Tulsa, 100 Years Later : Code Switch In the spring of 1921, Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma's Greenwood neighborhood were attacked by a mob of angry white people. More than 300 people were killed, and thousands were left homeless. Now, 100 years later, Tulsa is still reckoning with what lessons to take from that deadly massacre.

Tulsa, 100 Years Later

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1000118546/1000379567" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Just a heads-up, this episode contains a racial slur.

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And we are going back a hundred years to Tulsa, Okla.


MERAJI: World War I is over. Oil's been discovered. Tulsa's a boomtown. People are getting rich fast. And a neighborhood called Greenwood is thriving.

Lessie Benningfield Randle has vivid childhood memories of Greenwood. She's 106 years old but still remembers her home, her toys, this feeling of safety and security. She says she was lucky.


LESSIE BENNINGFIELD RANDLE: My community was beautiful and was filled with happy and successful Black people.


MERAJI: Her community was in a part of North Tulsa that African Americans were restricted to living in. Yet it had blocks and blocks of homes and shops and restaurants, doctors' and lawyers' offices, even its own luxury hotel.


BENNINGFIELD RANDLE: Then everything changed.


MERAJI: What took years to build was destroyed in two days by white Tulsans.


BENNINGFIELD RANDLE: They burned houses and businesses. They just took what they wanted. Then they burned the buildings. They murdered people. We were told they just dumped their dead bodies into the river.

MERAJI: All this horror over a false account printed in the local paper about a Black boy assaulting a white girl. White Tulsans, jealous and resentful of the Black residents of Greenwood, used that fake story as a call to arms. As many as 300 people were killed.


BENNINGFIELD RANDLE: By the grace of God, I am still here.

MERAJI: We're listening to parts of Mother Randle's testimony to Congress on May 19, 2021, demanding justice for this atrocity. The residents of Greenwood never received compensation for what happened, and Mother Randle says they were made to feel crazy for asking for things to be made right. She says that's been going on for a hundred years.


BENNINGFIELD RANDLE: And I am tired. We are tired.


MERAJI: A century after one of the country's most deadly racist massacres, is Tulsa, Okla. finally ready to atone for what happened? Or will people like Mother Randle, who have been waiting for things to be made right, have to keep waiting? That's what CODE SWITCH correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates and producer Alyssa Jeong Perry went to find out when they traveled there recently. And as you've all probably surmised, Gene's out this week, but Karen is here. Hey, Bates.


MERAJI: All right. So we all knew on the CODE SWITCH team that the centennial of this horrific event was going to get a lot of media attention. And you and Alyssa were going out to Tulsa. What were you hoping to cover there?

BATES: Well, we knew a lot of new projects dedicated to telling the story of the massacre were going up in and around Tulsa - art exhibitions, music, drama. There were plans for a winding educational walkway called the Pathway to Hope that will symbolically reconnect Greenwood to the rest of Tulsa. And there's a brand-new multimillion-dollar museum being erected to commemorate the massacre called Greenwood Rising. So we thought we'd take a look at the art and cultural exhibits that were rising from those century-old ashes.

MERAJI: That make sense. But I know you, Karen.

BATES: (Laughter).

MERAJI: And I feel a but coming (laughter).

BATES: There is a but coming. You know how reporting goes, Shereen. You leave with a story you think you're going to do, then you get on the ground, and you discover that what you're seeing is way different from what you expected to.

MERAJI: Yes. And this happens to me more often than it doesn't. So what made you and Alyssa shift your focus?

BATES: Well, we were expecting a lot of buzz and excitement all around these new projects and around the money and art and attention that was coming to the city.

MERAJI: Right.

BATES: And there definitely was that. But a whole lot of what we heard from longtime Tulsans, especially Black Tulsans, had a very different tone.

MICHELLE BROWN-BURDEX: People are concerned that there is so much interest in the Greenwood district and in telling the story now that there seems to be a way to capitalize on it.

J KAVIN ROSS: My great-grandfather was the owner of Isaac Evitt's Zulu Lounge, which the freeway to the north sits upon the footprints of his former business. Basically, that freeway is standing on top of my inheritance.

TORI TYSON: Give some of the land back that Greenwood owned. Honor the spirit of the - what Greenwood was built on.

MERAJI: So it sounds like all these new projects, Greenwood Rising, et cetera, et cetera, are not quite doing it for these folks.

BATES: Not quite. That was Michelle Brown, J. Kavin Ross and Tori Tyson. You'll hear more from Michelle in a little while. Kavin and Tori are both descendants of folks who survived the massacre in Greenwood, and, like many of the people we spoke to, they were conflicted by what was happening.

MERAJI: How so?

