Novelist Charles Dickens wrote “A Tale of Two Cities,” but had he traveled to Tulsa, he’d have found at least four.
Segregation created Greenwood, a separate town where in the early 20th century one group flourished despite boundaries designed to suffocate its aspirations. In fact, the segregated group did too well. Climbed too high. Accomplished too much. So much, that segregationists descended violently on that part of Tulsa, burning and looting and killing hundreds of people and then marching survivors into holding camps to “maintain order.”
A heavy curtain of silence then fell over the community, which quickly got busy forgetting and misremembering. Few spoke about the horrors of May 31 through June 1, 1921. Decades of silence created more cities inside the city. More places where time and the cold pressure of a collective secret further divided residents.
The secret that Tulsa protected for decades is more widely known today, profiled in numerous news reports and podcasts and vividly re-created in the HBO TV series “Watchmen”: A white mob destroyed a nearly 40-square-block Greenwood area of Tulsa, known as Black Wall Street because of the successful businesses there. Members of the Tulsa Police Department, the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department as well as the Oklahoma National Guard and assorted other municipal leaders made up the mob.
The marauders killed hundreds of Black residents, injured thousands more and burned down more than 1,000 homes and businesses but not before looting those homes and businesses. Damage estimates range as high as $200 million in today’s dollars. The number of homeless was put at 9,000.
As the centennial of the race massacre approached, a group of residents began raising money for a commemoration of the event and to announce a plan to make sure the community, the state and, yes, the nation, would not only remember what happened, but learn how to create a more just society where something similar could never happen again.
But as donations mounted, schisms formed between Black factions. One faction believed that since fundraisers used the likenesses and travails of survivors, then surely, some of the $30 million raised should go to those three survivors as reparations. The fundraisers, though, believed the money should fund educational projects and that the government should pay survivors, not the educational fund.
The notion of reparations divided white Tulsans too. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission excused the white mayor as a member after he said reparations would divide the community. The commission also ejected the state’s white governor after he pushed through a measure prohibiting the teaching of certain racial topics in Oklahoma classrooms.
Here is where this historic oil town finds itself today, caught under a gusher of history. There are centenarians deserving restitution. Still others, in oil-patch parlance, want this gusher capped and for the history that has surfaced to be shut-in along with all the civic, legal and financial responsibilities flowing from those terrible days. The city is learning how real racial reconciliation can’t occur without a reckoning. There’s hope here, however, despite the tensions.
The story of Tulsa and the efforts of its people to reckon with its past is a fitting case study for Kansans and the country at large to consider as Americans continue to wrestle with the nation’s history and our differing interpretations of that history. It’s a tale about the limits of good intentions and how resistance to loss in the present can continue to divide us even as we seek to remedy the losses of the past.
No one’s from here
Americans can get pretty Pollyannaish about race. We seem to want reconciliation without the requisite reckoning – a real examination of the systems that produced social inequality. Mere discussions or shallow friendships get mistaken for actual progress. However, real understanding develops in real depth.
That’s what Greenwood Rising Executive Director Raymond Doswell believes is happening at his relatively new history center, as well as in the community at large. It is a place with a better shot at reconciliation than most, he says.
“That’s the whole thing about Tulsa. It was built by people coming from other places. People looking for their fortune. People looking for a better life.”
His organization is trying to create a community out of individuals brought there by the four winds. Every Tulsa Public Schools eighth-grader comes through the history center, and there’s even a carve-out allowing for the teaching of this history despite an edict pushed through the Oklahoma Legislature by Gov. Kevin Stitt in the wake of panic over critical race theory. Every police academy recruit comes through, as well as officers from other cities such as Wichita.
It remains one of the few places actually designed for the kinds of conversations the culture must have.
“We’re on a journey toward reconciliation,” says Doswell, who formerly served as curator at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “We want you to talk about it. We encourage dialogue.”
Doswell said he’s seen strangers strike up conversations at the history center and watched the momentum of those conversations carry the visitors out of the building and on to dinner for more discussion.
What’s discussed at the history center, he says, “is an ugly truth about the country.”
