I Lived in Tulsa for Three Years, and Yes, I Didn’t Know About the Tulsa Race Massacre Either, Until My First Visit

14 Jul

My friend Ellen, from my old writing group here in Rhode Island texted me the other week saying she had been reading a lot about the commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Ellen remembered I lived in Tulsa, and thought it might be something I want to blog about. In all honesty, I don’t know if I ever would have started to write about race at all if I hadn’t moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the spring of 2003.

So many of us never learned about the massacre that Ellen, herself, was now learning about. We weren’t taught about it in our history classes–and that includes Tulsa students, too. Right now though, there are multiple new documentaries out, and a lot of journalism coverage of this horrific event. But for those of you who still haven’t heard anything about it, the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred on May 31, and June 1st, 1921. It ignited “...when mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It marks one of “the single worst incident(s) of racial violence in American history. The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street.” The horrific tragedy happened all because “19-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old White elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building,” where the story goes, Rowland tripped and possibly reflexively grabbed onto Page’s arm to stop himself from falling. He was taken into custody. Hundreds, and ultimately over a 1,000 white people had shown up ready to attack and lynch Rowland at the jail where he was being held. A small group of armed Black men, many of them army veterans who had fought for this country, showed up to protect Rowland from being lynched. When they were leaving the area after reassurance there would be no lynching, a mob of white men tried to disarm one of the Black men. In the struggle, a shot went off accidentally, and that’s all it it took for the melee to spin out of control. I recommend you look into the resources below to learn the entire story of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the lingering impact of its after-effects that continue to this day.

How did I end up in Tulsa? I hadn’t wanted to move there in the first place. Tulsa is where my now, ex-husband, was born and raised. It was his push for us and our two daughters, one and three at the time, to live there–where the cost of living was cheaper than where we were in New York City, where it would be easier for him to start his furniture-making business, and where the girls would be surrounded by lots of cousins, and other family–that landed us there.

I had lived in New York City for 18 years as an adult, and though we couldn’t afford to stay there, I was a city gal at heart, and it was hard for me to let go. Tulsa, though a sizeable city of 400,000 people, always felt like a suburb to me when I had visited prior to our move. Spread out, big car culture, strip malls, less arts and culture, or so I thought, and being land-locked, was all this New England born and raised me could think of. That, and no good pizza, was on my mind when we packed all our things up and headed west.

What I wasn’t prepared for when we moved into our bungalow house on 18th Street near Lewis, was the culture shock of noting right away, that in Tulsa, we were now living surrounded by whiteness. In New York, I loved the diversity of the people–friends, co-workers, and city dwellers–in all the spaces I found myself in. People who I got to connect with, or simply be anonymous with, as we moved through the city, whether it was at work, walking through my neighborhood, sitting in restaurants, riding the subway, dancing in clubs, hosting an apartment party with my roommates, or huddled in tiny East Village theaters. It is not lost on me now, that the diversity I loved then, came with the privilege of being white and being able to move into an affordable apartment in “Alphabet City” in 1985, a then largely, Latino neighborhood. I didn’t have the consciousness I have now, and which is ever evolving, that knew I was loving that diversity without having to think about inclusion, disparities, and the costs of being Black and Brown, in all of these spaces. It also hadn’t occurred to me since I had lived in cities for so long, that pretty much everywhere in America, if you are residing outside of an urban center, and that even inside of our cities, there is segregation. After all, suburbs were invented so white people didn’t have to live next to people who didn’t look like them. In cities, there is the history of white people gentrifying neighborhoods, having had the access to generational wealth to, again, live on streets surrounded by other people of means, which left out a vast majority of Black and Brown people who were cut off from that access.

