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One of the first places I wanted to visit as part of my two-year reporting project aimed at better understanding why America is so divided was Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was born in this city next to the Arkansas River, along a transportation hub in the heartland. Originally settled by Creek and Cherokee Indians, it became the site of the Civil War battle of Chusto-Talasaha – a battle between Native American tribes aligned with the Union and the Confederacy, respectively. What would transform Tulsa, though, was a huge oil gusher in 1901 in Red Fork, in West Tulsa, starting a boom that brought prosperity and the title “Oil Capital of the World,” which would last for nearly seven decades.
I showed up a little after the end of World War II, when the population had neared 180,000, supported by a thriving aircraft industry, especially Douglas Aircraft’s bomber plant, where my mother and hundreds of other young women worked.
Because I left Tulsa just before I turned 5, my early memories of the city are few, but we visited our many relatives there often over the years, especially my grandmother Lela, who lived in North Tulsa, in the same house where my mother had grown up. What was then a modest working class neighborhood is today visibly run down, with empty lots and abandoned warehouses. Growing up, I don’t remember anyone in the family mentioning the 1921 Race Massacre, one of the worst incidents of its kind in the country during that era. Hundreds of white men had attacked Tulsa’s thriving Black neighborhood known as Greenwood, burning it to the ground and killing hundreds of Black people.
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I’ve recently asked my cousins who did grow up in Tulsa about their own memories; they too say it wasn’t until news coverage in recent years, as the 100th anniversary approached, that they learned of the massacre. Two told me it wasn’t taught in the schools they attended, nor was it taught or discussed in most of the Black schools, according to community activist Kristi Williams. She is a descendant of someone who lived through the massacre and relayed to us the harrowing escape her great aunt Janie Edwards made on May 31, 1921, while watching a movie at what was then Greenwood’s Dreamland Theatre.
Williams told us that her aunt, Janie Edwards “remembered that there were gunshots flying everywhere. There was fire everywhere. And I know the train tracks that she ran down…she said they dropped bombs and you could smell the fire in the smoke from miles and miles away.”
But many memories like this were for years hidden in fear and shame.
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I wanted to know how the Tulsa of today is addressing this horrible chapter in its history, that has been buried for so long. I spoke with Kristi Williams and her good friend, Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, the only Black member of the Council, along with Tulsa’s Mayor, Republican G. T. Bynum, and Janice Danforth, chapter chair of “Tulsa Moms for Liberty,” a group which pushes for restrictions on the teaching of race in the public schools, about how far Tulsa has come, and how serious hurdles still remain.
The city is now involved in a series of conversations called “Beyond Apology,” about what more the city owes Black Tulsans and descendants of the massacre, including calls for cash reparations.
Meanwhile, Mayor Bynum told us that the team analyzing human remains found at Oaklawn Cemetery have generated six DNA profiles that could help them identify victims, part of a project the city has undertaken to try to find possible living relatives. It is a painful, and personal, process.
“We’re home to the consequences of not talking about difficult history for three quarters of a century, “ Bynum said.
Like in so many other communities confronting their histories, in my hometown, “it’s left to this generation of Tulsans,” as Bynum says, to investigate and find a path forward.
Judy Woodruff is a senior correspondent and the former anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
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