Professor Scott Ellsworth, Ph.D., is a lecturer, historian, and author with more than 45 years of experience researching the Tulsa Race Massacre. With three degrees in history (a Bachelor of Arts from Reed College and a Master of Arts and Ph.D. from Duke University), Dr. Ellsworth’s career has been spent working as a historian, writer, journalist, fundraiser, professor, research fellow, and editor. He has been a lecturer at the University of Michigan for the past 14 years. He is also a husband and a father of nineteen-year-old twin sons.
When speaking with Ellsworth, who has written four books and numerous published articles, he underscored to me the effectiveness of storytelling when writing for a general audience –– a phenomenon that is being investigated in fields from neuroscience to business.
Born and raised in Tulsa, Dr. Ellsworth first began hearing whispers about the 1921 massacre early in his youth. But it was only later in his childhood, with the help of a librarian at the Tulsa Public Library, that Ellsworth and a few friends discovered a microfilm reader that they used to elucidate a newspaper that had survived from the June 1921 issue of the Tulsa World.
Between his junior and senior year of college, with the help of then-director of the Black Studies Department at Reed College, William McClendon (1915-1996), he set out to write his senior thesis on the massacre. During this time, he traveled back to Tulsa, where he continued to navigate the difficulties of finding evidence during that time. From more hushed conversations, to the silencing of a professor by the University of Tulsa, much of Ellsworth’s work that summer involved piecing together parts of history that had been covered up and forgotten by the city.
In a University of Michigan webinar Unearthing Tulsa: 100 Years Later, a conversation with Brent Staples, Fred Conrad, and Scott Ellsworth, Brent Staples, Ph.D., a 31-year member of the New York Times editorial board who holds a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing, spoke to his work in uncovering missing pieces of history writing and journalism. Quoting W.E.B. DuBois, Staples says, “A half a century of history in America had been covered up because the country found it too shameful to actually digest and bring forward,” citing the present-day historical amnesia in New York.
While speaking with Dr. Ellsworth, we had the opportunity to ask him about what, if any advice he may have for writers, historians, and activists who want to pursue similar journalistic routes. The advice he had, essentially, was to just go for it. “You don’t have to wait to do this,” he explained, “you don’t have to have a graduate or even a college degree.” He suggested starting out by pitching to your local newspaper or writing a guest essay for a larger news outlet. Study the articles –– the word counts, etc. –– and really focus on writing a good pitch.
You can learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre on the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies’ web page. On Monday, January 17th, 2021, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, DAAS will be holding an event featuring Dr. Ellsworth speaking on The Tulsa Race Massacre: Causes, Cover-up, and the Ongoing Fight for Justice at 4pm in Tisch Hall.