A complicated framework of barriers has prevented north Tulsa communities from access to infrastructure and land since the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Vanessa Adams-Harris told an audience at the University of Tulsa on Friday evening.
The TU College of Law commemorated the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on Friday evening with a discussion between several alumni of the College’s Buck Colbert Franklin Legal Clinic and Adams-Harris, director of outreach and alliances at the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, about barriers north Tulsa communities still face more than 100 years after the massacre.
Adams-Harris said broken promises from governments have a generational effect because of their occurrence throughout history, beginning with Native American nations.
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“There is no trust because broken promises don’t just start with the massacre,” she said. “Broken promises started with broken treaties with Native peoples. If we begin to draw parallels between something that already happened before and something that happens now, there is no difference.
“When the community hears there is going to be ‘XYZ’ happening and it doesn’t happen, and you say it again and it doesn’t happen, and again and it doesn’t happen, those are continual violent occurrences.” The generational impact is felt and is painful, Adams-Harris said, because Black people are continually asked to come to the table, only to be let down again and again for generations with no resolution. Black people then question whether the government even sees them as worthy of following through with those promises.
The death of Terence Crutcher has a direct tie to the massacre in this sense, Adams-Harris said, because if a Black person is not seen as a “viable human being,” then it doesn’t matter what happens to them.
“Do you (the government) see these people as human beings? Do you see them as worthy of keeping your word? So if they come to the table, the onus is on those people in power; it’s not on those communities who keep trying to come to the table.”
These broken promises, she said, can be just as powerful barriers to north Tulsa communities’ efforts to grow as physical barriers such as the north leg of the Inner Dispersal Loop on Interstate 244.
Turning her attention to those physical barriers, Adams-Harris noted that many buildings that were reconstructed after the massacre were then were torn down and others that were rebuilt sat vacant for generations after the construction of I-244.
“What do you think that does?” she asked. “Say your grandparents survived the massacre, your parents grew up, then, in a viable community. Then they are the ones that watch their community get stripped away bit by bit by broken promises.
“Then, you grow up with parents that have seen this bit-by-bit stripping away, and there’s nothing built there until the 2000s.”
After the renewal of Greenwood was taken away by the I-244 construction, the lots where ONEOK Field, Greenwood Rising and GreenArch Apartments now stand stood vacant for years.
But that wasn’t by choice for north Tulsa community members, Adams-Harris said.
“The community wanted stuff there,” she said. “They had a huge, magnificent plan for the whole area, but it didn’t happen. So there’s a pain that’s continuing in the community for generations.”
The urban renewal that created the infrastructure for the institutions now in Greenwood also removed Black people and their ideas from the equation, which added evidence to the 1921 Greenwood community’s claim that the massacre was all about the land, Adams-Harris said.
The infrastructure that is now in Greenwood south of the interstate subsides and eventually goes away completely the farther north of Interstate 244 you go, she said.
“It’s almost a direct correlation to what the community said in 1921 when they said, ‘This was about a land grab,’” she said. “And so you (the city) don’t have to keep your word about, ‘We’re going to help you.’
“’We got what we needed. We moved you off that land.’”
It takes seeing people on an individual level as human beings to mend these broken promises and build bridges, Adams-Harris said.
“We think because we’ve been given this perspective of ourselves as white, Black, Native, Asian and so on, but all we’re talking about are human beings,” she said. “What I tell children is, ‘These stories are just about human beings that are trying to be with human beings.’”
Featured video: Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in 1921
Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in Tulsa in 1921
In 1921, white mobs invaded Greenwood and burned it down
A growing but divided city had tensions rising. How World War I influenced residents.
Key figures in 1921
Greenwood was defined by freedom and opportunity
An encounter on an elevator and concerns about a lynching
Tulsa Tribune article cited for sparking massacre
Dick Rowland’s life threatened while jailed as crowd gathers outside
Tulsans take up arms and there are issues with special deputies
Fighting begins in Greenwood and the neighborhood is soon overrun
Mobs won’t let firefighters douse the flames
Airplanes flew over Greenwood as it was attacked
National Guard called in, denies report that machine guns were used to kill dozens
Dr. A.C. Jackson was killed as he tried to surrender in his front yard
Death toll remains unknown; search for graves continues today
Black Tulsans were marched through the streets and detained at camps throughout city
Red Cross reports the massive devastation in Greenwood
Key locations in Tulsa during the 1921 Race Massacre
Mount Zion Baptist Church was burned down but, like Greenwood, persevered and rebuilt
Tulsa Race Massacre: Quotes from survivors, officials and others
Tulsa Race Massacre: Was 1921 the first aerial assault on U.S. soil?
“The first time Americans were terrorized by an aerial assault was not Pearl Harbor,” a CBS News story says leading up to coverage this weekend of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
“Scott Pelley reports on a race massacre in which an estimated 300 people, mostly African American men, women and children, were killed, and aircraft were used to drop incendiary devices on a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Greenwood Massacre of 1921 has been largely ignored by history, but Pelley finds a Tulsa community seeking to shed more light on what’s been called the worst race massacre in history,” a preview reads for a “60 Minutes” story airing 6 p.m. Sunday on CBS.
Context for viewers: Six airplanes circled the Greenwood area during the morning hours of June 1.
What they were doing, and why there were so many, has long been a matter of passionate debate. Many people believe they were used to shoot at people on the ground and bomb Greenwood.
Officials said the small craft, generally thought to be two-seat, single-engine Curtis “Jenny” biplanes, were merely keeping track of activities on the ground and relaying the information through written messages dropped in weighted metal cylinders attached to streamers.
To what extent this explanation was initially challenged is unclear, but in October 1921 the Chicago Defender published a story in which it said Greenwood had been bombed under orders of “prominent city officials.”
The story cited a Van B. Hurley, who the newspaper said had given a signed statement to Elisha Scott, a Kansas attorney.
Scott filed dozens of lawsuits on behalf of victims but doesn’t seem to have ever entered the Hurley affidavit into the record. There is no record of a Van B. Hurley living in Tulsa around the time of the massacre or that anyone by that name ever belonged to the Tulsa police force.
But that doesn’t mean the story did not have substance. Many people believed city officials were behind the burning of Greenwood, and the explanation that the squadron of planes was only used for surveillance struck some as suspiciously thin.
Certainly the planes had a great psychological impact on many. For example, Mary Jones Parrish wrote about them in her account, as did prominent attorney B.C. Franklin in his.
The Defender story said the planes dropped “nitroglycerin on buildings, setting them afire.”
But nitroglycerin is an explosive, not an incendiary. It is also highly unstable and dangerous.
That has caused some to speculate that something like Molotov cocktails might have been used, or “turpentine balls” — rags soaked in flammable liquid and wrapped around the head of a stick.
There are several practical reasons why trying to light and throw incendiary devices from an open cockpit airplane of that era would seem a difficult, dangerous and even foolish idea.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t done.
Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in Tulsa in 1921
Tulsa was home to one of the most prosperous African American communities in the country. Businesses flourished along Greenwood Avenue — dubbe…