The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice
2021 National Book Award Longlist
2022 Carnegie Medal Nonfiction Longlist
2022 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize Shortlist
2022 Housatonic Book Award Winner
One of The New York Times' “11 New Books We Recommend This Week” | One of Oprah Daily's “20 of the Best Books to Pick Up This May” | One of The Oklahoman's “15 Books to Help You Learn About the Tulsa Race Massacre as the 100-Year Anniversary Approaches” |A The Week book of the week
As seen in documentaries on the History Channel, CNN, and Lebron James’s SpringHill Productions
And then they were gone.
More than one thousand homes and businesses. Restaurants and movie theaters, churches and doctors’ offices, a hospital, a public library, a post office. Looted, burned, and bombed from the air.
Over the course of less than twenty-four hours in the spring of 1921, Tulsa’s infamous “Black Wall Street” was wiped off the map—and erased from the history books. Official records were disappeared, researchers were threatened, and the worst single incident of racial violence in American history was kept hidden for more than fifty years. But there were some secrets that would not die.
A riveting and essential new book, The Ground Breaking not only tells the long-suppressed story of the notorious Tulsa race massacre. It also unearths the lost history of how the massacre was covered up, and of the courageous individuals who fought to keep the story alive. Most important, it recounts the ongoing archaeological saga and the search for the unmarked graves of the victims of the massacre, and of the fight to win restitution for the survivors and their families.
Both a forgotten chronicle from the nation’s past and a story ripped from today’s headlines, The Ground Breaking is a page-turning reflection on how we, as Americans, must wrestle with the parts of our history that have been buried for far too long.
Praise for The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice
Praise for The Ground Breaking:
“A skillful narrative of excavating the truth about the Tulsa race massacre. . . . Candid and self-aware. . . . Part of what makes this book so riveting is Ellsworth’s skillful narration, his impeccable sense for when to reveal a piece of information and when to hold something back.”—The New York Times
“A moving and humane portrait of the massacre . . . The Ground Breaking sends a powerful message at this 100th anniversary: that reconciliation is possible only when we directly confront the truth of a painful past and take concrete steps to redress it.”—The Washington Post
“A stunning narrative.”—NPR’s Code Switch
“The Ground Breaking documents Ellsworth’s dogged pursuit to excavate the details of what occurred on those days a hundred years ago, since facts about what transpired were intentionally suppressed for decades. . . . By weaving in his personal history and conversations with Tulsa survivors and other natives, Ellsworth combines his gift for storytelling with a historian’s dogged persistence to not only track the latest information on the existence and locations of those mass graves but to offer essential insights as to why the Tulsa race massacre is emblematic of why American racial inequality persists and how we need to reckon with it so we can begin to seek true reconciliation. . . . Ellsworth—whose previous book on the massacre, published in 1982, was entitled Death in a Promised Land—with his latest masterful work of history, illuminates the hard, never-finished work of unlearning racism and nurturing truth. He also prompts us to question how many other American stories and voices remain buried, waiting for dedicated historians with Ellsworth’s persistence and passion to uncover them.”—OprahDaily.com
“A thoughtful exploration of the importance of collective memory. It is particularly poignant as 2021 marks the centennial of the massacre. A must-read for all who are interested in how history continues to impact the present.”—Rebekah Kati, Library Journal (starred review)
“Historian Ellsworth (Death in a Promised Land) delivers a riveting investigation into the origins and aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. . . . Interviews with survivors and reflections on the debate over reparations and the social, economic, and racial divisions of modern-day Tulsa add depth to Ellsworth’s portrait of a community attempting to heal from an unimaginable injustice. This eloquent, deeply moving history isn’t to be missed.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Immensely readable and thoroughly engaging, The Ground Breaking is a remarkable blend of history and memoir that could not be more timely and informative. Taut, tense, and meticulously composed, Scott Ellsworth’s elegant narrative is both mesmerizing and enlightening.”—Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Devil in the Grove
“This is a book that fuses history and memory with the unresolved search for justice for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. It is also a searing story of Ellsworth’s personal journey as he struggles to unearth and come to terms with these events, and the journey of a community as it moves through forgetting, denial, and finally some grudging acceptance of what happened. The horrific events of 1921 have been called a riot, a disaster, a pogrom, and finally a race massacre. Ellsworth shows how each renaming is a direct result of the persistent efforts of those who would dig up what had been carefully and deliberately hidden. This book should be essential reading for anyone interested in an honest grappling with our racial past and with the task of moving forward.”—Kenneth W. Mack, professor of law, Harvard University
“The persistence, empathy, and painstaking research of The Ground Breaking move us much closer to the justice that the victims of Greenwood, and the people of America, deserve. Heartbreaking and inspiring.”—Beto O’Rourke
“In a time marked by raw nativism, gangster capitalism, and white supremacy off its leash, well-funded mobs, winked at from above, committed racially driven mass terror against Black citizens and American democracy. Those who found themselves mystified when America’s white power movement stormed the US Capitol in 2021 need to take a good look back at Tulsa, Oklahoma, a century ago. The talking heads chant ‘This is not who we are’ because they are wholly in the dark about who we have been. Scott Ellsworth not only tells the gripping story of one of America’s worst racial atrocities but shows us how we can uncover our past and come to grips with our future. His literally groundbreaking research and engaging prose pull us toward the call of justice today.”—Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair, Poor People’s Campaign, and author of The Third Reconstruction