Doswell points out that as the pandemic began to slow, it did not slow fast enough for some people who were eager and even impatient for a return to normal. There’s a similar desire for a kind of racial normalcy. But as was the case with the pandemic, we’ve been changed by what has happened. We’ll never get back to normal. We’re going to have to adjust to a new normal.
“I think that’s happening,” he says.
Doswell declined to address it, but most observers agreed that the pall over the city has to do with reparations.
Archeologists continue to search for mass grave sites following the discovery of one group of coffins using ground-penetrating radar/sonar.
Tensions remain taut. In 2015, a white reserve sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Eric Harris during an arrest. The next year, Officer Betty Shelby fatally shot Terence Crutcher while his hands were raised. In 2020, following the deaths elsewhere of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, demonstrators briefly blocked Interstate 44. That prompted the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to pass a law providing legal immunity in some cases to motorists who run down demonstrators on roadways.
Race still divides people here in life – the city remains relatively segregated – and in death, as those excavations found.
James Goodwin’s family survived the massacre. One of his relatives, a fair-complexioned Black
man, stood on his porch and because he looked white, he was able to wave the mob away.
His family, which owns and publishes the state’s oldest black-owned newspaper, The Oklahoma Eagle, stayed in Greenwood and rebuilt their lives. It was an achievement, but Tulsa was not done with Greenwood.
State and federal governments – in much the same way other Black communities across the nation were destroyed – drove an interstate highway through the neighborhood. The government called it urban renewal. African Americans called it “Negro removal.” The highway put the final nail in the coffin of Greenwood’s prosperity. Goodwin said there are plans underway to reclaim a wide section of old Greenwood that the highway now covers.
Goodwin would like to see seedlings for a new Greenwood sprinkled there where Black Wall Street could be reborn.
“The removal of the highway will free up 30 acres,” says Goodwin, who is also a lawyer. “We can re-create a Black business community.”
The community received a $1.5 million grant from the federal government in an effort that his niece, State Rep. Regina Goodwin, spearheaded, to eliminate the highway exchange.
Now, two entities in Greenwood, the new Greenwood Rising history center, and the established Greenwood Cultural Center, have formed a fault line. The buildings stand relatively close, but a real distance in focus exists between them.
Goodwin says many Black residents hoped both entities would advance together, but Greenwood Rising has received significantly more support. They also think that because images and stories of the survivors were used to fundraise for Greenwood Rising, some of that money should go to the centenarian survivors. Other Black residents think segments of the community are just waiting for the survivors to die.
A failed centennial event two years ago, meant to memorialize the tragedy, offered a sense of how deep divisions go between Black factions.
Leaders of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission organized a mammoth Memorial Day weekend event at the community’s minor league baseball stadium, featuring award-winning songwriter and performer John Legend, and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams. The event, Remember and Rise, collapsed days before it was to be held.
A smoldering debate erupted over who should compensate massacre survivors. One group stated that the commission, which had raised $30 million, should compensate survivors. Members of the commission stated that since government actors participated in the attack, government should pay the reparations. They weren’t necessarily opposed to reparations, just not from their pool of funds.
Oklahoma State Sen. Kevin Matthews founded and chaired the centennial commission that promoted the holiday event as a way to share Greenwood’s story. Matthews and the commission earmarked the money that it raised almost exclusively for a history exhibit, art projects and a cultural center in the neighborhood.
On the other side of the debate stood Damario Solomon-Simmons, a lawyer representing survivors in a lawsuit against the city and a range of city and state entities involved in the marauding and aftermath. It’s Solomon-Simmons’ position that the commission raised money using images of the massacre but used the money for a building when some of the funds should have gone to survivors and descendants.
To try to rescue the Memorial Day events, the New York Times reported that Matthews and the commission negotiated 11th hour, $100,000 direct payments to each survivor as well as $2 million to establish a reparations fund, which the legal team initially accepted – only to return the next day asking for significantly more. Further talks and the planned events then crumbled.
A couple of decades earlier, the state had made a gesture toward reconciliation. In 1997, the legislature established a commission that studied the riot. It recommended that the state pay reparations and build a memorial to the dead. In 2001, the legislature passed the 1921 Race Riot Reconciliation Act. The legislation did not include reparations, nor did it provide funding for any initiatives, despite the commission’s conclusion that reparations “would be good public policy and do much to repair the emotional and physical scars of this terrible incident in our shared past.”
