Tulsa, 100 Years Later

Updated: 2021-05-28 23:46:40
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What's left of Black Wall Street.

What's left of Black Wall Street.

Tulsa is booming again. The first boom came at the turn of the twentieth century, when oil was discovered in and around Oklahoma's second-largest city. Back then, Tulsa was slick with oil wealth — so much so it was often called the "Magic City," thanks to the sudden profusion of so much money.

And it wasn't just white Tulsa. Black folks had also flocked to the city during the boom, making Tulsa home to the second-largest African American population in the state by 1921. And although segregation relegated the approximately 10,000 Black Tulsans to Greenwood, a neighborhood north of the railroad tracks that divided the city, Black leaders found a way to make that work. The neighborhood boasted office buildings for the area's Black doctors and lawyers, banks and dozens of individually owned shops. There were restaurants, beauty salons and a multi-story hotel. There was even a mortician to ensure that Greenwood residents got a properly respectful burial. Despite rejection by white Tulsa, Greenwood became so well known across the country it was often referred to by its nickname: Black Wall Street.

But all that prosperity vanished on the night of May 31, when a mob of white men — including some in law enforcement—rampaged through the neighborhood. They were inflamed by a false report of a Black teen sexually assaulting a white teen, and furious that Greenwood's Black veterans had taken up arms to prevent the boy from being lynched.

Someone — no one knows who — fired a shot, and that started everything: The mob invaded Greenwood, looting and torching Greenwood's businesses and homes. They shot resisters, and some accounts of the violence claim airplanes were used to drop homemade incendiary devices onto several buildings to accelerate the arson. The predominantly wooden structures burned to the ground. No help came from Tulsa's police department, and armed white men prevented firefighters from battling the blaze .

Some 8,000 people became homeless because of the violence. Although the exact figure remains uncertain, the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission estimated that upwards of 300 people, most of them Black, were killed in those two days. And while the loved ones of the victims fled, members of the white mob quickly and stealthily disposed of the bodies.

"We were told they just dumped the dead bodies in the [Arkansas] river," Lessie Benningfield Randle recalled at a recent Congressional hearing about the massacre. Mrs. Randle was five years old when she left her family's Greenwood home with her parents and siblings. They never went back.

Until recently, that history was simply ignored. For decades, the massacre wasn't taught in the state's public schools. If you visit the city's local library to look at contemporary accounts of those two days, you'll find big holes in Tulsa's papers where stories about the carnage had been clipped out. And it wasn't discussed. White Tulsa was embarrassed: The massacre was a serious blot on many civic-minded Tulsans' interest in being seen as a sleek metropolis, not a lawless frontier town. Some Black Greenwood residents didn't talk about the atrocity because immediately after it occurred, local officials warned there would be unpleasant — maybe even deadly — consequences for families that talked. Others found it too painful to reveal all that they'd lost.

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The formal new Greenwood and original Greenwood meet at Archer and Greenwood. The new museum, Greenwood Rising, is in the background.

The formal new Greenwood and original Greenwood meet at Archer and Greenwood. The new museum, Greenwood Rising, is in the background.

But now, with the centennial of the massacre looming, Greenwood has begun to boom again. After years of being studded with empty lots, the neighborhood is seeing plenty of development: GreenArch, a mixed-use building stands at the official entrance of the neighborhood, at the corner of Greenwood and Archer. The metal skeleton of Greenwood Rising, a multi-million dollar, multi-story museum, is being erected on the opposite side of the street. Not far away, a workman mows criss-cross patterns into the startlingly green grass of ONEOK Field, home of the Tulsa Drillers, a minor league baseball team that feeds talent to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But who is the newly rebuilt Greenwood actually for? A lot of Black Tulsans are skeptical about all the new development. Many are descendants of families who were burned out in 1921. Tori Tyson's grandparents worked and had businesses on Greenwood Avenue during its heyday — including a burger restaurant that was burned down in the riots. After the massacre, her family had a beauty salon on what remained of Black Wall Street for decades. She says she doesn't know where all the new development money in Greenwood is going—but she has firm ideas about where it isn't.

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Tori Tyson owns Blowout Hair Salon in North Tulsa.

Tori Tyson owns Blowout Hair Salon in North Tulsa.

"It's not going back into the community or the descendants," Tyson says bluntly. The city has put monuments and plaques and statues to tell the story of Greenwood's former affluence, she says, but there has been no recognition of what these families lost. She knows a lot of Tulsans, most of them white, won't countenance reparations checks. But, she says, there are other ways to begin to atone for last century's damage:

"Give some of the land back!" She wants the community to decide what needs to be built there. What's being built now, she says, "is not for us."

G.T. Bynum is the two-term Republican mayor of Tulsa, a descendant of previous mayors on both sides of his family. He knows what happened to Greenwood and who has lived here traditionally. I asked: Is he worried that all the new buildings might change the essential nature of the neighborhood?

"It could, if we're not careful," Bynum admits. He says that's why the city has begun "a planning process that we're moving forward with in the next year or two that will involve the community in determining the land-use options for the development in the surrounding area."

