The Victory of Greenwood: Eddie Faye Gates

Eddie Faye Gates

In the spring of 2021, the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa (ahha) exhibited No Parking Studios artists Antonio Andrews and Alexander Tamahn’s “Revisionist Future,” a collection of works by the two Black artists that challenged visitors to “strive to imagine a future where there is global equality and rooted division no longer exists.” The exhibit is historically significant for several reasons. First, ahha’s building is located one block west of the border of the “Deep Greenwood” business district before the 1921 Massacre. Second, it is the first exhibition of Black artists of this scale in Tulsa. Their work now has provenance—the currency of the art world’s gallery system. This exhibit will open the door for these artists to be shown in more galleries nation-wide and world-wide.

A part of Andrews’ and Tamahn’s exhibit invited visitors to envision what a post-segregation Tulsa might look and feel like, recognizing that Tulsa’s divisions — racial, cultural, and socioeconomic — run deep and in many ways seem just as insurmountable as they did in 1921. In recent decades the city as a whole has struggled with the economic consequences of Urban Renewal, a highway dividing the Black and white sections of Tulsa, planned in 1957, six years before housing segregation by law was repealed by the City Council. Lyn Larson, Senior Management Analyst at the local office for the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, expressed that after the building of downtown’s highways and the Tulsa Model Cities period, white Tulsa residents described to her that they were frightened of passing someone on the sidewalk who looked different from them. Mass incarceration (If Oklahoma were a country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world, at 1,079 per 100,000 people, almost twice as high as the overall U. S. incarceration rate, and nearly 100 times higher than that of the United Kingdom.), the conflict between white-supremacist and Black Lives Matter movements which reached a boiling point with Donald Trump’s visit to Tulsa on the weekend of Juneteenth, 2020, and the city’s challenges in dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic, have divided our city further. 

In some ways, race relations in Tulsa are better. However, a few facts cannot be ignored: According to Tulsa’s Equality Indicators Report, released each year since 2018, the median household income for white Tulsans is almost double that of Black Tulsans. White Tulsans are nearly twice as likely to own a home as Black Tulsans. South Tulsa residents live 200% longer (13.2 years compared to 4.6 years) past retirement age than north Tulsa residents. Disparities between Black and white Tulsans did not just spring from nowhere; they are direct outcomes of structural and racist policies accumulated over a century. Time and time again, the local government has played a part in Greenwood’s destruction and then blamed Black Tulsans for their community’s negative outcomes. It is past time to examine our city’s history through new perspectives, and it may be Eddie Faye Gates’ work that could teach us how to do that.

While Gates earned a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s degree in history, her work concerning Greenwood’s history is often dismissed or disregarded as not academic enough. Her critics have said that her work collecting the stories of Massacre survivors (instead of scholarly analysis of primary sources and historical documents) means that she’s not a “real historian.” Her life’s story sheds light on why she chose to take a more ethnographic approach to her research of Greenwood. With the passing of almost all of the survivors she interviewed, Tulsa is now beginning to realize that collecting stories was just as important, if not more so, than the more formal work of an academic historian. Having witnessed her own family’s suffering and studying the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, she had a deep understanding of her subjects’ trauma. This compassion made her the right person to do her work in the right place at the right time.

Miz Lucy’s Cookies
Eddie Faye Petit was born on February 5, 1934, in Preston, Oklahoma, to Ferman and Vivian Petit. She was the eldest of eight children, four girls, and four boys. Her family were sharecroppers. Her paternal grandparents worked in the Brazos Bottoms plantations between Houston and Dallas, Texas. Her maternal grandparents were descended from slaves and worked picking cotton at Como, near Sulphur Springs, Texas. In 1918, her maternal grandfather witnessed the hanging of his best friend, lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in Sulphur Springs. The next day, the family packed their belongings and left Texas. They traveled by wagon to Oklahoma. “He had to witness the lynching of his best friend,” said Gates. “He escaped, but he never got that picture out of his head,” Gates recalled in a 1998 interview with the Tulsa World. “It made him a bitter man. He wouldn’t set foot inside a church, and he never went back to Texas.”

