With the 100th year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre approaching, we wanted to help readers understand the full scope of what was lost when an angry white mob destroyed a thriving Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla. We spent months reconstructing the historic neighborhood of Greenwood and created a detailed 3-D model of the area as it was before the massacre. This allowed readers to fully experience the level of success and entrepreneurship accomplished by Greenwood’s Black citizens just six decades out of enslavement.
The story of the Tulsa massacre was buried in history for many decades. It is an important piece of American history that we wanted our readers to understand. While historians have pieced together details of the massacre, we wanted to create a fully immersive experience that allowed readers to gain a comprehensive look into the tremendous loss of life, property and generational wealth from the events of May 31 and June 1, 1921.
The piece was well received by readers, academics and other media organizations. Hundreds of Times readers not only lauded the project, but for some, it was the first time they had even heard of the massacre.
The three lead authors of the project were invited to a number of conferences to speak about the project and how the project came together. Several teachers have reached out to say that the project is being incorporated into their curriculums. And the project has been cited in several academic journals.
We also released all of the data files associated with the story to the public so that others could build on the work that we published.
We created the 3-D model of the Greenwood neighborhood using a series of computerized and manual steps that transformed historical material into digital data. A process called georeferencing was used to take images from archival Sanborn insurance maps and align them to modern geography. We wrote a computer program to extract the building outlines from those maps using a technique called machine learning. We also created an application to input the height information for each building from the Sanborn maps.
We used a combination of optical character recognition and manual data entry to digitize the Polk-Hoffhine Tulsa City Directory from 1921. This data was used to analyze and map businesses in Greenwood.
To create maps of the occupations of African-American residents in Greenwood, we analyzed 1920 U.S. census data from Ancestry.com for residents for which occupation data was recorded. The analysis included residents who the census classified as Black or mulatto. Homes of thousands of those residents were mapped using the 1920 Sanborn maps.
Street maps from 1921 and Sanborn maps from 1939 were also used to help map addresses. The addresses of landmarks and other buildings were used to determine the order of house numbers on a block. In some cases, Open Street Maps was used to locate addresses where the numbering system had not changed.
What was the hardest part of this project?
One of the most difficult parts of the project was finding reliable source material about a place that was completely destroyed a century ago. The project required many hours of manual work to research and pore over old photographs, newspaper clippings and other archival material to verify addresses of businesses, locate business owners and gather the level of detail and precision needed to reconstruct each building in the community as accurately as possible.
The project also required creative technical feats, like bringing entire blocks of a neighborhood to life from historical, two-dimensional insurance maps.
The scale of this ambitious project was challenging to pull off as the department balanced other news priorities, like Covid-19, the fallout from the Capitol riot and a new presidential administration.
What can others learn from this project?
It’s important for newsrooms to maximize talent from across the newsroom. For this project, we collaborated with nearly two dozen people from different teams, allowing us to achieve high standards in both visual and technical storytelling techniques as well as sophisticated reporting and writing.
The project also allowed us to combine a wide range of reporting skills. This included on-the-ground reporting, in talking to descendants of the massacre. But it also included hours and hours of combing through archival material, reviewing numerous relevant photographs, newspaper clippings and published documents to track down whether an awning did indeed exist on a building during the time of the massacre or whether an address had changed before or after the event. We had to be creative and resourceful in how we tracked down some of these details, and that involved a combination of manual work as well as help from custom software.