The Tulsa Development Authority, is a public-private entity that works with the city to develop undeveloped parts of Tulsa, overseeing the sale of many of those empty stretches of land. Casey Stowe is the TDA's development and project manager. Over the phone, Stowe says he's puzzled by the resistance to filling those empty lots: Why wouldn't you want a new building like Greenwood Rising, or a new baseball field, instead of an empty lot? Doesn't Greenwood benefit from this too?

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The view from Tulsa Mayor Bynum's City Hall conference room, showing the construction of the new BMX headquarters and train tracks in the distance.

The view from Tulsa Mayor Bynum's City Hall conference room, showing the construction of the new BMX headquarters and train tracks in the distance.

That's a good question. But for many Black Tulsans, all this new construction comes at the expense of something else: "When I come out of my building and I look at the skyscrapers that they're building in the Greenwood district, I'm just, like, 'this is the erasure of a great history,'" says Nehemiah Frank, a born-and-bred Tulsan. He's the founder and publisher of the Black Wall Street Times, a digital newspaper that reports on racial equity issues in Tulsa and seeks to hold public officials accountable for those disparities. Frank finds the city's new development suspect, because he says it's clearly being built for a demographic that's different from Greenwood's original inhabitants.

He points to Standpipe Hill, a local landmark on the newly built part of Oklahoma State University's campus on old Greenwood land, as an example. In 1921, people gathered on Standpipe Hill to watch Greenwood burn. A historically Black university, Langston University, stands nearby. But a marker placed on the hill only mentions OSU — with no reference to Langston at all. It irritates Frank every time he passes it. He believes the omission of Langston's name is part of an effort to erase Tulsa's Black history.

"They put their sign on Standpipe Hill and it only says OSU, when it should originally [also] have said Langston." He sees this omission as the capstone to a successful land grab by white Tulsa: "This was the crowning, you know: 'we've got Greenwood.' That's how I feel about it — and I graduated from this school!"

Down the hill, a bit away from the Black Wall Street part of Greenwood Avenue, stands a freeway overpass. "My great-grandfather was the owner of Isaac Evitt's Zulu Lounge," says J. Kavin Ross, a full-time educator and part-time journalist. But the lounge went up in flames when Greenwood burned. The ground remained empty for years; then, it was claimed to build a freeway. "Basically, this freeway is standing on top of my inheritance!" Ross says, giving a rueful chuckle.

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J Kavin Ross, Greenwood historian and descendant of massacre survivors.

J Kavin Ross, Greenwood historian and descendant of massacre survivors.

He says his great-grandfather was so traumatized by the violence, and so frustrated at running into multiple dead ends when he tried to rebuild the Zulu Lounge, that he gave up and moved away. "Basically," Ross sighs, "he left the state as a broken man. His family had to fend for themselves."

Ross says that survivors "experienced what we know today as post-traumatic [stress] syndrome before the word was ever created." Because there was no universal acknowledgement of the tragedy until recently, some survivors and many of their families didn't talk about the massacre. So much of the anger and fear remains bottled up inside, he says, and continues to contribute to generational trauma.

That makes a number of the centennial observances and related activities painful for some Black Tulsans. Ross says what the city is really doing is trying to make a hard-to-swallow piece of Tulsa's history palatable for visitors and white Tulsans, who might be uncomfortable hearing about the unspeakable things that happened here. By focusing on Tulsa's future, city fathers hope to mitigate the awfulness of what's happened in the past.

"Personally, I've been asked to tell the story in a way that doesn't make people feel uncomfortable, that is not offensive," says Michelle Brown-Burdex, the project director and historian for the Greenwood Cultural Center. Like the new Greenwood Rising, the Cultural Center has been telling the story of Greenwood — but for more than three decades.

"You would think that no one would be comfortable, and you would hope that people would want to learn everything that there is to know about this history, to know the true history of what happened," Brown-Burdex continues. "So our concern cannot be what makes you comfortable, what makes someone okay with hearing this story."

That tension — hearing more fully about what happened in 1921 Greenwood and what was lost by whom, and the desire to show a shiny new Tulsa — is very much in evidence in Tulsa today. If, as many philosophers insist, the past informs the future, there's plenty of work ahead. Just last week, the state's Republican Gov., Kevin Stitt, signed a bill into law that forbids teaching critical race theory in Oklahoma's K-12 public schools. The bill bans teaching race-related subjects that would give students "discomfort, guilt, anguish or psychological distress" by having them face, among other things, the consequences of the racially problematic parts of the state's history.

Brown-Burdex hopes the attention to Tulsa's history and its continuing inequities doesn't stop after the Centennial observations conclude. "We are hoping that all of the investment, the financial investment into telling the story, promoting the history, investing in organizations, that this continues after the spotlight is no longer on Tulsa," she says. "We're hoping that that type of passion and commitment continues because for us, the story, everything doesn't culminate during the commemoration."

Alyssa Jeong Perry contributed reporting to this piece. The digital story was edited by Natalie Escobar. The audio story was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry, edited by Leah Donnella, hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and fact-checked by Jess Kung.

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