“Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me—and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.”
The story of Greenwood is not one of tragedy. The neighborhood has suffered systemic racism and tragic events, but these do not define Greenwood nor tell its complete story. Founded in Oklahoma in 1905, shortly before Oklahoma’s statehood, Greenwood became the wealthiest African-American community in the nation. A decade and a half later, in 1921, a white mob attacked Greenwood leaving it in ruins. Despite the despicable acts committed against Greenwood, now known as “The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre,” Greenwood rebuilt, even better than before, with no external aid. In fact, its residents overcame a deliberate attempt by the City of Tulsa to legally prevent them from rebuilding.
Changing the Narrative
In the present day, we—the Tulsa community—ask ourselves: Why does North Tulsa look the way it does? Why have its people failed to prosper and build generational wealth? Why is there a 20-year life expectancy gap between residents of North Tulsa and South Tulsa? The answer we have arrived at, since the discovery of the events surrounding the Race Massacre in May of 1921, is that North Tulsa's neighborhoods were destroyed, and the area has simply failed to recover from that event.
However, this is a false narrative; one that comes from the perspective of the white community in Tulsa.
The Victory of Greenwood endeavors to tell the story of Greenwood from the perspective of the heroes and entrepreneurs who built Greenwood and then rebuilt it after its destruction. Historians have published many books and articles about the days surrounding the 1921 Race Massacre, but Tulsa knows very little about the founding of Greenwood. We as a city know even less about Greenwood's reconstruction. Against all odds, the neighborhood was built again, better than before, and became known as “Black Wall Street”.
The name Victory of Greenwood is attributed to Timantha Norman, executive editor of the Tulsa Star. She and her staff have been wonderful joint partners throughout the process of writing this article series and book and we're grateful for their collaboration.
We began publishing a series of articles in the fall of 2019 with the goal of sharing Greenwood's story from the perspective of its founders and significant historical figures. The project will cover Greenwood’s early history, the 1921 massacre, Greenwood's rebuilding, and its prosperity through the late 1960s, focusing on the neighborhood’s great nationwide legacy. Every day that we work on this project, we uncover a piece of history that Tulsa has not seen for decades-in some cases for over a century.
The article series will be published as a book in May, 2021. We are producing a series of events, a video series, a podcast and a web-based interactive timeline and archive, and will be contributors to the collections/exhibits housed at the Greenwood Rising Museum.
We have listened to our city’s conversation about the massacre and about Greenwood’s history and legacy for the past 20 years and we believe that it is incomplete. This project, for us, is an attempt to tell the story of Greenwood’s triumphs so that as a city we might learn from and be inspired by the people who rebuilt the neighborhood in spite of the tremendous challenges they faced.
Greenwood’s history is incredibly rich, multifaceted, and fascinating. By learning the individual human experiences of Greenwood residents, Tulsa can begin to come together as a community promoting growth, cooperation, equity and respect for all its citizens. Perhaps other communities will look to Tulsa’s efforts and be moved to strive for their own growth and reconciliation. The Victory of Greenwood continues.
John & Loula Williams and their son Bill (left), & B.C. Franklin, June 1921 (right)
Greenwood: 1930s (left), and 1940s (right)