In 1921, a thriving community disintegrated to streets lined with gray ash as the Tulsa Race Riot burned its way through the city.
Now, almost 90 years later, one company is working to bring attention to the scar left behind and rebuild the once flourishing district, formerly known as "Black Wall Street", one business at a time.
"It's an open wound that still is impacting our community and it's still impacting north Tulsa," said Melanie Patterson, Tulsa Race Riot activist who serves on the board for The Center for Racial Justice. "If Tulsa would face this in a powerful way, it could be a tool for the rest of the nation concerning race relations."
To help heal that wound, Patterson and co-creator Deborah Perry recently founded The Red Bird Project, a company that sells merchandise to teach people about the history of the violence in 1921 and to spark growth in the Greenwood District.
While serving on the board for the Center for Racial Justice, Perry helped to initiate contact with the legal team that took the Tulsa Race Riot reparations case to court. Now, Perry and Patterson, who later joined the board, are putting aside the legal paperwork and turning toward stacks of screen-printed shirts to foster healing and rebuild a piece of history, Patterson said.
Shirts have been available at the Greenwood Cultural Center and on the company's website for the past two months. But after holding a launch party in August to showcase the shirts, the duo has spent the first days of September busy dropping off merchandise at a number of local boutiques. The company is also working with Spexton Jewelry to custom design Red Bird Project pieces for the fall season. Local artists will also partner with the company to create other T-shirt and apparel designs in the coming months, Perry said.
Mechelle Brown, onsite program coordinator for the Greenwood Cultural Center said she was pleasantly surprised by the company's goals.
"We had been saying for a long time that there was no other organization out there doing what we do," she said. "Now, they are also bringing attention to this part of Tulsa's history while emphasizing the healing aspect."
With each product sold, 25 percent of proceeds are being saved for a $10,000 scholarship to spark economic growth in the Greenwood District and north Tulsa. The company will give the scholarship to a company with the best business plan to build in north Tulsa.
"That thriving entrepreneurship and that energy in that community was lost," Perry said. "Some of it was rebuilt, but much of it was lost. You can't have a whole, healthy community with part of it dragging behind."
And although it might seem like a daunting task, Patterson said she believes the community and creativity once seen in north Tulsa can be restored.
"We want to help ignite that entrepreneurial spirit that existed on Black Wall Street before the Race Riot," she said.
Brown said a focus on investing in small businesses, especially minority-owned businesses, could help initiate growth in north Tulsa and inspire business owners to relocate to the area. With that growth, more changes could domino in the area.
"If we want to address education and crime, all that can be influenced by the jobs and work opportunities people have there," she said.
Patterson and Perry are hoping the merchandise will bring recognition to not only north Tulsa, but also a piece of south Tulsa.
Another 5 percent of merchandise sells are going toward securing and restoring a cemetery where many believe Tulsa Race Riot victims were buried. The rows of graves, often called the Abraham Lincoln Cemetery, lie on land near the Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens cemetery and were identified as one of the probable areas where race riot victims were buried in the Tulsa Race Riot Commission report. With these funds from apparel sells, The Red Bird Project is partnering with the Center for Racial Justice to restore the area from years of overgrowth and to stop further development into the gravesites, Perry said.
"You see a lot of graves now, but there's going to be even more once that is cleared out," Patterson said.
This cemetery is especially meaningful to the company, she said. The man who told Patterson and Perry about the area was investigating the area and was startled by a flock of cardinals.
"He shared that with an elder in the community," Patterson said. "And she said, 'You saw a red bird? A red bird is an omen saying 'don't forget us.' So from then on, we saw a cardinal ... as a powerful symbol to keep us moving forward."
As the company continues to trek forward with shirts being delivered throughout the city, they hope to see Tulsans refocus on a piece of the past that is often forgotten, Patterson said.
"The north side is related to being unsafe and a whole separate part of Tulsa, but it's not," she said. "It's a huge part of our history that's been left out. That part belongs to all of us."
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