Samantha Laine Perfas/The Christian Science Monitor
Mechelle Brown gives a tour of the Greenwood Cultural Center, where she serves as program director, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. The center's main exhibit commemorates the race massacre, which took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when a white mob attacked the Black community of Greenwood in north Tulsa.

Tulsa reckons with its racist past. What can America learn? (audio)

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the site of one of the worst incidents of racist violence in U.S. history. Now Tulsa is preparing to commemorate what happened in 1921. In this episode of our new podcast, we ask: How does a city reckon with race and racism in America today?

Black Wall Street: ‘Their Blood Still Speaks’

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On May 31 and June 1, 1921, a white mob – enraged by a rumor that a young Black man had assaulted a white woman – attacked the Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They set fire to the district, looted businesses, killed Black residents, and displaced thousands. 

It was one of the most devastating incidents of racist violence in U.S. history. And it stayed mostly unmentioned for decades.  

Today, nearly 100 years after what is now known as the Tulsa race massacre, the city is finally reckoning with its past. Tulsa is commemorating the centennial by opening a new museum dedicated to the Greenwood community, including the massacre in public school curriculum, and fast-tracking an investigation into the long-missing grave sites of those killed in the massacre. Few, if any, other U.S. cities have tried to come to terms with their racist histories.

But the process is raising difficult questions for Tulsa. Some residents say such a horrific event needs to be brought forward and understood. Others, however, ask why the memory needs to be relived at all. Why commemorate it? Can’t the city just move on?

In this episode of “Rethinking the News,” we look at how Tulsa’s struggle echoes America’s, as the country wrestles with race and racism ahead of a deeply divisive election.

Episode transcript

Samantha Laine Perfas: Welcome to “Rethinking the News,” a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor. Here, we create space for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, to give you the information you need to come to your own conclusions.

I’m Samantha Laine Perfas, one of the producers, and today, we’re kicking off a three-part miniseries out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1921, Tulsa was the site of one of the worst incidents of racist violence in U.S. history. White residents, enraged by a rumor that a Black shoeshiner had assaulted a white woman, attacked the Black neighborhood of Greenwood. They set fire to homes and businesses and displaced thousands of Black residents. Estimates of the number of people killed – a majority of whom were Black – range from 36 to 300

Tulsa is preparing for the 100-year commemoration of the massacre. I went there with my colleague Jessica Mendoza to find out how Black Tulsans are wrestling with their history even as we face a national reckoning around race and racism, and an incredibly divisive election. Over the next three episodes, we’ll be asking: What can Tulsa, especially Black Tulsa, tell us about our country today? Today’s episode, hosted by Jess, will paint a picture of Tulsa as it is and as it was – in all its complexity. 


Just a warning. This episode contains descriptions of violence, including gun violence and trauma inflicted on Black Americans. Please be advised.


Mechelle Brown: This is 1917 Greenwood. These are all Black-owned businesses lining the streets of the Greenwood District, 1917.

Jessica Mendoza: This is Mechelle Brown. She’s the program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center, which collects and exhibits local Black history in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the end of September, Mechelle took my colleague Samantha and me on a tour of the center. It’s a brick building right on Greenwood Avenue, on the north side of the city.  

Mechelle: This exhibit itself is about 15 years old. These were survivors who were living during that time that were willing and able to share something that they remembered about the massacre or something that their parents shared with them. 

Jess: The massacre. Here in Tulsa, that means only one thing: the 24 hours or so on May 31st and June 1st, 1921, when a white mob destroyed what was then a thriving Black business district in Greenwood – 35 of its 40 square blocks were burned down. During our tour, Mechelle took us into a room with framed pictures of survivors on the walls. Underneath each was a short first-person account from the massacre. We asked Mechelle if there was a person that she felt most connected to among them. 

Mechelle: Definitely Ernestine Gibbs, because – she was born in 1902, she was here during the massacre – she was the first woman that I can remember really coming forward and telling her story. 

Jess:  Mechelle read what Ms. Gibbs had shared. 

