Steamboat author publishes timely novel that studies Tulsa’s historic Black Wall Street riot
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When the news broke out that President Donald Trump was holding a rally on Juneteenth in the city of Tulsa where a Black community was destroyed a hundred years ago, the London family’s cellphones in Steamboat Springs started to ring.
Douglas and Kathy London fielded calls from family and friends for days.
“Everyone around the country called and said ‘How did he know?” said Kathy London in reference to her husband’s amazingly prescient new book, “Sinister Silence, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Legacy.”
Douglas London was an AP Enlgish teacher at a private high school in Oklahoma City in 2016 when he started researching ideas to engage his honor students as they read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a novel based on the true life of an escaped slave.
“I came across a couple of stories of what happened in Tulsa (in 1921), and I asked the whole class if anyone knew about it,” said Doug London. “Only three African-American kids (in the class) knew it took place. I was shocked.”
London is talking about a piece of history that most Americans didn’t know about until Trump scheduled a June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Juneteenth, a holiday recognized by many in the Black community. It commemorates Union Army General Gordon Granger arriving in Galveston, Texas, to proclaim all slaves were free, two years after much of the nation had already been informed.
As Trump’s rally garnered criticism from the Black community, many Americans learned that Tulsa was once home to Black Wall Street, a name given to the Greenwood neighborhood — one of the nation’s most prosperous black neighborhoods in the early 20th century.
London’s book, researched and written in the past three years, takes much of the real history of what happened that day and weaves the actual characters throughout the book, which takes place in 1921 and 2017. In the modern era, London follows a Black family living in the heart of Tulsa with a popular athlete son who has parents in the education system.
London doesn’t shy away from several controversial topics in the book, including juvenile sexting, school shooters and institutional racism. But at the same time gives incredible insight into what happened that led to the destruction of one of the country’s most prosperous Black neighborhoods.
“I use their actual names and actual roles they all played in the riot based on what I read,” London said of his 1921-era characters. “My fictional piece of it is adding my opinion of what was motivating them.”
In the book, London follows how one newspaper publisher created the spark that led a concerted effort by some white community members to destroy and take over valuable land where the wealthy Black community resided.
“That was the interesting part … two papers were competing and a lot of it resonates for me because of what is going on in the present,” London said. “You have Fox and CNN, and in Tulsa. you had the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune. You had two papers competing for the reading audience. They decided to take two very different spins on all of the current events that were happening back then.”
The modern plot in “Sinister Silence” has today’s adolescents looking at the Tulsa riots and its impact still felt today. He hopes readers gain understanding in light of today’s riots and protests.
“When are we going to address that racism still exists and how does this legacy of hundred years ago impact the conversation now?” London asked.
The book also makes it clear the riots weren’t actually a spur-of-the-moment action by hotheads.
“There were actual platoons of people going through Greenwood and destroying things,” London said. “It was also the first time in America they ever used planes to organize an assault from the air. White residents used planes to drop Molotov cocktails on certain areas.”
He also lays out clearly that every situation is complex, and in the book, he highlights the many good people, white and black, who came to the rescue of the Black Wall Street residents.
“There’s multiple layers,” London said.
The author said he titled the book “Sinister Silence” because residents quickly buried the memory of the Tulsa riot.
“A century has gone by, but is there a lot of progress with how we interact with each other?” he asked. “Burying the problem like Tulsa did is not helpful. We need these conversations.”
“Sinister Silence, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Legacy” can be purchased online or found at the local library.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. She can be reached through the editor.
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