From our fifth floor walk-up one bedroom apartment in NYC to our sweet home on 18th and Lewis, Tulsa

But as a newcomer to Tulsa in 2003, all I could think about was how white everything was. It was stunning to me. I wondered how all the white people around me could be living day-to-day not noticing the white bubble they were in. I knew that Tulsa, and all of Oklahoma had a large Native population, and when I researched this, a 2019 report said that Tulsa actually is the city with the largest American Indian/Native Alaskan population in the country, with 14% of residents claiming at least partial heritage. My ex-husband’s great grandmother on his mother’s side was Cherokee. In fact, when he came to pick up our older daughter the other day to bring her back to where she’ll be living this summer, he noted that the reason his family ended up in Tulsa, and on the “Indian Rolls,” was because of The Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act, according to the Cherokee Nation website, says, “was a turning point in determining tribal citizenship. The Act developed a Federal commission tasked with creating Final Rolls for the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The Commission prepared new citizenship rolls for each tribe, incorporating names of approved applicants while simultaneously documenting those who were considered doubtful and ultimately rejected. Upon approval of the Rolls, the Dawes Commission allotted a share of communal land to the approved individual citizens of these Tribes in preparation for Oklahoma statehood (1907). The Dawes Commission required that the individual or family reside in Indian Territory to be considered for approval.” Dividing up tribal lands, and annihilating each tribe from their cultural and social traditions, was what the Dawes act set out to do, and was successful at doing so.

My ex, while acknowledging his ancestry, said, as he has said before, that he and his immediate family don’t claim to still be connected culturally to their Cherokee heritage. Though he and my daughters all have Bureau of Indian Affairs and Cherokee Nation tribal cards, as far as appearance goes, it seems the genes on his Dad’s side, whose primary heritage is Scotch-Irish, won out. Many of his family members have red hair and freckles, and I know…who’s to say that someone looks or doesn’t look Irish or Indigenous, or, like people have told me, Jewish. In fact, my older daughter, Leni, was just talking about how she had been looking at a lot of old photographs of Native American people recently, and that, “Dad’s nose looks like a lot of the noses in the photographs.” My younger daughter, Darla, said, “Yeah, and I have Dad’s nose.” (She doesn’t like her nose. I do.)

When settling in in Tulsa, I didn’t see the large communities of Native or Latinx or Black people that I knew existed there, intersecting much with one another, and it bothered me. And as I say on my About page here, I became obsessed with wanting to connect with Black people. Now I know we’re not supposed to be thinking in binary terms, and the totality and intersection of race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity is where it’s at, but growing up at the end of the Civil Rights era, in the diverse industrial town of Waterbury, Connecticut, where I had always sought out connections with Black people, and had already been attracted to Black culture, what I was missing in Tulsa was my connection with Black people. So, I overcompensated in the reaching out department by seeking out Black people in public spaces, like Target, the flea market, and the grocery store. I knew though, that I wanted to make more real, deeper connections to the diverse but separate communities of people that existed where I was now living.

It has been a habit of mine throughout my life to seek out cross-racial connections in spaces that many white people don’t tend to venture into. In this vein, I understand at times my whiteness has asserted itself in problematic ways. I’d think,”oh, you say I shouldn’t be here as a white girl,” well let me be here, just because I thought there shouldn’t be racial barriers. I did this, even though at times, my actions could have put Black people, Black men, in particular, in danger. Like the time at age 18, when I was in Roxbury, a Black neighborhood in Boston, a city rife with racial tension in the early 1980’s. After a night of drinking at a club, and driving around with my college roommate, who was white, and two young men who were Black that we had met while out, we stopped to buy cigarettes. One of the young men said he’d go into the store himself, and that we should wait in the car, that it’d be safer, because of the neighborhood, and because of our races. I, after too many drinks, self-righteously said that I wanted to go in, arguing that we should all be able to be together and it shouldn’t matter. I did go in, and there was no incident in the store where the cashier and customers were all Black, but the silence that hung in the air spoke volumes. While at the time, I thought I was standing up for the ideal that white people and Black people should be able to co-exist in the same spaces without bigotry hurled at them, I could have well been the same kind of dangerous white woman, like Amy Cooper in Central Park, or that elevator operator in Tulsa in 1921. I could have put this young man in danger for being seen with a white woman, if the wrong white man had seen us that night.