Mechelle: Ernestine Gibbs. “A family friend came from a hotel on Greenwood where he worked and knocked on our door. He was so scared he could not sit still nor lie down. He just paced up and down the floor talking about the mess going on downtown and on Greenwood. When daylight came, Black people were moving down the train tracks like ants. We joined the fleeing people. During this fleeing frenzy, we made it to Golden Gate near 36th Street North. We had to run from there because someone warned us that whites were shooting down Blacks who were fleeing along the railroad tracks. Some of them were shot by whites firing from airplanes. On June 1st, 1921, we were found by the guards and taken to the fairgrounds. A white man who mother knew came and took us home. Going back to Greenwood was like entering a war zone. Everything was gone. People were moaning and weeping when they looked at where their homes and businesses once stood. I’ll never forget it. No, not ever.”


Jess: Ernestine Gibbs died in 2003. Most of the survivors are gone now. Today, in Tulsa, bringing up the massacre calls up a lot of emotions. Some say the horrific reality needs to be brought forward. But to others, the massacre was a hundred years ago. Why, they ask, should we re-live something so horrible? Why commemorate it? Can’t we just… move on? 

These are questions we’re also asking as a country – about slavery, about racism, about parts of our history we’re not so proud to remember. They’re a big part of why we have the Black Lives Matter movement, why we’re seeing protests against police violence, and why there’s conflict on the streets, online, and at dinner tables all across America today. And in a very real way, those questions are also what’s driving some of us to see our politics the way we do, and even to vote for who we do.  

So we wanted to hear from Tulsans about these big questions. We wanted to know if there was anything that we, as a nation, can learn from a city that’s actually trying to answer them right now – as the 100-year commemoration of the massacre approaches.

We start with what we know about what happened in 1921. 

Scott Ellsworth: You know, the origins have to do with an incident in an elevator where a young African American shoe shiner stepped on the foot, from what we can tell, of a young white female elevator operator. She screamed. He ran out of the building. We don’t really know what happens.

Jess:  This is Scott Ellsworth, native Tulsan and historian. He’s been researching and writing about this since the 1980s. Starting in the late ‘90s, he led a commission to gather facts about what was then called the Tulsa Race Riot. 

Scott: This was a time of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. There was very much a very militant white racism during the era. There were many of these so-called race riots that happened nationwide, where there’d be some sort of an incident and then mobs of whites would invade Black communities.

Jess: In Tulsa, it’s never been exactly clear what happened between Dick Rowland, the shoeshiner, and Sarah Page, the elevator operator. 

Scott: But the next day on May 31st, 1921, the Tulsa Tribune, the city’s afternoon white daily newspaper, published this scandalous front page article about how Roland had basically stalked this young elevator operator and clearly tried to rape her. There was also an editorial in that paper that has since been destroyed. And it was titled, “To Lynch a Negro Tonight.” After the Tribune hits the streets, there’s lynch talk within a half an hour.

Jess: Dick Rowland is arrested. Angry white residents start to show up at the county courthouse, where he’s been detained. In Greenwood, Black residents – many of them World War I veterans – decide they need to go over there too, to protect Mr. Rowland. When they get there, the sheriff tells them, ‘We won’t let anything happen to him. We’ve got this under control.’ 

Scott: The white mob just became enraged by this. They then – those who were not armed – went and got guns from their homes, brought them back to the courthouse. Another group tried to break into the National Guard armory to get the rifles there.

Jess: The mob grows. A rumor makes its way to Greenwood that this time, the white residents would be storming the jail. So another group of Black veterans, also armed, returns to the courthouse.

Samantha Laine Perfas/The Christian Science Monitor
A mural just off Greenwood Avenue celebrates the history and legacy of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.

Mechelle: And I envision this group approaching a sea of white men who are angry and upset, who are ready to take matters into their own hands. 

Jess: That’s Mechelle Brown again, from the Greenwood Cultural Center. 

Mechelle: And I thought for a moment, How could they continue to go forward to protect this one man, knowing that they were putting their own lives at risk? And yet they proceeded. And a white man approached a Black man with a gun. The gun goes off. And at that point, there’s an all-out battle in front of the courthouse. 

