Greenwood Rising Links Tulsa’s Tragic History to Today’s Struggles

TULSA, Okla. — How do you best memorialize epochal heroes and happenings? You raise a statue, put up a plaque, right? But history isn’t containable in objects. It’s a slow, leaky, dirty-bomb explosion. An event like the George Floyd murder may look like a sudden flame that’s lit a fuse, but in fact that fuse has been uncoiling, and flaring, and smoldering for generations, and will continue to.

Some of our most interesting new historical monuments seem designed with this dynamic in mind. They take the form of museums: walk-in, multimedia, context-rich spaces. Recent examples include the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, which debuted in 2017, and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Ala., which opened the following year. Here in Tulsa, another museum-as-monument has just been added to the count.

Called Greenwood Rising, it’s devoted to three nested narratives: the long story of racial violence in the United States; the story of a Black community that, for a time, managed to avoid that violence; and the story of what happened when that violence finally descended.

Over two successive days in the late spring of 1921, Tulsa was the scene of one of the largest and deadliest episode of white-on-Black terrorism ever recorded in the United States. After a rumor spread that a Black man had attacked a white woman in the city’s downtown, an armed white mob swarmed into the then-prosperous African American neighborhood of Greenwood and put it to the torch. The entire district — some 35 blocks of residential and commercial property — was leveled. As many as 300 Black Americans were killed, and nearly 10,000 were left homeless.

Then, for almost a century, the massacre dropped off the record. For various reasons — trauma, shame, relocation — people who lived it went silent. Politicians didn’t mention it. Schools didn’t teach it. Only very recently has it returned to view, notably as dramatized in the 2019 HBO series “Watchmen.” And with the 100th anniversary of the attack approaching, Tulsa decided to acknowledge and commemorate it. A 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was formed, with the Greenwood Rising museum as its capstone project.

The work of the New York City-based design firm Local Projects and Selser Schaefer Architects, Greenwood Rising is set in the center of the still existing North Tulsa neighborhood. Although no pre-1921 structures survive the racist pogrom, two shaping landmarks, a short distance from the museum, remain in place: a railroad track that drew a line between white and Black Tulsa, and an elevated highway that was built in the “urban renewal” 1960s and sliced through the then-revived but struggling Greenwood, like a wound.

Although the neighborhood was originally shaped by Jim Crow segregation, its early Black community — which included lawyers, doctors, educators and real estate developers — turned racial exclusion into entrepreneurial gold. By the early 20th century, the district was self-sustainingly wealthy. Booker T. Washington, after an admiring visit, called it “the Negro Wall Street,” and Greenwood reciprocated by naming its main public school for him.

The museum’s opening galleries, labeled “Greenwood Spirit,” pay tribute to these founders with a salon of photographic portraits. And it evokes the daily life of its citizens in a kind of stage-set of a barber shop, with swivel chairs, vintage news clips and three holographic haircutters bantering as they work about undertipping customers, professional hopes and the growing menace of white resentment.

“People just across those tracks hate us for doing better than they do,” says a barber named Jerome. “They will use our success to justify their hate.”

The hatred was real, national, and already longstanding. Its trajectory is mapped out on the walls of a gallery called “Arc of Oppression,” in a timeline composed of damning images and objects: 19th-century slave shackles; a photo of a Black chain gang; another of a lynching; a whip; and a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

(Reverberations lasted for decades: Brady Street, which runs through Tulsa’s present downtown arts district, was named after Wyatt Tate Brady, a Tulsa founder and member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 2013, the City Council, under pressure and in a compromise measure, voted to keep the name but transfer the namesake to Mathew Brady, the Civil War photographer.)

The timeline and the barber shop installation, with its references to daily Greenwood life, provide a context for the museum’s multimedia centerpiece, a filmed re-creation of the 1921 massacre projected on ceiling-high plinths with an audio track adapted from accounts by survivors of the catastrophe.

If Greenwood Rising had been conceived as simply the museum equivalent of a docudrama, or as a memorial to a catastrophe, its mission would probably end here, with a climactic event that, in its centennial year, has gone from all-but-unknown to being the equivalent of late-breaking news sensation, replete with a disaster-scene visit from the United States president. (Mr. Biden toured the district a few days ago, without stopping at the not-quite-finished museum. A dedication ceremony later took place there in the presence of more than 100 descendants of massacre survivors.)

In fact, the evocation of that event comes at roughly a halfway point in the museum. There’s a lot more material to see and read still ahead, in galleries that follow the neighborhood’s history into the present.

What we get first is a kind of resurrection narrative, one about a community that, after unspeakable destruction, physically reconstituted itself, and did so despite roadblocks thrown up in its path. Tulsa city commissioners passed fire ordinances intended to prohibit rebuilding. White-owned insurance companies denied recompense for property lost in what was being called a “Negro uprising.” Appeals by Black Tulsans to the United States government for reparations were denied and went nowhere. (The fight for them continues today.)

Still, the neighborhood did, indeed, rise again, and flourish; a cluster of 1940s shop signs attests to a lively commercial and cultural revival, as does a shout out, in the form of a second portrait gallery, to its charismatic movers and shakers, among them musicians, writers and preachers. (You can find more such material in the local, archive-rich Greenwood Cultural Center, which has made significant loans to Greenwood Rising and is currently exhibiting selections from the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.)

In the 1960s a slow decline began. The reasons were several and complicated. As in the Bronx in the same decade, “urban renewal” targeted Black and immigrant neighborhoods, boxing them in and ripping them apart. Greenwood was one. Simultaneously, the legal ending of segregation weakened the unifying impulse that once helped create a solidly Black-and-proud socio-economic enclave.

In the final gallery, “Journey Toward Reconciliation,” we enter the present, and exchange a familiar image-intensive museum experience for a participatory one. For the most part the images here are texts emblazoned on the walls, beginning with two questions: “How do we dismantle systems of anti-Blackness? How can we come together as a community?”

Lists of further questions address specific themes: educational inequity, criminal justice reform, reparations, and — immediately pertinent to Greenwood in 2021 — gentrification. Together, they’re meant to prompt audience reflection and interaction, to turn the museum into a social space, a meld of public forum, classroom and therapy session.

For visitors habituated to the conventional don’t-talk-don’t-touch museum model or the commemorative monument as a statue or plaque — and there are several such monuments in the nearby John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park — this fluid environment may feel uncomfortable, or negligible. In my view, it’s crucial to defining what both a museum of history and a monument to history can be.

Museums are valuable to the extent they link the past to the present and illuminate, and appraise, both. In Greenwood Rising the links are made overt and we’re urged to ponder them, to recognize that the white-on-Black violence of 1921 is still with us, and that Black disenfranchisement, like racism, remains entrenched. The very presence of this museum in a neighborhood that is still predominantly Black in population, but now only minimally Black-owned, is a reminder of what a struggle the early risings of Greenwood were, and the present one is.

And there is a rising in progress, in this neighborhood, in this city and in this country. You can read it symbolically in the fact that Greenwood Rising exists in the larger context it does, in a deep-red state, and in a city where Donald Trump chose to hold one of his first mass rallies after the coronavirus shuttered most of the country.

Change is happening, nowhere near fast enough, or strong enough, or anything enough, but it’s there, and it’s complicated as hell. We need museums that will explain it, good and bad, now and then, and monuments that will honor it and call it out. Greenwood Rising does some of all of this.

Greenwood Rising

23 North Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa, Okla. The public opening is tentatively scheduled for July 3. Admission is by timed ticket;

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