How Tulsans View the 1921 Massacre Today

On May 31 and June 1, 1921, the Greenwood District, 35 blocks of prosperous Black businesses and a community of well-off Black people was smoldering from an attack of racial terrorism.

Today what’s left is only a small nook at the corner of Greenwood and Archer. The Oklahoma Eagle, the Black-owned newspaper that succeeded The Tulsa Star after it burned down in the 1921 massacre, sits there.

Directly across the street is Greenwood Rising, the history center dedicated to honoring the history and legacy of Black Wall Street. Less than a mile away sits the Greenwood Cultural Center, constructed in the 1980s as a multipurpose education complex that serves as a living memorial.

There is no shortage of places to go in Tulsa to learn about its rich Black past.

Despite these things, Tulsans today find themselves wrestling with properly commemorating Black Wall Street and the attack against it, while also still vividly remembering the horrors of the massacre that killed hundreds and reconciling what had been hidden from them for generations.

“I’m torn,” said Erma Thornton, a great-granddaughter of a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre. “It would have been nice for my great-grandmother to see this commemoration while she was still living”

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Thornton explained she was 23 when her great-grandmother passed away and in those years, she said she never spoke of the event. “All she ever told me about that time was she ran for her life. I would ask several different ways and the answer would stay the same,” she said.

It’s the same for Charles Christopher. His grandfather, W.D. Williams, survived the massacre and went on to teach history at Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, one of the few survivors that kept the history of the massacre alive.

But he also said his own mother never spoke of it. “My mother never really discussed it at all,” Christopher said. “It was all kind of buried under the carpet.”

Historian and Tulsa native Scott Ellsworth says the suppression of history only confirms why so many Black Tulsans stayed quiet.

“The White newspapers in Tulsa intentionally suppressed what happened for more than 50 years,” said Ellsworth, who is an Afroamerican and African Studies lecturer at the University of Michigan. “The Tulsa Tribune and The Tulsa World went out of their way to never mention it. Official records disappeared.”

But Maybelle Wallace, a 92-year-old lifelong Tulsa resident said she is one of the lucky ones who was informed about what happened in 1921 and agreed that the history had been suppressed. Her father left Tulsa after the massacre, but came back shortly after she was born.

“He came back to rebuild the neighborhood,” said Wallace. “If he hadn’t told me about what happened to Greenwood, I would never have known.“

To increase awareness of the massacre, the Tulsa community has invested heavy resources into commemoration events and also into spaces that would help with education about Black Wall Street’s history.

The group organizing the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival, is presenting a series of commemorative events through June 19, coinciding with the Juneteenth holiday. Also the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission has also planned a series of events to run through June 19.

But its headline event scheduled for May 31 was cancelled, CBS News reported. Organizers say “unexpected circumstances with entertainers and speakers” spurred them to cancel. But agreements between lawyers representing survivors and descendants could not be met, according to CBS News. The organizers said they hope to reschedule for later in the year.

PHOTOS: The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: Images of a Community in Terror

There are also disagreements about how funds for commemorative spaces should be used. In April 2020 there were plans for a $9 million renovation and expansion of the Greenwood Cultural Center to coincide with the Centennial commemoration. But divisions remain between the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission so instead, ground was broken to build Greenwood Rising.

“What if they had invested $30 million in Black entrepreneurship, acquiring land, and developing businesses, putting this land back in the hands of the Black community,” Councilwoman Vanessa Hall Harper said in an interview with Tulsa People, echoing the same uneasiness as her fellow North Tulsa constituents. “These initiatives are just symbolism. And I just think they could do a much better job if they wanted to put support behind initiatives that are really going to directly impact and improve the quality of life in this community. And that’s not what it is.” 

But there are still others who are optimistic about the ability to educate people about Black Wall Street and the 1921 massacre.

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Collectives like Fire in Little Africa, led by Dr. Stevie Johnson, hope to redefine how the Tulsa Race Massacre is taught and remembered through a multimedia project made up of an album, documentary, podcast, and a forthcoming curriculum. The album was set to release May 28 in partnership with Motown Records’ educational and cultural label Black Forum.

“We remember the tragedy that happened 100 years ago, but Greenwood hasn’t died,” Johnson said. “We take upon ourselves and have the conversations with our ancestors to make sure our stories are being told in a way that speaks to us and our future 100 years.”

Jennifer Matthews is a Tulsa-based freelance writer.

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