Flashing forward a little over a decade later, I was dating my ex-husband in the early 1990’s, and I made my first visit to Tulsa with him. His older brother drove us around town one night, and we drove through the Greenwood District. Looking out the car windows, I saw a quaint main street of a few blocks with one-story brick building storefronts. Many of the spaces looked empty. His brother told me the story of what happened in 1921. I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot, as it was called then, or anything like it. I thought how could my boyfriend live in a place like this, be from a place that did this? I even remember thinking maybe I should break up with him. I didn’t break up with him, but I couldn’t shake the heaviness of this news, even the brief, incomplete story I received that night, of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I wasn’t taught about it in school, and I learned that my ex and the majority of the white people I met while living in Tulsa, hadn’t learned about it either, and what little they did know, they acknowledged most white people kept quiet about it.

Living in Tulsa, I couldn’t keep quiet about how I was feeling about now living surrounded in whiteness, and the history of Tulsa, which I understood lent itself further to this separation. These feelings prompted me to write about my obsession with cross-racial connection. At first it was mostly journaling, and then the writing became the beginnings of my first essays, including the piece that would eventually become, Is Poppy A Black American? , one of the first blog posts here on this site. Writing was something I always felt drawn to, but I hadn’t done in any serious way before. But now, in Tulsa, it seemed like the only way to express my feelings about being stuck in sameness. While I didn’t have the language we have now about all these things, like inclusion, exclusion, white privilege, and white supremacy, beyond only linking it with the Ku Klux Klan, I knew I just had to write.

Aside from my writing, like I did in my past, I also sought out connections with members of the Black community in Tulsa. I was told the majority of Black people in Tulsa lived in what was called North Tulsa, due to being completely displaced with the destruction of Black Wall Street, and the entire Greenwood district. It was also inferred that white people didn’t really go to North Tulsa, so naturally, I looked to North Tulsa, to learn about the community and the people who lived there. I reached out and was accepted as a volunteer at the Rudisill Library in North Tulsa. The library houses The African American Resource Center and that is where I volunteered, reporting to then Director, Kimberly Johnson. Kimberly, originally from New York City, is now the Tulsa City-County Library Chief Executive Officer. She warmly welcomed me as a volunteer. I often brought my daughter Darla with me, who was two at the time, and she was always welcome, too. She stayed by my side reading board books while I shelved books, and magazines like Jet, Ebony, Mosaic, Black Enterprise and Sepia. I also got to help get ready for author visits, and fondly remember the talks of J. California Cooper, and Eric Jerome Dickey. I was saddened to hear that Eric passed away this year at the age of 59. I had remained in touch with him via social media. An engineer, turned stand-up comedian, turned prolific author of thirty novels, when Eric showed up on Facebook, I always appreciated his sense of humor, his being vocal on the ills of the world, and I was grateful for how he even so generously took the time to give me supportive feedback when I started this blog.

Kimberly Johnson, Rudisill Library

Kimberly Johnson, then, Coordinator of Rudisill Library’s African American Resource Center. Presently CEO of Tulsa City-County Libraries.

My daughters, Darla, front, and Leni, back, spending time at Rudisill Library with me while I volunteer.

I also remember Kimberly pointing out to me an elder woman at a library event, who was one of the remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. I was deeply honored to be in her presence. The Resource Center, whose purpose is to collect, preserve and provide access to honoring and documenting the experiences of people of African descent, helped me learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, even though there still seemed to be so much discrepancy, especially in the white community, about the breadth of the destruction, and the number of people who were killed. Most white people just didn’t talk about it, and when they did, or when you saw something in the newspaper, it minimized the level of destruction, and especially the number of people who had died as a result of it. Accounts from the white community seemed to say it was anywhere from one or two or twelve or twenty people who were killed, and yet accounts from the Black community would say it could have been in the hundreds.

I hear so many people presently, Black, white, and Brown, who say they still don’t know much about the Tulsa Race Massacre, including people who live in Tulsa. What people who don’t know also need to learn more about, is that the Tulsa Race Massacre is not an isolated incident. There was Rosewood in Florida, the Elaine Massacre in Arkansas, and the Wilmington Massacre in North Carolina, to name just a few of many others carried out in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In fact, two years before the Tulsa Race Massacre, the year 1919 was deemed Red Summer, for the white supremacist terrorism and race riots and massacres that occurred in over three dozen cities across the country. White people carried out these massacres due to resentment over their perceived threat of losing jobs to Black people, in particular, Black veterans, after World War I. White people didn’t want Black veterans to think they no longer had to follow Jim Crow laws even though they had just fought for our country, side-by-side with with white soldiers. White people feared the autonomy of Black people who were now becoming successful in business, home ownership, and gaining political power. These massacres were a result of white people’s fear, envy, greed, and hatred.