Jess: It’s a retreating battle – the Black veterans, outnumbered, make their way back to Greenwood. Then, according to Scott Ellsworth:

Scott: The Tulsa police, which had been absent the entire time, show up. They start deputizing members of the lynch mob, giving them special deputy badges and ribbons, and start handing out guns to members of the mobs.

Jess: These armed white residents do drive-bys across Greenwood, shooting at will. Black residents fight back, Scott says – valiantly. But it’s late. It’s dark. And by about 2 a.m., the fighting seems to have petered out. Except, white residents on the other side of town are actually organizing. They’re arming themselves, planning an assault on the Greenwood neighborhood. 

Scott: We don’t know how big this crowd of white rioters were. Maybe as many as 2,000, 3,000, 5,000. But shortly after dawn, an unusual siren blew, like a factory whistle, which was apparently a sign for the whites to invade the community. The siren goes off and the invasion of Greenwood begins. 

Jess: Now at the time, Greenwood was a booming Black business district. People called it Black Wall Street. There were all kinds of businesses –

Hannibal Johnson: – beauty salons, barber shops, theaters, pool halls, dance halls, restaurants, grocery stores, haberdasheries, furriers, and pharmacies. 

Jess: That’s Hannibal Johnson. He’s a Tulsa-based attorney who’s also written extensively about the Greenwood District. 

Hannibal: Service providers like doctors and lawyers and dentists, all concentrated in a single community. It was a sort of a unified community by and for Black folks.

Jess: That wealth and success, achieved in the middle of an era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, made the massacre all the more devastating. Here’s Scott again.

Scott: Whites would break into stores and homes, loot them, and then set them on fire. African Americans who resisted were killed. Others were taken away. And so by the end of the day on June 1st, when the state troops from Oklahoma City finally arrived to restore order, Greenwood’s been destroyed. It’s been burnt to the ground. Greenwood is gone. 


Jess: When we talk about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre today, that’s usually about where the story ends. But actually, the massacre is just the beginning. 

Hannibal: The better part of the story, actually, is post massacre. It’s the indomitable human spirit that was exhibited by the Black folks in Tulsa, many of whom vowed, ‘We shall not be moved’ – even after this violent onslaught.

Jess: That’s Hannibal Johnson again. He says Black Tulsans managed to rebuild pretty quickly despite the devastation. At the time of the massacre, the Greenwood District was home to about 10,000 Black Americans. Many were held in internment camps for days while their homes and businesses burned. And yet –

Mechelle: The Greenwood District would be rebuilt. And we saw the return of the grand hotels and restaurants and movie theaters and all of the things that they worked so hard to build.

Hannibal: The Black business community in Tulsa really peaked in the early to mid-1940s. There were well over 200 documented Black-owned and -operated businesses in the community at that time.

Jess: But life still was not easy for Black Tulsans. Segregation persisted for decades. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, so-called urban renewal projects ravaged the Greenwood community in a different way. The one we heard about the most was the construction of I-244 – later renamed the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Expressway. The city built it right through the Greenwood District, splitting the neighborhood in half.  

And the race massacre, when it was talked about at all, was called a riot, blamed on Black residents. 

Hannibal: The Tulsa City Commission, the Tulsa Chamber, the Tulsa mayor – all those folks characterized what happened in 1921 as a ‘Negro uprising.’ They really painted a portrait of these uppity Black folks not knowing their proper place. 

Jess: Black Tulsans who lost everything never saw insurance or restitution of any kind. And in the years that followed, very few residents – white or Black – openly talked about the massacre. The reckoning over both the event and its consequences was delayed for years. 

But that reckoning is starting.


Sam: Hi everyone, Samantha Laine Perfas again, one of the producers on this show. Because of listeners like you, we’re able to devote time to a podcast that goes deep into today’s issues. If you enjoy Rethinking the News, the best way to make sure we produce more work like this is to subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor. If you already do, thank you! But if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that at csmonitor.com/subscribe. We really appreciate your support. Again, that’s csmonitor.com/subscribe. Thanks for listening.