BATES: Well, they said that more people knowing about the Tulsa massacre was good. It's something that's been hidden from history for far too long. But at the same time, Shereen, they fear that this wave of new attention could be another instance of pushing Black Tulsans further and further to the margins. Just one quick example, Tori Tyson - we just heard from her - owns a hair salon, Blow Out Hair Studio. It was located in historic Greenwood for decades until rent got too high and Tori was forced to relocate a couple months ago.

TYSON: I might tell you without crying. You know, it was hard. It was hard leaving with my family, the customers, the history.

BATES: Tori's grandfather had worked in that hotel in Greenwood before the massacre. Her grandmother had owned a hamburger restaurant that got burned to the ground. And now all these years later, she feels like she's being pushed out yet again, not by brute force but by an untenable economic situation.

MERAJI: And unfortunately, Tori's story about being pushed out of her neighborhood for economic reasons is all too familiar.

BATES: It is, Shereen. And it made us wonder, who is this new Greenwood, this Greenwood 2.0, for?


BATES: And can you build for the future in Tulsa without fully acknowledging the city's troublesome past?

MERAJI: We're going to talk about all that after the break.


MERAJI: Shereen.

BATES: Karen.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. All right, Bates. Before the break, we told listeners about the Greenwood from a century ago, a Black neighborhood that was so prosperous it earned the nickname Black Wall Street. That was Greenwood then. What's Greenwood like now?

BATES: Greenwood itself is pretty intimate, Shereen. Everything is just a short walk from everything else, which is nice. There are a couple of three-story brick buildings, which are basically all that remains of the 1920s Black Wall Street, and even those were rebuilt right after the massacre. There's a couple small restaurants, a bail bonds outfit, a holistic health store. Around the corner is ONEOK, a new minor league baseball field, and down the street, towering over everything, is the metal skeleton of Greenwood Rising, that new museum we were talking about earlier, which is supposed to open sometime soon. And right on the edge of the neighborhood are a set of train tracks.

Railroad tracks still divide Greenwood from the rest of the city, and now they've added highways. Urban renewal, which some people sardonically call urban removal, has slashed through a lot of residential Greenwood, courtesy of eminent domain, and so it's been sectioned off even more. So this little island of Black culture and wealth that existed 100 years ago is really fighting to hang on. And we don't know how that's going to turn out because there are other interests, private investors, both from here and abroad, who see this as a very lucrative proposition.

MERAJI: So let me get this straight. A hundred years ago, you had those train tracks. They were there, and they were the dividing line between Black and white Tulsa. And now Greenwood has been chopped up even further and subdivided thanks to freeways and highways. Even more recently, parts of Greenwood are being bought up by various investors.

BATES: And this, Shereen, is why many longtime Greenwood families are so frustrated. They worry that soon there won't be much left of old Greenwood.

NEHEMIAH FRANK: I feel like it's gone. Yeah, I feel like it's gone.

BATES: Nehemiah Frank is the owner, publisher and editor in chief of The Black Wall Street Times, a digital newspaper that takes a critical look at Greenwood's equity issues.

FRANK: My family - they own businesses on Black Wall Street. They own real estate in Black Wall Street.

BATES: But, Nehemiah says, so many of the families that wanted to stay in Greenwood couldn't rebuild their homes there. After the massacre, the city passed new safety and zoning laws that purposefully made rebuilding there prohibitively expensive. In fact, an editorial in the Tulsa Tribune back in the day, called "It Must Not Be Again," argued in no uncertain terms that, quote, "Niggertown," unquote, must never be allowed in Tulsa again.


FRANK: I like to call it the dry massacre - right? - without the bullets and the bombs and the mob. It was - yeah, a massacre by, you know, legislation. That's what that was.

BATES: Now, Nehemiah thinks, the only way to make things right by Tulsa's Black community would be for the city to offer up some form of reparations - zero taxes for residents of Greenwood, housing grants, business grants because even for people who live in or near Greenwood, the obstacles to owning a business there are still enormous.

FRANK: I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones, you know, because people believed in, you know, the mission of The Black Wall Street Times, so they - you know, they helped fund us. They bought ads. They participated in events. You know, I feel like I'm one of the lucky ones that gets to have a business.

MERAJI: Reparations has been a constant theme in our episodes lately. But it's not just Nehemiah who is asking for monetary repair for what went down. The survivors and descendants who spoke to Congress did too, like Mother Randle.

BATES: Yep. And Nehemiah wasn't the only one who brought that up while we were in Tulsa, Shereen. Several of the people we interviewed said the same thing. But Nehemiah told me that ahead of this centennial, he expected many people in Tulsa to paint a vastly sunnier picture of where the city has arrived. And he warned us not to buy that version.

