black wall street expressway
(KTUL photo)
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black wall street expressway
The I-244 expressway runs directly through the last remaining block of Black Wall Street. (KTUL photo)

GREENWOOD, Okla. — District 4 Tulsa City Councilor Kara Joy McKee says she and a few other councilors are trying to coordinate meetings for public input on what to do with the I-244 bridge that cuts through Greenwood. Mckee and City Council Chairwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper hope to have meetings set by the fall.

City leaders say they are looking for Black Tulsans and descendants especially, to give input on what should happen. This plan comes weeks after the broader resolution that promised to create a subcommittee to discuss a pathway to reparations for survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“So much has been done to Greenwood from destruction to assistance, but all of it can feel paternalistic,” Councilor McKee said. “It’s essential to me that we remember what you do for us, without us, you do to us. So while I have thought it’s an excellent idea to remove this leg of I-244, I want to make sure that the Greenwood community wants that, before we take further action.”

Reparations requires self-determination

McKee was referencing a saying the Chair Councilperson Hall-Harper brought up while explaining the crucial reason community involvement is at the core of all future opportunities for reparations. A key part of reparations in the Black community involves giving a community what they specifically ask for, and not just what you think they want.

“As we talk about real atonement and true reparations, the community has to be involved in those discussions,” Council Chairwoman Hall-Harper said. 

“If we’re to ever truly move forward in a direction of change and ultimate unity, then you have to involve the community, not just more of the power structure determining the future and destiny for our community. That is clearly the legacy of the Black community in Tulsa,” Hall Harper added.

Competing ideas for what to do with expressway

Some ideas for dividing the noisy highway that cuts into Greenwood are closing it off and making it a boulevard, forcing trucks to go around, or burying it all together. Experts recommend a plan for tearing down the I-244 expressway. The urbanist crew’s proposal involves tearing out I-244 and rebuilding the street grid from Kendall Whittier to Gilcrease Museum Road, with the newly available land being transferred to the communities it was taken from to build the highway, likely through a land trust.

“I want to hear as many ideas, suggestions and ideas as possible. We want to look at other communities that have actually addressed this issue, because we do have some examples,” Hall-Harper said. “I don’t think anything is off the table.”

There are some Tulsans who do not want the expressway taken down, but rather a more lucrative alternative that would benefit the community. When people ask for reparations, it’s not just a check they are referring to. Approaches include implementing health, education, housing, rehabilitation and otherprograms to promote equity. 

Councilors not ruling anything out

Councilor McKee and Hall-Harper are open to hearing more suggestions. Their intentions are not to make this an “either or” scenario, but rather a “yes, and” scenario, according to McKee.

“The 2001 race riot commission made numerous recommendations to make amends, stating clearly that reparations would be good public policy,” McKee said. 

“From our standpoint, just one of these options is not enough. I hope that the public does not reject the idea of removing the express way out of fear that it will be all that we do, because that is not the case.” McKee added.

Councilors in contact with U.S. Secretary of Transportation

The main focus is the stretch of highway that divides the community. Funding for anything that comes out of the expressway discussion would be focused only on the expressway because any other ideas would require different funding from elsewhere. Therefore,  suggestions are welcome but may require follow up meetings to be seen through.

“A funding stream for scholarships, direct cash payments, a land trust, all sorts of other things are going to have to come from other funding streams,” McKee said. “It’s a very awkward thing about the government, but it’s true.”

Due to how the government works, the funding will need to come from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Hall-Harper says she is in contact with him. The councilors have sent a letter, and are awaiting his response.

“That land is Greenwood”

“Oklahoma is one of the only states in the nation that requires municipalities to fund operations on sales tax alone,” McKee said. 

“Anytime we’re talking about a capital improvement project,  whether building a highway or road or breaking one down, we’re working with the state.  There is often a tendency to underfund essential projects at the state level. We need the federal government to assist us.” McKee added.

McKee is interested in seeing the change that is implemented after they get community input and federal funding.

“I want to know what we’re going to do with the land where the expressway is before we make that change,” McKee said. “There’s a lot of vague ideas out there, but everyone needs to remember that that land is Greenwood.”

The Black Wall Street Times is a news publication located in Tulsa, Okla. and Atlanta, Ga. At The BWSTimes, we focus on elevating the stories of our beloved Greenwood community, elevating the stories of...