TULSA, Oklahoma (Tulsa World) — The Tulsa World recently talked to 10 Tulsans who, each in their own way, have committed to telling the story of Greenwood and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre while helping raise awareness of its too-long-ignored history.
50 years ago, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre was a taboo subject when Tulsan Ed Wheeler set out to write an article ‘to find out what happened.’ He had no idea the threats and resistance he would face just for trying.
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Who are they and what motivates them? What are their hopes for the centennial? Meet them here:
Program director at the Greenwood Cultural Center
It was while working as a nursing aide to an older Tulsan that Mechelle Brown’s mother first became aware that the city had a dark chapter in its past.
“She had moved here from Arizona and didn’t know anything about Tulsa’s history,” Brown said. “Until this elderly white man she was caring for began to ramble on in his old age.”
The man’s references to “fires, shooting, killing and the smoke” made Brown’s mother curious. So she took her questions to her Tulsa in-laws.
“They told her, ‘We don’t talk about that around here — and don’t go asking anybody about it,’” Brown said.
A child at the time, the late 1970s, she still remembers overhearing that conversation.
“It stuck with me,” she said.
After growing up during that era of silence, when out of fear Black Tulsans didn’t bring up the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Brown has plenty to say on the subject today.
In fact, as a representative of the Greenwood Cultural Center, where she serves as program director and tour guide, leading tours of historic Greenwood, she’s been talking about it for the last 25 years.
“I actually refer to myself as a historical storyteller,” Brown said.
Starting at the center in 1996 as an office assistant, she learned firsthand from historian Eddie Faye Gates. Gates was giving tours at the time, and Brown got to accompany her, including once as she took civil rights icon Rosa Parks around.
The questions visitors ask have not changed, Brown said. For one, they want to know how the once-thriving Black community came to be, considering the times in which its residents were living. Then they want to know what happened after it was rebuilt — “why we don’t have Black Wall Street today.”
Something that has changed over the years, though, is the story Brown tells.
“Our knowledge has definitely evolved with new information, new photographs, new oral histories. We’re able to tell a more accurate — a more complete — story now.”
The city’s ongoing mass graves investigation — Brown serves on a subcommittee of that effort — has prompted more people to come forward with family stories, she said.
“It’s been nearly 100 years, but there’s still so much we can learn.”
Brown hopes young Blacks in Tulsa, especially, are paying attention.
“For role models they often look to athletes and musicians and artists, but we want them to know that there are people, possibly in their own bloodline, who grew up in this community that they should honor and respect and look up to.”
From business owners and attorneys and doctors to electricians and plumbers, Greenwood was home to a strong, independent people who “had a sense of pride and community spirit,” Brown said.
“That’s the part of the story that gives me a joy and that I want to make sure our children know,” she said.
Brown has no plans to stop telling that story. And with all the visitors expected during the centennial, she’s recruiting more docents to help.
For Tulsans and non-Tulsans alike, “I hope we all feel empowered and motivated by Greenwood and its resilience and strength and courage,” she said.
Rev. Robert Turner
Lead pastor at Vernon AME Church
The idea of reparations for slavery had always been consistent with the Rev. Robert Turner’s vision of America.
“When bad things happen in this country, we’re supposed to follow that up with good things to compensate for the bad,” he said.
But it wasn’t until he was studying law at the University of Alabama that Turner learned about other possible applications of the same idea.
“My professor was working on a (reparations) case out of Tulsa” related to the 1921 Race Massacre, he said. “He knew I was an advocate for reparations. He brought it up to show me that reparations work might be a direction I could go as a lawyer.”
Only one problem: By that point, Turner’s heart had begun to lean more toward ministry than law. Soon, he’d leave law school to pursue that calling.
What he had no way of knowing, Turner said, was that “by going into ministry, God would directly put me in a place where I could fight for reparations.”
And, of all places, it would be in the very city his professor had mentioned.
After pastoring several churches in Alabama, his home state, Turner moved to Tulsa in 2017, taking over as lead pastor of historic Vernon AME Church, the church most identified with the massacre.
In his four years since arriving, Turner has become an advocate for massacre survivors and their descendants. He’s injected his voice into the reparations conversation, as well, including taking up his megaphone to lead a regular weekly call for reparations in front of City Hall.
Turner was instrumental in getting the city to launch its ongoing mass graves investigation, and he’s been a vocal member of the graves committee.
