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GREENWOOD Dist. — On Friday, Oklahoma State Rep. Regina Goodwin announced North Peoria Church of Christ has been awarded a $1.6 million grant from the federal government to conduct a feasibility study on the removal of a stretch of highway that cuts directly through the original Black Wall Street.
Joined by community leaders inside the historic North Tulsa church, Rep. Goodwin (D-Tulsa) thanked God, saying it required “divine intervention” to reach this point.
“It’s not crazy. It’s been done in other cities,” Rep. Goodwin said.
The award comes after President Biden signed his signature Infrastructure Law last year, with a portion of federal funds devoted to helping reconnect communities that were historically divided by transportation infrastructure.
Senior Pastor of North Peoria Church of Christ, Dr. Warren Blakney, said he was excited to be given the opportunity to move forward on an initiative years in the making.
“We’re excited because of what it can do for us here in the city and what it can do specifically for the northside in opening up Greenwood,” Dr. Blakney said.
The final destruction of Black Wall Street: Urban Removal
Urban renewal in the 60s and 70s dealt a final death blow to many thriving Black communities, including Historic Greenwood District. While many assume the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre destroyed Black Wall Street, resilient leaders rebuilt it almost immediately.
The roughly 36 square blocks of homes and businesses thrived for decades after the city deputized a White mob to burn it down. It was the construction of a portion of I-244 cutting directly through the district that resulted in its ultimate decline.
Beating out the city and the state in their own applications, the small church, which itself was forced to relocate from its original spot in the Greenwood District during what some call “Urban Removal”, laid out the process for studying the removal of a one-mile stretch of I-244.
“I’m glad that we were the Goliath and they were the David,” Dr. Blakney said, explaining how the small church was competing with major cities around the nation for the grant.
$1.6 million grant to study removal of one-mile stretch of I-244 highway
Specifically, the idea is to study the removal of I-244 from Highway 75 on the east side to LL Tisdale on the west side. It would free up roughly 30 acres that the group believes would allow hundreds of new homes and businesses to plant their roots. The group also wants to create a land trust that would allow those who were forced to move for less than the value of their properties to regain ownership and an opportunity to benefit.
Once the federal government finalizes the award and guidelines around the study, the organization will hire project managers and other partners to carry out the study.
“The Civil Rights Movement began at Black churches. This church is no different. A good part of our constituency is involved in the community,” Dr. Blakney said.
Cody Brandt is a native Tulsan who has studied highway removal and urban renewal for years. His thesis at Georgetown focused on the stretch of I-244 over Greenwood. Joining community leaders, he pointed to other cities that have undergone similar projects.
Both Syracuse and Rochester, cities of similar size, have conducted the same efforts.
Syracuse is in the final stage of redesigning an outside loop to the interstate, allowing traffic to flow around the city instead of directly through the urban core. Meanwhile, Rochester’s initial highway removal has been so successful, Bryant says, that they’re expanding to remove even more.
“Our vision made sense”
For her part, Rep. Regina Goodwin, whose district encompasses Historic Greenwood, has been fighting for years to open up her community for new homes and businesses without gentrification.
Last year she conducted an interim study at the Oklahoma State Capitol, along with various community meetings with residents and local and state partners.
In August, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to Tulsa to celebrate the expansion of infrastructure in West Tulsa.
Mayor G.T. Bynum made no mention of the elephant in the room, Black Wall Street, and Oklahoma’s Department of Transportation only mentioned the possibility of removing the one-mile stretch of I-244 in 30 years.
Rep. Regina Goodwin, on the other hand, said she’s received vocal support for the study from the highest levels of the federal Transportation Department.
“He saw that our vision made sense,” Rep. Goodwin said.
While the state wants to move at a snail’s pace, if at all, Rep. Goodwin said she’s ready and willing to work with any entity that wants to get this done now.
“We don’t share the same vision as it relates to the one-mile section,” she said. “We know it does not require 30 years.”
The group is waiting for the federal government to finalize the award, but they’re ready to get started immediately with town halls to gather feedback from the community and update North Tulsa on the study’s progress.
“Community is first, and this is the opportunity for church to build cohesive collaboration in the city,” Dr. Blakney said. “We talk about one Tulsa, but yet this is still a divided city. This is an opportunity for all like minds that see the vision of Greenwood’s rebirth.”