The family continued to work as sharecroppers after arriving in Oklahoma. Her parents picked cotton to earn their living, and even Eddie herself spent her childhood in the cotton fields. “I picked cotton from the time I was 12 years old until I left for Tuskegee, for college when I was 17. This was how we earned our money. Picking cotton, $3 a day,” she shared in a panel discussion featured on journalist Nia Clark’s Dreams of Black Wall Street podcast in 2020.

Fortunately, the harsh life of picking cotton was not to be her fate. Eddie learned to read and write at the age of five from her Sunday school classes at Little Jerusalem Baptist Church. She would compose songs, poems, and plays for her dolls and toys. In 1946 she graduated from Douglas Elementary School in Preston. She attended Grayson High School in the town of Pumpkin Center, and graduated from Dunbar High School in Okmulgee. It is clear from her memoir that she learned just as much from her aunts, uncles, extended family members, neighbors, and elders in the community as she did from her studies in school. As a senior in high school, she read Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington and decided that she wanted to attend the Tuskegee Institute. By chance, a Tuskegee recruiter visited Dunbar in 1951. He helped the family with the application and preparations to attend Tuskegee under a “Five Year Program” where students who didn’t have the funds to pay tuition could pay their way by working at the school. She had learned how to type at Dunbar and was hired as a clerk/typist.

At first, her experience at Tuskegee was emotionally challenging. She describes in her autobiography feeling particularly homesick, lonely, and feeling despair about the racism she was subject to in Alabama. She wrote in her autobiography that a box of homemade cookies, arriving from her hometown by a mentor of hers, Mrs. Lucy Ellis, felt like a lifeline. In that moment, she was reminded that although she was far from home, she still had a support network of family, her church, her teachers, and others who had helped her succeed throughout her upbringing. “Miz Lucy, Miz Lillian, Uncle Matt, and all of the other role models/support links in my life are examples of the unconditional love of the community for its youth and of the community’s self-proclaimed role of joint responsibility for the nurture and discipline of all of the neighborhood children.”

Another experience helped her through her college years: She met the man she would marry, 21-year-old ROTC student, Norman Gates. Norman was born in Redland, Oklahoma, and was also from a family of sharecroppers. Finding a lot in common, the two became fast friends, and returning to Okmulgee after Norman graduated, the couple were married on June 6,1954.

Life in The Military
In the fall of 1954, Norman attended basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. Eddie returned to Tuskegee. Later, Norman was transferred to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, and Eddie transferred to Texas Southern University to be closer to her husband. Their first child, Norman Gates, Jr., was born at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, on August 25, 1955.

As a military family, the Gates‘ moved several times, spending the Thanksgiving of 1956 in Southampton, England. She traveled with her husband throughout Europe, spending their vacations in France, Germany, and Italy when Norman was on leave. The couple had five children while stationed in England and returned to the U. S. in 1965. After a brief assignment back in Biloxi, Norman was transferred, yet again, to Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Eddie Gates decided that she would finish her education. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Dakota, where she received a B. S. in composite social science in 1968. The same year, Norman finished his military service, and the family moved to Tulsa. She was hired to teach at Edison High School, a job she would keep for twenty-two years before becoming the Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for the district. Her husband worked as an electrical engineer, a career which their son, Derek, would also pursue.  

Appointed to the Tulsa Race Riot Commission
After she retired from Tulsa Public Schools, Gates became an author, writing They Came Searching: How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa in 1997, her autobiography, Miz Lucy’s Cookies, in 1999, and Riot on Greenwood: The Total Destruction of Black Wall Street, in 2003. She also received a Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Tulsa. In 1991, Gates had the opportunity to participate in the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors Summer Study Program for Teachers. Her videos from that experience are made available for students at Tulsa Public Schools.