Jess: 2021 marks a hundred years since the massacre, and Tulsa is busy making sure the event will be properly commemorated. There’s a Centennial Commission, chaired by a state senator and made up of other local notables – including some of our guests. 

The commission’s goal is to make sure Tulsa, and America, know the history of Black Wall Street and the massacre. They’re building a multimillion-dollar museum in the Greenwood District called Greenwood Rising. They’re funding a big art project that’ll feature local artists. They’ve helped write a lesson plan on the massacre that the Oklahoma Department of Education has adopted

And all this is important because Tulsa was one of many cities where racist violence took place during the Jim Crow era. But very few other places have chosen to commemorate those events in such an explicit way, or attempted to find out what really happened. 

Which is why the project that’s really made headlines this year is the search for the burial sites. 

[Audio clip from CBS This Morning: “Scientists in Oklahoma are one step closer to finding possible evidence of mass graves linked to one of the worst incidents of racial violence in our country…”

[Audio clip from KJRH-TV Tulsa: “Archeologists say there could be a grave site right here on Oaklawn Cemetery based on anomalies they found on the ground…”]

For decades, historians have been trying to find out where the victims of the 1921 race massacre were buried. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which released an extensive report back in 2001, found three sites in Tulsa that had the potential to be mass graves: Newblock Park, the cemetery formerly named after Booker T. Washington, and Oaklawn Cemetery. The report drew from witness statements and surviving documents, and on anomalies in the ground that the research team found using radar.

But after the report was published … nothing. Years later, a Republican city council member named G.T. Bynum would learn about the possible mass graves at Oaklawn through a documentary. As he watches the film –

G.T. Bynum: I have the mistaken thought, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. Surely we would have heard about it if there were mass graves. There’s no way that a city in the middle of the United States of America, people are going about their lives every day, driving back and forth and walking back and forth right by potential mass graves, and nobody ever bothered to see if they were there.’ And in fact, that turned out to be exactly what had been happening in Tulsa.

Jess: Mr. Bynum was elected mayor in 2016. In 2018, the city started a review of possible grave sites. And in 2020, about a month before Mayor Bynum was reelected to a second term, the graves investigation team broke ground for the first time. We spoke with Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield, the lead forensic anthropologist on the graves team. She also happens to be the grandniece of massacre survivors, though she herself didn’t grow up in Tulsa. 

Phoebe Stubblefield: I have a personal investment, but I don’t pretend that it’s the same personal investment as someone who grew up there. My stake in it is to deliver my part of the story involving what actually happened to these individuals.

Jess: Mainly, that means trying to identify sites where the human remains have features consistent with the kind of attacks that took place during the massacre. 

Phoebe: Specifically gunshot trauma –

Jess: – since the record is clear that a lot of shooting took place –

Phoebe: – breakage to bone –

Jess: – people were running, there was a lot of panic –

Phoebe: – and/or burning, because it was a rampage. And so I expect to find remains that demonstrate those features.

Jess: It’s, in many ways, disturbing work, made more complicated by the long years between the event and today. But Dr. Stubblefield says it’s worth it. 

Phoebe: We can add to unity by saying, Hey, we’re not going to keep trying to pretend this didn’t happen and we’re not going to fail to contribute in a way that creates a stronger record of what happened. I’m hoping that we’re creating a shared narrative that Tulsans will take with them, and I am here to provide this story even when it’s hard to hear. 

Jess: The graves investigation is the biggest step in 20 years toward figuring out who died, and how, in the 1921 race massacre. Here’s Mayor Bynum again.

Mayor Bynum: When I announced that we were going to do this, the recurring thing I heard from people in all parts of the city was: ‘It’s about time. We want to know if they’re there or not. So thank you for doing this.’ I’ve had some people, as you always do, who say that it’s a waste of money and that we ought to just move on, that, you know, we’re spending money on this when we’re not fixing enough potholes, stuff like that. But for the most part, people have been very supportive.

Jess: If anything, the mayor, who is white, says the challenge is winning the confidence of Tulsa’s Black community.