So much of what has happened in Oklahoma’s racial history is in fact difficult to face.
Black Wall Street attacked
The destruction of Greenwood came about largely because Black success was an unspeakable indignity to white supremacists. It tragically represents the kind of inclusive prosperity that politicians and governments often say they want to create in this day and age.
“Imagine a community of great possibilities and prosperity built by Black people for Black people,” The New York Times wrote. “Places to work. Places to live. Places to learn and shop and play. Places to worship.”
In the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue, for instance, more than 70 businesses operated out of red brick buildings, The Times reported, with all but a couple owned by Black entrepreneurs. Because segregation excluded Black Tulsans from shopping at many white-owned businesses, Black Wall Street created a self-sufficient, self-perpetuating economy. You could find billiard halls, clothing stores, music shops, furniture stores, confectionaries, meat markets, hotels, restaurants and a movie theater, along with a library, two schools, a hospital and two newspapers.
Dell Gines, lead community development advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Omaha branch, has called it the best example he knows of a truly inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. We have nothing like it today.
Along with the erasure of Black Wall Street came the blotting out of the event itself.
Said the Times: “The act of remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre has been smothered, resisted, and contested for the entire century since it took place. For many decades, few spoke of how hordes of white Tulsans with deep racial resentment had stormed Greenwood, one the country’s most prosperous Black neighborhoods. Overcoming a fierce defense by those who lived in Greenwood, the mob brutally slaughtered residents before pillaging and burning most of the district to the ground.”
Years of forgetting led to years of denial but time also led to the truth, wriggling up deep from its red-dirt burial.
In October 2020, archeologists found the outlines of at least 10 buried coffins, one of several mass grave sites that historians had long been searching for. The excavations will likely continue and attempts to identify survivors of the exhumed bodies will continue as well.
Faced with massive evidence, it has become next to impossible to now claim nothing happened. But strangely, the fact that this horrible event did occur seems the only thing everyone here agrees on.
What about the survivors?
Oklahoma may stand as the worst location yet for a teaching ban like Gov. Kevin Stitt’s, which came about after a conservative panic spread nationwide over the graduate-level teaching of critical race theory, a concept that racial bias – intentional or not – is so deeply rooted in U.S. laws and institutions that it leads to differential outcomes by race. The centennial commission summed it up well, saying, “The bill serves no purpose than to fuel the racism and denial that afflicts our communities and our nation.”
Before it became a state in 1907, the area served as the transplanted home to Indigenous tribes pushed out of other sections of the country in fulfillment of the nation’s thirst for white settlement and expansion. It also attracted formerly enslaved people fleeing the South. Some Black people had been brought there by slave-holding tribes.
Many of those folks even hoped to make Oklahoma a majority-Black state, free from white terror.
But with the possibility of land, white settlers from the surrounding Confederate states rushed in with their culture of Black inferiority in tow. The state’s first law? A Jim Crow statute requiring segregation of railcars and depots. Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson famously wrote in her book “The Warmth of Other Suns” that even phone booths in Oklahoma were segregated.
Tulsa didn’t have an elected Black City Council member until 1990, when the city adopted a ward system.
The racial problems in the city didn’t end when the fires from 1921 were extinguished. Reparations often surface as a way to address our legacy racial issues, but opponents typically say they weren’t around when the injustice occurred and shouldn’t have to pay for it or that there are no survivors to actually pay.
Those excuses fall flat in Tulsa.
Days before the events planned in 2021, the three known survivors of the massacre appeared before a congressional committee to talk about their experiences, to share what they saw that awful day, and to ask for the measure of justice they’d been denied all these decades since. C-SPAN carried their testimony live and re-ran the hearing during the recent Memorial Day holiday.
Viola Ford Fletcher, now 109, spoke hauntingly about Black people being shot and Black bodies lying in the streets. Her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, then 100, also shared images of what he saw, but his voice began to break. The memories, all these years later, remained painful for him. Lessie Benningfield Randle, then 106, also testified.
Each pressed for reparations.
