Lovecraft Country S1E9: Rewind 1921, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Burns

You have probably just watched the penultimate episode of Lovecraft Country if you’re reading this. Did you weep as much as I did? S1E9 rewound to 1921 and the Tulsa Massacre—it was NOT a race riot, it was a massacre—and as Watchmen did in 2019, an HBO TV show taught us a whole lot more about racist America than school history lessons ever did.

Leading on from last week’s terrifying episode, and Diana is infected by the Topsy Twins, Topsy (Kaelynn Harris) and Bopsy (Bianca Brewton), who sliced at her with those grotesquely long fingernails. Her arm is becoming rotten, and time is running out for her as it spreads across her body. The gang realise they need to ask Christina for help to save Dee, despite them having no bargaining power left now that Christina already has the missing pages, given to her by Leti in exchange for protection of herself and her unborn child.  Luckily, Christina appears to have real feelings for Ruby, who knows she will help her. So Christina arrives and agrees to help Diana on the promise that Tic will go willingly with her to Ardham on the Autumnal Equinox. He agrees and Christina tells them that Diana will require the blood of her closest living relative—who would be Hippolyta if she wasn’t missing. The next in line would be Montrose.

Diana lies in bed with a rotting arm

Christina cannot break the spell on Diana however, as Captain Lancaster was the one who cursed her. All Christina can do is perform a restoration which would reset the cycle of the curse to buy them some time. Apparently, Christina didn’t already know that Captain Lancaster was dead. So that perhaps puts to bed my theory that the protection spell didn’t actually work on Tic, and that it was Christina training her ‘good boi’ shoggoth not to kill him that made the beast spare his and Leti’s lives. I’m still not convinced that the spell did work on Tic, at least not a protection spell. Who knows what Montrose said either intentionally or not. In pretty much every language some words sound or are spelt the same/similar that have totally different meanings, or their placement in a sentence has a different intention. So Montrose may well have cast a spell, and if he’s lucky, he may have accidentally prevented Christina from doing him too much harm.

Rightly not believing that he is dead, Christina—as William—goes to the Police precinct to visit her old ‘pal’ Lancaster. There she finds him bursting at the seams. His adopted body parts—those of black victims kidnapped by his henchmen—fell apart despite their spells. William watches Lancaster take his last breaths with glee as he tells them that regeneration can be as much a curse as it is a gift. Every time Christina returns to her own skin William dies again. This explains why Christina is keen to be immortal as herself so that she doesn’t put the man she loved to death over and over. It doesn’t bode well for Ruby. If Christina’s motivation still lies with her dead lover—whom she may or may not be able to bring back from the dead—then what use is Ruby to her really?

Kudos to Jordan Patrick Smith who plays William as he manages to act like Christina perfectly. I can almost see her face in his expressions and mannerisms. With Lancaster gone, she has no real contender to the throne of the Order of the Ancient Dawn. Even so she wouldn’t be in line for it as a woman—despite being a very powerful sorceress, with the greatest knowledge of magic and with the skills of manipulation required to be the leader of a cult.

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Meanwhile, back at Hippolyta’s store, Montrose is on the moonshine. He is a man with so many skeletons in his closet torturing him, he turns to the bottle as a way to block things out, and for Dutch courage to admit the truth to Tic. His blood may not help Diana because he may not be Tic’s father; it could be George. Tic barely has time to absorb this information—that the man he wished was his father growing up really might have been, that it may have been his father that died that day at Ardham, not his Uncle, that his mother cheated on her husband with his brother—it is a lot to take in. But Christina has returned, and so has Hippolyta, just in time.

The next scene is possibly even scarier than all of “Jig-a-Bobo“, as Diana has transformed into a horrific Topsy herself. Diana spent all of the last episode literally running away from all of the worst stereotypes about black girls and has to repeatedly avoid being touched by them. But Montrose unwittingly held her back, allowing her to be riddled with racist stereotypes, rotting her from the inside out. Skin tinged green, eyes a possessed yellow and a wide, watermelon-red grin. There may have been some expletives heard in my house when I first saw her. Christina chants as blood from Hippolyta’s hand, cut by Christina, drips over her. Diana lets out a blood-curdling scream, and her arm begins to produce maggots, which turn into flies and swarm out and away from her body. Linda Blair eat your heart out. But Dee isn’t out of the woods yet. They need the Book of Names, from which the spell came, to save her.