Mayor Bynum: The city has earned zero trust with African Americans and Black Tulsans by waiting 98 years to start this investigation. And so there’s a lot of, I think, earned distrust of the process overall, regardless of the good intent of those of us who are trying to do it today.


Jess: Some Tulsans, like Mechelle Brown at the Greenwood Cultural Center, are willing to give credit where it’s due. 

Mechelle: You have to give our mayor respect for the things that he’s done right. He courageously stood and said, we are going to reopen the mass graves investigation. Many people spoke out against him on that. And he listened to the African American community and how important it was to them. 

And we’ve hit a lot of roadblocks along the way, a lot of snags. The African-American community has not always agreed with the mayor’s office or the scientific team that has been formed. But I think that we can acknowledge what he has done right.

Jess: Still, there’s a lot of pain surrounding the search for the graves. During our tour, Mechelle read another account, by a survivor named Leroy Leon Hatcher, who was nine days old when the massacre took place. Like many others, Mr. Hatcher’s mother fled Greenwood. 

Mechelle: ‘My dad told her to run to join the crowd. He said he would be coming right behind us, but he never did. My mother never forgot that day as long as she lived. She said she ran nine miles with me, a nine day old baby, in her arms, dodging bullets that were falling near her. After the riot was over, my mother looked and looked for my father, but she never found him. His loss haunted her for the rest of her life, and it ruined my life, too. I believe my father was killed in that riot. I just wish I knew where he was buried. I would just like to pay my respects to him.’

So that’s what we think about when we think about the mass grave sites and the people that are buried somewhere and not being able to pay respect to them, to them being buried in open graves with no headstones, no recognition. We just want some closure for their descendants.

Jess: The investigating team’s first excavation took place in July. The second dig – in a different part of Oaklawn Cemetery – started in mid-October. After about four days of digging, the team reported finding at least 12 unmarked wooden coffins at the site. They haven’t been connected to the massacre yet. But it’s a huge find. And Mechelle says: 

Mechelle: We’re hoping at this point that the testimonies, the stories, the oral histories that we’ve heard will be proven to be true. And yet whatever is found, I think, will contribute to the healing process that has to take place in our community. 


Jess: The search for the grave sites has been emotionally wrenching for many Black Tulsans. But it’s just one of many things that have flared up in the city over the summer – related to the Centennial, to a divisive election season, and to where America is on race in 2020. 

When George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis officer back in May, the protests that it spurred churned up a lot for Mechelle Brown. 

Mechelle: To have someone hate you and to have such a disregard for your life and your children’s lives simply because of the color of your skin, when you have done absolutely everything that they have asked you to do. You follow the laws, you obtain a job, you pay your bills, you do everything that you’re asked to do. And yet they destroy your community.

Jess: Mechelle is talking about Greenwood at the time of the massacre. But, she says –

Mechelle: Some of the images that you see from 1921, there are images of Black men being marched through the streets with their hands in the air. And some of the images from 2020 are the same images of African Americans being marched through the streets with their arms in the air, when they once again have tried to do everything that we thought would keep us safe. You get a job. You stay out of trouble. You follow the laws. And yet that does not guarantee that we will not be murdered if we’re pulled over by a police officer. 

It does not guarantee that my sons can live healthy, safe, happy lives if they just follow the rules. Because we live in a society where our history has not meant much at all, where our rights do not matter, where our lives do not matter, where it doesn’t matter what type of job you have or how law abiding you are or how respectful you are.

Jess: This is something we heard a lot while we were in Tulsa. The massacre may have happened a century ago, but its legacy is very much alive in the city’s Black community. And so when the debate over the Black Lives Matter mural broke out, it drew on old resentments and fueled new hostilities.  

A quick sketch of what happened: The night before Juneteenth – that’s the historic commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States – a group of artists and other community members painted the words, “Black Lives Matter,” in bright yellow on Greenwood Avenue. On June 20th, President Trump held a campaign rally in downtown Tulsa, where he talked about civil unrest across the country. 

