By Claire Matturro
Dennis “Mitch” Maley, a Bradenton, Florida journalist and author, delves into harsh historical events in his newest book, Burn Black Wall Street Burn (Punk Rock Publishing June 2021), and he does so with verve, talent, and force. Told through the eyes of several characters, the book is a riveting, up close and personal story of one of America’s ugliest moments. Written as historical fiction, or “dramatized history,” the book is accurate, but goes beyond the hard facts to vividly tell an intimate story of many lives at the center of a tragedy.
In the spring of 1921, triggered by a black youth’s tripping in an elevator and touching a white woman as he stumbled, a murderous white mob burned the prosperous, all-Black community known as Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time, Tulsa was at the heart of the oil industry and Greenwood was known as the “Black Wall Street.”
Maley pulls readers right into his gritty, provocative story with the fast pace and drama of quality fiction, but readers should not lose track of the fact that the base story is true. Maley wants “people to know that they’re going to come away with a very academic understanding of the history wrapped in what I think is an engaging dramatic narrative.”
Indeed, Maley takes readers right into the heart of Greenwood through a variety of real-life characters including seventeen-year-old Dick Rowland (aka “Diamond Dick”), whose stumble in the elevator ignited the mob, and Buck Colbert Franklin, described as a “famous Negro attorney” in a local 1921 newspaper, who later played a pivotal role in the riot’s aftermath. Maley’s use of actual people in a fictional, or dramatized, fashion makes the history not only more alive and personal, but all the more heartbreaking too.
In addition to his well-drawn, engaging characters, Maley also brings to life a vivid, thriving world with his descriptions of Greenwood. For example, early on he writes about the “frenetic pace, the sounds of the motor cars scooting by and the hum from the throng of Greenwood’s Black citizens who weaved between one another on their way to work, school or some manner of commerce.”
A bold, well executed dramatized history, Maley’s Burn Black Wall Street Burn deserves to be read, absorbed, and pondered. Below, Maley shares some of his thoughts about the book and the why and how of its creation.
Claire Matturro: Thank you Dennis “Mitch” Maley for sitting down for an interview. You wear several hats these days—activist, political journalist, public speaker, podcaster, father, husband, and author among them. I’ve been reading your news stories and columns in The Bradenton (Florida) Times for years, yet I have a very basic question to begin with. Do you prefer to be called “Dennis” or “Mitch” or perhaps Mr. Maley?
A. My friends call me Mitch, which is my preference, but it’s not something I’ve ever corrected people on, and that’s probably caused some unnecessary confusion, especially with all of the other mediums I’ve been using lately, such as podcasting. My first three books were under “Dennis Maley” because that’s just how my bylines have always read, but it was suggested that I publish this book with both names, for that reason and also because there’s another author named Dennis Maley, which sometimes confuses searches.
Q. What motivated you to write this book? The research and the writing must both have been very dauting and time-consuming and certainly this book required a huge commitment and effort on your part.
A. There was an enormous amount of tedium, yes, and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever do historical fiction, at least this kind, ever again. Whereas my literary work typically serves as a respite from my journalism, much of the work involved in this book was akin to investigative journalism. To make it even more challenging, it was a piece of history for which a lot of the more typical avenues of research simply didn’t exist. As such, it required a level of digging that was very tedious and time consuming. Nevertheless, I’d just become so obsessed with the story upon learning of it a few years back and had ended up doing so much research without any plan to use it for anything that at a certain point it seemed natural to try and produce something that could raise awareness of this little-known historical event. In the end, I decided that because there were already several excellent pieces of non-fiction addressing it, I would dramatize the events in a way that might appeal to a different audience while still imparting an accurate historic depiction.
Q. Now that the 100-year anniversary of Greenwood has triggered documentaries on PBS and CNN, more of us are likely to know the basic story. But you go in for the deep details in your book—well beyond the documentaries. Please tell us a bit about your research and what sources you used. Were there any preserved oral histories you might have used? Old newspapers? How long did you research?
A. It required a solid two years of research, and some of the most fertile sources came from somewhat surprising places. For example, a lawsuit filed by a white entrepreneur who owned some Greenwood property that was destroyed in the fires contained a wealth of testimony via affidavits from witnesses. One of the things that was frustrating initially is that every single historic account referred to several of the key characters only by their first initials, including O.W. Gurley, J.B. Stradford and O.B. Mann. While that works fine in an academic book, it certainly wouldn’t have worked well for dialog in this kind of story. It took a lot of research to find that O.W.’s first name was Otto, and that J.B.’s initials stood for John the Baptist—his actual given name. But the discovery that I was most happy with was finding a hand written census form filled out by Mr. Mann in the late 1930s that showed O.B. to be a phonetic misinterpretation of “Obie.” I am fairly confident that his first name was most likely “Obera,” the same as one of his daughters—a not uncommon practice of the time—but I couldn’t prove it with absolute certainty by our deadline, which was a bit disappointing. However, I believe I’m the first person to have discovered the fact that he was being called Obie, not O.B., and there was something particularly satisfying about that. And yes, there were a series of recorded audio tapes of interviews with survivors that a local historian had the foresight to record in the 1970s that provided the basis for many of the details of the massacre that I use in the book.