FRANK: You're going to hear a lot of kumbaya. You're going to hear people saying that Tulsa is, you know, at the forefront of race relations and, you know, race reconciliation in the country. And that is the farthest from the truth. And it'll remain, you know, being the farthest from the truth until the white leaders in this city face their own histories.

MERAJI: Yeah, and it's worth mentioning here that Mother Randle - Lessie Benningfield Randle, who we heard from earlier, the woman who testified before Congress - she has been frustrated as well.

BATES: Yeah.

MERAJI: She recently sent the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which is responsible for the new Greenwood Rising museum - she sent them a cease-and-desist letter, asking them to stop referencing her as if she supports this work. And I'm just going to read a part of her statement. It says, quote, "My family and I are shocked to hear that the commission is dedicating much of their work to me since they have refused to meet with me, did not allow me an opportunity to participate in the commission's planning, and declined to enter discussions on how I, a living survivor of the massacre, feel about their activities around the centennial." So, yeah, some people are less than thrilled with what's going on.

BATES: Yeah. And Shereen, we reached out to the Centennial Commission to see if they had any comment about what Mrs. Randle had said, and I haven't heard back from them yet, so stay tuned.


MERAJI: Well, you also spoke to some people who had a different perspective from all this, and they are happy with what's going on and the progress. Who are they, and why do they think things are good?

BATES: You know, we spoke to the interim director of the Tulsa Development Authority, a man named Casey Stowe. He thinks that the new investment in Tulsa is great. He told us that so many properties in and around Greenwood have been lying vacant for years. Now they're finally being built into something that people from the community can use. We also wanted to get a perspective from the official leader of the city, so we decided to pay a visit to the mayor himself at his office downtown.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So I'm just going to set her levels, and then I'll set yours.

G T BYNUM: Great.

BATES: G.T. Bynum has been the mayor of Tulsa since 2016, and, like Nehemiah and Tori, his family goes way back in the city. In fact, his great-great-grandfather on his dad's side was Tulsa's second mayor back in 1899. And his maternal grandfather served as Tulsa's mayor from 1970 to 1978.

MERAJI: So Mayor Bynum is from a very politically powerful Tulsa family, it sounds like.

BATES: Yeah, he definitely has a certain pedigree. And he also has a different perspective on the attention and investment that's coming to Tulsa these days.

BYNUM: I think there's strong support in the community for - around economic revitalization. And again, I know that because I ran for mayor on that. In the time that I've been mayor, we've recruited over a billion dollars in private investment into the predominantly African American part of our city.

BATES: From the huge glass windows on the 15th floor of City Hall, you can see some of that, like the new BMX headquarters that's going up and a bike track. Except for that one-block stretch of vintage Black Wall Street, Shereen, much of Greenwood has already been claimed for development. I asked the mayor if he worried that all this new development would change the essential nature of Greenwood because, after all, its history is a big part of what would draw visitors to the area, right?

Are you worried that with the money that's coming into Tulsa that may have been spurred by the centennial in part - and into Greenwood, even - that the nature of Greenwood is going to change? You know, there are a lot of cities around the country where money has come into previously marginalized communities, and the communities aren't marginalized anymore, but the people who were marginalized in the communities can't afford to live there because everything's new and shiny and expensive. Could that happen in Greenwood?

BYNUM: It could if we're not careful, which is why we've initiated at the city a planning process that we're moving forward with over the next year or two that involves the community in determining the land use policies and development options for the surrounding area.

BATES: The mayor says that whatever is built on the remaining empty parcels in Greenwood will be done by the Tulsa Development Authority in consultation with the community. And that's fine with some people. Others, as we heard, are more skeptical, right? Many of the descendants of the massacre and the people who advocate for them want something else. So I asked the mayor what he thought about the idea that Nehemiah brought up - you know, that some families want to be paid for what they've lost.

BYNUM: If the context is around cash payments, well, where does that come from?

BATES: Bynum says that while almost all Tulsans will acknowledge something terrible happened in Greenwood, he thinks many of them would balk at paying to correct this unfortunate part of the city's history.

MERAJI: And he's pretty sure of that, that they'd balk at the idea?

BATES: I think that's a pretty safe guess.


BYNUM: And I think there is greater resistance on that front in the community because it would necessarily have to come from a tax levied on this generation of Tulsans, and the idea of financially penalizing this generation of Tulsans for something criminals did 100 years ago - that's a hard thing to ask.

MERAJI: Yeah, this is something we hear over and over again from certain white people. They'll acknowledge that something terrible had happened but then say, but we weren't alive then. We are not the ones who did that. We didn't burn businesses and kill people and throw them in the river, so why do we have to pay for the mistakes our ancestors made?

