After more than 86 years of broken lives, shattered dreams and civic neglect, a fitting monument will soon begin to be erected on a portion of the city ground laid waste by the most deadly race riot in the history of the United States.
Construction of the John Hope Franklin Memorial of Reconciliation, a three-acre park in the heart of the Greenwood District just northeast of downtown and near the epicenter of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, is expected to begin in spring or summer 2008.
"It's time for us to move on--it's time to reconcile the ills of our past. This memorial is what we need to get past it and understand it," said Reuben Gant, president and CEO of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, and a prime mover in the ongoing efforts to turn the concept of the memorial into reality.
"It is important that we recognize our past and we own up to events that have occurred and move forward from that point," adds Julius Pegues, chairman of the memorial's design committee.
As a teenager, Pegues worked alongside his uncles Japhe Clinton "J.C." Latimer and William Shakespeare "W.S." Latimer to rebuild Mt. Zion Baptist Church and other structures in the aftermath of the Race Riot.
Initially, the Tulsa Race Riot memorial will include two outdoor monuments: the "Tower of Reconciliation" depicting African Americans' broader history, and a three-piece sculpture in "Hope Plaza" focusing specifically on the Tulsa Race Riot.
Longer-term plans for the memorial, though, include eventual construction of a John Hope Franklin Memorial Museum, as well as B.C. Franklin Square: a larger area of hoped-for retail, residential and tourist development centered on the memorial.
If the aspirations of Gant and others come to fruition, the project could be a new beginning for the historic Greenwood District, as well as the closing of a long, dark chapter in the history of the community and of Tulsa--a chapter in which the atrocities of that infamous night have typically been ignored, swept under the rug of history.
Clearing the Air
"It's just something that wasn't talked about, and it wasn't recorded in any annals of history," Gant said of the Riot.
That is, until 1997 when Tulsa's state Rep. Don Ross and state Sen. Maxine Horner, whose districts include Greenwood, passed a resolution calling for the creation of an 11-member commission to study the riot by tracking down and interviewing survivors, gathering other relevant information and documentation, and developing a historical record of the terrible event.
The results of the commission's labor were published in their final report in February 2001, which included an overview history by Dr. John Hope Franklin and Scott Ellsworth.
In 1982, Ellsworth authored "Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921," which has since been regarded as the standard documentary history of the riot.
The report also included a narrative history of the riot by Ellsworth, as well as numerous related topical studies, like the role of airplanes in the riot, confirmed deaths, investigation of possible mass grave locations, property loss and assessments of the legal culpability of state and local governments.
The commission also made recommendations, such as payment of reparations to the survivors or to their descendents, creation of a scholarship fund for students affected by the Riot, and establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the Greenwood District.
They also recommended a Race Riot memorial be constructed in the Greenwood District.
Heeding that recommendation, the Legislature allotted $5 million in 2002 for the memorial's construction in the Greenwood District, between Elgin and Detroit Avenues, just south of the Martin Luther King Expressway.
The plan was that appropriations for the Memorial were to be disbursed annually to the Oklahoma Historical Society's Race Riot Memorial Committee in $1 million increments, but budget troubles and changes in leadership in the state Legislature have since frustrated those plans.
Gant serves as the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce's representative on that committee.
Instead of the full million, Gant said $750,000 was appropriated one year, $670,000 the next, with only $3.7 million disbursed thus far.
Seeing that other priorities had diverted attention away from funding the project, Gant said he made an effort in 2005 to appeal to lawmakers and remind them of their obligation when he gave a presentation to "key leaders" in the state Legislature, showing them what the memorial would look like and what it would do for the community and state.
"When we started getting some resistance, we felt it necessary to start to lobby the Legislature for the completed appropriations," he told UTW.
Gant said he received what he thought was a positive response, but hasn't seen any results to confirm that impression.
"We haven't received an appropriation for the past two years," he said.
Gant said he also applied for funds through the Oklahoma Centennial Commission, but to no avail, since the project wouldn't have been completed within the time required to qualify as a "centennial project."
"We've been working on this for five years now. It would be complete if the state would give us just one more increment," said Pegues.
