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Window World Greenwood South Carolina – The Reconciliation Tower stands in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ed Dwight’s 25-foot monument tells the story of African-American struggles and honors Tulsa’s first black leaders.

At the beginning of the award-winning television series Watchmen, there is a three minute and 30 second scene of destruction and terror as a racist mob destroys a black town. Civilians are shot, houses are bombed from planes and shops are set on fire. Although Watchman is fictional, this story is true.

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Window World Greenwood South Carolina

“It really happened,” says Phil Armstrong. “They just put a picture of what it was like, based on eyewitness accounts.”

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Armstrong is the project manager for a commission commemorating the 100th anniversary of the largest racial massacre in American history, a two-day merger of white mobs that devastated the black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Children pose for a photo in front of a mural commemorating Black Wall Street on June 18, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Black Wall Street” was named for the Greenwood neighborhood by Booker T. It comes from Washington’s statement about the proliferation of successful, predominantly black towns in Oklahoma.

The 1921 Tulsa Massacre Centennial Commission is also the driving force behind Greenwood Rising, an interactive history center set to open later this year. Created in partnership with Local Projects (the design firm behind the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York and the Legacy Initiative Equal Justice Museum in Alabama), Greenwood Rising presents the history of the historic neighborhood before, during and after the massacre.

A preview of the site suggests that visitors are in for an emotional journey. Most of the information will be new to them. Until recently, it was possible to visit Tulsa and not know about the looting, arson and murder that began on June 1, 1921, when Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black man, was charged with assault.

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Lauren Arthur Mensah, project director of Greenwood Rising, says the center’s dual focus on both the past and the important present shines a light on the real people affected by historical action and inaction.

“Right now, in this nation, there’s a lot of talk about black trauma and an emphasis on stories of oppression instead of telling the whole story,” says Mensah, adding that it was “just as important that everyone involved show up and make black joy. Show resilience, work ethic [and] a sense of community, and the visitor should connect with that.”

Before the massacre, Greenwood was a place of economic opportunity, with movie theaters, grocers, confectioneries and restaurants along its main street, known as Black Wall Street. “By 1880, there were 30 black towns in Oklahoma,” Armstrong says. “They actually started talking to the government to declare Oklahoma an all-black state.”

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A year before Greenwood coined the nickname “Black Wall Street,” Booker T. Derived from comments made by Washington. Across the tracks from downtown Tulsa, Greenwood was founded on segregationist beliefs and shaped by Jim Crow laws. But as racist ideas formed in the soil, black businesses took root and success quickly took root.

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An archive photo shows Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood before 1921, when a white mob destroyed dozens of buildings and killed about 300 people.

By 1921, approximately 12,000 African Americans lived in 35 blocks of the neighborhood. The homes and businesses are all owned and operated by black people, Armstrong says.

But within days in 1921, they were all gone. Most of the houses were destroyed, along with dozens of buildings, including churches. An estimated 300 people were killed (although the number may be higher, as unmarked graves have yet to be discovered). When it was over, the black community was economically and physically destroyed.

Because the massacre was labeled a “riot” at the time, insurance claims were denied, and courts dismissed all cases without hearings or reviews, Armstrong says. No compensation has been paid to date.

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The only takeaway was that legal efforts to force families to comply with newly created and expensive building codes (an effort, Armstrong suggests, to stop community redevelopment altogether) were thwarted by an unprecedented decision by the Oklahoma State Supreme Court.

This is where resilience shines: the community has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. Within five years, and with the support of black communities across the country, Greenwood was able to organize delegates to the National Negro Chamber of Commerce in 1926. And by 1943, economic activity in the area had doubled, Armstrong says.

“It’s an incredibly American story,” he says. “They just didn’t stick. They made it bigger than the first time.”

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Urban renewal programs (through the heart of the community along Interstate 244) and eventual gentrification continued to change the makeup of the community in the following decades. Today, the neighborhood includes the Greenwood Cultural Center, whose mission is to preserve the area’s African-American heritage and promote cultural exchange. The center is partnering with Gathering Place Park on the Tulsa Riverfront this summer to co-host the Kinsey African American Art Collection – the world’s largest collection of art and historical artifacts.

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Visitors explore the Kinsey Collection of African American Art and History on May 21, 2021 at the Greenwood Cultural Center, one of two locations in Tulsa that will display the collection through June 27, 2021.

Left: The Kinsey Family Collection — the largest collection of African American art and artifacts in the world — is also on display at The Gathering Place Riverfront Park in Tulsa.

Right: More than 700 items – from rare documents to paintings – tell the story of African Americans from 1595 to the present.

Although only one black-owned commercial building remains on Black Wall Street, the heart of the community continues to beat. This is where Fulton Street Books opened in July 2020, “a place where kids and adults can walk and browse the shelves,” according to owner Onikha Asamoah-Caesar. Also here, Venita Cooper founded Silhouette Sneakers & Art, a vintage fashion and high-end sneaker art store and gallery that recently raised enough community donations (including her own) to pay the rent for more than 25 of local families in need. . Other Greenwood Black businesses include a spa, cafe and gallery.

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“It’s about reviving a broken legacy,” says Asamoah-Caesar. “We are the third wave of rebuilding Black Wall Street. We carry a torch for that entrepreneurship here in Tulsa.”

“The destruction, the hatred, the racism, all those things in the past that have kept us from reaching our potential for all these decades,” says Cooper. “There are a lot of great things happening in the city right now, especially from black artists, creators and entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe there was hope.”

Black-owned businesses also hope that increased tourism in the neighborhood will bring economic gain to the community.

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Tulsa residents visit the “Black Wall Street Memorial” at the Greenwood Cultural Center during Juneteenth on June 19, 2020. The memorial, dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the massacre, lists the names of black-owned businesses that were destroyed.

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A companion “Buy Black Tulsa” handbook, released in February, is being developed at BuyBlkTlsa.com, a website that wants visitors to benefit the community with their shopping dollars.

“My biggest fear, especially for this year, is that people will go to Greenwood Rising and see the signs and see the plaques on the ground, but nothing will change permanently and tangibly for the community that is here,” says Asamoah-Caesar. “People have to be very serious and intentional about how they spend their time and money once they’re here. It’s great to go to a museum, but think about your impact while you’re there.”

In addition, some groups criticize the Centennial Commission for putting money and resources into cultural tourism instead of providing compensation. Others focused on fulfilling the original Black Wall Street promise.

Inside the silhouette sneaker, Cooper placed a framed picture of Greer Shoe Shop, which once stood in the same location. Destroyed in 1921, it reopened a few years later, and a plaque on the sidewalk now identifies it to passers-by.

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By establishing Silhouette here, Cooper says he feels a responsibility to honor those whose dreams have failed. “It’s like a natural progression,” she says, “from where it started.”

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