In so many other debates about racism and how
to confront it, the call for reparations has been based on something that happened hundreds of years ago. We’re reaching out over centuries and studying disparities, looking for evidence or leafing through old documents in trying to put a puzzle together. But amazingly, here we have centenarian survivors. They are eyewitnesses not just to what happened, but to the aftermath of conscious and willful misremembering.
A cultural center is nice for the public – Blacks and whites – but in and of itself, it could not possibly compensate survivors.
Imagine first, that a society that claims to have granted you full-citizenship status, has chased you out of its mainstream and into its margins and then sets hard boundaries to keep you there. Against all the odds, you build a profitable business and a cozy home for yourself and your family with the half expanse of the sky you’ve been allotted.
But then, the very society that chased you into the margins, now begrudges you the portion you’d built for yourself and, on the pretense of upholding order, descends violently on your business and your home. Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, all manner of “public servants” join in the burning and sacking of your property. Crop dusting planes drop turpentine and tar bombs from the sky.
The public servants and others rob your home and business, carrying off your clothes, your jewelry and other valuables and the fires they set gobble up the rest of your belongings as well as your home.
When the torrent of violence ends, your life in ruins, you’re herded into camps and held there by many of the same people who terrorized you for the previous two days. You try seeking justice, but no one in authority cares enough to honor your claims. In fact, a great pall of silence and denial settles over the community, which quickly gets busy forgetting. Decades later, there’s hardly a trace of the crimes.
As a century passes, new generations discover the horrors of those deadly days. Denial has given way to angst among the descendants of the apartheid. They still control the municipal government and instead of “no,” now you hear excuses about statutes of limitations, about legal standing in lawsuits, about white people feeling uncomfortable with direct payouts.
Some white residents suggest that the new history center was a form of reparations and that the building and its programs should suffice.
Despite all that history and all the divisions and the steep learning curve, Goodwin says Tulsans can navigate these narrow and rocky racial straits.
“I’d say first, because the world is looking at Tulsa right now. It’s in the public eye. Worldwide. Everyone is watching.”
Goodwin says Tulsa is very sensitive about its history and somewhat apologetic about it. It also has a vibrant community fund with a national reputation. It is a source of civic pride, he says, and that pressure of public opinion has the power to nudge residents toward their better angels.
“There are also people of goodwill in Tulsa,” Goodwin says.
On the surface, the Tulsa standoff could seem to be about reparations, and even conservative journalist David Brooks of The New York Times has said that there must be an effort to address the wide disparities in our culture.
“Reparations and integration are the way to do that,” Brooks once wrote. “Reparations would involve an official apology for centuries of slavery and discrimination, and spending money to reduce their effects.”
There’s also a wrong way to do this, he cautioned.
“Trying to find the descendants of slaves and sending them a check,” Brooks said. “That would launch a politically ruinous argument over who qualifies for the money, and at the end of the day people might be left with a $1,000 check that would produce no lasting change.”
But that’s not the real issue. The real issue, many say, rests in the resentments and resistance about reparations.
Why, many asked, in such a litigious society do we suspend those standards because the plaintiffs are Black? The historical evidence overwhelms. Survivors and witnesses remain. As Americans, we fall heir to the nation’s bounties and benefits as well as its debts and obligations. Most of us didn’t fight in Korea or Vietnam, but our taxes still flow to those now in retirement who did serve.
We can’t pick and choose which line items our taxes will support.
The racial factions can’t agree on progress because their respective communities have experienced life in different castes.
Several Tulsans, speaking on background only, accused Greenwood Rising and the centennial commission that birthed it of hollow racial window dressing. They contend that the entity is little more than a symbolic gesture toward people needing concrete change, including but not limited to financial reparations. Many said the museum couldn’t possibly replace the loss of homes and businesses.
Is there progress in that the episode is no longer referred to as a “riot”? Sure.
But author James Baldwin may have said it best when he said, “There is scarcely any hope for the American Dream because people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.”
In 1921, the city saw years and years of work building a stalwart business community destroyed in a matter of hours. If the city (as well as the nation) is going to survive, this confrontation with its past must yield more than new buildings, more tourists and courteous conversations. Like the history that forced its way up from its burial, a long-denied justice must emerge from this work.
It’s the real work that begins inside the building, after the construction is complete.
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.