Tulsa: from affluence to agony

My first job outside of Wisconsin was at the now-defunct Tulsa Tribune in Oklahoma, which seems like a lifetime ago and marked the start of my two job-hopping years.

I left Tulsa after three months – long story – but retain a few strong memories. Never had I seen little oil drills in the yards of suburbanites. And never had I seen a city where white and black neighborhoods seemed so alarmingly separated.

Three decades would pass before I returned to Tulsa, for a travel writers conference, and some icons in the “Oil Capital of the World” certainly had not changed.

Still glistening heavenward was the 200-foot-tall glass and steel Prayer Tower at Oral Roberts University, but new – to me – was a 60-foot-tall and 30-ton bronze sculpture of praying hands.

Looming at the fairgrounds was the Golden Driller, a 76-foot-tall statue of steel and concrete, an official state monument. Downtown were enough Art Deco buildings to fill a walking tour, and that includes the 1929 Boston Avenue Methodist Church, a National Historic Landmark.

A mile north was the 35-block Greenwood District, historic because of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that city forefathers unsuccessfully tried to erase from history.

The area, known as Black Wall Street, was our continent’s most affluent African American neighborhood. It was obliterated within 48 hours after an alleged interaction between a white woman and unidentified black man in an elevator.

As accounts became exaggerated, looting and violence by white Tulsans in Greenwood escalated, leaving hundreds dead, thousands homeless and nearly all Greenwood businesses destroyed. Accounts describe overhead bombings too, and the dead reportedly were buried in mass graves whose locations remain unknown.

No one was held responsible for the crimes. Written records of the devastation were hidden from public view. That includes coverage in the newspaper which would eventually hire me. History textbooks ignored the event, which meant it wasn’t mentioned in schools.

“Where could blacks find justice? The rich and powerful were members of the Ku Klux Klan,” said Jocelyn Lee Payne, during my 2014 visit. She is executive director of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation in Tulsa.

The first public apology to Greenwood’s families would not come until 1996, one year after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people. Calling it the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history did not sit well with those who knew better in Tulsa.

“The story begins in 1907 when the state Legislature decided to keep the races separate,” Payne said. “Everything beyond the point of employment was very separate, so black and white communities grew, each with its wealth and poverty.”

Poor whites tended to resent black families who were doing well, she said. “Lynchings happened, and they were almost recreational,” Payne explained.

Today, a park and memorials acknowledge the carnage and promise to improve race relations. The neighborhood rebuilt itself, without government assistance, and Greenwood Cultural Center opened as a keeper of the history. greenwoodculturalcenter.com

But the story doesn’t end there. Human Rights Watch, a global monitor of human rights abuses, makes a case for reparations.

“No one has ever been held responsible for these crimes, the impacts of which black Tulsans still feel today,” the organization observes at hrw.org. “Efforts to secure justice in the courts have failed due to the statute of limitations.

“Ongoing racial segregation, discriminatory policies and structural racism have left black Tulsans, particularly those living in North Tulsa, with a lower quality of life and fewer opportunities.”

Tulsa Race Riot Commission recommendations, Human Rights Watch notes, were made to the state and city almost 20 years ago but “are not yet fully implemented.”

The Oklahoma Education Department, the group adds, will make the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre a part of its curriculum in schools for the first time this autumn.

Also in the neighborhood: Woody Guthrie Center, an immersion into the music, lyrics, life and values of the folk singer.

Born in a small Oklahoma town south of Tulsa, Guthrie’s works included “This Land is Your Land,” written as a protest response to “God Bless America.” On display are the handwritten lyrics.

“A voice of the common man,” said Deanna McCloud, the center’s executive director, to sum up the musician’s cultural significance.

The center, in a former paper warehouse, reminds us of the social justice edginess in Guthrie’s songs. In archives are 10,000-plus pages of material he created: music, lyrics, art, short stories, concert flyers, songs for children.

That’s in addition to his musical instruments, an interactive map and music kiosks for playing his “Dust Bowl ballads” and other tunes. woodyguthriecenter.org