Last October, when Marilyn Christopher sat down in her Manhattan apartment to watch the première of “Watchmen,” she was seeking an escape. A science-fiction fanatic, she had spent a lifetime devouring Robert Heinlein novels and seeing “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” in theatres multiple times. She enjoyed the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel, so the HBO series seemed like a safe bet for an entertaining Sunday night. For Marilyn, the right sci-fi yarn was a ticket to an unknown new world, where the trials of living in New York could be briefly forgotten. But as the opening scene of the series depicted a small boy sitting in a movie theatre, while his weeping mother banged discordant keys on a piano, Marilyn felt herself crash-landing back in reality. “That’s Tulsa,” she recalled thinking. “That could be my grandfather. That’s the Tulsa race riot!”
Marilyn watched as the little boy and his parents attempted a frantic escape from Greenwood, the prosperous neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, during the Tulsa Race Massacre, in 1921. On her TV, bullets cracked the air, bombs fell from airplanes, fires enveloped buildings. Tulsa had never been brought to life with such gruesome glamour. To Marilyn’s eye, the boy appeared to be a stand-in for the grandfather she’d grown up calling Daddo. He was a massacre survivor whose mother, Loula, had owned a theatre in Greenwood and whose father, John, had owned an auto-repair shop. Daddo’s given name was William Danforth Williams—the “Watchmen” boy goes by Will Williams, though he changes his last name to Reeves after the attack on his home. As the family on TV fled for their lives, Marilyn’s real-life family business flashed across the screen: the Williams Dreamland Theatre. Williams Auto Repair made a cameo, too. Even some of the sequence’s smallest details, like a brief shot of a white man brandishing a stolen leopard coat, appeared to be taken from oral histories that had travelled from Daddo’s lips to academic books to popular culture.
It was all a little too real for Marilyn. She turned the show off after the opening spectacle and has had little motivation to revisit it since. “Once I saw dead Black bodies, I said, ‘I don’t want to watch this,’ ” she told me. “I know that I should appreciate this, but I guess I didn’t.”
On Sunday evening, “Watchmen” will vie for twenty-six Emmy Awards, as the most-nominated television show of the year. Implicit in the widespread praise for the show is the righteousness of its mission, in bringing a long-buried story of racial terrorism to a wide American audience. Other shows, such as HBO’s more recent hit “Lovecraft Country,” have also woven the nation’s hidden history of racial violence into tales that veer into sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. Authors who were the forebears of this style of storytelling are receiving unprecedented mainstream attention this year—the writer Octavia Butler, who wrote novels that married historical and science fiction, often centering on race, entered the Times best-seller list for the first time, this month, fourteen years after her death. Black history is becoming big business.
For people who have lived with the weight of these stories for generations, though, it is a different thing to watch ancestors you knew and admired seep into the public consciousness as silhouettes of their actual selves. “Our legacy—I don’t think it’s perceived as something that’s ours,” Marilyn told me. “If you have passion and a desire to share and illuminate this point of time in history, that can be taken advantage of, if you’re not careful.”
For Marilyn, the oldest of five siblings, the Williams Dreamland Theatre has been a presence in her life since she was growing up in North Tulsa. She recalls doing chores at her grandfather Daddo’s house and seeing a small oval paperweight perched on the living-room credenza, showing the two-story brick building owned by her great-grandmother. “The Only Colored Theatre in the City,” the ornament boasted. Daddo would tell her not to touch the paperweight when he saw her inspecting it. Even as an eight-year-old, she knew that it was a precious thing. Her grandfather told her about how his mama had owned a majestic theatre, but he never went into detail.
It would be decades before Marilyn and her siblings learned the full scope of their great-grandmother’s accomplishments and heartaches. Loula Williams, in fact, owned three movie theatres, launching two other Dreamlands in the nearby towns of Okmulgee and Muskogee. Sometimes, the theatre in Tulsa served as an entertainment hub—residents could gather there to watch vaudeville acts, boxing bouts, and the biggest silent films of the day. Other times, it served as a community center, hosting events like the graduation ceremony for the neighborhood high school. Occasionally, it was a strategic headquarters, where Greenwood leaders would coördinate plans to battle the legal encroachments of Jim Crow. No other location in Greenwood served so many needs in so many contexts.
On June 1, 1921, the Dreamland and a confectionery that Loula operated were among the more than a thousand structures that were burned to the ground during the massacre. W. D. Williams, or Daddo, was one of the thousands of black people hauled off to an internment camp. The Williams family slept on the floor of a relative’s house for weeks, then lived in a tent on top of their burned-out property as winter approached. Eventually, they rebuilt, but they went into steep debt attempting to reclaim the prosperity that was stolen from them. For Loula, it was more than money that was lost. She fell into a mental and physical decline after the attack and never recovered. She died in 1927, before she was fifty years old. “She was so devastated by losing all that, she just went into a state of depression and she just never came out,” Jan Christopher, Marilyn’s younger sister, told me.
Daddo never conveyed the family history to the Christopher children all at once. They picked it up in snippets of conversation and chance encounters with his collection of Greenwood memorabilia. “We didn’t sit around the dinner table talking about the Tulsa massacre of 1921,” Marilyn recalled. “Because who would?” When Daddo served as a primary source for Scott Ellsworth’s “Death in a Promised Land,” the first book-length treatment of the massacre, Marilyn’s mother, Anita Williams Christopher, bought all five siblings copies. Jan took the book to college with her during her freshman year, as evidence she could show people of the stories that had floated around her growing up.
Since W. D. Williams died in 1984, his children and grandchildren have quietly continued the effort to preserve the family history. But, because of their early spirit of generosity, their artifacts now serve as a kind of collective visual shorthand for both Greenwood’s wealth and its destruction. Rare images of early Greenwood that the Williams family once possessed are now housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photos of the Dreamland that W. D. Williams shared with historians now float aimlessly across the Internet. A photo of John, Loula, and W. D. in a 1911 Norwalk car appeared in a brief “Watchmen” montage, narrated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describing Greenwood’s success.
Although descendants of the Williams family appreciate that “Watchmen” has brought the story of Greenwood to a wider audience, they’re also keenly aware that elements of their family’s history have played out onscreen without their involvement. Marilyn didn’t feel that her story had been co-opted, because the life of the television character Will Reeves, as a police officer and later a costumed crusader in a planet-hopping save-the-universe plot, ultimately branches far away from Daddo’s. Charles, the youngest Christopher sibling, saw the huge interest in the show as a promotional opportunity for other projects centered on the Dreamland. For Jan, the fact that the show leverages the Williams family’s story through their buildings without making their relatives into fully developed characters showed an interest in telling “their story in our place, not our story in our place.” “Loula Williams should be a character in Black history,” Jan told me. “They should probably go ahead and talk to us and actually incorporate her as a real figure instead of trying to get around it just by what they’re seeing on the Internet.”