(Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from Tulsa City Council Chair Vanessa Hall-Harper.)
A day after President Biden acknowledged the Tulsa Race Massacre in front of a national audience in the Greenwood District, city councilors unanimously passed a resolution to “acknowledge, apologize, and commit to making tangible amends for the racially motivated acts of violence perpetrated against Black Tulsans in Greenwood in 1921.”
A diverse crowd, many of them young people, filled the seats inside Tulsa’s City Hall to voice public comment for and against the resolution as the nation’s eyes watched.
While many were expecting the resolution to be a reparations proposal, the councilors who drafted it made it clear they wanted a community-led process to take place that would gather evidence and provide input on what specific actions should be taken to address the racial disparities in north Tulsa.
Tulsa city council resolution
“This resolution is an acknowledgement and apology and a commitment from the Tulsa City Council. It is not a reparations proposal,” Council Chair and Tulsa’s only Black councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper said.
“It’s about equity. The resolution is solely a vehicle to create infrastructures, or good policies that will benefit Tulsa citizens who are and who have been adversely affected from long-term systemic racism,” she added.
While the resolution is the first time the council has ever officially apologized for the massacre, it stopped short of holding the city financially responsible for its role in aiding and abetting the White mob that burned, bombed, killed and looted Greenwood residents and businesses on Black Wall Street. It does, however, seek to create a process by which community members can evaluate the recommendations for reparations listed in the State of Oklahoma’s 2001 report from the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission.
Decades-old recommendations called for reparations
Those recommendations, released two decades ago, included: making direct payment of reparations to survivors and descendants, creating a scholarship fund available to “students affected by the riot,” establishing an economic development enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood district, and creating a memorial for the “riot” victims and for the burial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves.
While Mayor Bynum, fresh off his tour denouncing and denigrating calls for reparations, and the politically-appointed Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission recently dedicated a new history center, approved without input from the Greenwood community, the city council resolution seeks to include the community in all aspects of the discussions for equity moving forward.
While the vote was unanimously in favor of the resolution, the four drafters included: Councilwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper, Councilwoman Kara Joy McKee, Councilwoman Lori Decter-Wright and Councilman Mykey Arthrell-Knezek.
Council addresses the room
“I know there are some really strong feelings in this room. There are some really strong feelings in the community,” Tulsa City Councilor Kara Joy McKee told the audience.
“And that is why we, the four of us who originally drafted this resolution, knew that we could not be prescriptive. We could not be paternalistic and tell the community ‘this is what you need. Let us give you what you need.’ And we needed a community-led process, and that’s what we’re establishing here, but this is just the beginning,” she added.
People from across the nation attended the event, including civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson and representatives from other cities that have passed some form of reparations.
Rev. Jesse Jackson
The first to speak, Rev. Jesse Jackson commanded silence and serenity as the audience strained to hear his words.
“I urge those in here who have light to speak up. Silence will betray us,” Rev. Jesse Jackson said. It appeared his presence was so inspiring that even the council’s two most conservative members–Councilors Phil Lakin and Jayme Fowler–disrupted the public comment portion of the meeting to take selfies with the civil rights legend. They also awarded Jackson with a medal on behalf of the City of Tulsa.
Virtually every person who spoke on the resolution agreed that it didn’t go far enough. Yet, for those who managed to pass reparations proposals in their own cities, the urgency to get something done couldn’t have been more evident.
Representatives from cities that have passed reparations attend meeting
Keith Young is a former elected official from Asheville, North Carolina. He led a successful effort to provide reparations in the form of homeownership funding and business opportunities last year, though it stopped short of direct cash payments, according to a New York Times report.
“I have never been nervous to speak in my life, and I realized it’s not my nerves,” Young explained, calling attention to the souls of the bodies of massacre victims buried in unmarked mass graves in Tulsa. “All I’m saying to you right now, is that this resolution that is on the table, it must be passed. The only way that these souls that have traveled 100 years to this moment can begin to even rest, there has to be acknowledgement and recompense, and the community has to decide what happens next.”
Joining Young, Evanston alderman Robin Rue Simmons echoed support for the resolution. She also led successful efforts to begin the complicated process of determining how to disperse reparations with the passing of a resolution in 2019. Earlier this year the Illinois city, in its first phase of the program, has granted 16 individuals who experienced racist housing practices with $25,000 set aside for homeownership and improvement. While it isn’t reparations in the sense of direct cash payments, it represents a first step toward restorative justice.
“And I’m hoping the next appropriate thing after this resolution is a commitment to reparations,” Simmons told Tulsa’s city councilors.
