The Victory of Greenwood: Homer Johnson

Homer Johnson

In December of 2019, the Oklahoma Eagle issued a scathing editorial against the Tulsa Development Authority (TDA). After a long series of objections from community members during a City Council meeting in March of that year, the Council voted unanimously to suspend the TDA’s proposed neighborhood changes, compiled into the Greenwood/Unity Heritage Neighborhoods Sector Plan. The plan identified several houses in the historic North Tulsa area — some of them the homes of survivors of the 1921 Massacre — as blighted. According to a blight study conducted the same year by the City of Tulsa, houses that did not meet specific standards of upkeep would be targeted for demolition.

The Greenwood/Unity Heritage Plan took North Tulsa entirely by surprise. Residents whose families had been all too familiar with being displaced by eminent domain under urban renewal policies were furious that the same agency was proposing to continue its business as usual (the Urban Renewal Authority was established in July 1959, and its name changed to the Tulsa Development Authority in 1976). Greenwood’s second destruction economically and psychologically damaged many families; their homes sacrificed to build highways which demolished all of the business and residential areas of the neighborhood.  These areas had flourished for more than 40 years after having been rebuilt in the 1920s. They gave their testimony to the Council, recounting that their families had been traumatized by the city for several generations. Some of them had their homes destroyed in 1921 and then again in the late 1960s.

City Councilor Ben Kimbro was so upset at TDA’s mishandling of the rollout of its plan that he publicly humiliated the agency in the middle of the meeting. “I am profoundly disappointed in this calamity caused at the hands of TDA. In fact, if I ever needed guidance on how to piss off a bunch of people, you all would be the first people I would call,” he remarked. “It is my want and desire — it is my insistence — that TDA is going to shape up its ship — that you radically reform how you do business and how you engage the community.”

That evening, the council chamber held a standing-room-only crowd of 217 attendees from the community (the maximum allowed by the fire marshall). Almost as many angry North Tulsans gathered outside of City Hall, demonstrating, holding signs, and voicing their anger at parts of TDA’s plan that mentioned using eminent domain to demolish several blighted homes identified by the city. Almost all of the 90 residents who spoke at the meeting complained that there had been no attempt by the TDA to reach out to them about planned changes.

There was so much community and administrative backlash that the TDA agreed to create a two-year moratorium on using eminent domain and assembled a citizen advisory committee to create some dialogue between local government and North Tulsans. TDA’s executive director, O. C. Walker, was forced to resign at the end of 2019 due to an undisclosed complaint raised by a staffer. The Oklahoma Eagle’s editorial — released shortly after Walker’s resignation — reminded the city that it once had the opportunity to build community engagement under the leadership of Homer Johnson and the many grassroots initiatives launched by the Greenwood leader. The city let that opportunity slip through its fingers, repeating decades of the same pattern: empty promises and a deaf ear to the community’s needs, leading to a sense of growing mistrust.

Working for the City
James Homer Spencer Johnson was born December 5, 1928, in Tulsa. His father, J. H. Johnson, Jr., was born in 1904 in Liggon’s Switch, Alabama, and his mother, Eva Gertrude, was born the same year in Tulsa. His father passed away in 1931 in Leonard, Oklahoma, at the age of 27. Homer Johnson graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and continued his education at Tennessee State University.  He returned to Tulsa and married Loretta Mae Chappell of Haskell, Oklahoma, on April 2, 1949. They had four children during their marriage.

Johnson worked for the city’s Street Department from 1953 to 1968. In the early 1960s, he joined a committee that established the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Founded in 1942 by an interracial group of students in Chicago, CORE was one of several national youth-led groups crucial to the Civil Rights movement. CORE organized events demonstrating in favor of school integration, voter rights, and helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott as well as the Freedom Rides in the spring of 1961.

By the time he was 40, Johnson saw an opportunity not just to be a member of a movement, but to lead. By 1968, after the murder of three CORE leaders, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, the group had become disillusioned by the nonviolent strategies of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC. CORE shifted its focus on Black Power and Black nationalism (a philosophy of separation from white people and mainstream society, advocating for economic self-sufficiency). These ideas were seen during this time as radical and dangerous, but they were not new. Black nationalism was championed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and by W. E. B. Du Bois beginning in the 1900s.

Putting the Community First
Johnson, possibly objecting to CORE’s more radical approach, or perhaps just wanting to carve his own path, founded the Target Area Action Group (TAAG) in 1968 as an anti-poverty and citizens’ participation organization. TAAG was, in a sense, a sister organization to Rev. Ben Hill’s New Day, both arising out of Tulsa’s implementation of Tulsa Model Cities, but working from the community’s grassroots, not from the ivory towers of Tulsa’s business and political elite.

