about a community who, despite these horrific acts, is still standing. Many of the people we meet in this documentary have inherited trauma and pain from the massacre, but they have also inherited a commendable spirit of resilience. I hope people get to peek through this moment in time and see the connections between where we've been and where we are now, to better understand who we are as Americans.

Blood on Black Wall Street: The Legacy of the Tulsa Massacre is streaming now on and NBC News NOW. It will also air this Sunday on CNBC at 2 p.m. ET, on MSNBC at 10 p.m. ET, and will be available that day on NBC's streaming service, Peacock.

Lee additionally hosts a special two-part episode of MSNBC's Into America podcast. The first episode is out now and the subsequent one premieres June 3.

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