Community residents give public comment
Teachers, community organizers, and students all voiced tepid support for the resolution and expressed calls for swift action to follow its passage.
Among other key points, the resolution states that the council “will establish within the next six months a community-led process to evaluate the recommendations for reconciliation made in the Commission report, and other reports and efforts, and create short and long-term recommendations to make significant progress toward restoring economic mobility, prosperity, and generational wealth for the 1921 Race Massacre survivors, their descendants, and residents of North Tulsa.”
For Tulsa Community College student and community activist Xavier Doolittle, it was important to highlight specific instances of systemic racism that led to Greenwood’s eventual decline decades after it rebuilt.
“Greenwood did not disappear after 1921. It sustained itself. It rebuilt. So when did it disappear,” Doolittle asked. He went on to detail the creation of Tulsa’s Inter-dispersal loop (IDL), which cut directly through the heart of Greenwood’s business district. He also described the trauma caused by the city’s revitalization efforts, such as the Emerson Magnet School established in 1975, which he says demolished four blocks of the Greenwood community.
Citing how north Tulsa’s economic development is night and day compared to the other side of the Frisco train tracks, Doolittle called for the city to include the returning of land in any future reparations proposals. “Give it back,” he told the council amidst cheers and applause from the audience.
White descendant of massacre perpetrators says resolution doesn’t go far enough
Not everyone supported the resolution, however, which seeks to create yet another “first step” toward justice. For some, it appears the council wants to spend months studying a study, rather than simply adopting the four reparations proposals listed in the Commission’s report from 20 years ago.
“I thought that it wasn’t clear enough. I thought that it was too vague,” theologian Jennifer Harmon told the council during her public comment. She also revealed her lineage as a descendant of White mobsters who perpetrated the assault on the thriving community of Greenwood.
“And this is another reason why I don’t think it’s good is because I’m a descendant of somebody who perpetrated some of this. And it bothers me to the nth degree,” Harmon said.
Her testimony represented perhaps the first time a descendant of massacre perpetrators openly admitted and apologized for their ancestors’ role in the destruction of Black Wall Street at a Tulsa City Council meeting.
Descendants of massacre survivors reclaim their time
Descendants of massacre survivors also attended and spoke during the public comment of this historic council meeting, a meeting that would undoubtedly serve as a test case for other communities across the nation.
Trumpet player Damian Rosell explained how his ancestor moved from Gainesville, TX and purchased a farm where Bixby stands today. Rosell said they sold farm-to-table produce to Greenwood residents.
“This is fluff. I’m a trumpet player. So, I am a member of the music community here in Tulsa and I know what the word reconciliation sounds like,” Rosell said.
“The stuff you guys are talking about is not really concrete…You use the word tangible, but it’s all syntax. And like, yo, I know some real good rappers that you should advise. Like seriously, urgency,” he added.
Cleo Harris Jr., another descendant who owns Black Wall Street Tees and Souvenirs on historic Black Wall Street in Greenwood, spoke about an encounter he had with a massacre survivor in 1975.
“He told me how the army had gatling guns. He said ‘mowing down’ men, women and children. They cut babies out of Black women. White men stepped on the heads of these innocents,” he retold the encounter explaining how the man cried so hard it “messed me up.”
Harris Jr. just recently found out he’s a descendant of survivors a day before the meeting and called on the council to “get it right.”
Human Rights Watch says resolution not good enough
In calling for a six-month process to establish a community-led initiative to evaluate recommendations from the decades-old commissioned report on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the city council resolution added that the city “will transparently report progress and outcomes on the contents of this resolution on a biannual basis to the citizens of Tulsa.”
The resolution’s passage comes after Tulsa’s Equality Indicators reports have already detailed at length the various disparities that Black Tulsans, and especially north Tulsans, face in the areas of housing, wealth, health, and police violence. Moreover, a landmark report from the Human Rights Watch, written by Tulsa native Dreisen Heath last year, details how the city’s actions from 1921 to today make them responsible for providing reparations.
Later, after the vote, The Black Wall Street Times asked Dreisen Heath for her reaction to the council’s passage of the resolution, despite her public comment and expert research urging them to make it stronger and more binding.
“They didn’t meet the calls of the survivors and the descendants that they need reparations now. This resolution does not provide that. It’s an attempt to acknowledge and reckon with this history, but it still omits the historical and present traumas that Black Tulsans are still feeling today. And any real commitment, any real tangible commitment to actually embarking on the reparations process; there doesn’t need to be an evaluation of the 2001 Commission recommendations.” Heath said. “The city council today could have passed a resolution to implement those recommendations but they didn’t do it.”