“America cannot address the crisis in which we find ourselves because we are unwilling to acknowledge the road that brought us here. We are determined to look away, as if hiding the empty cake plate will help us lose weight. What we stand to lose instead is the hope of our democratic heritage. Scott Ellsworth is willing to dig and willing to help us to see who we have been in hopes that we will rise to who we must be. The Tulsa massacre of 1921 is one of the most significant and revealing episodes of American history, and one we must confront in order to find our way. The Ground Breaking will rattle you, and it should. It will move you toward a harder wisdom, and it must.”—Tim Tyson, senior research scholar, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, author of The Blood of Emmett Till, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, and Blood Done Sign My Name
“A vital history of a racially motivated mass murder a century ago . . . An essential historical record surrounding heinous events that have yet to be answered with racial justice.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Scott Ellsworth’s absolutely riveting book does more than chronicle the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 and its literal exhumation. With a stunning combination of objectivity and empathy, it demonstrates how even in polarized times we can come together in pursuit of truth. Though concerned with past events, it explores every stratum of the American city now—from city hall to dive bars to homeless encampments to the living rooms of the wealthy and the poor, regardless of color or creed. Anyone interested in America’s future should read it as a template for the reconciliation that lies ahead.”—Tim Blake Nelson, actor, Watchmen and Just Mercy, and Tulsa native
“There is no more scholarly or elegant telling of this uniquely American story—the horrible hours a century ago when Tulsa’s Black community was obliterated by a white mob; the breathtaking conspiracy of silence that followed; the long coda to the tragedy that is still being written. But this book is also a memoir, and it is Ellsworth’s story that has found its way most deeply into my bones. He was the white Tulsa boy changed by an early experience of virulent racism. He was the scholar who dedicated his life to unearthing what happened. He became a truthteller and an example for us all. I believe that the path of true racial reconciliation runs through millions of American whites, whose hearts would be changed if they only knew our history. To those people I would simply say this: Please read this book.”—Tim Madigan, award-winning author of The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921
“This has been the life’s work of Tulsa native historian Scott Ellsworth, who has spent nearly fifty years working on uncovering what really happened and then what happened to the bodies of what is the biggest unsolved crime in state history. . . . His book is a must-read for every Tulsan and for those who want a better understanding of what America was like in the years following the first World War.”—Tim Landes
“In this centennial year, which has been marked by racial unrest and uprisings, Ellsworth recounts how survivors, researchers, and historians following the 1982 publication of his seminal book on the massacre served as essential catalysts in breaking long-held silences around an American tragedy with the aim of modeling what racial healing could look like.”—OprahDaily.com, 20 of the Best Books to Pick Up This May
“Long awaited.”—Smithsonian Magazine
“Indispensable . . . impeccable . . . Scott Ellsworth has produced a much-needed book that acts like a mirror. Though documenting a particular place and time, it helps us understand the race-based and sectarian turmoil that is so pervasive today. . . . Fast-paced but nuanced, it’s an impeccably researched update of [his] literary debut.”—The Guardian
“[One of] fifteen books to help you learn about the Tulsa race massacre as the hundred-year anniversary approaches.”—The Oklahoman
“Ellsworth’s book presents a riveting, painful-to-read account of a mass crime that, to our everlasting shame as Americans, has avoided justice. . . . [The Ground Breaking] presents us with a clear history of the Tulsa massacre and, with that rendering, a chance for atonement of one of our darkest hours as a nation. Readers of this book will fervently hope we take that opportunity.”—Associated Press
“This is the kind of book that, once you start it, makes the hours disappear. It’s an emotional one that’ll make you skip dinner and lock the door so you can just read. For sure, The Ground Breaking will shake you up.”—TheTimesWeekly.com
“If one of the public historian’s greatest tasks is to make people care, Ellsworth succeeds spectacularly. His character-driven narrative is clear and compelling. . . . The detail with which he recounts Tulsans’ lives is rich and effective. . . . What Ellsworth is ultimately making the case for is what some scholars and policymakers have called ‘transitional justice’—or a way for societies to redress abuses and atrocities so severe the normal justice system can’t handle them. . . . Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of The Ground Breaking is that it understands the limitations of the historian’s and the media’s roles in that project, acknowledging that more political action is needed to sustain a movement that’s only just begun.”—Foreign Policy
“Superb . . . A century after the Tulsa massacre, The Ground Breaking is beautifully written, instantly engrossing, and deeply empathetic. It never flinches from a horrifying story, although in places that horror is unbearable, unearthing a cruel secret that America tried for decades to suppress. In the wake of Trump’s America and as the United States struggles to come to terms with its living legacy of slavery, brutality, and institutionalized racism, The Ground Breaking is an essential read.”—Donal O’Keeffe, Irish Examiner