A National Magazine Award nominee and author of Built from the Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, Victor Luckerson is committed to uncovering and sharing stories of resilience in the city’s Black community. He plans to work with students to develop their research and writing skills and to document The University of Tulsa’s role in the city’s civil rights and Black Power movements.
Journalist Victor Luckerson is The University of Tulsa’s writer in residence for 2023-24. He has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, TIME magazine and Smithsonian magazine, Luckerson – who is originally from Montgomery, Alabama – moved to Oklahoma in 2019 to research and tell the story of the city’s Greenwood neighborhood from the perspective of Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and descendants. The result is his acclaimed book Built from the Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, America’s Black Wall Street.
“The university is incredibly fortunate to have engaged Victor as writer in residence,” said TU Provost George Justice. “After reading his compelling Built from the Fire, I knew he would make an excellent addition to our community. I reached out to him and was delighted when he accepted our invitation. TU’s students, faculty, and staff stand to benefit greatly from interacting with and learning from him.”
In this Q&A, Luckerson shares some insights into his origins and aims as a professional writer, his experience living and working in Tulsa, and the plans he has for his time as TU’s writer in residence.
What were some of the early steps you took to becoming a writer?
One of my first forays was tooling around on our family’s old typewriter when I was 5 years old. As a child, I wrote short stories that often dealt with social issues – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a huge influence. As a student at the University of Alabama, I majored in history and journalism, and I became the second Black editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Crimson White. My college experience showed me that journalism was a way to tell true stories that tackled some of the same issues I’d been writing about in fiction.
Who are some of the people who have inspired your development as a writer?
In many ways I modeled my work after Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which follows three Black families that journey from the Deep South to cities in the North and West during the Great Migration. Wilkerson masterfully melds literary prose with exhaustive historical research to craft a tale that tugs at your brain and your heart.
I have also been inspired by the piercing truth-telling of James Baldwin, the vivid world-building of Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward, and the accessible but layered storytelling of Mark Twain. As far as Oklahoma history goes, I borrowed a bunch of research strategies from David Grann after I listened to a podcast where he explained how he constructed Killers of the Flower Moon.
Your work is deeply invested in telling the stories of race in United States history and culture. What is the importance of such research and writing today?
There are a lot of lessons to learn about our current culture and politics and history. I’ve come to believe that the American story is largely cyclical, that years of progress in expanding human rights are often followed by periods of intense political backlash. So, I think the lessons about community action and perseverance in times of turmoil have a lot of relevance to issues we grapple with today.
What impact do you hope your work, and in particular Beyond the Fire, has on readers?
I hope when people read my work, it makes them reconsider the architecture of the world around them. Much of the book revolves around who ultimately gets to control the land we reside on. Why is the interstate highway slicing through one neighborhood and not another? Why is a baseball stadium placed where it is? Are these kinds of large structures truly permanent? They often feel that way, but anything that has been constructed can also be deconstructed. I’m hoping that reading Beyond the Fire opens up more of that possibility space for deconstruction in people’s minds.
What motivated you to move to Tulsa?
I moved to Tulsa in November 2019 specifically to work on the project that became Built from the Fire. But my journey here really began a couple of years before that, when I was having lunch with a friend in Atlanta and we began discussing the film 12 Years a Slave. My friend had never seen it and said he was tired of only seeing historical depictions of Black people being brutalized. When I asked him if he’d ever heard of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street – an example of Black people being successful – he said he hadn’t.
Venturing to Tulsa was about getting the chance to illustrate stories of Black success and solidarity here to the entire world. I knew the Tulsa Race Massacre would be part of my story, too, but I didn’t want to cast it as the sole defining aspect of Greenwood.
What have been some highlights of your time in Tulsa?
I’m glad I was here in the city to chronicle the protests that occurred in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and the visit shortly afterwards on Juneteenth weekend by President Donald Trump. This was a historic moment in Tulsa, and I think it’s important to put it in conversation with previous protest movements in Tulsa like the Civil Rights Movement. I’m glad I got a chance to preserve that pivotal summer in my book.
In lighter fare, I had a lot of great meals at White River Fish Market with many Greenwood descendants in my book. Getting the chance to break bread with people (or fried shrimp, in that case) on a regular basis made it easier for us to dive into challenging topics regarding the race massacre.
What are your plans as writer in residence at TU?
I’ve already spent a good bit of time working with students and sharing my research with them. By visiting the Tulsa County courthouse, I was able to access more than 100 lawsuits filed by Greenwood property owners in the aftermath of the race massacre. The collection contains more than 5,000 pages.
In the spring of 2023, I shared these documents the TU College of Law’s Professor Mimi Marton. I also provided students in the law school’s Buck Colbert Franklin Legal Clinic with some guidance on how to use sources like city directories and census records to find out more about the lives of all these people who had lost so much during the massacre. The students in the clinic have now been tasked with doing research on these plaintiffs and trying to learn more about how and why all the suits were dismissed.
As the year progresses, I am eager to have more meetings with the law students and Professor Marton. I am also looking forward to delving into the TU archives to write a full account of the university’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Deep Greenwood: A Tulsa Community Read
During fall and winter 2023-24, Luckerson is hosting a series of five public events to explore Greenwood’s 118-year history step by step, with each event capturing a different era. The series will begin by examining the racist politics in Tulsa that preceded the 1921 attack on Greenwood and end with an opportunity to imagine new possibilities for Greenwood’s future. Events will be anchored by a set of chapters from Built by the Fire and will go beyond the boundaries of a traditional book talk to include musical performances, photo exhibits, and more. Get all the details and plan to attend! You also may contact Luckerson by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.