The story of Greenwood is not the story of one tragedy, it’s the story of two. The first tragedy is the now widely-publicized 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, America’s worst episode of racial violence where a white mob numbering in the thousands killed dozens of Black residents and burned over 1,200 homes and almost all of the businesses in what was, at the time, the most prosperous Black community in the nation.
Similar massacres occurred in Ocoee, Florida, Wilmington, North Carolina, Augusta, Georgia, Colfax, Louisiana and throughout the South following Reconstruction.
Another systemic tragedy America hit Black communities with was even more widespread and no less subtle. That was the tragedy of mid-century urban renewal. Local governments, empowered by eminent domain and white supremacy, routed interstates through prosperous, thriving Black communities, amputating them, displacing their residents. From Los Angeles to Miami, urban renewal destroyed Black communities so whites in the suburbs could get to jobs downtown in their cars faster–and then back out again.
That’s the other side of the Greenwood tragedy. After the Massacre–against all odds and perhaps in the face of any logic–Greenwood‘s residents rebuilt their prosperous, thriving community.
White Tulsa again destroyed it, this time, through urban renewal in the 1960s.
That was the last straw. It wasn’t the 1921 Massacre that resulted in Black Tulsa’s mass exodus from Greenwood and the community’s collapse, it was Interstate 244 cleaving their rebuilt community like a scythe lopping a limb off a body just healed from unspeakable trauma.
Both tragedies and an extraordinary story of survival are now shared at Greenwood Rising, a newly opened museum which should be a mandatory American History and civics pilgrimage for every citizen of the United States.
Greenwood Bottoms Out
Greenwood bottomed out in the 1980s. The last holdouts had finally left. Abandoned store fronts and empty lots filled the District.
To imagine it now, pushing 40 years later–a visit from the president, news coverage from every major media outlet in the country, new Black-owned businesses opening, the streets filled with people, smiling faces–would have been hard for even the most optimistic dreamers.
Philip Armstrong, Executive Director at Greenwood Rising, moved to Tulsa in 1997, long before Greenwood‘s stunning renaissance. What he remembers most about arriving in the area was, “how little anyone knew their history here.” He learned about Greenwood at Central State University, an Historically Black College in Ohio, but in Tulsa, “it had been erased from the history books.”
Greenwood had been erased from history books everywhere. Much the same as all the nation’s numerous other race massacres.
So why now? 100 years after the Massacre, 50-plus years after urban renewal, what has finally brought all this attention and redevelopment to Greenwood after generations of neglect and abuse?
Acknowledgment and Apology
Indirectly, it was the Oklahoma legislature’s preparations to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing which began in 2015 that sparked a fresh look at how to honor the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Tulsa and Oklahoma City are separated by only 100 miles. This is also formerly Indian Territory, the final destination for the Trail of Tears. When it comes to trauma per square mile, Oklahoma indexes off the charts.
Kevin Matthews, a state senator from Tulsa, pressed the legislature into thinking about the domestic terrorism that occurred in Greenwood while it was thinking about the domestic terrorism that occurred in Oklahoma City.
Under his leadership in 2015, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was created to outline projects which would commemorate history, tell the Greenwood story and create opportunity for the District.
A 2018 visit by members of the Centennial Commission to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. proved revelatory. The museum, 1,200 miles away, had an entire gallery devoted to telling the story of Greenwood while the actual Greenwood had nothing. The vision for a museum that would become Greenwood Rising took shape.
That timeline omits a major symbolic first step in Tulsa’s attempts to heal. That occurred when then-Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage offered a first public apology on behalf of the city to the Greenwood community in 2000. At the time, there were still more than 100 living survivors of the Massacre. Four years prior, the city had yet to even recognize the anniversary.
The city’s police chief apologized in 2013 for his department’s dereliction of duty during the Race Massacre. Police officers largely stood by or actively aided the mob in destroying Greenwood.
Another apology was given this spring by the city’s current mayor.
“Public apologies are the beginning–you’ve got to acknowledge this,” Armstrong said, adding that the Black community in Tulsa has now had its fill of apologies and is looking for action from state and local governments.
That action, in the form of reparations, was recommended by the officially state-sanctioned Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 which spent five years studying the Massacre and in 2001 released a 200-page document detailing its findings of fact. Specified reparations in the form of direct payments to survivors and descendants of the Massacre, a scholarship fund for students affected by the Massacre, establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the Greenwood District and a memorial for the reburial of victim remains from the Massacre were called for.
None of those reparations have yet to be undertaken.
This past May, three remaining survivors of the Massacre appeared before a United States House of Representatives subcommittee continuing to seek reparations for their losses as a result of the Massacre.
Change began taking place on the ground in Greenwood with the 2010 opening of OneOK Ballpark, the minor league Tulsa Drillers’ fabulous art-deco inspired stadium. Construction on GreenArch across the street, which combined affordable apartments with retail space, started in 2012. It became the first new building development in the District in 80 years.
Today, new construction projects for housing and commercial space occurs throughout the Greenwood District south of I-244. Restaurants and stores line the streets. Some of these are Black owned. Not all of them, like in they heyday, but don’t confuse what’s taking place in the historic Black Wall Street area as gentrification. Urban renewal had long forced Black businesses and restaurants out. Property here recently acquired by private developers has come from the city, which over time, took ownership of the abandoned lots through tax deed auctions.