More recently, he told UTW that, when he was serving on the Tulsa Airport Improvement Trust when Ross, Horner and then-Mayor Susan Savage asked him to get involved in the memorial-building process as a "citizens' representative," he was reluctant "because the state has a history of falling through on its promises."
Now that he is involved, though, Pegues said, "I'm going to stick it through until we get this done."
Gant apparently feels the same.
"I'm not going to cry over spilled milk," he said.
"The state will still live up to their promise," he added.
Gant said he and members of the Oklahoma Historical Society are still actively lobbying in the Legislature for those funds, but have also sought alternative sources for funding as well, with varying degrees of success.
For instance, he said the Tulsa Development Authority has agreed to divert the $405,000 purchase price of the three-acre plot of land back into the development of the memorial.
That still falls short of the promised and expected $5 million, though.
The committee is currently requesting bids from contractors to turn the plot of land already purchased into the memorial that's been conceptualized, but Gant said they're going to make-do with existing funds.
"With the money we have, we'll just scale back on some cosmetic, exterior things," said Gant. "We're looking at what we can do without, without jeopardizing the spirit of the memorial--can we do it without having a bathroom? Without certain pieces of landscaping?"
He said construction on the project could begin as soon as six months after bid proposals start coming in.
Phase I will include the two aforementioned monuments.
The 30-foot-high "Tower of Reconciliation" monument has already been constructed, but sits in a warehouse awaiting its display in the central courtyard of the park.
It was created by Denver, Colo.-based sculptor Ed Dwight who, along with the international renown he's earned for his artistic depictions of African American history, also happens to be the first African American astronaut.
"It's fabulous. He did a fantastic job," said Pegues.
Dwight's work is called the "Tower of Reconciliation," Gant explained, because its aim is to acknowledge the pain caused in the past by racial division and remember it so as not to repeat it.
The Tower isn't just about the Race Riot, he said, but depicts it in the context of African Americans' broader history, including their migration to Oklahoma as a hoped for "Promised Land" of all-black communities, as well as numerous "events of civil tragedies."
"The significance of the memorial is that it's not just about the Race Riot, but it depicts an era in American history when lynchings and riots were a normal part of life. It just so happens that the worst one happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma," said Gant.
Indeed, Walter F. White, an official with the NAACP who visited Tulsa during the immediate aftermath of the Riot, called the circumstances leading up to it "typical of conditions in many towns and cities of America, north and south."
"Corrupt and inefficient rule in municipal affairs, the total lack of understanding between white and colored citizens, and the growth of racial prejudice, festered and nurtured for economic gain--all these exist to a greater or lesser degree in many American cities. Because Tulsa failed to realize how serious a situation was being bred by these causes, she had to pay the penalty," White wrote in the June 11, 1921 edition of the New York Evening Post.
More recently, Gant said, "It's not unlike any other tragedy that's occurred in American history--it's man's inhumanity to man, and we can't hide from that. It happened. It's part of our history."
That history is depicted in pictorial form on the Tower of Reconciliation, beginning at the base. As the representation winds upward and around the Tower, it goes through African Americans' enslavement by whites and by the Five Civilized Tribes, the Trail of Tears, blacks' migration and settlement in Oklahoma after the Civil War, the foundations of Greenwood, the Race Riot, the Civil Rights Movement, and various other events all the way up to the present as the display reaches the pinnacle.
"At the top of the piece, there are no discernible faces, and these figures are reaching down and helping other cultures and ethnic groups up," Gant said, describing it as a symbol of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all members of the human race.
That history will also be depicted in storyboards with text on plaques on the wall encircling the Tower.
The other display, also constructed and currently stored in a warehouse, will focus solely on the events of the Race Riot.
Hope Plaza is a 20-foot-tall, three-part piece depicting actual people from the Riot, whose images were captured in photographs taken at the time.
The three sides of it are entitled "Hostility," "Humiliation" and "Hope," respectively.
"Hostility" depicts a man with a gun slung over his shoulder in the beginning moments of the Riot, which encapsulates the climate of mutual distrust and hatred that led up to the ghastly event, and the bloodshed that ensued once it began.
