Greenwood story needs to be told (Capitol Update)

This piece has a Tulsa flavor, but its topic is important for the rest of the state and perhaps beyond.

Governor Kevin Stitt was in attendance last week at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa for a half-hour presentation of preliminary plans for the proposed Greenwood History Center. The Greenwood History Center will include a museum documenting the events of May 30, 31 and June 1, 1921, when members of the white majority in Tulsa attacked Greenwood, a black neighborhood located at the North edge of downtown Tulsa in an event now known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Greenwood was a thriving residential and business community of successful black entrepreneurship that had become known as “Black Wall Street.” The trouble started on May 30, 1921, when a 19-year old black man was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white woman in a downtown Tulsa elevator. The youth was arrested the next day, and a crowd of blacks quickly gathered at the courthouse fearing a lynching. Whites, fearing the gathering of blacks, responded in greater numbers, which eventually turned into a mob.

News reports inflamed the situation, and at the end of the two days, estimates are that as many as 300 blacks were killed, and Greenwood was burned to the ground. The loss of life and property had been mainly kept quiet until recent years. In 1996 the Legislature authorized what is now known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, currently chaired by Sen. Kevin Matthews (D-Tulsa), to investigate the massacre and prepare a report detailing a “historical account” of the event. In 2001, the Legislature passed the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act” which provided for creation of a memorial to those who died in the massacre. The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was dedicated in 2010.

The original Tulsa Race Massacre Commission also recommended reparations for survivors and descendants of the massacre, but no reparations have been paid. Last session, $1.5 million was included in the Oklahoma Historical Society budget to begin the Greenwood History Center project in recognition of the centennial of the massacre in 2021. The cost of the museum is estimated at $18 million, with $5.3 million in addition for remodeling and restoring the Greenwood Cultural Center.

Nothing is easy when race is involved. The first time I heard of Greenwood was in the early 1980s. Rep. Don Ross, who represented the Greenwood area for many years beginning in 1980, wanted funding to build something he was calling the Greenwood Cultural Center. The history of the Greenwood Race Massacre was generally unknown at the time except for the survivors and a few leaders in Tulsa who knew and remembered. Don fought for the funding and finally received $125,000 that first year for architectural drawings. Since the state couldn’t spend money on private buildings, we called it the Greenwood Cultural program.

When I moved to Tulsa in 1993, the Greenwood Cultural Center was up and running and the movement to unearth the facts about the massacre was continuing. Don asked me to serve on its board, which I did for about a decade. The Center received a small amount of funding for arts, health, and education programs for many years, but lost state funding several years ago.

As a representative of a rural house district in central Oklahoma in the 1980s, I’d never heard of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa even though it has been called the single worst incident of racial violence in American history. For me it’s taken living in Tulsa, hearing the tragic story many times, and meeting some of the survivors to begin to understand the trauma and legacy of those events. The opportunity to absorb that history will be lost for future Oklahomans and visitors unless the Greenwood History Center is completed. As Governor Stitt said last week, “it’s a story that needs to be told.”


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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