After the Tulsa Race Massacre, there was the harshest disenfranchisement of the entire well-to-do Black community of Greenwood. Tens of thousands of people lived in encampments, and/or were pushed even further north, their homes and businesses and churches burned to the ground, millions of dollars in investments lost. Yet, the Greenwood district was rebuilt by some of its inhabitants, rising from the ashes like the great Phoenix. There were strong attempts to halt this rebuilding by the white community, who blocked access to business loans and other relief funding. As time moved on, segregation laws loosened, allowing Black people to shop in previously whites-only establishments, and some of the business in the Greenwood area was lost. My ex’s brother, a city planner, told me how urban renewal of the 1960’s and 1970’s, like in many urban cities across the country, broke up those communities further by building highways right through them. That’s what happened to Greenwood. Of the thirty-five blocks of the Greenwood district that thrived during the early 1900’s, only two blocks now remain.

I remember walking down Greenwood Avenue for the first time, feeling the enormity of what that street was, and I know perhaps also felt a bit conspicuous as a white person walking through the neighborhood. I was an outsider, and was just learning the culture of the Midwest, and I didn’t know if I stood out as a white person walking down the street, given its history, and because, people didn’t walk around much in Tulsa. They drove, they parked, and got out and did what they had to do and got back in their car and drove off. I even remember one day when I decided to walk down a main road a few miles from the fairgrounds to my home, I had several people stop and ask if I was okay and if I needed a ride, because something must have been wrong since I was walking.

On Greenwood Avenue, though, I also wondered if I would be seen as an unwelcome intruder. I am not sure if it is a process of aging, but some of my memories are dim, which I wish were not. I can remember walking down the street, and that there were not too many retail businesses, that there were some offices, and I believe the newspaper office of The Oklahoma Eagle, was there, and some historic markers of what used to be in some of these places. I remember visiting the Greenwood Cultural Center (GCC), which hosts special events, exhibits and youth programming, and which “…stands as a monument to the scores of pioneers, trailblazers, entrepreneurs, professionals, politicos, and citizens who created a renowned and respected community despite formidable odds.” At the GCC, I met Cindy Driver, the then Director of the middle-school aged girls program, Women of Tomorrow. Cindy and I would soon collaborate on a youth arts workshop, which I will share about in the second installment of my writings on Tulsa.

Of course, the longer I lived in Tulsa, I learned there was much more to the city, and the state, than the white bubble I had first encountered. I learned, too, that there were, of course many more dimensional stories beyond the Tulsa Race Massacre, to the lives of the Black people living in Tulsa, and other surrounding towns, as well as with people of the Indigenous and immigrant communities in Tulsa. I took part in cultural events like the historic Black Towns tour, and the annual large-scale Tulsa Powwow, along with visits to the Gilcrease, and Philbrook Museums. I ate frybread for the first time, and found out what Frito Pies, and Indian tacos were. The taste of the pico de gallo at Rio Verde, a popular Mexican restaurant in North Tulsa, still lingers on my tongue. Delicious food is most often the factor that white people deem worthy to cross over into neighborhoods they often declare as “sketchy,” which was the case with Rio Verde, one place where the diversity of the city was represented over plates of gorditas, and glasses of horchata. I don’t eat meat so I never tried chicken fried steak, or Coneys, similar to the Olneyville system weiners we have here in Providence, Rhode Island. My hunch on the pizza was pretty correct though.