What Really Happened
Horribly simplified, It would be easy to say, "It all started when 19-year-old African American shoe shine parlor worker Dick Rowland stepped into the Drexel Building elevator on May 30, 1921 . . . ," but that would vastly oversimplify the events, attitudes and causes leading to the infamous Tulsa Race Riot.
At that time, Tulsa was a barely-contained powder keg of racial tension and, if the rape accusation and attempted lynching of Rowland hadn't done so, another spark was bound to set off the explosion of violence that decimated downtown's Greenwood District.
A federal report from 2005, the Final Reconnaissance Survey report on the Race Riot by the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service, provides a cold summation: "At the time, the vast majority of white Tulsans possessed virtually no direct knowledge of the African American community, thus making whites susceptible not only to racial stereotypes and deeply ingrained prejudices, but also to rumor, innuendo, and, as events would soon prove, what was printed in the city's white newspapers."
Adding fuel to the fire and fanning the flames was a very aggressive Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma. Indeed, in Tulsa many of the movers and shakers in the city were either high-ranking members or had risen to influence with the support of those who were.
So, when the May 31st issue of the Tulsa Tribune ran a front-page story about Rowland's attempted rape of 17-year-old white elevator operator Sarah Page while he was on his way to the "colored" washroom on the top floor of the Drexel Building--reporting the allegations against him as so much fact--it likely never occurred to white readers that an actual trial might be in order to determine his guilt or innocence. As far as they were concerned, they already "knew" the verdict.
They also "knew" that, despite their presumed superiority over them, the blacks living in the Greenwood District were doing pretty well for themselves.
The southern end of Greenwood Ave. was renowned as the "Black Wall Street" for its characteristic entrepreneurial spirit and its numerous thriving businesses that inspired a sense of pride and community in the district's residents.
"In its prime the Greenwood commercial district rivaled the finest African American business districts in the United States, holding its own with Chicago's State Street and Memphis' Beale Street," reads the National Park Service report.
That affluence and community spirit gave the residents of Greenwood a sense of personal and collective dignity--a dignity that apparently threatened the white Tulsans on the other side of the Frisco railroad tracks, who couldn't reconcile what they saw with the prejudices they'd so long cherished.
"Although racial segregation appeared to be gaining ground throughout Oklahoma in 1921, more than a few white Tulsans feared the opposite was true during the months preceding the race riot," the Park Service report reads.
"Many were especially incensed when black Tulsans disregarded, or challenged, Jim Crow laws and practices. Others were both enraged at, and jealous of, the material success of some of Greenwood's leading citizens--feelings that were undoubtedly exacerbated by the sharp drop in the price of crude oil and the subsequent layoffs in the oil fields," it continues.
Many of those leading Greenwood citizens had, only a few years earlier, fought as bravely and honorably as any white man in the First World War, only to return to be treated as second or third-class citizens by the country they'd bled to defend.
They were also on high alert by the time Rowland was incarcerated in the Tulsa County Courthouse.
Since statehood, there had been 27 African Americans lynched in Oklahoma, the latest occurring in Tulsa only nine months earlier. Unless they intervened, they had no reason to believe Rowland wouldn't be the 28th.
Their fears were confirmed before the sun went down that evening.
Outraged at the apparent aggression of an "uppity negro" against an innocent white teenager, hundreds of whites amassed outside the courthouse before three of them entered the building at around 8pm to demand Rowland be handed over.
The authorities turned them away, but by then Rowland's neighbors in the Greenwood District had heard news of the mob gathered to demand the young man's blood.
About an hour later, a group of about 25 armed black men organized and drove to the courthouse to offer their assistance in protecting Rowland, should the mob storm the building.
The county authorities assured them that they had the situation well in hand, but the mob of indignant whites didn't take kindly to the idea of black men with the means (and, it can be safely presumed, the moral authority) to stand up to them, so the unarmed members of the growing mob went home to get their own weapons.
By 9:30pm, the mob had grown to almost 2,000, most of whom were by now armed.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, blacks were gathering outside the offices of the African American-run and read Tulsa Star newspaper to monitor the situation by means of small groups who drove back and forth to the courthouse, both to see what was happening and to show the whites that they wouldn't sit idly by and let Rowland fall under their perverse "justice."