He hopes the upcoming centennial will serve to honor the “faith and resilience” of the Greenwood residents who rebuilt. At the same time, the world needs to know the massacre has never been properly investigated nor justice rendered, Turner said.
“And until that happens,” he added, “Greenwood remains first and foremost a crime scene.”
Director of special collections at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library
As a senior history major at Oklahoma State University, Marc Carlson was having trouble coming up with a topic for a term paper.
“It was supposed to be about something that most people had never heard of,” he said. “And so my wife suggested the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.”
“I was not familiar with it. But she’d learned about it as a student at Memorial (High School).”
Working at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library at the time, 1989, Carlson decided to start his research on the subject there.
But he immediately ran into a problem: All the massacre-related newspaper articles from 1921 were missing.
“They had been razored out of the periodicals,” Carlson said.
Whoever was behind it, he added, “I suspect wanted to make it much harder to study the topic.”
Carlson forged ahead anyway. Using interlibrary loans, he was able to acquire the missing articles. And after completing his paper, he donated them to McFarlin.
That, essentially, is how the library’s Race Massacre archive got its start, Carlson said.
Today, more than 30 years later, that archive has grown impressively. And it’s due largely to the ongoing efforts of Carlson, who later became special collections director.
“As I’ve done research over the years, I’ve been adding to it, growing it,” he said.
Carlson has put special focus on massacre-related photos and just recently made an exciting discovery about one of the more than 200 in the collection.
He believes he now knows the identity of the man in a widely circulated image of a white rioter in a cap, chewing a cigar and toting two shotguns: Fred Barker of the infamous Barker gang.
The gang had Tulsa-area ties, and Carlson said he’d “suspected that they were probably involved. But I hadn’t found any proof. Then I ran across his mugshot. I’m 95% certain.”
“They were in town, and they would’ve been all over” an event like the massacre, he said.
The discovery is one more piece of the larger story, of which a little more is learned with every passing year. Carlson and TU are grateful to have played a part in that.
“The people of Greenwood — their story deserves to be told,” he said. “I have the greatest respect for them and what they were able to achieve, both before and after the massacre.”
“My hope for the future,” Carlson added, “is that this doesn’t get forgotten again.”
Author, speaker, education chairman of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission
Before writing four books on the subject, Hannibal Johnson had to learn about it for himself.
“Growing up in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I knew nothing of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” said the Tulsa historian and attorney.
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Even after moving to Tulsa in 1984, fresh out of law school, it would be a few more years before he heard or learned anything.
Johnson’s first efforts to write about the massacre came in the 1990s as a guest editorialist for the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Eagle, a Black-owned newspaper that traces its origins to the year after the massacre.
What he began to realize as he dug deeper, he said, was that the massacre was just “one chapter in a grander narrative.”
And it was that bigger story — of Greenwood’s founders and leading citizens and the “indomitable spirit” they showed — that he felt compelled to share.
Today, no one has written and spoken more widely on the history of Greenwood and the 1921 massacre than Johnson, who is also education chairman of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
His latest book debuted recently: “Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with its Historical Racial Trauma.”
As more people around the world come to know the story because of the centennial, Johnson hopes the message they take away is that “our shared humanity is paramount.”
“So much turns on our ability to recognize the personhood, value and dignity of every other person in this world,” he said. “If and when we do that, our challenges around peaceable co-existence will diminish exponentially.”
Chairwoman of the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission, member of the committee overseeing the city’s search for mass graves
The beloved great aunt who used to babysit her.
For many years, that was the primary image Kristi Williams had of her Tulsa relative Jamie Edwards.
But there was so much more to her late aunt’s life. And as Williams learned the details — especially those relating to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — her admiration for her only grew.
“We would hear the stories (about Edwards surviving the massacre), but we just didn’t know what that was all about,” said Williams, who moved from Philadelphia to Tulsa in the fifth grade.
At the time the massacre broke out, her aunt, a Greenwood resident, was with a date at the Dreamland Theater. She would end up fleeing to Claremore and didn’t return to Tulsa for several years.
Williams began learning the larger story surrounding the massacre in the 1990s, when the state’s 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission was established and the topic began to gain momentum.
“I started researching and learning and reading everything I could,” Williams said.
What spurred her to activism, she added, was when massacre survivors lost their case for reparations in 2003.
In the years since, she’s continued to advocate for reparations while taking on other issues related to Tulsa’s troubled racial past.
That included helping lead the effort to change the name of Brady Street after it became better known that early-day prominent Tulsan Tate Brady had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Currently, Williams chairs the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission and is a member of the committee overseeing the city’s search for mass graves.