In 1998, Gates became chair of the Survivors Committee of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission. The commission, established in 1997, had five primary goals: obtain a more accurate death count, locate all living Black survivors, establish a more precise estimate of Greenwood’s property loss, find more primary sources, and make recommendations regarding reparations. By this time, the events of the Massacre were more than 75 years in the past, making the commission’s work a very daunting task. Documents were lost or intentionally hidden from the public. One example is a list of dead and wounded, shown to journalist Ed Wheeler by a Tulsa Police Department officer while he was researching his article for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce in 1971. The list confirmed Maurice Willows’ Red Cross report estimate of 300 dead, but the police department refused to provide Wheeler a copy. 

The Commission’s final report, released in 2001, served to tell the story of the Massacre to a city and state that had only just begun to learn about the events and has eventually led to the State of Oklahoma’s decision in 2021 to make the teaching of the Massacre a part of the state’s education curriculum. However, much work remains to fully realize the commission’s goals. Willows’ Red Cross report is still the subject of debate. The report mentioned several mass grave locations in Tulsa, including Oaklawn Cemetery, Newblock Park to the west of downtown along Charles Page Boulevard, and Booker T. Washington Cemetery, south of 91st Street near South Yale Avenue. Thus far, the only mass graves search that the city has conducted has been the work done at Oaklawn Cemetery. Primary sources are still being uncovered. A full audit of all homes and businesses which existed prior to June 1, 1921, has not yet been accomplished. The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a 2020 report by Human Rights Watch, expands on the work of the 2001 Commission Report and states that the original report’s recommendations “have yet to be fully implemented.”

Gates set about to collect narratives of more than 200 survivors of the Massacre, as well as information from more than 300 of their descendants. Her work was critical in the commission’s goal of identifying Massacre survivors. Many families who had been through the Massacre did not want to talk about it, so her first job was to gain the community’s trust. Her own family’s experiences, previous studies of the Massacre, and her understanding of community trauma through her work studying the Holocaust in Poland and Israel, and speaking with Holocaust survivors in 1991 prepared her for these difficult and emotional conversations.

She helped identify 136 of the 200 survivors which she interviewed. Many of the interviews that Eddie was able to capture were stories that the interviewees had never told anyone, in some cases, not even their own families. J. Kavin Ross, the son of former Oklahoma House Representative Don Ross, was often the man behind the video camera, capturing these stories. In recent years, Ross has uploaded many of these late 1990s interviews to YouTube.

During the 2003 state lawsuit filed by Charles Ogletree Jr. and his legal team, Gates was assigned as one of two individuals to serve as liaisons between Massacre victims and their descendants, and the legal team. When the case went to the Supreme Court, Gates helped Massacre survivors make the trip from Tulsa to Washington, D. C. Having seen their neighborhood bombed from the air, many of them feared airplanes and had never flown in one. She supported them and made sure that their trip was safe and comfortable.

After the 2005 Supreme Court decision not to hear Ogletree’s case, Gates continued writing, lecturing, and advocating for reparations. She served as one of two Greenwood specialists who gave guided tours and lectures for the Tulsa Global Alliance until about the early 2010s. In 2013, Gates was inducted into the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame.

Community-building and Tulsa’s future
Andrews and Tamahn’s milestone in the art world shines a bright light on Tulsa’s new community of Black entrepreneurs who are—for a third time—reviving the spirit of Greenwood. They belong to a collective of artists working from the former residence of Tate Brady. Former Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers running back Felix Jones, a native of Tulsa and Booker T. Washington High School graduate, purchased the property in 2016 and renamed it Skyline Mansion. Today the mansion is also home to the Fire in Little Africa project, an album and podcast series showcasing the music of Ausha LaCole, Derek Clark, Hakeem Eli’Juwon, Ayilla, Steph Simon, and other hip-hop artists from the Tulsa and Oklahoma City area.

