What To Read: Victor Luckerson is uncovering Black history

This week, we interviewed Victor Luckerson, a journalist and writer who writes Run It Back, a newsletter about Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District, famously known as Black Wall Street. This interview has been lightly edited.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Research, reporting, and writing about neglected black history, with a current focus on Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

What first made you interested in researching Tulsa’s Black Wall Street?

I was having lunch with a friend in 2017, and the movie 12 Years a Slave came up. He said he hadn’t seen it because he was exhausted by films and popular culture that revolved entirely around black trauma. I asked him if he had heard of Black Wall Street, an example of black success and perseverance. He said he hadn’t, so I figured it would be a good use of my time to make sure more people knew about this story.

For me, this research is more about how black people in Greenwood lived and overcame obstacles than about the massacre itself. When you think about our collective knowledge of the American story – the events that make it into history books, feature films, and our intuitive sense of the arc of “progress” – black people pretty much disappear between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. The story of Greenwood is fascinating because it helps fill in the blanks about the black experience during that long interim period. 

What can Tulsa’s history teach us about our present moment?

One of the biggest lessons is about the power of collective action. In the political landscape of early Oklahoma, there was a really unusual tension between individualism and collectivism. Black people were largely excluded from these warring ideologies and had to piece together their own path toward success and even their own definition of what success meant. 

That meant working together, pretty much at all times. Black people in Tulsa had to work together if they wanted their businesses to succeed, or if they wanted to preserve their civil rights, or if they wanted to protect their neighbors from being lynched by a white mob. They did not agree on everything, but most of Greenwood’s leaders understood that coalition-building and pooling of resources were key to their survival.

That spirit of collaboration offers lessons for all kinds of seemingly intractable problems today that will only be solved through collective solutions: police reform, climate change, the racial wealth gap. 

What’s been the most challenging part of the research process?

Definitely the dearth of archival information about what black people were up to day to day. A lot of historians get to work with personal journals or daily newspapers to recreate a world, but I don’t have that. Black people in Tulsa were mostly ignored in the white daily newspapers for generations, except when they committed crimes. Many issues of the weekly black newspaper, the Tulsa Star, are lost forever. Some documents tied to the massacre itself appear to have been purposefully destroyed. I have to spend a lot of time inferring things about people’s lifestyles and attitudes from land records, business filings, lawsuits, and other sources – and even that will only grant you insight on a wealthier subset of Greenwood folks. 

You’ve been writing your newsletter for more than a year now. How has it evolved over time, and what are your hopes for it going forward?

I have gotten more confident in making assertions based on the evidence I’m finding, rather than feeling bound by conventional wisdom or mythology. For example, I found court filings showing that Loula Williams owned a theater and a confectionery in Greenwood completely independently of her husband, even though he often got credit for them. I’ve tried to surface perspectives from early Greenwood residents about the negative aspects of living there – many homes lacked running water and electricity – in addition to more conventional Black Wall Street success stories. It’s important to try to understand the complexities of any community you write about, and not revert to a utopian framing. 

Run It Back is essentially a reporter’s notebook for my upcoming book about Greenwood, called Built From the Fire, which will be published by Random House after the 100-year centennial of the massacre. After I finish the Greenwood narrative, I’d like to use the newsletter to share knowledge about how to do historical research, because I knew very little before starting this project. Anybody can use Sanborn maps or newspapers.com or courthouse records to improve their journalism – or just find out more about their hometown. I also want to host conversations with other people interested in black history, whether academics, journalists, or everyday people. 

Who’s another Substack writer you’d recommend?

I have been enjoying novelist Brandon Taylor’s recently revived newsletter sweater weather. I have a rarely met goal to read more modern fiction, and Brandon’s literary essays and criticism are a fascinating window into that world and the way the internet is shaping it. He has a personal, propulsive style that makes me want to experiment with my own form. 

Subscribe to Victor’s newsletter, Run It Back, or follow him on Instagram @runitbackarchive.