Reggie Turner being interviewed by Sentinel Staff
Reggie Turner made the documentary on the Tulsa Race Riots to inform American about a pivotal turn in Black History.
By Brian Carter
Sentinel Staff Writer
and Kaylee Davis
It was the first and maybe the last of its kind. It was a place where Blacks had everything they needed: freedom, independence and wealth. This legendary community prospered and circulated the Black dollar keeping Black-owned businesses, property and households flourishing…and in the blink of an eye, Greenwood was gone.
Greenwood was a wealthy Black district in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 20’s. Blacks traveled along The Trail of Tears along with the Five Civilized Tribes around 1907 when the state was established. Many Blacks were descendants of runaway slaves. Oklahoma represented an oasis away from the harsh racism in the South. Greenwood was a chance to start over.
Unfortunately, hate and racism would destroy Greenwood and all that is represented. The Tulsa Race Riot, being one of the most devastating events in U.S. History, ripped the town apart in 1921. The alleged attack on a white female by a Black young man would set off the events that culminated in $1.5 million in property damage; a loss of over 1,000 homes and business; 8,624 injured and the deaths of over 300 people.
Reggie Turner, an entertainment attorney, wanted people to know about Greenwood and the atrocities that took place in America in 1921. He put together a documentary entitled “Before They Die!” which tells the story of Greenwood to garner attention and restitution for this holocaust that occurred on American soil. “Most places I go, 90 percent of the audience has not heard [about the Race Riot],” said Turner.
“My whole involvement with the project is a result of my relationship, 35-year relationship, with Charles Olgetree,” said Turner. “We were classmates together at Stanford and roommates…He called me on the cell phone and said, ‘What do you know about the Tulsa Race Riot?'”
Turner would look up the subject in 2002 on the internet to find nothing on the Tulsa Race Riot. Olgetree eventually asked for an evidentiary hearing. “In federal court, evidentiary hearings are pretty rare,” said Turner. Then Turner told Olgetree, “Your chances are slim.” When Olgetree did get the hearing granted, Turner told him, “You need to document this. You need to get this on film.”
Turner’s history in entertainment law granted him the tools he needed to put together his documentary. “Being an entertainment lawyer…that led me to people who could advise me to do it…I wasn’t even a person who watched documentaries on TV. I thought they were boring.” Turner said he learned how to do a documentary by doing a documentary.
He had a hard time finding information on the Tulsa Riot…in Oklahoma. Turner found accessing information a difficult task. “There had been articles at the Tulsa World Newspaper…In the 103-year history of the Tulsa World Newspaper, there is only one page that is missing from their archives. It was the newspaper article… ‘To Lynch a Negro Tonight’.”
Turner also spoke on how their presence was unwanted. People felt it was bad PR for Oklahoma and didn’t want such an awful story drudged up again. “The efforts to which they went to hide the information, only spoke of why people, even in Tulsa, didn’t speak about it,” said Turner.
He is currently seeking justice for the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. There are currently 46 survivors of the riots that are still living. Turner has made it his first priority to get compensation for the survivors. “Number 1-A is sharing the history,” said Turner. He has also sought out witnesses that may still be alive as well. “I took out adds in the Oklahoma newspapers seeking white witnesses to the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot; I didn’t realize a single response.”
The State of Oklahoma had to carry some blame as many policemen and national guardsmen joined in the looting, pillaging and killing of Black People during the riots. The state recognized through studies: “‘Yes, it happened…Yes we [the state] were responsible and liable for what happened.'” The state also said, “We need to find a way to compensate these people for their losses,” but that has yet to come.
Some could compare the Tulsa Race Riot to the Jewish Holocaust. Although the Jewish Holocaust was a large atrocity that took place over several years and the Tulsa Riot took place within the span of 16 hours, the same genocidal attacks were happening. Turner addressed how this event in Black history has managed to remain unknown for so long. “Unlike the Jewish community, we have been held in ignorance,” said Turner. “Black media hasn’t fully taken the chance to exploit this.”
Turner further added, “We have not done like our Jewish brothers and sisters have done which is to demand the compensation for our people, to band together.” He hopes that that documentary will help to reach more people. Alfree Woodard and Blair Underwood have helped Turner addressed the history of Greenwood in the past, but Turner is looking for more Black celebrities to get involved. “We can’t come together and solve this problem by ourselves? If we do that, we send a huge message to this country that we truly have arrived!”
Turner has said the case was slow to get off at first. The federal district and appellate courts dismissed the suit saying that there was a statute-of-limitations issue on the 80-year-old case. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal as well. “The first ruling was while we have great empathy, the statue of limitations issue,” said Turner. In April 2007, Ogletree appealed to the U.S. Congress to pass a bill to try to extend the statute of limitations on the case. They are currently still fighting for compensation for the survivors and their families.