[Audio clip from The Washington Post, where President Trump talks about “peace and order” at a political rally in Tulsa]

As the president pushed forward his national agenda, the mural in Tulsa quickly became a flashpoint. City officials said they had to remove it, because it didn’t have the right permits to be there permanently. If they let it stay, they’d also have to let other groups put up murals wherever they wanted – including one group that asked to paint a “Back the Blue” mural in a similar style. Here’s Mayor Bynum. 

Mayor Bynum: The issue for us really became very much a legal one. Painting messages on streets in Tulsa is not legal and it’s not legal for anybody, for any message. And we cannot treat one message differently than others, even if we may completely agree with the message that was displayed. 

Jess: But for many Black Tulsans and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, it felt personal. 

Samantha Laine Perfas/The Christian Science Monitor
Mareo Johnson, pastor of Seeking the Kingdom Ministries, stands outside Sweet Lisa's, a local restaurant in Tulsa, Okla., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Mr. Johnson, who founded the Tulsa chapter of Black Lives Matter, says that the city's recent decision to remove a painting of the group's name on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa's historically Black neighborhood was a mistake. "People see it being removed," he says, "and they perceive it as removing us."

Mareo Johnson: I mean, we can’t let the nation see us removing Black Lives Matter murals.

Jess: That’s Rev. Mareo Johnson, founder and director of Black Lives Matter Tulsa and pastor of Seeking the Kingdom Ministries. 

Mareo: People see it being removed, and they perceive it as, it’s trying to remove us. If there is any other place that it should be, it should be right there, where the worst massacre happened in the history of Tulsa. That’s the most important place that it should be, if any place in Tulsa. So for anyone to have a problem with it being there, something is very wrong. And that shows us that we have a lot of work to do with dealing with our racist past.

Jess: In the end, the city council voted to remove the mural. It was paved over on October 5th, as part of a road resurfacing project that the mayor said was already planned.

But even as the debate over the mural was taking place, there was another issue that was causing racial tensions to bubble up in Tulsa. 

[Audio clip from KJRH-TV Tulsa: “...descendants of the 1921 race massacre are suing the city of Tulsa…”]

On September 1st, a group of Oklahomans filed a lawsuit seeking reparations from the city of Tulsa and other local government agencies. They argue that the massacre is still affecting Black Tulsans today, and that the defendants all benefited from the destruction of Greenwood. 

The plaintiffs are asking the court for a bunch of things, including: public declarations against the city’s actions during and after the massacre; an injunction against any use of the massacre that would financially benefit the city; and the creation of a victims’ compensation fund – though they haven’t named a specific dollar amount. 

There are nine plaintiffs, including the oldest living survivor of the massacre – Lessie Benningfield Randle, who is 105 years old. 

We tried to reach out to the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, but we didn’t hear back. Instead we spoke with the Rev. Robert Turner.

Samantha Laine Perfas/The Christian Science Monitor
Robert Turner, pastor of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church, in Tulsa, Okla., marches to City Hall from the church and back, calling for reparations for the victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Mr. Turner has led this protest every week since 2018. "There is no expiration date on morality," he says. "If it was wrong in 1921, it's still wrong in 2020."

Rev. Robert Turner: There is no expiration date on morality. If it was wrong in 1921, it’s still wrong in 2020.

Jess: Rev. Turner is the pastor of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Chuch, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and the only building standing today to have survived the burning of Greenwood. Rev. Turner came to Tulsa in 2017 from Alabama, and has become kind of the face of the fight for reparations in Tulsa. For two years, he’s been leading a small group of Tulsans on a weekly march from the church to City Hall, calling for reparations. 

[Audio clip of Rev. Turner leading a march, he says, “I desire nothing more than reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation without reparations.”]

Rev. Turner: I think we have become accustomed to a negative peace, in not just Tulsa but in America, where as long as Black people are OK with their lot in life, then we fine. You know, as long as they are OK with being killed by the police, we’re fine. As long as they are OK with, you know, not having access to capital and given high interest rates, we’re fine. But the minute we start speaking up about it, oh it’s a problem. They’re the rioters. They’re the problem makers.

