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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

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