Emma Rodgers said she’s particularly interested in the year 1921. It was the year her mother was born. It was also the year a white mob attacked Tulsa’s Greenwood District, which was known for its affluent Black population. Historians believe the massacre resulted in as many as 300 deaths.
On the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, crowds gathered to commemorate what took place in Greenwood. President Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to visit Tulsa for commemorative events.
But what comes next? The Dallas Morning News asked several Black leaders in Dallas what they think people may have learned in the wake of the centennial. They said they hope the massacre anniversary will bolster efforts to educate people about the history that shaped current inequities, to make amends for violence perpetrated by white Americans and to improve residents’ economic standing.
On May 29, Rodgers, museum curator of the Dallas Civil Rights Museum, traveled to Tulsa on a tour bus with Remembering Black Dallas Inc., a nonprofit that preserves and promotes Dallas-area African American history. Rodgers, who co-owned Black Images Book Bazaar, a groundbreaking bookstore that celebrated the Black experience that closed its doors in 2006, said she believes that heightened awareness of the history of racist violence and racial inequities will have positive outcomes.
“I think people will become more engaged,” Rodgers said. “They’re going to be more vigilant about communicating … about discrepancies they see in their communities.”
Commemorating Tulsa massacre centennial
Some have known about the Tulsa Race Massacre for years. That includes the team at Black Images Book Bazaar, which invited authors, including Jay Jay Wilson, Ron Wallace and Eddie Faye Gates, to Dallas to discuss their books centered around the Greenwood District, once dubbed Black Wall Street, and the 1921 massacre. This year, Rodgers was among 30 people to travel to Tulsa with Remembering Black Dallas to witness the centennial events.
George Keaton Jr., founding director of Remembering Black Dallas, said the group attended a panel that included centenarians Viola Fletcher and her brother Hughes Van Ellis Sr., survivors of the massacre.
But many Americans did not learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre growing up, and the Rev. Robert Turner, an Alabama native who has served as the pastor for the Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greenwood since 2017, said its history was even unfamiliar to many Black residents in Tulsa.
“People didn’t talk about it,” Turner said. “The African American community in Tulsa didn’t know about it, sadly in large part because their parents didn’t want to talk about it with them because it was so traumatic.”
Kimberly Hill, assistant professor of U.S. and African American History at the University of Texas at Dallas, said she doesn’t remember learning about the Tulsa Massacre as a young student but read a textbook in middle school that included photos of lynchings.
“There were other traumatizing racial incidents that we learned about in school and what I have been focused on even before I started doing African American studies was the question of, ‘Why are textbooks including photographs of racially traumatic incidents without warning or without further context or explanation,’” said Hill. “If we had learned about the Tulsa Massacre, then I would have had the same question.”
Racial massacres took place in over 20 U.S. cities from 1919 to 1923, according to the Library of Congress.
W. Marvin Dulaney, deputy director of the African American Museum of Dallas, said, despite the Tulsa Massacre becoming more prevalent in discussions of racist violence outside activist and academic circles in recent years, he’s known about it and other tragedies for many years.
“When I hear other people finally finding out — and I sort of laugh to myself and say, ‘Well they are finding this out? Where have they been?’” he said. “But on the other side, I’m happy that now more people are coming to understand the tragic events in African American history and the power of white supremacy in this society.”
Nevertheless, academics and Black leaders say they can see where spreading the word on the massacre has helped educate many and led to some change.
In 2001, the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 released a report supporting a memorial to recognize massacre victims, compensation for survivors and descendants of victims, and a scholarship fund for students affected by the tragedy.
On Wednesday night, the Tulsa City Council voted to apologize for the 1921 massacre. Turner said the move was a good first step, but more needs to be done to make amends for the tragedy.
The Vernon church is among various plaintiffs involved in a lawsuit against the City of Tulsa seeking compensation for the damage caused by the massacre and its aftermath.
Changa Higgins, a former candidate for Dallas City Council and member of the African Ancestral Society, said the society organized its annual Black Wall Street Memorial March, which took place on May 28. Higgins said it was refreshing to see people gather on a national and international scale to recognize events that he and others have fought to bring to the forefront of public discourse.
“In some ways it was a celebration of Black Tulsa,” Higgins said.
Addressing violence against Black Americans
While the events celebrated Black Tulsans, leaders say remembering the massacre comes with significant lessons. Keaton said it’s important to recognize the violence that took place in last century in Greenwood because of how it echoes police violence that continues to take place today.
“This is all connected; it’s not separate,” he said. “The situation that happened in Tulsa is no different than what’s going on now.”
Dulaney, an Alabama native who grew up in Ohio and moved to Texas in 1981, said his perceptions of the police have changed throughout his lifetime.
“Believe it or not, when I was younger, I wanted to be a police officer,” said Dulaney, who also toured with Remembering Black Dallas. “As I became a teenager, obviously my perspective changed because I saw how they would hassle us.”
Dulaney said as he started studying Black history, he learned about slave codes, laws implemented to restrict the autonomy of enslaved Africans, and saw a connection between them and contemporary practices of law enforcement officials.
Some Dallas-area residents commemorated the centennial by participating in virtual events, including a panel moderated Wednesday by Friendship-West Baptist Church’s the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III. Haynes said before the panel that white perpetrators of violence are too often not held to account.
“When we connect the dots historically, you can’t help but connect what happened 100 years ago in Tulsa with what happened Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C.,” Haynes said.
On May 28, U.S. Senate Republicans largely voted to filibuster a bill that would establish a commission to investigate the Capitol insurrection that took place in the weeks leading up to President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Fighting for economic mobility
The Tulsa Massacre centennial should also remind people that the path ahead for Black communities must include better economic mobility, leaders say.
Financial expert Nancy St. Jacobs, who also served as a panelist at the Friendship-West event, said that discriminatory lending practices have posed significant challenges for Black Americans.
Discrimination when seeking mortgage loans is a major concern for Black and Latino Americans. The Center for Investigative Reporting reported in 2018 that Black and Latino Americans are more likely to be turned away for loans in dozens of U.S. cities.
Lamar Tyler, CEO of Atlanta-based organization Traffic Sales and Profit and a panelist for Wednesday’s event, said that making education and funds more accessible to Black entrepreneurs are among the largest pathways toward economic mobility.
“Entrepreneurship is definitely something that you have to learn about,” Tyler said in an interview before the event.
Amid wide-ranging challenges facing Black Americans, Keaton said people should not place the burden on them to solve racial inequalities in the United States.
“People ask, well, what should be done and could be done for the race issues or the race problems,” he said. “It’s really not the Black people who need to reconcile their feelings. It’s the white community that needs to do that.”
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