Greenwood Rising stands as the centerpiece of the District’s redevelopment. It is the flagship project of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. Located on the southeast corner of Greenwood and Archer, the gateway to Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, the museum honors the icons of Black Wall Street, memorializes the victims of the Massacre and examines the lessons of the past to inspire meaningful, sustainable action in the present.
The Hille Foundation and 21 North Greenwood, LLC, were in the process of developing the land upon which Greenwood Rising now calls home when they were approached by the Centennial Commission about placing its museum there. They agreed to halt construction, moving the site of their planned mixed-use building and donating the land to the Centennial Commission.
This is the most prominent example of how Greenwood Rising would not exist without Tulsa’s extraordinary philanthropic community.
“Tulsa’s magic is our philanthropic dollars,” Armstrong said. “And they are all focused on social programs, bettering the lives of Tulsa.”
Old oil and gas money has provided a variety of local philanthropic foundations with control of something on the order of $300 billion in assets. That level of capital to invest charitably in local projects would be major for a city ten-times the size of Tulsa with its 400,000 residents.
Tulsa has long contained pockets of great wealth thanks to the oil deposits it sits on. That’s why there are two world-class art museums there and why the area feels overall more cosmopolitan than it otherwise might largely isolated in the rural northeast Oklahoma hills.
Tulsa’s philanthropic dollars stepped up where the city and state government were unable or unwilling to. The Centennial Commission needed to raise $30 million to support its vision. That vision included construction of a world-class history center, Greenwood Rising, the Pathway to Hope, a beautifully landscaped walkway bordering I-244 connecting Greenwood Rising to John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, the Greenwood Art Project, Greenwood Cultural Center renovations, centennial commemoration programming, and yet to be erected historic district boundary markers which will reinforce to visitors the tremendous scope of the original Greenwood District. The state kicked in $1.5 million for the projects, the city, $5 million more, major philanthropic dollars covered the lion’s share of the rest.
The results will spearhead Tulsa’s becoming a global history and cultural destination.
Inside Greenwood Rising, blunt, non-academic storytelling relies on first-hand accounts. Visitors move swiftly through the multi-media presentation which regularly challenges guests with frank presentations of America’s, Oklahoma’s and Tulsa’s racial hatred and violence without ever crossing into unnecessary shock effect. It is shared that the Oklahoma state legislature’s first action following the approval of statehood in 1906 was to segregate the public transportation system. Details like this are provided to show receipts of racism, but the experience never bogs down in an attempt to be comprehensive.
The museum, which rushed opening to welcome locals for the centennial anniversary, can be absorbed in an hour. It will be temporarily closed until July 14 to finish off a punch list of mostly aesthetic exterior enhancements.
While every trip to Greenwood should include Greenwood Rising, the real magic takes place outside. That’s where a feeling for the area’s glorious past can be tasted. It’s a small taste, but it’s there. Look up and down Greenwood Avenue and imagine Black Wall Street. See how grotesquely I-244 divides the neighborhood. Walk up to the Vernon Chapel AME Church and the pop-up social justice/Black Lives Matter protest site there. Stop into the Greenwood Cultural Center. Take a selfie in front of the Black Wall Street mural. Walk the Pathway of Hope.
Consider Greenwood’s past and future and the past and future of your hometown.
“This isn’t a kumbaya moment,” Armstrong reminds. “This is a launching point for the next three, five, ten years.”
He hopes future Tulsans will think, “something happened in 2021 and it was just the beginning.”
The beginning of more Black owned homes and businesses. Much of that development he’d like to see occur north of I-244 where the Oklahoma State University–Tulsa campus now resides–that was a “gentrification” project of the 1980s, pushing Black residents out of the Historic Greenwood District.
The creation of more Black wealth.
Oklahoma finally coming through with reparations.
“It’s not the job of philanthropy to absolve government of its responsibility,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got the whole world on our side saying, ‘Oklahoma, what are you going to do about this?’”
A years’ long effort to add the Tulsa Race Massacre to the curriculum of Oklahoma’s Public Schools finally succeeded and was instituted in the fall of 2020 for all students in third grade through high school.
“There’s no more hiding from this,” Armstrong happily reports.
Elsewhere in Tulsa
At the Philbrook Museum of Art, two powerful exhibitions pair perfectly with what’s taking place in Greenwood. “From the Limitations of Now” and “Views of Greenwood” encourage deeper thought about racial inequalities in Tulsa and beyond. As does a special season of the Philbrook’s podcast dedicated to the Greenwood Arts Project. Another limited run podcast from The History Channel shares the story of Greenwood.
Amplifying histories of resilience and the voices of Black Tulsans, Gilcrease Museum hosts “The Legacy of Survival,” an exhibition using Artificial Intelligence interactives to give visitors the opportunity to “talk” with two of the three last known survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre—Viola “Mother” Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield “Mother” Randle.
“Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre” helps young readers understand events of the past to move toward a better future.
At the Mother Road Market along historic Route 66, Kitchen 66 accepted nine BIPOC and female entrepreneurs into its Spring 2021 launch program. The program exists to help food entrepreneurs kickstart their business ideas by breaking down the financial barriers that prevent them from achieving their culinary dreams. This program provides a brick and mortar space for food entrepreneurs to test out their food concepts and business ideas to continue building on the influx of small businesses in Tulsa