The effort to launch organizations like New Day and TAAG wasn’t driven by ambition or hubris. Advocates like Homer Johnson knew there was a real problem in the community, and it was getting worse. Data from the 1960 census showed a difference in median income between Black and white Oklahoma households of $2,446. By 1970, this difference had grown to $3,474. Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs of the mid-1960s, such as Model Cities, were having some impact, but not enough. By 1970, nearly 39 percent of Black families lived below the poverty level, compared to 13 percent of white families. Of this 39 percent, less than one-third of low-income Black families received any kind of public assistance. With distrust of government rising in North Tulsa due to eminent domain being used to tear down Black homes and businesses under the guise of “Urban Renewal,” it was clear that new approaches were needed to fight poverty.

This was an era when Tulsa felt no sense of urgency in helping North Tulsa. During the 1964 presidential election, Tulsa was the city with the largest percentage of voters in the nation who cast their ballot for Republican Barry Goldwater, who opposed civil rights. In 1969, the Mayor of Tulsa, James M. Hewgley, Jr., accused the Tulsa Economic Opportunity Task Force (TEOTF), the community outreach part of Tulsa Model Cities, of being “a great waste of resources,” and filled the board of directors of TEOTF with prominent local elites. In essence, the Mayor appointed members to program committees who would do what the Mayor wanted. Their priority was to pad their resumés, not to implement Tulsa Model Cities to its full potential. Stacked with figureheads with no experience in alleviating poverty, Tulsa Model Cities lost its vision, leaving the Black community to fend for itself. 

TAAG did its fair share of serving the community while Tulsa Model Cities languished. The organization played a role in developing the Greenwood Cultural Center, the Tulsa Economic Development Corp., the North Tulsa Heritage Foundation, Booker T. Washington High School’s S. E. Williams Stadium, and several Tulsa community centers, including B. C. Franklin Park. TAAG also played a critical role in ensuring that some of the Tulsa Model Cities program resources would be allocated to help reopen Morton Health Center. The hospital was neglected, having no large donors or stable funding source, and had closed the previous year. TAAG put together an arrangement whereby funding would be provided by the Office of Economic Opportunity (one of the federal agencies overseeing the Model Cities program) and the Tulsa City-County Health Department. Morton reopened in 1968 as a small clinic providing a limited number of outpatient services. 

Tulsa Community Action Agency
TAAG was often the scapegoat for the failures of its parent organizations, Tulsa Model Cities and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the November 1970 issue of The Daily Oklahoman, Tulsa Model Cities director Willard Van, Jr. threw Johnson’s organization under the bus, accusing TAAG of delaying progress and the rollout of its programs. TAAG’s board, in turn, complained that early that year, they’d had only one week to review a 500-page report of Tulsa’s plan to use the $3.5 million allocated for Model Cities programs. The organization simply wanted more time to carefully review the proposal. 

A year later, HUD had failed to identify any land or homes for rehabilitation and improvement, nor had it put together a detailed land-use plan. TAAG was given the responsibility of gathering the community — in essence, to do HUD’s job. The problem was that most North Tulsa residents did not have training in urban development, nor were they supported or trained by HUD in these skills. Instead, most of the meetings were designed to convince North Tulsans that Urban Renewal was a good thing. The training provided wasn’t intended to help residents improve housing and neighborhoods but instead focused on identifying blight — accelerating the damage. More blight in neighborhoods like Greenwood and Kendall-Whittier simply gave Tulsa more of a case to demolish more houses.

In her dissertation, Maximum Feasible Participation: The War on Poverty in Tulsa OK 1965-1970, Missy Louise Allen concluded, “The city’s reluctance to accept community involvement, coupled with the continual struggles for power, caused Tulsa’s anti-poverty effort to achieve little lasting success.” The paper did name one program that enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, which continues to this day. Another of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” initiatives was the creation of Head Start. Civil rights organizer and member of CORE, Stan Salett is widely credited for conceptualizing the program, created during his service as the first director of education at the Office of Economic Opportunity. Initially begun as an eight-week summer program in 1965, Head Start was created to serve the education needs of preschool-age children in low-income families. In partnership with the Carnegie Corporation, Children’s Television Workshop, and with funding from the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the office of Head Start helped develop an innovative television program called Sesame Street, which premiered on public television stations on November 10th, 1969.

Another innovative aspect of Head Start was that, like Model Cities, communities were provided funding by the federal government, but for the most part, given wide latitude in how to implement the program. The philosophy was that community leaders in low-income communities across the country were best suited to understand the particular needs in their own areas. Head Start agencies in most cities are run by local nonprofit organizations, which apply to the national office for grant funding. They operate their early childhood education centers with a considerable amount of autonomy, agreeing to high-quality standards and a regular audit by the national Head Start office (today under the United States Department of Health and Human Services) every few years.