I also partook in more events at the Rudisill Library, like the memoir cookbook book signing of Cleora’s Kitchen. The event was hosted by her nephew, Dudley Thomas, who interviewed his aunt, Cleora Butler, and helped pull the book together, which was published on the day Mrs. Butler passed away. Cleora, who grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was a renowned cook, and owner of her own catering company. She cooked for decades for many local oil barons, and other families, as well as for celebrities, like Cab Calloway’s band, when they were passing through town. Her Blue Cream House Special, a savory dip, was my go-to to make and bring to social gatherings with friends, and was always a big hit. As writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us, there is the danger of the single story. In that vein, I learned of the successes and joys and every day lives of members of the Black community and other communities of color. While I, while we, must learn about, and never, ever forget the horror of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I know I, and I hope we all, understand we must learn of the vast accomplishments and contributions that Black people in this country made to the shaping and building of this country. Like the Massacre, these histories were kept hidden from our school books, too.

I was highly inspired at the writing workshop I participated in with local writers Eddie Faye Gates, and Hannibal Johnson, both who have written multiple books about Tulsa, and other Oklahoma history, including the Tulsa Race Massacre. Watching the recent documentary, Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, and reading multiple articles about this horrific event, where both Gates and Johnson are noted, and interviewed due to their knowledge and research on this history, I further realize what a gift and honor it was to be in their presence, and to listen to them share firsthand their wisdom and experiences. I was especially endeared to Eddie Faye Gates, a long time teacher in the Tulsa school system who was personally responsible for gathering over fifty oral history interviews with survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. She knew how important it was to collect these true witness accounts before people passed away, and the truth was further erased. I learned that even in the Black community, these stories were kept quiet. The survivors still alive today, who were mostly children of varying ages at the time of the Massacre, also got the message to keep quiet about it from the adults in their lives, primarily out of fear of retribution, and to not have to relive the trauma and pain, or burden younger generations with it.

I talked with Mrs. Gates after the workshop. She was kind and generous, and I must have shared that I was Jewish, because I remembered she shared with me how she had strong ties with the Jewish community in Tulsa. I later learned, aside from her work and writings reflecting life in the Black community of Tulsa and other parts of Oklahoma, Eddie Faye Gates had also done extensive research on the Holocaust, and was a Holocaust Studies consultant. I was thrilled to learn while writing this post, that the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, in 2020, received the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre Collection, “which contains a wealth of eyewitness accounts, photographs, and recorded survivor stories and other narratives of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” and which is a highly important history collection to be preserved and shared. The selfless work of Mrs. Gates, included being a part of the Oklahoma Commission To Study The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, in which part of this study calls for reparations for its survivors, should be uplifted and duly noted. The work of Black women is so often marginalized.

Another Black women, and newer resident of Tulsa in 1921, Mary E. Jones Parrish, watched the Massacre unfold from her apartment window, refusing to leave so that she could witness everything in its entirety. Parrish, an educator and entrepreneur, would share her story, considered, according to a recent New Yorker article on her, “the first and most visceral long-form account of how Greenwood residents experienced the Massacre..” in her book, Events of the Tulsa Disaster, published in 1923. Mary E. Jones Parrish’s great-granddaughter, Anneliese Bruner, is now working to get the book, and Ms. Parrish’s life, more widely read and recognized. A new edition of the book, with the title, The Nation Must Awake, contains a foreword by Ms. Bruner in which she shares what she sees as the parallels of what happened in Tulsa, with the January 6th storming of the capitol, as well as “racism endorsed by people in power.” This is what drives her to get her great-grandmother’s work out in the world again, so that we can work to stop the cycle of hate, violence, and injustice.

In my own trying to catch up with what is going on currently in Tulsa, I talked this month with my former sister-in-law, Paula Warlick. Aside from the important work she does, I always remember how she took me to the best thrift shops all over Tulsa. I felt proud of her when I learned that through her work as a Grassroots Manager with the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), she has initiated a project–a short documentary and upcoming virtual panel, on racial health disparities and access to medical care, which will focus on people living in North Tulsa. She shared that she is following the guidance of key members of the Black community in North Tulsa, like Kristi Williams, activist, and co-owner of the Black Wall Street tour, and Tulsa Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper, in order to gather the full story of how the Tulsa Race Massacre and the impact of racial violence, the geographic displacement of a generation of people, the loss of generational wealth, and other forms of systemic racism have impacted the health, and access to healthcare, of the people of North Tulsa to this day.