Williams hopes African Americans everywhere will come to feel a connection to the Greenwood story.
“I tell people Greenwood knew me before I knew Greenwood,” she said. “I think that Greenwood belongs to every Black person in the world. It was made up of people who came from everywhere.
“Oklahoma was a promised land — we came here because we wanted to be free of lynchings, to just have the safety, to build our families and communities.
“Every Black person should come here and put their feet on this soil and feel that spirit of community.”
Chairman of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and Reconciliation Park
Julius Pegues could’ve said goodbye to Tulsa for good.
Within four years of enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was the first Black player on the basketball team, the Tulsa native had earned a degree in mechanical engineering. From there, joining the Air Force, he trained as a meteorologist.
But with options that could’ve taken him anywhere, Pegues still chose Tulsa.
“I came back to my hometown because I loved it,” said Pegues, 85.
Loved it, he added, in spite of what he knew about it.
A Tulsa native and 1953 graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, Pegues learned about the 1921 massacre as a child from the adults in his life, including some who experienced it directly.
Two of Pegues’ uncles had built Mount Zion Baptist Church, which was destroyed by the fire. His coach Seymour Williams was also an eyewitness.
The massacre was even discussed at home, said Pegues, one of nine siblings: “While other people didn’t talk about it, in my family we talked about it.”
But “we had to be on our P’s and Q’s wherever we were in Tulsa and not say anything around the wrong people.”
Pegues is thankful that he’s lived to see a day when the events of 1921 can be discussed openly. Today, he does that as chairman of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation and Reconciliation Park, which serves in part as a memorial to massacre victims.
Pegues said he’s looking ahead to the centennial after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. He received good news in early April: His latest scans showed no cancer.
“God is good all the time,” he said. “All my friends kept me buoyed up. Love transcends everything.”
Pegues is confident that that’s true even of racism.
“Tulsa has made significant progress,” he said. “Now, we have a long way to go, but we have made significant progress in improving race relations and opportunities.”
State senator, Chairman of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission
As a career firefighter, state Sen. Kevin Matthews knows well the kind of destruction flames can wreak.
But a fire that consumes 35 square blocks, reducing to ashes the heart of whole community? That’s hard for even him to picture.
Harder still, he said, is accepting what sparked and then fanned it: prejudice and hate.
Matthews, who retired as Tulsa Fire Department administrative chief before running for state office, said one of the things that he takes personally about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is how government agencies that were supposed to be there for Black Tulsans were not.
“We weren’t protected by the police,” he said. “The Fire Department was held back by the local officials at that time. It disappoints me that the government would support this kind of tragedy.”
Matthews, chairman of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, was well into adulthood before he even heard about the massacre.
A Tulsa native who’s always lived on the city’s predominantly Black north side, he was in his 30s, he said, when he first learned about it from a documentary.
“It was 1994, and an uncle of mine gave me this VHS tape. It had Tulsa Race Riot written on it. And he said, ‘You need to look at this.’”
As the images of smoke filled his television screen, “I couldn’t believe it,” Matthews said. “I thought, ‘How could I not know about this?’”
One of Matthews’ goals today is to make sure no one will ever ask that question again.
As chairman of the centennial commission, he’s excited about progress on the Greenwood Rising history center, which will be dedicated during the centennial, then open to the public in June.
“I can get emotional about these things, but we need to be intentional,” he said. “So I’m focusing on those things that we can do, and there’s a lot more that needs to happen. Telling the story is just the foundation.”
Author of “The Victory of Greenwood”
Before writing his book “The Victory of Greenwood,” Carlos Moreno wasn’t sure he was the right person for the task.
“I didn’t grow up in Tulsa. I’m not Black — I’m Mexican on both sides of my family,” said Moreno, who hails from Santa Clara, California.
“So I really struggled with whether I was anyone who had anything to say about Greenwood.”
A graphic designer by trade, he first heard about Greenwood and the Tulsa Race Massacre in the late 1990s when he moved from Silicon Valley to Tulsa.
Looking for work, he took on some projects for Greenwood clients. It was through relationships that he made, including community elders, that he began to learn about the history in “bits and pieces,” he said.
“The story just stuck with me,” Moreno said, adding that what turned his growing interest into a passion was when he designed an Oklahoma Eagle special issue about the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission report.
He began collecting “books, articles, documentaries, anything and everything I could get my hands on about Greenwood.”