In 1976, Johnson was named director of the Tulsa Community Action Agency, which administered Head Start in Tulsa. Johnson resigned from Tulsa Community Action Agency in 1981 but continued working for Tulsa Public Schools as a bus driver. His mother, Eva Gertrude, passed away in December of the same year at the age of 77. After an unsuccessful candidacy for the Oklahoma State  House of Representatives, Johnson remained involved in the community. He also continued to pursue his lifelong love of music, regularly playing in Tulsa’s jazz scene.

In 1992, Tulsa Community Action Agency experienced administrative and funding challenges and shut down. With no other agency to pick up the Head Start mantle, the community needed strong leadership and a new solution. Project Get Together, a nonprofit that had a two-decade track record of alleviating homelessness, joined forces with Tulsa Community Action Agency to form a new organization: Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAP). George Charlton, president of the new organization’s board of directors, stated in a 1994 article in the Tulsa World, “The main motivation of both boards was to put the CAP in a stronger position to apply for Head Start.” The plan paid off. CAP was awarded Tulsa’s Head Start funding, and the new organization named Steven Dow as its executive director.

During the 21 years that Dow led the organization (today known as CAP Tulsa), it rose to become a national leader in early childhood education. Dow himself was a fearless advocate for low-income families, advocating for enacting the state’s earned income tax credit, protecting health care for Medicaid recipients, and leading the charge to reform the state’s child welfare system. He actively worked in the community, following in the grassroots footsteps of Homer Johnson, confronting slumlords, payday lenders, and immigration agents known to prey upon the families enrolled at CAP Tulsa. 

Today CAP Tulsa is run by Karen Kiely, who has been with the organization since 2008, working as the organization’s COO before taking Dow’s place as executive director. CAP Tulsa provides early childhood programs under Head Start and Early Head Start, while also providing adult education services, and parenting programs. This “two generation” strategy — helping parents as well as their children — has earned CAP Tulsa wide recognition as one of the best early childhood education programs in the nation.

Building a Community
Johnson appeared in the 1993 documentary, Goin’ Back to T-Town, directed by Sam Pollard. In the film, Johnson described that segregation after Oklahoma statehood gave the Black community no other choice but to come together for their own protection. This resilient, cooperative community spirit was a significant factor in Greenwood’s success before 1921, and played an essential role in rebuilding the neighborhood after the Massacre.

In 1982, Johnson was narrowly defeated in his campaign for state House District 73 by fellow civil rights activist Don Ross. After graduating from Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School in 1959, Ross joined the Air Force for four years. Ross returned to his hometown and landed a job writing a weekly column for the Oklahoma Eagle. While continuing his column, Ross also launched his own publication, a monthly magazine called Impact. He also started a public relations company, Don Ross & Associates. They may have been political rivals for a short while, but Ross and Johnson always worked together quite well, always in service of the community. The two were known to play “good cop/bad cop,” with Johnson arousing Mayor Hewgley’s anger by wearing a Black Panthers button to meetings, or cursing and shouting. Ross would be the one to smooth things over, and the two leaders would get what they wanted, whether it was improvements in civil rights or housing for the community.

One of the houses targeted for demolition under Urban Renewal was owned by Sam and Lucy Mackey. After the Massacre, Lucy Mackey desired to build her home better than before 1921 and modeled it after her employer’s, who lived in a neighborhood south of downtown. By the time it was scheduled for demolition, the almost 50-year-old home was in dire need of restoration. A community activist, Katie Duckery, convinced Mayor Hewgley to establish what would eventually become the Greenwood Cultural Center

Journalist Ann Patton wrote about the Mackey home in a 1969 issue of the Oklahoma Eagle, sparking a public campaign to save it from demolition. The funds were raised, and TAAG acquired the title to the Mackey home. Over the years, Homer Johnson, Don Ross, Julius Pegues, Thelma Whitlow, and Mabel B. Little would work to realize Katie Duckery’s vision. The Greenwood Cultural Center was opened in 1983, and the Mackey home was dedicated as the Mabel Little Heritage House in 1985. The center was expanded in 1995 and was the cornerstone of revitalization efforts in the historic district. Today the center houses a gallery dedicated to survivors of the Massacre and runs various programs to ensure that the legacy of Greenwood remains alive.

Johnson died on September 28, 2005, at the age of 76. Today he would be pleased to see that his community-driven approach lives on in some of Tulsa’s most celebrated nonprofits. Today these methods have academic-sounding names like “human-centered design” and “stakeholder-based strategic planning,” but they are, in essence, nothing more than listening to what the community needs and working hard to build collaborative solutions. The formula was successful for Greenwood since 1905 and can still be a great lesson for how North Tulsa can prosper once again.