July Road Notes, Day 8: Reconciliation

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July 12, 2021, Memphis- Over the years, I’ve been in places which have shaken my conscience and sense of justice: Wounded Knee, Silver Creek, Bosque Redondo, the Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem, Donjon de Jeanne d’Arc, the Concentration Camp at Berga. This morning’s visit to Greenwood District, on Tulsa’s North Side, had a very similar effect.

I began the morning in the Cathedral District, on the south side of Tulsa’s downtown. It is majestic, in a physical sense, with spires abounding-and not so much competing, as complementing one another. I present a few of these:

First United Methodist Church, Tulsa
Holy Family Cathedral, Tulsa
First Presbyterian Church, Tulsa
No spires, but still impressive: Church of Christ, Scientist, Tulsa

One must eat and drink, so I looked a bit, in the Cathedral District, and found this gem:

Foolish Things Coffee House!

Interior of Foolish Things Coffee House

After giving downtown its due, I headed to the sacred area that drew me to Tulsa, in the first place: Greenwood Historic District.

The signature mural of Greenwood District
Greenwood Cultural Center

The whole point of Greenwood’s emergence, in the early Twentieth Century, was to promote the very self-sufficiency, among Black Americans, that capitalists claimed to want. Yet, Oklahoma Governor Robertson, and his minions, including the commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, were complicit in the plan to put an end to “Black Wall Street”. All they needed was a spark. On May 31, 1921, it was reported that a black shoe shine man had brushed up against a white elevator operator, leading to allegations of attempted rape. Further, the founder of the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, seeing a chance to destroy his competition, accused the Mann Brothers, who operated a highly successful grocery store, of fomenting a riot, when a group of black businessmen went to the Courthouse, to seek the shoe shine man’s release. The allegations of D.W. Gurley led to a white mob’s attack on black-owned businesses. These allegations were later shown to be false, and Gurley fled to California. Ironically, the Mann family had come to Greenwood from Sherman, Texas, which later itself endured an assault on black-owned businesses. National Guard General Charles Barrett, as well as the editor-in-chief of the Tulsa Tribune, stoked white anger from behind the scenes. It is not verified, but there is circumstantial evidence that Barrett gave the go-ahead for the use of airplanes, which did fire on blacks who were trying to flee Greenwood.

Scene of Greenwood destruction, June 1, 1921

Dozens of Greenwood residents were killed, and most of the rest were rendered homeless, by the destruction. The bottom line, though, in all this is: Greenwood is coming back. The block which earned the title Black Wall Street is small, but vibrant.

Fountain, on grounds of Greenwood Cultural Center

The Vernon African Methodist Evangelical Church was a key gathering place in Greenwood, and is so again.

Mural, on south wall of Greenwood Open Air gathering space

Wanda J’s Restaurant is also a gathering place for the Greenwood community. It was closed for renovation today, but the sign says it’ll reopen tomorrow.

Mural on berm of overpass, Greenwood District

After walking around Greenwood District, I paused to watch several children who had climbed up the overpass berm, and were now helping each other down, flip-flops and all, under their father’s watchful eyes. When the kids had descended, I noted this mural, of jazz musicians.

Tulsa, and Greenwood, are still here and the city is making amends. Reparations for the families of the victims are actually being discussed. Reconciliation Park, and Street, are set aside, to remind everyone that, when one group prospers, all may prosper.