More people are learning about the triumphs and tragedy of Tulsa’s Greenwood District after the Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center held its grand opening on Wednesday, August 4.
Drawing visitors from across the nation, the new history center captures the entrepreneurial spirit of Black Wall Street’s founders pre-statehood, with rooms dedicated to those pioneering Black businesses, such as: Latimer’s BBQ, Williams Dreamland Theatre, and Stradford Hotel.
A museum-grade facility in the heart of Tulsa’s Greenwood District
Winding walkways take visitors on a tour of the roots of Greenwood as markers tell the story of Oklahoma’s Black history. Juxtaposed next to the gleaming success of Greenwood’s founders, the story of the Massacre doesn’t shy away from the most heinous details from May 31, 1921 and June 1, 1921, when a mob of jealous White men, enraged over their failed attempt to lynch 19-year-old Dick Rowland, burned, bombed and ransacked 35 square blocks of the booming Black community.
As many as 300 Black tulsans were killed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society, and those who remained were held in buildings in the city, unable to leave for months unless a White person checked them out and took responsibility for their future actions.
“Race Riot Commission” report from 2001
Eighty years later, a 2001 report from the State of Oklahoma represented the first full accounting of events.
“People, some of them agents of government, also deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed homes credibly estimated to have numbered 1,256, along with virtually every other structure — including churches, schools, businesses, even a hospital and library — in the Greenwood district,” the report from Oklahoma’s Race Riot Commission stated. Some of the documents arsonists were police officers themselves while other mobsters were sanctioned by the local sheriff.
The report added that local government attempted to take over the land that belonged to the victims and turned down outside aid coming in to support rebuilding. Furthermore, no city, county or state official ever held a single person or entity responsible for the massacre.
The report, which was sponsored by two Black legislators from Tulsa—Oklahoma state Senator Maxine Horner and state Rep. Don Ross—ended with recommendations for repair.
According to a Human Rights Watch report from researcher and Tulsa native Dreisen Heath, “The commission recommended that the state legislature, the Governor, the Tulsa mayor, and the city council take the following actions:
- Make direct payment of reparations to “riot” survivors and descendants;
- Create a scholarship fund available to “students affected by the riot;”
- Establish an economic development enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood district;
- Create a memorial for the riot victims and for the burial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves of riot victims.”
Current steps toward reparations
Amidst a flurry of events recognizing the Centennial anniversary of the Massacre, Tulsa’s City Council officially apologized for its role in the crime and made plans for studying the 2001 report in a non-binding resolution passed in June. More than 20 years after the report was first published, however, none of the proposals for reparations have been acted on by the city, county or State of Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, Tulsa civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons and the Justice For Greenwood team have reignited the fight for reparations when they filed a lawsuit against government entities on behalf of the three last known living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre: Viola “Mother” Fletcher (107), Leslie Benningfield Randle (106) and “Uncle” Hughes Van Ellis (100). The attorney is currently working with Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-04) on a bill that would make it easier for the massacre lawsuit to succeed by providing a “federal cause of action for massacre-related claims”.
The New Black Wall Street History Center, Greenwood Rising, hopes to help spread awareness of the struggle for repair and restitution, according to the facility’s interim director Phil Armstrong.
“Worldwide pressure will come on the City of Tulsa and Oklahoma. ‘You need to be at the table leading the charge to monetary investments and reparations and not following the lead of private citizens. That’s what I think descendants and those in the future can rely upon. This is going to bring worldwide awareness to that report.”
Black Wall Street History Center: “A place to come home to”
Interim Director Armstrong said witnessing the emotions of descendants of the Massacre victims and survivors walking through the new history center affects him the most.
Greenwood Rising hosted a dedication ceremony on June 2, 2021 and hosted tours during a limited preview opening which lasted for a few weeks. 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre descendants were the first to visit the history center after the dedication. Over the weeks that followed North Tulsa residents, Massacre descendants and community groups were prioritized before the history center closed to finalize construction.
When descendants thanked Armstrong for the new facility through tears of pain and joy that their lives and the lives of their loved ones were finally being recognized, Armstrong said he knew they had done it right.
“To have a place to come home to, to look at what was, to be obviously angry about what was destroyed and not passed down to them, but then to also be happy that there is something here to say ‘this place was here. And my family, and my family name will no longer be an erased part of history.’”
Meanwhile, some community members and descendants had called for the money used to construct the history center to go directly to the three last known living survivors and descendants of other victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre as a form of reparations. The Centennial Commission, a state-sanctioned body created in 2016 to plan projects and events around the 100-year anniversary of the Massacre, faced intense public pressure, even from fellow members, to listen to the demands of the Greenwood community rather than making their own decisions for them.
The division caused direct descendants to create their own Black Wall Street Legacy Fest, which organized marches, panels, and other events to honor the last three living survivors as the commission eventually fizzled, with members resigning. The commission eventually disbanded, however questions remain around whether funds earned from the Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center will go back to the community and direct descendants and survivors.
Hidden no more
The Black Wall Street History Center is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. every day except Tuesdays, and the last tour of the day starts at 7 p.m.
Admission is free for the first, and registration is required. To reserve your time online visit: https://www.greenwoodrising.org/visit
Joining the famous Black Wall Street strip of businesses along Greenwood, the Greenwood Cultural Center and Heritage House, the Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center serves as an economic driver to the community and a reminder of the reparative work the city, county and state of Oklahoma have yet to complete.
“All of our work in this building is dedicated to the work that was done on that  commission that no one knows about. Well, we built a place where it can’t be hidden anymore,” Armstrong said.