Paula, with this collaborative project, is hopeful that by shining a light on, and building awareness of these disparities, as well as sharing about the ability for more people to receive Medicaid coverage, that real change can begin to happen. The ACS CAN statement for the panel reflects the same: “…With the passing of Oklahoma’s Medicaid Expansion bill on July 1st, which will provide health coverage for low-income individuals who don’t have other access to healthcare coverage, the Cancer Action Network understands the systems which create such disparities, and is working with several organizations and community leaders in Tulsa to host a conversation about the intersection between racial violence, systemic racism, health disparities, and the importance of access to healthcare.” The speakers for the panel event will include Kristi Williams, Co-Owner of the Black Wall Street Tour; Dr. Jabraan Pasha, MD, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine; Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper, Tulsa City Council District 1; and Lance Barbour, ACS CAN Sr. State and Local Campaigns Manager. You can access and register for the July 23rd Zoom webinar panel, Medicaid and Health Equity: 100 Years After The Tulsa Race Massacre, here.

My daughters and I were so glad to have Paula’s daughter Zoe visit with us this week from Tulsa. A young adult now at 22, I asked Zoe, who attends college out-of-state, if she had attended any of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial remembrance events. She said she and her Mom walked around the Tulsa Drillers baseball stadium, ONEOK Field, which was moved to the Greenwood district from its former home at the Tulsa Fairgrounds. They walked the Pathway of Hope, which is a newly created pathway that acts as a connector within the Greenwood district, after the highway further divided up the neighborhood in the 1960’s. The Pathway contains photographs, historic marker plaques, and inspirational quotes, with a mission both to instill hope, and, to honor local prominent historian, John Hope Franklin, who strove to preserve the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

I also asked Zoe about whether she was taught about the Massacre in school. Zoe said that in middle school and in high school, there were lessons on the Massacre, and a film–she said, the same films every year, one a student-made film, that they watched. In her freshman year in high school, Zoe took an Oklahoma history class, where she said she learned more in depth about the Massacre. She shared that she and her fellow students most likely did have these lessons because the neighborhood the schools were in were close to, or within the Greenwood district, especially her high school, Booker T. Washington High School, which, by intention, has a diverse student body. She believed that other schools probably didn’t have the same lessons, as they were not a part of the formal curriculum, inferring that they probably left these lessons out because they weren’t comfortable with teaching and discussing it, or didn’t consider the need an important one. Zoe was grateful for the inclusion of lessons on The Tulsa Race Massacre, stating that it was so important to learn this history, even if the lessons weren’t always substantial. She also shared that through witnessing her mother put together the ACS CAN event, she has learned a lot more. One thing Zoe shared with me that I also hadn’t known, was that Tulsa moved the ONEOK minor league baseball stadium from the Fairgrounds to the Greenwood district–that same stadium where she and Paula walked The Pathway to Hope–without concern about what it meant to build an arena in this neighborhood traumatized by violence and destruction, as well as for the fact that the ground beneath the stadium was once a Native burial ground, which may also hold some remains of those killed during the Massacre.

Zoe also told me about the Tulsa artist collective, Fire in Little Africa, made up of rappers, singers, musicians, poets, and visual artists, who have produced an album, documentary and podcast, in commemoration of the Centennial of the Massacre. The project is being produced in the mansion formerly owned by ‘(W. Tate Brady, an Oklahoma businessman and member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was from this mansion that Brady, also believed to be one of the key architects of the massacre, descended 99 years ago to patrol the blood-stained streets of the Greenwood District, where Black Wall Street was.” (Business Insider) Stevie Johnson, aka Dr. View, the producer of the project, said though many of the artists involved felt uncomfortable recording in this home that held such a traumatic history, he feels that with Fire in Little Africa they are “reclaiming the space as their own, and bending history,” showing that what was happening then is still happening now, but artists like themselves, can create a new history, and make spaces for themselves to shape that new history.

