Watchmen

Regina King in "Watchmen." 

Robert Redford is president.

Richard Nixon was president before him, and was so wildly popular that Americans repealed the 22nd Amendment to allow him to serve from 1968 to 1985 (the Watergate hearings never happened).

The U.S. won the war in Vietnam and subsequently made that country the 51st state.

The man who turned the tide of the war, a superhero whose skin is Carolina blue and whose uniform is his birthday suit, now lives in self-exile on Mars.

Showers of squids fall from the heavens periodically for reasons no one understands.

And in the 1920s, a mob of angry whites attacked a community in Tulsa, Okla., called Greenwood, or “Negro Wall Street,” shooting people, torching buildings and dropping kerosene bombs from biplanes.

These are some of the major threads in the alternate reality of “Watchmen,” a dazzling — and enticingly befuddling — new series on HBO that is based (loosely) on a DC comic book and is primarily set in Tulsa.

Except for the last one. It really happened.

As the series faithfully depicts, on May 31 and June 1, 1921, an army of whites did storm into a black section of Tulsa, burning businesses and homes and destroying 40 blocks. As many as 300 people were killed (accounts vary). And more than 10,000 black residents were rendered homeless.

To add insult to tragedy, the black survivors were rounded up and placed in detention camps — and later forced to clean up their white attackers’ mess. They also were told by city leaders never to speak of what they had seen that day.

The violence erupted after a 19-year-old black man named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white female elevator operator, though she pressed no charges. Upon hearing that the sheriff had turned away a white mob that wanted to lynch Rowland, a group of armed black men, including World War I veterans, went into town to help protect Rowland. Shots erupted.

That set the stage for a march by an angry mob of whites into Greenwood.

“The sidewalk was literally covered with burning turpentine balls,” one of the black survivors, B.C. Franklin wrote. “For fully forty-eight hours, the fires raged and burned everything in its path and it left nothing but ashes and burned safes and trunks and the like that were stored in beautiful houses and businesses.”

If the name seems familiar, that’s because Franklin was the father of John Hope Franklin, the famous Duke University historian.

The devastation was deep and lasting. Before the massacre Greenwood was the wealthiest black community in the United States, home to more than 300 black businesses and a number of black millionaires. Afterward, hospitals, stores, movie theaters, churches and scores of homes had been reduced to rubble — the damage totaled more than $32 million in 2019 dollars.

The Tulsa incident was largely omitted from Oklahoma history until a 2001 commission revisited it.

It recalls a North Carolina incident that was similarly edited from history until recent years. Twenty-three years earlier, a mob of white-supremacist Democrats overthrew a city government led by an alliance of Republicans and African Americans in Wilmington. They attacked and destroyed black businesses and are known to have killed 10 people, though the actual numbers probably were higher. A historical marker commemorating the event was dedicated on Nov. 7. It notably revised the typical reference to what happened in 1898 as “the Wilmington Riot” and called it what it really was: “The Wilmington Coup.”

“You don’t call it that anymore because the African Americans weren’t rioting,” said Ansley Herring Wegner, administrator of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. “They were being massacred.”

Unpleasant as they are, it is important that we know these things and we remember what “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has been capable of in some of its darker moments. Both were notorious firsts in U.S. history: in Tulsa, the first U.S. city to be bombed from air. And in Wilmington, the only time a legitimately elected government has been overthrown in the U.S.

One footnote: In “Watchmen,” reparations were paid to the descendants and survivors of the attack on Greenwood. In real life, they were not.

Those crazy comic book fantasies can be so farfetched.

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Contact Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson at allen.johnson@greensboro.com or (336) 373-7010.

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