The way Michael Reed sees it, Tulsa's Greenwood district -- which for decades was the heart of the city's black community -- has a story that is well known to many people around the nation, even the world.
But it remains largely a secret here, he said. That's why he and several other Greenwood supporters are in the early stages of mounting an effort to get what remains of the once-thriving district on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as have it rezoned as a historic preservation district within the city.
Reed said he approached state Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, with the idea several years ago, but it wasn't until he joined forces with the Greenwood Business District recently that the proposal generated any momentum. The group is now working with city officials to lay the groundwork for earning both national and local historic status for the district. Reed said Amanda DeCort, the city's preservation planning administrator, told him the city recently issued a request for proposals for firms interested in compiling archival and archaeological information to help tell Greenwood's story.
While most of the district's buildings were destroyed in the race riot of 1921, Reed there are still many structures in Greenwood that date from the immediate aftermath of that event, when much of the area was rebuilt.
A historic resources survey compiled in 2009 by preservation consultant Cathy Ambler and Rosin Preservation LLC indicates that Greenwood was home to 108 business establishments in 1921 just before the riot. Despite the near-total losses the district suffered in the riot, by 1922, the survey shows, Greenwood was once again home to 83 business establishments. Its numbers of professionals, skilled craft persons and service workers also approached pre-riot levels, according to the survey.
"The new buildings in Greenwood were similar in size, style and materials as the pre-riot originals," the survey's authors write. "Many even followed the footprints of burned out buildings."
The district quickly resumed its status as a thriving business and entertainment center, serving as home to nearly 20,000 black Americans by World War II, according to the survey. At that time, Greenwood had 242 black-owned and --operated businesses, it states.
Courtesy Tulsa City County Library
But desegregation, the construction of the Inner Dispersal Loop and urban renewal wreaked havoc on the district beginning in the 1960s, leaving only one block of the original business district along Greenwood Avenue between Archer Street and the IDL still in existence these days.
Additionally, the surviving buildings have been extensively renovated, which renders their eligibility for membership on the National Register in question, Reed acknowledged.
"We're trying to find a way to get around the architectural design regulations to be designated as a historic district," he said.
Supporters of the effort have a couple of options in that regard, he said, including the possibility of having Greenwood declared a battlefield, given its status as the site of the race riot. The other option is to have it declared a culturally significant site.
"Right now, both (options) are still open," he said. "We're just seeing what the best approach would be to clear all the hurdles to get the (historic) nomination."
There is little question in Reed's mind that Greenwood deserves both the national and local historic designations.
"Greenwood has a remarkable story that the world is aware of," he said, though that story largely has been ignored in Tulsa, perhaps because people are embarrassed about what took place there during the riot.
Having the district officially recognized as a historic site would help trigger an economic rebirth there, he believes.
"It's a tool, a mechanism we're using to regain economic stability for the area, as well as a branding tool," he said. "It's one of the pieces of the puzzle in bringing economic development and stability back to the Greenwood area."
If Greenwood were to be rezoned as a city historic preservation district, it would be the first commercial area to earn that designation. The city currently has five historic preservation districts, but all are residential neighborhoods.
Reed said he recognized the fact that those national and local historic preservation designations often come with their own set of regulations that can place limitations on development, and he said those who want to see the district become a bustling commercial center again are certainly aware of that.
"Those are some of the questions I have before Amanda (DeCort)," he said, noting that the effort is still in its early stages, and those issues will need to be resolved before things move forward. "That is a concern of mine."
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