But it wasn’t until more recently — inspired by the interracial mission of his church, All Souls Unitarian — that “the idea started gelling more about how I could contribute to this conversation.”
The result was the book, which is being published through All Souls and will be available online and in local bookstores in time for the centennial.
The work is Moreno’s attempt to help readers go beyond the massacre, focusing on the pivotal figures who rebuilt the community.
“Often we look at Greenwood as a subject of pity, and that’s all it ever was or is or will be,” he said. “This horrible thing happened, but it’s not the only thing that defines Greenwood.”
Centennial Commission Project Manager
Attending a historically Black institution — especially one with ties to the oldest African American-run college in the nation — helped enlarge Phil Armstrong’s perspective.
“They passed on things that we did not get in our general history books in public school,” said the Ohio native, who went to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
It even included some Oklahoma history. As a sophomore in 1991, in fact, Armstrong spent an entire semester studying the unique story of African Americans in Oklahoma, which once boasted the most all-Black towns in the country.
“I got fully immersed,” said Armstrong, who also learned about Greenwood and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Later on, in 1997, Armstrong moved to Tulsa for work. He was in for a surprise.
“Most Tulsans had never heard of this history,” said Armstrong, who now serves as project director of the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.
“I was literally shocked that somebody in Ohio could come here and know more about (Greenwood and the massacre) than most Blacks or whites who were raised here,” he said.
As one of his duties with the commission, Armstrong is supervising a project that promises not only to teach that history better but to reach more people, Tulsans and non-Tulsans included.
Set to open in June, the new Greenwood Rising history center will tell the full story of historic Greenwood, from its origins in the early 1900s to the present day.
When he speaks to groups, Armstrong emphasizes that achieving true racial healing in America will take not just laws and policies but a change of hearts and minds. The museum, he believes, can be a catalyst for that.
“When people leave here, I believe they will be changed and that Tulsa and the Greenwood story will become a model,” he said. “People will go back to their communities and say, ‘Look what they are doing in Tulsa. What if we take some of that and bring that here for our community?’”
Armstrong, who just completed a final review of the center’s exhibit wing, said that as familiar as he is with the project, “it still moves me emotionally just how powerful this history is — not just the horrific nature of the massacre but how incredible this community was to survive and prosper.”
“It is incredible,” he said of the center. “I can’t wait. It’s going to be a powerful, powerful experience.”
Longtime Greenwood advocate
It wasn’t long after Kavin Ross’ family moved in that one of their new neighbors sent them a message.
“We found it the next morning — somebody had set our car on fire,” said Ross, who was 6 when his family became one of the first Black households in their predominantly white Tulsa neighborhood.
“I wondered why someone would do that while we slept,” he said. “That was my first taste of racism.”
Making a more profound impression on him, however, was how his father responded later.
Managing editor of Impact Magazine, which in 1971 published a 50th anniversary article about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, Don Ross sent Kavin and his siblings into their neighborhood bearing copies of the issue.
“He had us go door to door selling copies,” Ross laughed. “It was pretty, pretty bold.”
That landmark article by Tulsan Ed Wheeler — the first time in 50 years anyone had written about the massacre — made an impression on Ross, too.
“I think I was probably one of the only children to know about the massacre,” said the longtime Greenwood advocate. “And it was because of that magazine. I remember it vividly. I don’t think I fully grasped that it was about Tulsa.”
It would be several more years before that fully sank in.
Ross was living in Houston, he said, when he saw the 1993 massacre-related documentary “Goin’ Back to T-Town” and was “mesmerized by the images. And the people — I knew many of them.
“I realized that it was my heritage, too.”
Inspired to move back to Tulsa, Ross has been committed pretty much ever since to helping tell that story.
Currently chairman of the committee overseeing the city’s search for mass graves, Ross is fully invested in preserving and promoting Greenwood history. One of his proudest moments, he said, was having a historical marker erected in Greenwood honoring the legacy of Booker T. Washington High School.
He was also involved with the efforts of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission — co-founded in 1996 by his father, who had gone on to become a state representative. He worked alongside historian Eddie Faye Gates, videoing her interviews with massacre survivors.
Along with Gates, Ross also claimed as an influential friend the late historian John Hope Franklin.
“He gave me a mission. He said to make all Tulsans historians,” Ross said.
Ross hopes the centennial can help take Tulsa a step closer to fully confronting its past.
“I think we can be a jewel for the rest of the world in how we deal with it,” he said. “The world is at our front door, and they are looking at us and asking questions.”
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