The anticipated completion of John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park throughout the next several weeks may not be getting as much attention as the planned opening of nearby ONEOK Field on Thursday, April 8, but it's still an event that carries great significance, according to a highly regarded Michigan historian, author and Tulsa native.
"I think this is crucial for the city," said Scott Ellsworth, now a professor of African American studies at the University of Michigan and author of "Death in a Promised Land," the first comprehensive history of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the event the park is designed to memorialize. "This helps tell us who we are, where we've been and where we're going."
Ellsworth was also one of the lead scholars on the Oklahoma
Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the body charged by the state Legislature in 1997 with compiling an official examination of what transpired in Tulsa from May 31-June 1, 1921. Ellsworth long has been a proponent of shedding more light on those events and discussing the lasting impact they have had on his hometown, something he said Tulsans historically have been reluctant to do.
"It's important to remember the riot really was suppressed for a long time," he said. "It was a big event, one of the biggest events in Oklahoma history. And for years, it was buried. For decades, neither daily newspaper would write about it, and records were stolen and discarded."
Ellsworth recalled the case of a University of Tulsa sociology professor whose job was threatened when she tried to bring up the subject in the 1940s. And as late as the 1970s, he said, researchers were threatened when trying to examine the event, widely regarded as the worst civic disturbance in American history.
"This has been a long time coming," he said. "It's very, very important that we have this public memorial and tangible reminder of what happened. It's an important first step. It's not the last step, but it's a first step."
The park also honors another Tulsa native and highly regarded historian, the late John Hope Franklin, who was the other lead scholar on the race riot commission. A planned center named in his honor will be located at the park someday, focusing on race relations education, scholarship, community outreach and archives. But for now, the center's board of directors is looking forward to the opening of the park on May 1.
Reuben Gant, a member of the center's board of directors and president and CEO of the nearby Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, said the park initially was scheduled to open at the same time as the ballpark located just to the east across Elgin Avenue.
"But the weather has played havoc with us," he said. "Unfortunately for us, all our work is outside."
Cold and wet weather postponed the park's completion, but Gant said he sees no reason it won't be finished by May 1. Some sort of grand opening ceremony will be held, he said, though it hasn't been scheduled yet.
In the meantime, workers have poured all the concrete footings for the park's artwork, part of which is already in place.
"Now we're waiting on the sculptor to send the centerpiece," Gant said last week, adding that another shipment of granite also is expected.
A 16-foot granite structure serves as the entry for the park, containing three larger-than-life bronze sculptures representing actual scenes from the riot. Gant said part of that artwork is already in place, though it will remain covered until everything else is in place. That section of the park will be known as Hope Plaza.
At the center of the park will stand the Tower of Reconciliation, a 25-foot tower depicting the history of the African-American experience from Africa to America and all its accompanying struggles.
The opening of the park in May will come about a month before the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation kicks off a symposium on race relations in America on June 3-5. Gant said the event is expected to attract about 200 participants from around the country, many of them scholars who will present papers on a number of race-related topics.
Ellsworth will be among them. He'll be leading a town hall session on the race riot, and he's anxious to hear what people have to say.
"It's time we started talking about all this -- on both sides of the tracks," he said. "It's difficult, but we need this to happen. For a long time, I've been saying, 'Let's let everybody come and say their piece.'"
Many of the events will take place at the Doubletree Hotel downtown, while others will take place at the Greenwood Cultural Center. Anyone is welcome to attend, Gant said, and there is no registration.
Gant said members of Franklin's family are expected to attend, and organizers are hoping to attract U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia who played a key role in the effort to end segregation in the United States, or Vernon Jordan, a prominent lawyer and one-time adviser to President Bill Clinton who helped lead a successful fight to integrate the University of Georgia.
Ellsworth said he's looking forward to the opening of the park and the symposium. Tulsa's unwillingness to take a hard look at itself in the past has held the city back, he said.
"This is good," he said. "We've got to get the dialog going, and that's where we've been lacking. Fifty years ago, Tulsa was one of the great cities in the country for its size ... but I think we've been divided and fallen a bit behind because of that."
Ellsworth was pleased to note that John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park has been sanctioned by the National Park Service.
"We're beginning a new era in the history of our town," he said. "We've got a lot more work to do. But it's important we involve the National Park Service there; although I think the real monument is that first block of buildings in deep Greenwood. That's a monument to human endurance. There's a great story we can tell there about black entrepreneurship."
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