A rumor soon circulated that the whites were overrunning the courthouse, so a group of about 75 armed black men returned to offer their assistance to the authorities.
Once again their offer was declined, so once again they began to return to their neighborhood, but not before a member of the white mob tried to forcibly disarm one of them--one who happened to be a veteran of the recently concluded World War.
A shot was fired through the course of the scuffle--a shot that would prove the first of many fired over the next 14 hours.
With that single shot, the floodgates of barely-contained hatred and aggression burst open.
The mob opened fire, and the Greenwood contingent fired back.
With whites on one side of the volley and blacks on the other, red flowed at the feet of each as the bullets felled at least 20 people from among both groups.
Vastly outnumbered, the African Americans retreated toward Greenwood after a few seconds of gunfire.
As the white mob pursued with guns blazing, the conflict escalated in brutality and perversity over the next several hours.
The numbers grew of whites who were involved in what was, by then, the first moments of the Tulsa Race Riot.
About 500 men and boys, many of whom had been members of the would-be lynch mob, were sworn in as "special deputies" at police headquarters.
Police, "special deputies" and citizens then raided gun stores, pawnshops and hardware stores for weapons and ammunition and then gunned down African Americans on sight as they invaded Greenwood to quell what they called a "negro uprising."
A series of bloody skirmishes ensued throughout the night and the next morning.
"House by house, block by block, the wall of destruction moved northward. As the whites moved north, they set fire to virtually every building in the African American community," the Park Service report recounts.
By the time the last shots were fired shortly after noon the next day, hundreds lay dead and the Greenwood District lay in smoldering ruins after thousands of white Tulsans, some clad in their relatively new World War I uniforms--as if they were once again fighting for their country, were joined by police and National Guard units from Tulsa and Oklahoma City in infiltrating and destroying the thriving African American community.
While whites had superior numbers, innumerable small arms, high-powered rifles, machine guns, and even six airplanes in the arsenal they unleashed, the blacks had only their personal weapons and their small numbers. They fought to defend their homes, families and businesses, turning the recently completed Mt. Zion Baptist Church into the "black Alamo" where many of them made their last stand, and they ultimately fell before the hordes of marauding whites.
The second image of the Hope Plaza monument--"Humiliation"--depicts a black man with his arms in the air in surrender as he's taken to an interment camp after the Riot.
Martial law was declared the next morning, and "state troops" (members of the Oklahoma City-based National Guard unit) began to disarm the roving white men and send them back to their homes, but, while white crowds looked on and cheered, they arrested those blacks who had survived and hadn't fled with their families into the countryside or city outskirts, placing them in internment camps under armed guard.
When the violence had subsided, many of those interned at the camps were pressed into service for the clean-up and grave digging efforts.
The "official" death toll by the Department of Health's Bureau of Vital Statistics was 26 blacks and 10 whites, but the individual and mass graves told a different story entirely.
Maurice Willows, who directed the Red Cross relief operations, submitted a report that as many as 300 people, the majority African American, may have been killed, and hundreds more seriously injured.
Also, the entire African American district had been turned into an ashen and bloodied wasteland overnight.
The Red Cross reported 1,256 houses were burned, 215 looted but not burned, and 9,000 people were left homeless.
The Tulsa Real Estate Exchange estimated almost $1.5 million worth of damages, a third of which was in the business district.
In today's dollars, that would be $14.6 million.
In the days and weeks that followed, the national news media commented on the incident with disgust.
"The bloody scenes at Tulsa, Oklahoma are hardly conceivable as happening in American civilization in the present day," read the Philadelphia Bulletin.
"An Oklahoma Disgrace" was the Kentucky State Journal's characterization.
"Tulsa Horror" was the Kansas City Journal's.
"Tulsa has become a name of shame upon America," read The Christian Recorder.
There was little if any contrition on the part of Tulsa's white news media, though (and the African American news media had literally gone up in flames).
"Acres of ashes lie smoldering in what but yesterday was 'Niggertown,'" reported the Tulsa Tribune.