Q. You open the story with Diamond Dick Rowland, a seventeen-year-old dropout shoeshine youth and Buck C. Franklin, already a prominent Black attorney. Other than their race, the two men appear to have little in common until history crosses their paths. How did you get into the heads of two such different characters when you wrote Burn Black Wall Street Burn?
A. Buck was a little easier because his son, John Hope Franklin, who actually became our National Historian at one point, post-posthumously published his memoir. Reading it gave me a very good sense of his vocabulary, and the rhythm of his words. Dick was more of a mystery. There’s very little known history beyond some biographical data, so it was more a matter of imagining a young man from that time and place propelled into such a dreadful situation. I researched a lot of relevant literature from that time and place to get an accurate handle on the popular slang of the day and how it varied among the young and old, the poor and rich, educated and uneducated, etc.
Q. Given the flap that arose over cultural appropriation claims with American Dirt (Flatiron Books January 21, 2020), in which a white woman writes about illegal Mexican immigrants, have any critics or readers questioned your ability to write the story? Did you have any concerns entering into the project about cultural appropriation? Do you now?
A. I knew going into it that there would be some people who would suggest that this is not my story to tell and that I would likely be subjected to some related criticism for some of the book’s elements, as a result. So far, there’s been some hesitancy related to the promotion of the book in that sense and the idea that the anniversary should be a time to lift black voices, not white ones, which I understand. But, as writers, we can only tell the stories that are in our heads. In the end, I decided that if we are pretty much in universal agreement that this story is not nearly as widely known as should be the case, adding another telling, especially one that uses a historical fiction approach, could never be a bad thing. If more people become aware of the terrible events that took place than would have had they not read my book, than that is all of the validation of it that I could ask for. It did, however, create a lot of internal pressure, in my mind, that I really needed to get this right and do this story justice, and I feel like I have. I’m rather confident that I’ve made a worthwhile addition to the small cannon of books that exist to tell this story.
Q. I love conducting historical research myself, especially reading preserved oral histories and old newspapers, but I also know one can get lost in research to the point writing the book becomes secondary to finding out every detail and fact you can. Did you get consumed (or overwhelmed) at any point by the research? And were there any facts or details you could never find an answer to?
A. Indeed. There were so many rabbit holes to go down and so much raw information to take in that the part I found most challenging was just getting a coherent narrative started. I think that’s been one of the challenges in attempting to tell this story that may partly explain the lack of entries. It’s extremely broad and complex. There are a lot of essential characters to introduce and the challenge of not overwhelming the reader in doing so. There is a lot of expository information about the time and place that really needs to be understood for it to really make sense and I wanted that to be done primarily by character dialog rather than a chatty narrator. There were a lot of days spent spreading index cards across the floor of my library trying to move the introduction of characters and depictions of events around into something that would flow and be easily absorbed. By the end, the whole project had so completely taken over the space in my mind that it felt suffocating. In that sense, by the time it was all done, it was certainly the book I was most relieved to have finished.
Q. You are also the author of several fictional books, including A Long Road Home, Casting Shadows, and Sacred Heart. How has being a journalist with its obligation of objectivity and its frequent emphasis on conciseness helped—or hurt—your creative writing?
A. I’ve always considered myself a novelist first and a journalist second, even if my investment of time has to be the opposite. To be honest, I became a journalist primarily because I had read so much from writers that I admired who had done both in terms of the value that journalism added to their literature. There’s definitely something to be said for being obligated to write pretty much every single day, whether or not you’re feeling inspired, regardless of whether or not you’re passionate about the subject matter. You get your 10,000 hours in much more quickly, and the creative writing becomes much easier to induce, if you will. It also provides a steady paycheck in most cases. That said, it can also sort of drain the same tank from which you fuel your other endeavors. I’ve noticed that when my journalism load is heavy, my creative writing suffers. I’ve found that I’ve got about five hours daily of intense writing in me these days, so it’s easy to spend that all in one place. I’m constantly trying to balance the two, but because one is generally an ultra-quick turnaround and the other moves at a glacial pace, that can be challenging.
Q. What’s next? Do you have another manuscript in mind? In progress? If so, might you share a word about it?
A. Yes, I’m very excited about my next project. The working title is Burnt Children, which comes from a Nietzsche quote in his book, Beyond Good and Evil. He uses the term to describe those who have the fortitude or compulsion to “stare into the molten pit of human reality” where they are singed by the heat and, as a result of what they see, these “burnt children” become “eternal orphans in empires of illusion.” It’s going to be fiction, but a deeply philosophical work that speaks to many of the critical issues our civilization faces, while exploring the very nature of consciousness, reality, and whether knowledge beyond what you truly need to exist as a human may bring as much burden as it does advantage or even comfort. This is the book I have wanted to write for 20 years, and I finally feel as though I’ve gotten to a point in my career where I can do it justice.
About the interviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro has been a newspaper reporter in Alabama, a lawyer in Florida, and has taught at Florida State University College of Law and University of Oregon School of Law. An author of seven prior mysteries and legal thrillers, she and her husband live on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Her newest book, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing Aug. 2021), is with co-author Penny Koepsel. Claire remains active in writers’ and environmental groups and is an associate editor at Southern Literary Review. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com
Originally published at Southern Literary Review