Looking through Agnes’ eyes, spectators will see a young love and life cut short. They will see a community burned to the ground, and Agnes with it, for reasons beyond her 14-year-old self.
Agnes isn’t real, never was, but she could have been. She is the story of 1921 Black Wall Street from the mouths of survivors, from witnesses, newspaper clippings and books.
Using virtual reality technology, the creators of Greenwood Avenue: Virtual Reality Experience aim to place viewers in Agnes’ shoes and bring the history of Black Wall Street back to life.
“A lot of people think it’s a tall tale,” director Talibah Newman said. The violence that destroyed Greenwood — and the conditions that led to it — are things many would rather forget, but “our job as filmmakers is to create awareness and make sure the history doesn’t become lost.”
Greenwood, an economically prosperous but segregated black district in Tulsa, was nicknamed Black Wall Street by Booker T. Washington. Within a 14-hour period starting May 31, 1921, more than 1,000 white Tulsans, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, descended on Greenwood, looting, bombing and burning nearly the entire district to the ground.
The National Guard was called in to restore order, but too late to save 1,256 homes and an unknown number of lives taken in the massacre, more commonly known as the Tulsa race riot. At least 37 death certificates were issued, but most experts agree that casualties were higher.
The story of Agnes will leave viewers with a sense of what an economic and cultural oasis Greenwood was for African-Americans at that time, and the terror of those 14 hours that razed it, the creators said.
Much of what Agnes experiences is based on interviews with a survivor, Olivia Hooker. Hooker, now 103, hid under the kitchen table when Klansman broke in and ransacked her family’s home.
The project’s film crew, mostly from California, has spent the past week painstakingly shooting around Greenwood, re-creating the atmosphere of the time on a tight budget under $200,000, creator Ayana Baraka said. Filming in Tulsa is scheduled to wrap up Tuesday.
The project was made possible by a grant from Google and funding from WomenMakeMovies, a nonprofit organization promoting women in filmmaking.
There was a lot of talk early on about filming in Los Angeles, but ultimately Baraka decided it had to happen in Greenwood.
“It was definitely a magical place, and that’s what we’re trying to capture,” Baraka said.
She began the project three years ago at the University of Southern California, shortly after learning about the riot for the first time. Outside of Oklahoma, the story isn’t commonly known, she said, and many in Tulsa haven’t heard the whole history, either.
“It’s been almost 100 years, and people still don’t know about this. It hasn’t been dissected ... or even really accepted,” she said. “How can we get over something that hasn’t even been recognized?”
It wasn’t simple hate that motivated so many to destroy Greenwood, Newman said; it was a more complex sort of racism fed by a variety of factors, chiefly economic jealousy.
The project is ultimately about educating, and as such the creators want to make it clear that racism, in this case and most others, is no simple thing.
“It’s about stuff, it’s about money, it’s about things,” project writer Spade Robinson said. “It’s about a group of people feeling like they inherently deserve these things.”
Many Greenwood homes and businesses were looted before they were burned. Reports from the time describe men, many armed, “pillaging” the area, taking everything from jewelry to couches.
These are all things viewers will see leading up to Agnes’ final moments. It will be intense; it will be memorable, Robinson said, so that the story of those affected won’t be forgotten again.
“I want the community of Tulsa, the descendants of people who died, descendants of people who survived to feel seen and heard,” she said. “That’s the most important thing to me.”
There’s horror in the history of Greenwood, the creators agreed, but it’s a fine example of the resilience of African-American communities, as well. To create one of the most affluent communities in Tulsa, and not so long after slavery, is no small feat.
“Had they been allowed to continue building community and economic caché, … who knows what it would be now,” Newman said. “They would probably be running the state.”
Once completed, the full five-part series will be available Oct. 1 on YouTube VR. The Greenwood Cultural Center is also considering installing a dedicated virtual reality room where visitors can go to view the Greenwood Avenue: Virtual Reality Experience.