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By Orisabiyi Williams, Chair of the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission
The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce was organized in June of 1938 to address social and economic issues that affect the Greenwood community. During the 1930s and ’40s, The Chamber listed 240 black business owners. Many Tulsans don’t realize that after the massacre in 1921, Greenwood was restored, successful, and thriving. Then “urban renewal” came to Tulsa, depressing economic growth in Greenwood.
In the past few years, hope has been rekindled by a renaissance of community engagement at the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce. Sherry Gamble-Smith, who was the Executive Director of The Chamber, until January 2017, was instrumental in cultivating business partnerships with companies such as OneOK.
City Councilor Vanessa Hall Harper, who until February served as Membership Chair, skyrocketed new membership at The Chamber. Jamaal Dyer galvanized and organized young professionals by creating the The Greenwood Young Professionals. Juneteenth, Tulsa’s historic Jazz festival and celebration of the abolition of slavery, returned home to Greenwood in 2016. In some recent years, the celebration had been held in the Brady Arts district South of Greenwood, a controversial move because of its namesake, Tate Brady’s history with the black community in Tulsa.
Inspired by these signs of progress, Black Wall Street’s heart started to beat again, powered with new, young blood.
Then all the progress came to an abrupt halt: The Greenwood Young Professionals was removed from The Chamber, Gamble-Smith’s position was eliminated, and in a shocking turn of events Hall Harper has had a restraining order filed against her by Rebecca Marks-Jimerson, the chair of the Board of Directors, barring her from participation in The Chamber’s meetings. The Young Professionals group started by Dyer was told: “to cease and desist until further notice” in January 2017 and hasn’t heard from The Board since. Dyer told The Black Wall Street Times that he has “asked when it will be lifted and they have yet to give (him) an answer.” He is “extremely disappointed because (the group was) gaining momentum and a lot of young professionals were excited” and “eager to get involved.” Dyer describes the order to stop the group’s activities as “a slap in the face,” and that “Rebecca (Marks-Jimerson) was totally uninvolved” with the group. He hopes to resume activities soon, saying, “They will not stop our progress.”
The Greenwood Chamber Board decided to dissolve Gamble-Smith’s Executive Director Position because The Chamber’s financial position was insecure. Marks-Jimerson told Fox 23 News that the Chamber’s financial standing was “critically low.”
A week later, when the community learned about the elimination of Gamble-Smith’s paid position, Hall Harper, still membership chair, called for an official meeting with the members and the Board.
The members wanted to address persistent issues that the general membership had with the Board which had finally come to a head. The issues slated for the meeting’s agenda were:
- The Chamber has had no annual meetings in nearly a decade.
- No communication from The Board to the membership, including financial disclosures.
- The lack of transparency gives the members no confidence in the Board itself or confidence that the Board is functioning in the best interests of the community.
- The Board is required to have seven members and hasn’t met that requirement in three years.
- Members want a say in the staffing of the Board.
Ultimately the membership seeks transparency and engagement from the Board.
Marks-Jimerson and other board members said that Hall Harper had no right to call the meeting because they claimed her role as Membership Chair was neither directed nor approved by the Board. This is a strange statement for the Board to make because they are currently in mediation with Hall Harper and they have recognized and promoted Hall Harper as Membership Chair as recently as January of 2017 on their Facebook page.
A week after the meeting-that-never-happened, in seeming response to the membership’s specific concern over the insufficient number of board members, Jack Henderson was added to the Board along with Henry Primaeux and Lavern Wimberly.
Henderson and Hall Harper were opponents in a contentious election in November 2016. The vote wasn’t announced on election night because it was so close. Hall Harper won by 371 votes. She earned 5,414 votes to Henderson’s 5,043. Henderson publicly accused Hall Harper of voter fraud causing Hall Harper to tell The Tulsa World that Henderson was a “liar.”
Shortly after Henderson’s appointment, Marks-Jimerson filed a restraining order against Hall Harper on behalf of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, Inc. It only takes a surface understanding of these events to see this decision is politically motivated.
The Chamber needs to be transparent so the community can hold them to account. We need to make sure they have the best interests of the community members in mind when making decisions that the membership has had no say in.
The current members of the appointed Board of Directors are described in a little more depth below. (Though Primaeux and Wimberly are not currently listed on The Chamber’s website.)