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Now the Book of Names was destroyed 34 years earlier in the Tulsa Massacre of 1921—the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” and there have been a LOT of massacres over the years, so that’s saying something. Tic’s mother Dora’s house was burned to ashes by mobs of white people with her entire family inside. Dora was not there for reasons I will go into later. For Hippolyta to save her daughter she will need Tic, Leti and Montrose to go back to 1921 to retrieve the book from the burning building. Empowered by her travels through time, she tells the others that she has been on Earth 504 for the equivalent of 200 years and she can do whatever she wants—she is all-powerful and all-knowledgable now.

After Ruby catches wind of the fact that Christina needs Tic for her spell to become immortal, she asks her outright whether she was using her to get to Tic. As far as we know she doesn’t need to have Ruby around anymore, but yet it seems she still wants her. Is Christina really interested in Ruby? Or does she have other plans for her? Ruby doesn’t care what happens to Tic, but she does care about her sister and makes Christina promise that Leti and her baby will not be harmed. With that, Ruby pulls the plug on Dell, the former groundskeeper whose skin she’s been intermittently living in, commenting that when she imagined being white, she always thought of herself as a red-head. So has Ruby given up on being white, secure in the fact that Christina loves her for who she is? Or is she planning to play dress up in someone else’s body?

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The gang have to travel back to Kentucky and get Hiram’s time machine working again, which Hippolyta does being the kick-ass mother she is. Actually, make that kick-ass motherboard as she hooks herself up to the machine using the implants in her wrists that obtained during her time in a parallel dimension. She sets the calendar to the right date which opens a window in time to the Stradford hotel, Greenwood, Tulsa, May 31, 1921, where all hell is about to break loose.

They called it Black Wall Street. Some whites disparagingly referred to it as “Little Africa”. In the early months of 1921, it was the home of nearly ten-thousand African American men, women, and children. It was only a square-mile area on the north side of Tulsa, but in the early 1900s, Greenwood was everything the South was not. Filled with black lawyers, doctors and business owners, flush with prosperity, here was an area where African Americans finally had a chance to make something of themselves, escaping the harsh racism of a nation that deprived them of even the most basic dignities. Greenwood had stores, shops, banks, newspapers, schools, two theatres, a hotel, and restaurants. Greenwood also had several wealthy black entrepreneurs. Thanks to the discovery of oil, Tulsa was booming, and so were many of its black citizens. These were people living the American Dream—they had worked so, so hard for it too, and the whites didn’t like it one bit.

While the incident I will talk about next is the official reason why the massacre began, the truth is that white people who were less prosperous than the black people of Greenwood were jealous and bitter. The second wave of the  Ku Klux Klan had quickly risen in numbers since 1915; lynchings were commonplace, and Tulsa was far from the only “race riot”. Racial tensions were at their highest, and the slightest spark would cause an explosion on that fateful Memorial Day.

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On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner Dick Rowland was accused of sexual assault inside an elevator at the Drexel Building by the white 18-year-old elevator operator Sarah Page. She screamed; Rowland fled the scene. The police were called, and the next morning they arrested Rowland. There are conflicting stories about whether Dick and Sarah were secretly dating, or if they knew each other before this event. Other reports say he was allowed to use the restrooms at the Drexel Building, and that he had accidentally stepped on her foot or tripped and grabbed her arm to stop himself from falling in the elevator. It didn’t really matter, a white person heard her scream and decided what had gone down was the attempted rape of a white woman by a black man.

A front-page story in the Tulsa Tribune that afternoon reported that police had arrested Rowland for sexually assaulting Page. By then angry white mobs were forming outside the courthouse, demanding Rowland be handed over to them, who according to rumours, wanted to lynch him. 75 or so black men from the community assembled and came to the courthouse to try to protect Rowland, but they were met by over 1500 white men, several of them armed with weapons. Shots were fired, and 18 hours of destruction, rioting and looting followed.

Residents were shot, beaten, chased from their homes, had their property destroyed, or looted, and were jailed in concentration internment camps. Planes carrying white assailants fired rifles at black Tulsans fleeing from the carnage. Black Tulsans were attacked by mobs of whites, the local police, and soldiers. The community was bombarded from above by planes dropping incendiary bombs on their community, making Greenwood the only U.S. city bombed from the air. Within 24 hours, the once great Greenwood community was levelled and burned to ashes.