In the three years that I lived in Tulsa, I learned a small part of that past history that Fire in Little Africa, and many other members of the Black community of Greenwood, and North Tulsa, are now bending in major ways, like Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, owner of Fulton Books & Coffee, whose mission “is to create a space to call home…to build community and to change our city through civic discourse..”, and Dr. Ricco Wright, founder of the Black Wall Street Gallery. Despite what people in the white community in Tulsa tried to forget, and keep secret, through the destruction of records, and through silence, this country, and the world, is finally learning more, too.

I know the Tulsa I lived in fifteen years ago has progressed in terms of consciousness, and a willingness of more members of the white community to acknowledge the horrific events of the Massacre and its impact. ILooking at friends’ photographs and social media feeds of Commemoration events, I saw many people of all different races, and ethnicities coming together to acknowledge this important moment. Yet, I’m also hearing, as I look for recent articles, and news reports on the Commemoration, voices of concern over gentrification of the Greenwood district, as well as commodification of the history of Greenwood, some of it by outsiders whose gains would not be contributing to the Greenwood community. I’m looking forward to talking with friends who still live in Tulsa, and through more research, to rediscover the Tulsa of today.

One person who I was grateful to reconnect with through email while writing this post was Alicia Latimer . Alicia is the current Coordinator of the African American Resource Center at the Rudisill Library, and is someone I also connected with when carrying out another art workshop with girls from the Greenwood Cultural Center’s Women of Tomorrow program. She let me know how Tulsa is busy with Commemoration events, and how though it is hard to recall this event and do the work to share about it, she carries on, and she encouraged me to do the same.

And, though I could only see myself surrounded by whiteness when I first arrived in Tulsa, I did, and I know that anyone else can too, find integrated spaces, and make connections with people whose backgrounds and experiences are different than their own. This reminds me of when I got to meet Civil Rights activist, Xernona Clayton, at the Race Amity Conference held in Norwood, Massachusetts. Ms. Clayton, originally from Oklahoma, said, that to live and engage with people who are different from ourselves is what makes life rich. I agree. And, if you seek it, you will find it. I uncovered things I didn’t know before. I learned more about the Tulsa Race Massacre and how that horrific act 100 years ago, still impacts the inequity that exists for Black people in Tulsa today, as well as serves as a reminder of the pain and trauma endured. Anyone who wishes to learn more about inequity, about the Massacre, about diversity, if you care about any or all of this, you can seek it, learn it, and be a part of bending history, too.

Sometimes it still feels strange that this New England born, city girl, lived in Tulsa. I used to reflexively roll my eyes right along with my friends when they’d say, “I can’t believe you lived in Tulsa..,” but Tulsa was for me a place where I found out more about who I am by building bridges, and Tulsa was where the seeds were planted for me to become conscious of how important the matter of cross-racial connection, and breaking down racism, and racist systems were to me. Even though diversity and fighting racism was something I cared deeply about since I was a child, Tulsa is where, as an adult, my life-long pursuit for racial justice and equity through writing, and through actions, took root. Hardly something to roll my eyes about.

It is my hope that you will check out the many articles and resources below to learn more about the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the great achievements of people of the Black community in Tulsa. I look forward to hearing any stories and experiences you have to share, whether you are from Tulsa, or wherever you live, in relation to this important history, and in relation to your desire to build bridges, and be a part of the change we need in this country.

SOURCES:

Tulsa Commission 2001

Gilcrease Museum to Receive Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre Collection, The Black Wall Street Times, October 13, 2020

The Women Who Preserved The Story of The Tulsa Race Massacre, The New Yorker, May 28, 2021, Victor Luckerson

https://www.newyorker.com/news/us-journal/the-women-who-preserved-the-story-of-the-tulsa-race-massacre

Tulsa Entrepreneurs Reclaim Black Wall Street 99 Years After Massacre, Business Insider, May 28, 2021 (originally published June 2020), Dominic-Madori Davis , Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins , Tat Bellamy Walker , and Dominick Reuter

https://www.businessinsider.com/tulsa-massacre-entrepreneurs-reclaim-black-wall-street-trump-rally-juneteenth-2020-6#

Rudisill Library, African American Resource Center, Tulsa

https://www.tulsalibrary.org/research/african-american-resource-center

Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, documentary, The History Channel

https://www.history.com/specials/tulsa-burning-the-1921-race-massacre

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