DREW DIAMOND is a Democrat who served as Tulsa Police Chief and has served on other local boards such as the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry, Domestic Violence Intervention Services, Parkside Hospital, and The Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice. He is currently the Executive Director of The Jewish Federation of Tulsa and The Vice-Chair of The Greenwood Chamber. He does not live in North Tulsa or Greenwood, nor does he operate any businesses, making his value to a chamber of commerce questionable.
BRANDON JACKSON is a Democrat and the owner of Tara Custom homes and President of the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa. He is a certified HUD 203(k) rehabilitation loan consultant.
REBECCA MARKS-JIMERSON is a Republican who currently serves as chair and has been on the Board since May 2016. She worked on former Mayor Bill LaFortune’s staff as a community and education outreach resource and came under fire while there for getting paid for disability but was working another job at the same time. She also serves on the Tulsa City-Council Library oversight commission and apologized to Tulsa taxpayers in January 2016 for the failure of the 2015 Summer Reading program.
Dr. JOHN SASSIN is a Republican assistant professor in the Disability Studies program at Langston University. He also owns Sassin & Associates on Fifteenth Street, which is a rehabilitation center of for head injuries and vocational education. He does not live in nor operate any businesses that benefit North Tulsa or Greenwood.
Dr. ART WILLIAMS is a Democrat and a full time professor at Langston University and is the chairman of the Sociology and African American Studies Departments. He has also served as Assistant Vice President of Community Outreach at Langston.
NEWLY APPOINTED BOARD MEMBERS:
JACK HENDERSON is a Democrat who served as District 1 City Councilor for 14 years until he lost to Hall Harper in 2016.
HENRY PRIMAEUX is a Republican who owned a Kia dealership in midtown Tulsa until he sold it in 2014. He also serves on the foundation board for Tulsa Community College and The OSU Tulsa Board of Trustees. He does not live in nor has he ever operated any businesses that benefit North Tulsa or Greenwood.
Dr. LAVERN FORD WIMBERLY is a Democrat who served as an educator in Chicago and Tulsa. She was the director of alternative school programs, social services, and the gifted and talented program at Tulsa Public Schools. In 1975 she became the first African American woman assistant principal of a junior high school, and in 2000, she became the first African American to serve as the Tulsa’s interim superintendent.
The Chamber of Commerce was created to represent the members of the Greenwood community, which means it was created as a black organization.
Tulsa has a Hispanic Commission, a Native American Commission, the Status of Women Commission, the Human Rights Commission, and finally, an African American Affairs Commission is being planned. For two years Hall Harper and State Representative Regina Goodwin worked with citizens to fight for an African American Affairs Commission in Tulsa.
This Commission is important because the African American community in Tulsa faces different issues than other racial groups, such as police violence and gentrification. Until the new Commission is created, the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce is the only microphone for our community’s needs and concerns, which means a crucial requirement of being a board member should be a representation of the community.
Melvin Johnson, a chamber member, asks, “Is the fox or the wolf watching the hen house?” Members laugh at comments like these, but Johnson raises a good point: How do the due-paying members of the Greenwood Chamber know the intentions of board members who don’t seem to represent African Americans or have any vested interest in the betterment of the Greenwood community, such as Primaeux and Diamond? They are unconnected to our history.
The Greenwood District has yet to be included on The National Register of Historic Places or been given Landmark status. If the Chamber worked to get Greenwood listed in the National Registry, the district would receive federal money to sustain our history, which would promote new business creation and be a boon for existing businesses and the community. However, if the district were protected by national Historic designation, it would make demolishing and gentrifying it impossible and it would create a constant reminder of the massacre of 1921.
The Greenwood District has lost some of its original geographic boundaries. The Brady District has been sprawling to the northeast, consuming more of Greenwood as each year passes. As of today, The Brady District has taken two blocks of Greenwood.
Observant Tulsans can see The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange’s goal, established after the massacre in Greenwood in 1921, lives on today as “urban renewal” and Vision 2025. These projects allow outside groups to take over the valuable land north of downtown. This is gentrification at its worst and the Chamber’s Board members have either refused to stand up to city developers or are directly profiting from ignoring the needs of the Greenwood community.
Some members of the community are even advocating starting a new unaffiliated chamber of commerce to better serve Greenwood.
Members of the Greenwood Chamber need to demand better from The Board members. The membership should have a voice on board appointments. After all, it is the members’ responsibility to ensure that the Board represents the community. Additionally, the Greenwood community should be consulted about the Board’s appointments.
The time has come for outside interests to stop profiting from Greenwood. We must fight to keep what is left of the district and our history intact—Greenwood in the nucleus of the black community in Tulsa. If we lose Greenwood, the community is lost with it.