By 11 am on June 1, the Oklahoma City National Guard arrived, Martial Law was declared, but not before the Greenwood community was left in ruins.

Beyond these facts, we are left with opinion, folklore and politics. The official tally of people killed is 39 dead, but the Red Cross listing has hundreds who died over the next year as a result of the riot and privations of the internment and rebuilding the community. Others claim that the dead on the night of the riot numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands, and that the bodies were driven out in trucks and buried in mass graves around the city—their families never finding out what happened to their loved ones or even where they were buried.

So if you were wondering why Leti, Tic and Montrose were dressed so handsomely to fit in, that was absolutely what the wealthy residents of Greenwood would have worn (except for Leti’s sneakers).

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As difficult as Montrose is to like at times, this day was going to be tough. He had to revisit the horrors of his youth and watch his father beat him on their front lawn for being a ‘sissy’ after he was caught wearing a flower corsage in his hair. A corsage that his brother George had bought for the girl next door, Dora. What these three young people went through that day created a bond so strong they’d do anything to protect each other. That included Dora marrying Montrose, knowing full well that he was gay, to keep him safe and give him a child to call his own. It’s tough for Tic too, seeing his parents together—whether that be Dora and George or Dora and Montrose, and who they were before they were the adults in his life.

Montrose runs off to try and change history, so Tic and Leti split up so he can find Montrose and stop him—as to change anything could potentially lead their non-existence—and Leti can try and find the Book of Names, which should be right there in Dora’s house on the corner.

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Night falls over Tulsa and the white mobs arrive to create chaos. Leti runs like the wind from a gang of men who shoot at her, and Dora’s family take her in. It is genuinely heartbreaking knowing that in this story all of the people in that house are going to burn to death and Leti can’t do anything about it. She has to allow it to happen for the survival of her unborn child. The relatives of the man she loves, she will see them die. Even in a TV show context this is traumatic, but what is worse is that this really did happen. No, these specific characters did not exist in real life, but many thousands of families just like them were left homeless and many dead when 35 blocks of Greenwood burned to the ground.

Leti searches the house desperately trying to find the Book of Names, when she is caught snooping by Tic’s grandmother. With a gun pointed to her head, Leti has to tell her the truth of why she is there. She’s from the future, and she needs the book to break the curse on Dora’s son’s cousin. Of course, the grandmother could shoot at her and the bullet would bounce right off, but that wouldn’t help anything. Leti had to tell her why she was there as time was running out. The screams of Dora’s siblings ring out as the house is torched. Instead of going to be with her children, she opens a hidden compartment behind a picture on the wall and hands Leti the Book of Names. The house burns with all of Dora’s family inside. All dead except for Leti who is protected by the invulnerability spell. As Christina said earlier though, it is not always a blessing. She weeps as Tic’s grandmother screams as they pray together as she perishes. Like Hanna before her, Leti walks away from a burning building, pregnant and with the Book of Names tucked safely under her arm. 

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Meanwhile, Tic catches up with Montrose, who isn’t there to warn George as expected. He was there instead to prevent the murder of a boy called Thomas with whom he had a relationship. Tic has to tell him he can’t do it, as it would risk his life. If Dora and Montrose didn’t get together, then Tic might not exist. Montrose disagrees and the agonising truth comes out. Thomas was just one of many sacrifices Montrose made to be Tic’s father. He denied who he was for years and swallowed his pride when he learned that Dora was pregnant, most likely with George’s child. Whether George was the biological father, it didn’t matter. Montrose was his father; he had to be. All he ever wanted to be was his father.

The gang of whites arrive at the monument and have Thomas and Montrose surrounded. They try to flee holding hands but Thomas is shot in the head. George and Dora show up to help but they are outnumbered. It is then that Montrose retells the story of what happened. That a mysterious stranger came and saved them; a black man with a baseball bat who said, “I got you kid” before he disappeared. At that moment Tic knew—he had dreamt this before, right in the very first scenes of Lovecraft Country, Tic had fallen asleep on the bus, dreaming of the Korean War, of a beautiful alien woman (who I am pretty sure was Ji-ah), and a baseball player coming to save his life, saying those exact same words. Here Tic was the hero. He saved his own parents by coming from the future. How could it always have been this way? Is Tic always destined to do this?