Timantha Norman’s resurrection of the historical Tulsa Star and Nehemiah Frank’s founding of the Black Wall Street Times, together with the Oklahoma Eagle’s continued growth, has once again established Black newspaper journalism’s rightful place on par with that of the white-owned press in Tulsa. Venita Cooper opened Silhouette Sneakers & Art in 2019 at the location of Grier’s Shoe Shop, which was destroyed in the Massacre and then rebuilt. Kolby Webster, Program Assistant at OKPOP, has emerged as one of the city’s most outspoken community advocates and is working on a project to revitalize what was once a thriving Black-owned cinema community, building on the legacy of theatres such as Williams Dreamland and Dixie. Greenwood’s artistic, entrepreneurial, community-oriented spirit is embodied today in the work of Guy and Yvette Troupe, Branjae Jackson, Mickeal Vaughn, Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, Lincoln Cochran, Cheryl Lawson, and many others.

This new revival has all been accomplished in spite of—and not in harmony with—the goals of Tulsa’s leadership. The conversation about reparations for the 1921 Massacre began days afterward, but as a city, we are still at a stalemate as to whether they’re justified. In the meantime, Greenwood rebuilt despite all efforts to prevent them from doing so. The neighborhood was destroyed again in the name of progress for a car-oriented infrastructure in the city known as the “Oil Capital of the World” from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s. In the mid-1980s, 115 more acres of Greenwood were stolen to build the University Center at Tulsa (UCAT), another promise of progress that failed North Tulsans. Tulsa’s police department has refused any community conversations about excessive use of force, even in the wake of the murder of Terrance Crutcher in 2016. In her January, 2021, piece for the Washington Post, “The ‘whitewashing’ of Black Wall Street,” Tracy Jan described the challenges Black Tulsans face today with the gentrification of Greenwood and North Tulsa.

A new examination of Eddie Faye Gates’ work is long overdue. That may now be possible with the family’s partnership with Gilcrease Museum to be the steward of her collected audio and video interviews, writing, scholarly work, and lectures. The museum received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services specifically to help digitize Gates’ collection that will ultimately be accessible to the public. “It became her mission to ensure the atrocities that occurred during the 1921 Race Massacre are not forgotten and that the survivors’ stories serve to make needed change,” her daughter, Dianne Gates-Anderson, told the Tulsa World in 2020.

William Smith, Ph.D., Program Coordinator of the Museum Science & Management Program at Gilcrease, explains that the Gates family wanted the collection to be professionally archived and made available for research and exhibition. It was also important to the family that the collection remain in North Tulsa. Smith hopes that we as Tulsans, Oklahomans, and Americans will keep learning from this collection for many years to come. “Like any good scholar, educator, and historian, she understood that collective memory can help us identify the gaps, erasures, and silences in our histories, which is the first step to telling truer stories about our communities and ourselves.”

It is collective memory and filling in the gaps of our city’s cultural narratives that may bring us out of our stalemate. When we talk about reparations, we need to be very intentional about what we’re asking for — what is it that we’re looking to repair? Is it time for Tulsa to re-imagine what it means to have a thriving city? Today’s generation of urban planners are learning what Jane Jacobs described in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but that Greenwood and other Black, Native, and immigrant communities have always intuitively understood many generations before she began her advocacy—that cities built for people contain life and growth. 

What if terms like “diversity” and “inclusion” are insufficient? After all, having a seat at the table means nothing if you can’t say anything while you’re there. What would it take for Tulsa to see the value of community and support networks as Eddie Faye Gates saw them? What could we learn from the generation of Tulsans—Black and white—who remember Greenwood before its second destruction?

What if, instead of looking at Greenwood as the subject of pity or framing the conversation about reparations as one of shameful obligation, we might ask ourselves what we can learn from this once diverse, thriving, vibrant place? What would Tulsa be willing to pay for that education? What would reparations look like if we collectively sought to understand, truly understand, what we lost as a city and work together to repair it?