It’s been 98 years since the race riots in Tulsa. (You can read about them in my last blog here)
What has changed?
In 1996, the Greenwood Cultural Center was opened. Their goal is to recreate, renovate and revitalize the Greenwood district that was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (called the Black Wall street by author Booker T Washington). The website refers to the event as a massacre instead of the more common title of “riot”. The goal of the center is the education of Oklahomans and Americans—remembering both the victims and the survivors.
In 2016, an article in Tulsa World (95 years later), said there was still room for improvement. Marq Lewis (head of We the People Oklahoma) said the “historic African-American areas are desolate. They need economic improvement, more school improvement, more grocery stores... “ He concluded by saying “Tulsa is a city divided by races that do not commingle.”
In 2018, for the first time, Tulsa schools added education about the event to their curriculum.
Now, let me tell you about a guy.
George Kaiser, according to Wiki, is the Chairman of BOK Financial and one of 100 richest people in the world. His parents left Germany due to the Nazi occupation and they settled in Tulsa and started Kaiser Frances Oil together with other Jewish refugees. Along with being one of the richest men in the world, Kaiser has a reputation for being a philanthropist on the level of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. He’s committed to giving half of his money away in a “Giving Pledge”. His special interest is childhood poverty and education, but what I wanted to tell you about is a playground.
The Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma is a 66 acre park with playgrounds, parks, skateparks, concert venues and restaurants. It’s ADA compliant and it has desensitization areas for people who have autism and get overwhelmed.
And it’s all free.
The park was Kaiser’s idea. He wanted to turn the waterfront area into a site where Tulsans could get together. His dream turned into the largest private gift to a public park in the US history. The Gathering Place provides safe areas for children to play, adults to meet for coffee, and families to enjoy music or fireworks.
But perhaps the best part of all is the diversity of people that gather together to enjoy the new park. Maybe healing doesn’t begin with talk…maybe it begins with play.
Do you remember Tiananmen Square?
Let me remind you of the 1989 incident. Chinese students became frustrated by inflation, corruption and political restrictions so they started protesting and conducting a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.
In response, the government declared martial law. They sent the military to Beijing—soldiers with machine guns and assault rifles. They attempted to clear the crowds, but protesters responded with shouts and projectiles. Violence from both sides escalated until the army opened fire and began killing both protestors and bystanders.
The government expelled foreign journalists and sought to control coverage of the event in domestic newspapers. As a result the true death count is unknown, but according to estimates from various sources, the figure could be anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand.
I remember when it happened and my first thought was that something like that could never happen here.
But it did.
Last Monday, scientists and forensic anthropologist started searching for mass graves in Tulsa, a result of a race riot that occurred almost 100 years ago. I didn’t remember learning about this episode in US history, so I did some reading.
According to Wikipedia, it happened like this…
Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting a 17 year old white elevator operator. No written account of her statement has been found. She did not press charges and the police did not feel it was an actual assault. However…
A local sensationalist newspaper released a story titled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator” and they implied that Rowland may be lynched (killed, usually by hanging).
White people showed up at the courthouse. The sheriff organized his staff and took steps to keep Rowland safe. Three white men entered the courthouse and demanded that the police turn over Rowland. The sheriff refused.
The black community were worried about Rowland’s safety. They took up rifles and shotguns and also went to the courthouse. Seeing the armed black people, more whites went home for their weapons. The police and local ministers tried to de-escalate the crowd but they failed. A gunfight took place killing several white and black men.
Gunfights continued through the night. Fires were set in the Greenwood district, also known as “Black Wall Street”. Privately owned aircraft, possibly carrying law enforcement, dropped firebombs on buildings and fleeing residents.
The National Guard declared martial law and were successful in stopping the violence.
Here’s where the details get fuzzy. Newspapers covering the event had wildly different accounts of the casualties. Typically both whites and black deaths were listed between 10-25. The Red Cross mentioned up to 300 dead but some now believe thousands of blacks died.
Also lost were almost 200 businesses, several churches, and over a thousand houses which left 10,000 black people homeless.
Six thousand black people were arrested but no whites were prosecuted for their actions during the riot and decades went by with no acknowledgement of the incident. As late as 1970’s, local newspapers were still refusing to publish articles regarding the riots.
Maybe that’s why I’d never heard of this before....
You can watch a short clip about it here.
The Avett Brother's said it well...
I've been to every state and seen shore to shore
The still open wounds of the Civil War
Watched blind hatred bounce back and forth
Seen vile prejudice both in the south and the north
And accountability is hard to impose
On ghosts of ancestors haunting the halls of our conscience
But the path of grace and goodwill is still here
For those of us who may be considered among the living
from the Avett Brother’s album: “Closer Than Together”
Ragnar is an artist whose work is installed in the Dallas Museum of Art. His last name is patronymic. (I didn’t know what that meant either) A patronym is when you incorporate a portion of your father’s name into your own name. Like Johnson, for “son of John”. So I think the second portion of his name means “son of Kjartan”. According to Wikipedia, it’s not actually his family name. Interesting.
Wikipedia says he does video installations and “collective emotion is a hallmark of his practice.”
Nine screens are suspended in a dark hallway in the DMA. Each screen is shot within a different location of the same house. A musician may be sitting at a piano in an elaborate living room or strumming on a guitar in a masculine study filled with books with similar colored spines. A group is gathered on the porch in another video, singing behind a disinterested man beneath an umbrella.
It’s easy to get distracted by the scenes that unfolds in front of you.
I wondered if the man playing a guitar partially submerged in his bubble bath would ruin the instrument. I questioned why some rooms appeared extravagant and in others, the paint was chipping. And what was that man doing in front of the porch…was he symbolic of something?
It takes a moment to realize that each musician is wearing headphones and is creating the music I am listening to. Without seeing each other, or even being in the same area, the melody rises up, drifts back down again, in perfect unison.
It’s beautiful. Haunting.
You should definitely go see it.
What’s the lesson? In the beginning, I was caught up in the visuals. The superficials. I worried about insignificant details and didn’t recognize what was happening.
Ragnar allows you to be a part of the emotional experience of the music. It’s a sensory experience unlike anything I’ve ever done.
You should definitely go see it. (It’s free!)