Commemoration of the Tulsa Massacre Has Put Symbolism Over Justice for the VictimsRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, Oklahoma, Tulsa race massacre, Greenwood
Victor Luckerson is the author of Built from the Fire: The Epic Story of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, America’s Black Wall Street.
This year, on the 102nd anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, television crews won’t descend upon Greenwood, the neighborhood where as many as 300 Black people were murdered by a white mob in 1921. Thousands of protesters won’t march through the streets chanting “justice for Greenwood”, as they did following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Joe Biden won’t be on hand to declare Greenwood a symbol of the “American spirit”, as he did on the centennial of the race massacre in 2021.
Despite the pop culture awareness delivered by HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, Greenwood risks going it alone once again. All too often, that’s been the normal state of play in the neighborhood known across the United States as “Black Wall Street”.
When I first arrived in Tulsa in 2018, on the 97th anniversary of the race massacre, Greenwood felt diminished. A lively Black district once filled with regal homes, raucous nightclubs and stately churches had been reduced to a block and half of humble storefronts and a community center in need of refurbishment. What’s worse, much of the land previously occupied by Black people had been replaced by white-controlled enterprises: high-rise apartments, a large college campus for Oklahoma State University, and even a sports stadium. On my first night in Greenwood, more people on the block were trying to catch the opening inning of a minor league baseball game than acknowledging the lives of people who had been slain on the land where that stadium now sits.
Greenwood is full of these kinds of chilling contradictions. Sidewalk plaques commemorating businesses burned down during the massacre now serve as welcome mats for glittering new office buildings. The highway that bisected the neighborhood in 1967, destroying dozens of homes and businesses, has been “beautified” with a mural, attracting Instagram likes rather than material gains for Greenwood’s progeny. The neighborhood’s historical fame has become a kind of albatross slung over Black Tulsans’ necks, as efforts at building concrete pathways toward justice are buried under hollow symbolism.
It’s easy for visitors – and visiting journalists – to become distracted by the symbols, beautiful as some of them are. But after my first trip to the neighborhood, I realized the only way to really understand Greenwood was to become part of it. So I moved to Tulsa a few days after my 30th birthday and rented a house a half-mile walk from the neighborhood. I began excavating Greenwood’s past, analyzing land transactions and lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the race massacre and conducting oral history interviews with people whose families were devastated by the attack. I spoke to families who have called the place home for generations. I also sought to chronicle Greenwood’s present, covering protests, court hearings and debates on the floor of the Oklahoma state legislature, all mechanisms for restoring justice to a community that’s been deprived of it for so long.