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By Nate Morris, Contributing Writer
“Where are the historical markers? What happened to them?” asked Orisabiyi (Kristi) Williams as she walked through the historic Greenwood District Sunday afternoon.
Williams, a resident and prominent activist in the North Tulsa community reached out to the Black Wall Street Times after discovering that many of the plaques marking the locations of Black-owned businesses destroyed in the 1921 massacre are damaged or missing amid new construction in the area.
These plaques, which line the streets in the footprint of Greenwood and Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, show where the greatest concentration of Black wealth in the United States once existed.
With more than 10,000 residents at its peak, the Greenwood District was designated as a “mecca” for Black families and entrepreneurs. The district once housed hundreds of Black-owned businesses extending nearly 35 blocks – roughly from the railroad tracks to Pine, between MLK Boulevard and Greenwood Ave.
Much of the area was leveled in a massacre and terror attack in 1921 but was later rebuilt only to be destroyed again by systematic urban removal with the construction of the IDL (Inner Dispersal Loop) in the 1950s.
In photos and videos shared on her personal social media, Williams highlighted numerous areas in front of the new Holiday Inn at Detroit and Archer, the Valley National Bank under construction at Elgin and Archer and underneath the I-244 overpass where these historical markers appear to have been uprooted.
“This is sacred land, historic sacred land,” she states in one of her videos, “and this is what we do with it?”
Many city residents who saw Williams’ post reacted with shock and dismay on social media at the revelation of the missing markers.
“It seems so many people want to profit off the Black Wall Street name,” said resident Keith Miller. “No one seems to be looking after what’s important.”
Miller, who first noticed missing markers last year under the I-244 bridge, said that the removal of plaques is “very disheartening.”
“I see actors and people making documentaries coming to Greenwood, but our history is disappearing,” Miller added, stating he wants to find out “who is responsible” for ensuring the markers are protected.
Jamaal Dyer, the project manager for the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission,
Dyer said that the plaques “honor the historic area” and are meant to instill in business owners and visitors an “understanding and importance of where they are”.
David Thomas, the CEO of Ross Group, told The Black Wall Street Times that he has been in contact with Williams about the missing plaques.
He stated could not find evidence of a plaque missing from outside of the newly constructed Holiday Inn, but intimated that the marker in question may have been the one honoring Lockard Restaurant at 316 E. Archer, which is still intact just a few feet east of the hotel’s entrance.
That restaurant was owned by Joseph and Nina Lockard whose son Eddie was killed in 1921 when the restaurant and much of the surrounding areas were destroyed.
The hotel, which sits at 310 E Archer, was formerly a Black-owned tire and automotive shop, built after the massacre. While a review of Google maps shows that no plaque was in place at the time construction began on the hotel, several sources tell the Times they recall a plaque being present on that site and believe it may have been disturbed by city construction five or more years ago.
Thomas did note that two markers located on the sidewalk outside of Valley National Bank were “carefully” removed by the Ross Group prior to construction.
“They are in good shape and are being securely stored,” said Thomas, noting that they will be placed back after the construction is complete.
“We try to be careful,” he added. “We are aware of the cultural sensitivity of these sorts of things and want to respect that.”
Mike Reed, who helped to secure nearly $41,000 in funding from the city during the Vision 2025 proposition in the early 2000s to place these historical markers, said that he too has noticed missing markers.
Reed said he first noticed three or four makers missing “when the city redid some of the sidewalks under the I-244 overpass about five years ago.”
He told the Black Wall Street Times that he was working to connect with city officials to find out what was happening to the markers.
The Times reached out to the City of Tulsa for comment from the Mayor’s Office and the Streets and Stormwater Department.
The Mayor’s Office confirmed that The Ross Group removed the signs to store them during construction and “will reinstall the signs once construction is complete.”
The Black Wall Street Times is awaiting confirmation from the city about what policies exist around the removal of historical markers during construction and who is responsible for replacing lost or damaged plaques.
In addition to concerns around the removal of historical markers, many have also voiced anger over the recent naming of the aforementioned Holiday Inn, which sits in the middle of Historic Greenwood but displays the name of “Tulsa Downtown – Arts District”.
“The Archer building, renovated by the Kaiser Foundation, and the Holiday Inn are naming their location ‘The Tulsa Arts District’, said Orisabiyi (Kristi) Williams in a statement to the Times, adding that she believes the arts district has “usurped three block of [historic] Greenwood.”
Pete Patel, the owner of the hotel, said that he was just hearing these concerns for the first time when the Black Wall Street Times reached out to him on Monday.
Patel said “I didn’t know that we were in the Greenwood district. There was no intent to name it ‘Tulsa Arts District’ over ‘Greenwood’.”
“If you would have told me a month ago I would have said ‘how can I help?’” Patel told the Times, stating that it was too late for him to change the name of the hotel now because he has already spent money on marketing and advertising.
Patel stated that he and his organization “would love to be more involved” in the build-up to the centennial in 2021, but reaffirmed that he had no plans to change the name of the hotel to “Greenwood”.
As the historic epicenter of Black business continues to face threats against its preservation in the face of rapid gentrification, community leaders continue to push Tulsa not to willfully do away its own past.
For many in the community, the missing plaques and name changes are emblematic of a deeper, more disturbing trend signifying the erasure of a pivotal piece of the nation’s past.
In her statement to the Times, Williams also called on the City of Tulsa and local philanthropic organizations like the Kaiser Foundation and others to help combat gentrification and protect the legacy of Greenwood and Black Wall Street by giving Black entrepreneurs “grants free and clear for business startups” and “land that has been taken” during the massacre and urban removal.
“We have never been compensated for what happened [in the massacre],” she said, noting her anger over the “blatant disrespect and take-over happening in the most meaningful historic area Black people hold dear.”
In a statement to the Times, Jamaal Dyer also challenged this growing shift in this historic district, saying “the men and women who worked to make Greenwood a bustling community deserve the proper acknowledgment and respect from all citizens.”
“Any individual(s) or systems that desire to destroy the legacy of the Historic Greenwood District,” Dyer continued, “are just as guilty as the individuals and system that destroyed it during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.”
Nate Morris is a contributor to the Black Wall Street Times. Nate was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and moved to Tulsa in 2012 after graduating from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. Nate is a Teach for America alumnus and has worked in schools throughout the Tulsa area.