POSTED ON OCTOBER 17, 2012:
Business Zone & Battleground Site
Tulsa's new race riot historic district
rew Faust is a top notch American historian and the current president of Harvard University. Last year, she chronicled in her book The Republic of Suffering how the Civil War transformed prevailing early 19th century conceptions of death, suffering and the carnage of war, reworking key pieces of the American psyche in route. Tulsa's race riot of 1921 is in many ways a comparable, if wholly local, shaper event. Like the so-called "war of brothers," the Tulsa "events" of May-June 1921 continue to reverberate in Tulsa, actively influencing our planning and transportation initiatives, public education, perceptions of many Tulsans on our north realm, our social and religious lives, the nature of cross-racial engagement here, and prospects for a "normal" economy in Tulsa North.
Historic districts are our society's "machinery" for preserving critical structures, places and events in America. Sometimes, the events/places in question are simply relevant from an architectural or design vantage: Sometimes historic districts are all about catastrophic memorializing episodes -- military or cross racial/tribal/religious battles, terrifying accidents, other monster conflicts -- extremely traumatizing events on a community's timeline that should be highly illuminated, as examples of things that should never happen again or should be really rare (think war).
Since the early '00s, the Tulsa Historic Preservation Commission, the City of Tulsa, our state and local historical societies, the State Historic Preservation Commission and a posse of north Tulsa history buffs and civic activists have been conjuring up district boundaries and a "mission" for something that would look like a Greenwood Business/1921 Riot District.
There is a deeply schizoid character streak that runs through Tulsa's district "project."
How do you, at one go, highlight the dynamic face of a very unusually thriving African-American/early 20th century business enclave with dozens of shops, motels, clothing and accessory stores and other enterprises while doing something else -- something very different. At the same time, the space -- or actually a superset of it -- was the stage for a terrifying "micro war" that broke out on May 31 and ended on June 1, 1921: an event that produced hundreds of deaths and tens of millions of dollars of damages to retail, residential and commercial structures largely owned by Tulsa's stout African-American "maker" community.
Genesis of the "Riot"
The 1917-1921 "post war" period in Tulsa was an extremely convulsive time for oil -- the grand genesis of our town. The entire industry in Oklahoma and elsewhere experienced a huge economic trauma during this period.
"Tulsa, like many other cities in the postwar period, bristled with racial and economic tensions as returning veterans -- both African American and white -- competed for jobs. In Oklahoma, most jobs for unskilled labor were found in agriculture and oil, both in decline by 1921. In Oklahoma, as throughout the South, the tenant system of farming and peonage forced the poor -- African Americans and whites, alike -- into virtual servitude to pay off their debts. ... Oil was the basis of Tulsa's economy and the industry suffered a sharp reduction between 1920 and 1921. In 1920, oil sold at three dollars a barrel but a glut in the market reduced it to only a dollar a barrel by 1921. Some estimated that 60 percent of the Oklahoma oil industry was shut down in the recession. In a town like Tulsa, where so much of the economy -- hotels, rental property, restaurants, retail stores, automobile sales, nearly every source of income -- was dependent on oil and its workers, people feared for their jobs, their homes, and their futures."
--From Tulsa's pending Riot '21 Historic Preservation District application, September 2012
A Xenophobe/Racist Meet Up
Tulsan Lee Roy Chapman has written about an obscure but arguably epic national event that came just before the Tulsa riot of 1921: a "primer" event, attended by, Chapman says, perhaps as many as 40,000 people. This nasty, national-scope event was put together by a cadre of Tulsa business people including -- and he has his name on lots of Tulsa stuff -- Tate Brady. This get-together was a neo-confederate "celebration" with a frankly anti-immigrant, anti-black, xenophobic focus.
In an immersive, well-crafted article in a September 2011 issue of Tulsa's This Land, Chapman jumps back and recreates Tulsa during the 1917 to 1921 period. Chapman fully imagines this little-known epic event that preceded the Tulsa riot of 1921: a giant "Sons of Confederacy" convention. There were reports of a host of nasty entanglements with these conventioneers and native black Tulsans.
The intensity of this controversy still is high, and it has lots of emotional content. Many of the people who are party to the arguments are dedicated preservationists, while another equally fervent cadre features prominent Tulsa black folks.
I attended one of the meetings -- a session that will lead up to a state-level preservation commission meeting Oct. 18 to ratify sending the new district to the federal preservation czar. The August meeting was dominated by a breakout idea put forward by Julius Pegues, a Tulsa aerospace pro/engineer and longtime Tulsa civic leader who is also one of the driving forces behind Tulsa's John Hope Franklin Racial Reconciliation Foundation.
Pegues suggested changing the name/focus of the proposed district to the "Tulsa '21 Race Riot District."
Rarely have I seen a more imaginative on-the-spot suggestion -- one that was quickly accepted by Tulsa's Preservation Commission. There remains a great deal of anxiety about how the boundary process was executed, what it says about the local historic spot designation process and the engagement effort put into thinking through this fateful project.
The way forward on Tulsa's pending '21 District, surely entails getting some righteous, if relatively small, changes to the currently envisioned boundaries (there are several buildings in and around the Greenwood/Archer area that did not make the final district map). But another, arguably at least as important, challenge: finding the conceptual, artistic, technological and funding strategies required to create a truly imaginative district/curatorial program with national, even global significance:
What we need is a physical/virtual combo zone to showcase the world of Greenwood 1917 plus the multifold, arbitrary horror of 1921. We also need a project effort that can contribute to racial reconciliation and a larger awareness of the dangers associated with assaulting entire communities of people and racial hate mongering. And we need a landmark venture that can "bright light" the sometimes lethal consequences of failing to embrace active strategies required to mix things up socially, culturally, racially here in Tulsa and everywhere.
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