However, Council Chair Vanessa Hall-Harper later clarified that without a court order, the council cannot by itself order direct payments to survivors and descendants.
“The [Tulsa] City Council could not have passed a resolution implementing all of the recommendations because legally we cannot use tax dollars to make direct payments (gift) to citizens unless there’s a court order demanding such payment after a lawsuit [such as the one brought on behalf of Massacre survivors and descendants by the] (Justice for Greenwood Foundation) or the laws restricting direct payouts to citizens be overturned,” Hall-Harper told The Black Wall Street Times
Greg Robinson II
Furthermore, with a plethora of data and recommendations from the Human Rights Watch, Tulsa’s Equality Indicators, and the state’s 2001 report from the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission, it’s no wonder several speakers were angry that the resolution, instead of directly laying out reparations proposals, represents yet another “first step.” For some, the staircase has already been built, and the council appears to be dragging its feet rather than gliding upwards to true reconciliation and repair.
Before sharing his thoughts during public comment, community leader and former mayoral candidate Greg Robinson II asked each council member if they would go on record explicitly supporting reparations. In response, the city attorney advised the council to not answer the question due to a pending lawsuit against the city led by Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who represents the three last known living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“We have people under the impression that we’re moving toward reparations. That’s why they’re for this resolution. Yet, we’re being bamboozled,” Robinson said.
Robinson accuses mayor of playing games
Clarifying that he wasn’t blaming the council, but rather Mayor G.T. Bynum, Robinson added, “I’m saying there’s a reason why Mayor Bynum is for this resolution and against reparations.”
Calling council chair and the lone Black councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper his hero, Robinson accused city leaders of fighting against her efforts to produce transformative justice.
“What she’s not gonna tell you because she’s a woman of honor is that she’s been moved to tears because she’s been fought against by the legal representation at the city, because she’s been pushed back on so viciously by some of her colleagues. And so I’m naming this in public because I realize I’m one of the very few people in this city that has the authority to do it and the balls to,” Robinson said.
Though the council would go on to adopt the resolution unanimously, it wasn’t before hearing from final speaker, descendant of massacre survivors and owner of The Black Wall Street Times, Mr. Nehemiah Frank.
Frank, who days earlier released a groundbreaking report on MSNBC that detailed Klan involvement at the city level in the 1920s, and in the mayor’s own family, reminded the council that anything less than reparations remains insufficient.
He listed firemen, policemen, mayors, county commissioners, and insurance company owners who had their names listed in Klan rosters in the 1920s.
“That is why the City of Tulsa is responsible for the massacre: because you allowed this white supremacy, this racism, to run the city. And it is still running the city today,” Frank said to applause from community members in attendance.
“You can stand on the right side of history right now,” he said, calling for immediate reparations. “That is all we’re asking.”
Council adopts resolution
Moments later, the council members agreed to pass the first resolution of its kind in the city, one that “apologize[s] not only for those who perpetrated the Massacre but any enforcement of subsequent segregation, discriminatory practices and programs that led to inequities and commit to making tangible amends for policies and practices that have harmed or destroyed communities in north Tulsa.”
The Black Wall Street Times reached out to councilwoman Kara Joy McKee to determine the city’s next steps following the historic vote.
“I want to figure out what’s the low-hanging fruit. What’s the next thing on the 2001 recommendations that we can get done right away because we need to start tangibly building trust in the community by getting some stuff done, by getting the repair made,” council member McKee told The Black Wall Street Times.
Oklahoma Black Lives Matter responds
But for the leader of the Oklahoma City chapter of Black Lives Matter, Rev. Sheri T. Dickerson, it represents a slap in the face to survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle (106), Viola Fletcher (107), and her little brother Hughes Vann Ellis (100). All three survivors recently made the arduous trek to D.C. to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about the need for restitution in their lifetimes.
“We saw the survivors that are centurions go all the way to Capitol Hill say, ‘please do it now. Don’t let me die before it passes.’ So, that is community-led,” Dickerson told The Black Wall Street Times. “They are hiding behind the cowardice of white supremacy. They have a strong mayor system but a weak-ass mayor who is a white supremacist.”
Nevertheless, with the vote to approve the resolution, Tulsa has embarked on a commitment to deliver results, with this six-month time-frame to approve a community-led process being the first test for the council’s attempts at building trust and repairing the extraordinary harm the city aided and abetted in 100 years ago.
“I want them to receive justice in their lifetimes. But when it comes to finding all the descendants, and as we said, how much do we give them, where does that money come from, how long does it, is it receivable? All of that stuff, it’s not easy to figure out, but it’s important to figure out. So, we’re committed, I mean, this is why we’re here,” council member McKee said.