As long as insult was being added to injury, the city's leaders gave their best efforts to assuring "Niggertown" wouldn't be rebuilt.
Within a few days, they passed a city ordinance expanding the official fire limits to include portions of the Greenwood District, which required structures be built at least two stories high and be made of fireproof material, rendering reconstruction prohibitively expensive.
More than 1,000 Greenwood residents were forced to spend the winter living in tents as a result.
For the Future
Finally, "Hope" depicts a man holding a black baby, rescued from the fires of Greenwood's decimation.
While the image is a reproduction of an actual photograph taken at the time, the young life that was saved serves as a fitting symbol for the community of Greenwood itself.
The citizens of Greenwood challenged the ordinance preventing them from rebuilding, taking the fight all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
B.C. "Buck" Franklin, who owned a law practice in the Greenwood District up until the Riot, represented them the aggrieved. He won their case when the court declared the ordinance unconstitutional.
In another bit of ironic good news, Page refused to press charges against Rowland, and he went free--as "free" as any Greenwood resident could be under the circumstances, anyway.
Franklin came to be regarded as a local hero for having championed the cause of his fellow Greenwood residents and enabling them to rebuild, but his renown would eventually be eclipsed by that of his son, John Hope Franklin, who was six years old at the time of the Riot.
After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School, the younger Franklin went on to become a widely known and respected historian and scholar for his studies of African American history, including the Riot of his childhood, and became a James B. Duke Professor Emeritus at Duke University.
He is a member of the 1988 Tulsa Hall of Fame and was designated an "Oklahoma Treasure" by the state of Oklahoma.
Apart from the works of Franklin and a handful of others, though, the atrocity that befell the Greenwood District in 1921 was given little attention or recognition in the intervening years.
"Many of Tulsa's whites, and particularly its white business and political leaders, soon concluded that the riot was something best forgotten and swept beneath history's carpet . . . " recounts the report by the National Park Service.
Sociologists, historians, lawmakers and philosophers could debate the reasons ad infinitum--whether it was shame or disdainful apathy, or some combination thereof, but it would be about another eight decades and a national Civil Rights Movement before the powers that be would begin to fully reckon with the horror that went on that day.
Gant and the rest of the memorial committee are hoping that reckoning includes more funding for their efforts.
Eventually, depending on what funding materializes, he said Phase II of the project will include the John Hope Franklin Memorial Museum.
Things might be looking up in that regard, though. As a result of the National Park Service's reconnaissance survey, the memorial and museum might be designated a National Park by the agency.
Gant noted that the National Park Service's preliminary study called the Race Riot an event "of supreme significance in American history."
If it's so designated by the agency, it will mean more exposure for the Race Riot Memorial, turning it into a national tourist designation, and possible federal funding, Gant said.
The Tulsa City Council recently unanimously approved a resolution supporting the designation, and Oklahoma's Congressman John Sullivan is sponsoring a bill that would direct the National Park Service to conduct further studies to determine what the site's affiliation should be with the agency.
Gant said he's hopeful and rather confident that the memorial will receive the same designation as the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, which would mean federal funding and support, but local control and operation.
Only In America
He also said the memorial is part of a broader plan for mixed-use development for the Greenwood District.
According to an economic impact study conducted last year by Oklahoma State University, the memorial, along with a walking tour of sites where significant events of the Riot took place, would attract 38,000 non-local visitors per year.
As a tourist destination and as part of the larger mixed-use community development plan, it would have an annual impact of $22 million for the entire city, Gant said.
Beyond its benefit as a tourist destination and economic engine to potentially and finally revitalize the community that once thrived and was then destroyed, Gant and Pegues said the Race Riot Memorial would also help to heal old wounds and put ghosts to rest as a place for survivors and their descendents to reflect on what happened, and what the event means to us today.
"It's important for the younger generation to know the history that happened here--it's important to tell them a complete story and reconcile the differences of our past," he said.
"Presently, there's no reason for any finger-pointing, because no one who was responsible is alive today, but I think it's time that we recognize those individuals that suffered great loss at that time," said Pegues. "In the larger scheme, it's not about the Riot itself. It's bigger than that. It's all about people reconciling their differences."
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