Black in Time

Film tells little-known story of Tulsa race riots


Special to The Miami Herald

One of the events Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.’s Dade County Alumnae Chapter is presenting to commemorate their national organization’s centennial year is the documentary film, Before They Die! This film contains information not widely known about an important era in American history. The film chronicles the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., race riots including the destruction of Greenwood, the city’s black business and financial community, called Black Wall Street.

The Miami screening, free and open to the public will take place at noon Saturday, at Miami Jackson Senior High School Auditorium, 1751 NW 36th St. It will be followed by a panel discussion led by Jeannine D. Clement, the film’s producer and a member of Delta Theta Sorority.

She interviewed 22 survivors of the Tulsa race riot.

Salvaging a little known chapter of U.S. history, “before they die,” this film highlights the first-hand accounts of 105 year old Otis Clark, 94 year old Dr. Olivia Hooker, 91 year old Wess Young, and other survivors who lived during the era that began in 1919 called “Red Summer.”

Floridian poet and lawyer, James Weldon Johnson, then field secretary of the NAACP, coined the phrase “Red Summer” to graphically describe the beginning of the horrific time throughout the North and South, when there were race riots and lynchings in 25 cities and towns occurred between 1919 and 1929. Poet Claude McKay wrote, “If We Must Die” in response to the race riot in Harlem in 1919.

The worst race riot in the history of the United States happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prosperous black community of Greenwood, “Black Wall Street.” In less than 24 hours, the then thriving business, financial and residential community was totally destroyed by an angry white mob. Over 35 square blocks of Tulsa were burned to the ground and an estimated 300 people killed. Insurance for the destruction of life and property has not been honored.

Before They Die! is an educational film about the survivors and their quest for justice.

In the interviews they did not characterize themselves as victims, but rather as Americans seeking justice and compensation. They use precedents set with other victims of terrorism, injustice, and similar race riots including the individuals in the Oklahoma City bombing, the Japanese-Americans interred during World War II and black survivors from the 1923 Rosewood, Fla., event.

The film follows the lawsuit filed by the survivors in 2001 against the city of Tulsa and state of Oklahoma. Their legal team is led by nationally known Professor Charles Ogletree of the Harvard Law School. Twentieth century dean of African American scholarship and historian John Hope Franklin, himself a descendant of a Tulsa race riot survivor, testified at the Congressional hearings.

According to Cynthia M.A. Butler-McIntyre, Delta Sigma Theta’s 24th national president: “as early as 1913, when our nation was rife with racial discrimination and gender inequality, twenty-two courageous young women on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D. C. joined forces to provide support and service for effective solutions to issues impacting the black community. “

One hundred years later the Delta tradition of service continues with many activities including the showing of this film in Miami. An abbreviated version of the documentary is available to educators free of charge by emailing your name, title and school address to:

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to

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