Jess: It’s a point that many Black Americans raise when talking about protests around racial justice, and about reparations – though the term “reparations” can mean different things to different people, even within Black communities. We’ll be digging further into those nuances in our coming episodes. But for now, we wanted to know what Rev. Turner hopes this lawsuit specifically will achieve.

Rev. Turner: I hope what it will achieve is, is justice. Delayed, but still justice. I hope it will help actually bring the city together by winning the lawsuit. Some people don’t see it as such. But if we’re going to live as a family, then we have to be honest about the relationship dynamics. 

Their blood still speaks, their blood is still crying out. There’s this old Hebrew philosophy that the shedding of innocent blood curses the land. And it cries out to God until it is atoned. They were children of God. They were created in God’s image. And they never saw justice. And I still feel their pain.

There can be no reconciliation, period, without reparation.


Jess: Needless to say, this has been a difficult summer for Tulsa, as it has been for the country. When we talked to Mechelle Brown, back at the Greenwood Cultural Center, she told us about the first time she heard the full story of the massacre. She was on the same tour that she’s been giving now for nearly 25 years. She was in her 20s at the time. 

Mechelle: I went through this range of emotions. I remember as I looked at the photographs and I heard about what happened here, I didn’t realize that my hands were balled into a fist. And I just wanted to fight. I just was so angry. And then I felt so hurt, so sad at the number of people who had lost their lives. I felt so heartbroken for what those people went through. And then I felt just confused, at how the 1921 Tulsa race massacre could have happened in my community where I was born and raised, and no one ever talked about it.  

Jess: And even after having told the story so many times, Mechelle says, it can still hurt to think about it, and to see how other people respond to it. 

Mechelle: I see African Americans who come and learn about it, experience it the way that I did. But I’ve also experienced whites who have accused us of exaggerating the history even as they are looking at the actual photographs. They are denying that this happened, that the Black community is only concerned about money, that we’re thinking that we’re going to get something out of this. They have rolled their eyes, been completely unattentive while I’ve given tours, from school groups to adults who you would think would be more sensitive to this history. People have been very disrespectful.

If anything, it’s gotten worse. I think people are bolder than they once were. I think because of our current political climate, people are much more vocal than they used to be. They’re a lot less respectful than they used to be. And we’ve seen quite a bit of that since the summer.

Jess: To Mechelle, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for hope. She thinks back to that first time she heard about the massacre, and compares it with how she feels now, given the state of the country today – our divisive politics, our anger, our fear. 

Mechelle: I think that my emotions are the same. I don’t think that I feel any more hopeful today than I did then. Reading some of the comments that you can read online, whenever the Tulsa World publishes an article dealing with North Tulsa or race relations or Black Wall Street or the commemoration or reparations, the comments that follow by hundreds of white Tulsans that I live with, that are part of my community. These aren’t people from around the world. These are people that live in my community. Realizing how racist and insensitive some people still are today doesn’t give me much hope. 

Jess: Mechelle says there was one time that she felt like maybe, as individuals, we can overcome racial and political divisions. It was when a young playwright, a Tulsa native, organized a bunch of small group discussions in the community and got people – Black and white – to talk honestly and without malice about race.

Mechelle: And it brought me to a place where I realized that there were white people who really didn’t understand. And they wanted to. They really hadn’t connected with Black people before or with the Black community. And they wanted to. And I think it’s going to be more of those small group discussions and conversations, where real relationships can be built, that will initiate real change. 


Jess: Thanks for listening. In our next episode, we’ll take a close look at Black politics in Tulsa. The massacre, among many things, was a huge failure of leadership – one that still resonates today. So as the nation gears up for an incredibly divisive election, how are Black voters in Tulsa navigating a political system that often fails to meet their needs? 

This podcast was hosted by me, Jessica Mendoza. Samantha Laine Perfas and I reported and produced this story together. Our editors are Clay Collins and Clara Germani, with additional edits by Judy Douglass and Arielle Gray. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. And a special thanks to Steph Simon, for allowing us to use his song ‘Born On Black Wall Street’ throughout this episode. Additional audio elements from CBS This Morning, KJRH-TV Tulsa, and The Washington Post. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.