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As Tic throws himself into the brawl, kicking the asses of all the white mob members, and Leti holds the hands of Tic’s grandmother and prays with her as she burns, the tremendously powerful poem, “Catch Fire” by Sonia Sanchez plays. Find the words and hear Sonia reading the poem here.

Tic and Montrose make it back to the hotel but Hippolyta is struggling to keep the portal open. Leti is not back yet with the book. Tic jumps through and the portal closes behind him. Montrose looks out over the carnage which was once Black Wall Street and tells us, the audience, what went down that night.

Horace “Peg Leg” Taylor’s last stand did go down at Standpipe Hill. Read more about his brave fight here. H. L. Byar’s Tailor Shop did burn down. Dr A.C. Jackson, the greatest black surgeon in America, left his home with his hands up, telling the mob that he would go with them. Seven men intercepted him, and two shot him in the face and leg, leaving him to bleed to death.

Miss Callie Rogers was forced to leave her home and take her mentally ill daughter to safety, leaving a helpless sick daughter behind. The girl was found by the burners. The white men took her out and placed her in a chair, from which she watched them set her home alight, not leaving her a pillow or bed to rest on. Thankfully the Red Cross found her and took her to safety.

Along the road to Sand Springs, a white couple named Merrill and Ruth Phelps hid and fed black riot victims in the basement of their home for days. The Phelps home, which still stands, became something of a “safe house” for black Tulsans who had managed not to be imprisoned by the white authorities. Travelling through the woods and along creek beds at night, dozens of African American refugees were apparently hidden by the Phelpses during the daylight hours.

Commodore Knox was the massacre’s last recorded fatality, which occurred on August 1921, though I have not been able to find out exactly what happened to him.

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Then, amidst the fires and planes dropping bombs, Leti storms her way down the road. Flames and bullets bouncing off her. A look of determination so fierce, yet haunted by the horror of what she’d just witnessed, she strides towards the hotel. At the observatory, Hippolyta can barely keep going. Her eyes turn completely white, electricity shoots through her, turning every hair on her head bright blue. But she did it. Leti and Montrose make the jump, with the Book of Names safely tucked under her arm. I found this manuscript written by B.C. Franklin extremely interesting, despite being a witness account of three men murdered in front of him. On page 7 he talks of a woman who had lost sight of her toddler, walking into the path of fire calling out “I must follow my child” and not a bullet touched her even though they were raining from the sky—that sounds like quite the inspiration for Leti’s triumphant walk through the streets of Greenwood. 

We’re heading for quite the finale next week. I made a note of Tic’s grandmother saying that the Book of Names should not be opened and that she gave Leti a piece of paper with the words she needed on them. When Christina gets her hands on the book, which she no doubt will, could opening it spell the end for her? The Book has been bound to only work for the good, not for evil. It seems that Christina’s meticulous plan may not work out as she hoped. 

I hope Hippolyta’s hair stays that colour, she looks awesome. How did Diana know what her mother would become? Is this purely a strong mother-daughter connection, or has Dee got some extra powers too?  At least she’s not Topsy anymore. Both Tic and Leti seem to have visited this time and place before—time travel always bends my head. For Tic to exist, he has to travel from the future to save his parents. But how on Earth did that even become a thing? Were things different on another version or Earth? Did the young Dora, Montrose and George not go to the monument in town in some parallel universes? Would they have all burned up in the fires if they stayed home? It’s the kind of Grandfather Paradox with so many potential outcomes my brain is likely to malfunction just pondering it.

2021 will mark 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre. A Memorial is to be built to honour the victims, and a 10,000 bricks campaign has been launched to raise funds for the memorial which will be built where the Stradford Hotel once stood.

I’ll see you at the curtain call next week.

All images courtesy of HBO

Laura Stewart

Written by Laura Stewart

Laura is the Editor-In-Chief at 25YL and she runs the Music Department. She has been part of the team since May 2017 when she began writing about her favourite TV show of all time: Twin Peaks. 25YL is her passion project and is constantly delighted at how big and beautiful it has grown.

Laura lives by the sea in Gower, Wales, with her husband and a very special little boy.

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