BATES: True, Shereen. But Mayor Bynum says that while he doesn't see direct cash payments as a feasible option right now, there are other resources in development coming to the community that he thinks could help change Tulsa and everyone who comes to visit.

Could you consider Greenwood Rising sort of part of an in-kind reparation? It's sort of being built in Greenwood. There's lots of money pouring into it. It's going to serve a purpose of education and enlightenment. I don't know. I mean, is that the sort of thing when you're saying people might be amenable to reparations as long as they're not handing out checks and taxing people?

BYNUM: No, I think that is exactly what I'm talking about. And I think that museum is so important because you're going to have generations of students in this community grow up knowing more about this event than the past generations of their family did and be able to take the lessons from that event - you know, really, what happens when hate and division is allowed to break down civil order in a community, the tragedy that can come of that.


BATES: Shereen, I think most people would agree that it's good for as many people as possible to know about the massacre in Greenwood. The Tulsans I spoke to all said understanding that history was crucial.

MERAJI: Yeah, I don't think anybody listening to this would dispute that.

BATES: But I spoke to some people who wanted to emphasize that Black people in Tulsa have already been doing this work for decades. I'm going to take you to the Greenwood Cultural Center. It's been a community mainstay for more than three decades. It's got a history exhibit about the massacre filled with sepia-toned photographs from 1921.

MERAJI: Wait. Wait a second. I'm going to stop you right there. So there is already a museum-type experience in Greenwood to educate people about what happened in 1921?

BATES: There is. And it's open to the public. Michelle Brown-Burdex is the program coordinator for the center.

BROWN-BURDEX: Aside from our pictorial exhibits that we have on display, we maintain the Mabel B. Little Heritage House next door, which is a home that belonged to race massacre survivors.

BATES: And the center's also a gathering place for Black Tulsans. It's spacious enough to host everything from lectures and conferences to galas and weddings. Many families in North Tulsa have sent their children there for after-school programs during the year and for summer day camp. Although the center was closed during COVID, it still served the community.

BROWN-BURDEX: But we've been just as busy during the pandemic with our facility being closed as we were before then.

BATES: Michelle's the center's institutional memory and its ad hoc historian. She came as a young assistant 25 years ago, and she never left. The day we met her, the center hadn't technically opened yet - COVID restrictions - but it was reopening in a few days, and its small staff was stretched to the limit, preparing for all the centennial visitors they knew they'd be getting.

BROWN-BURDEX: People are concerned that there is so much interest in the Greenwood district and in telling the story now that there seems to be a way to capitalize on it, to commercialize it, and that is disrespectful. We are hoping that all of the financial investment into telling this story, promoting the history, investing in organizations - that this continues after the spotlight is no longer on Tulsa. After the commemoration has passed and things seem to settle down in Tulsa, we're hoping that that type of passion and commitment continues because for us, the story - everything doesn't culminate during the commemoration.

MERAJI: It sounds like Michelle is doubtful that there is going to be continued support after the centennial in the way that she's hoping for.

BATES: Well, she knows the history, you know? For 100 years, just about, nothing's really been done to fix Greenwood. So what makes now different?

BROWN-BURDEX: The railroad tracks just south of here that you can see from outside the Greenwood Cultural Center were a dividing line in 1921. Today, those railroad tracks are still a dividing line in 2021, dividing the north Tulsa community from the city of Tulsa as a whole. And there is so much discrepancy that if you live north of those railroad tracks, your life expectancy is 11 years shorter.


BATES: Some things do seem to be changing slowly, though. Michelle says north Tulsa finally got a much-needed full-service grocery store just a few days ago, for example. But she's concerned that so many people still don't know Greenwood's history, the glory that was Black Wall Street and those gore-soaked two days when a thriving community was erased. She believes it's essential for people to know the before and the after.

BROWN-BURDEX: When you ignore the history of the massacre, you're also ignoring the significance of Black Wall Street and how so many African Americans in 1921 were able to build this thriving, Black-owned business district with lawyers and doctors, hotels, pharmacies, many of the things that we don't have in our community today.

MERAJI: I think it's really important to be honest and to say that, Karen, I had no idea about the Greenwood massacre until 2015. And I remember exactly when I learned about it. I was covering the unrest that was sparked by Freddie Gray's death at the hands of the Baltimore police. He was in Baltimore police custody. And I was in Baltimore. I was at an event taking place at a Black church. I was standing at the back of the church, all the way at the back against the wall with all my audio equipment hanging all over me. And an older Black man walked up to me. And he started asking me, you know, how the reporting was going, what I was doing, who I was talking to. And we kept chatting.

And then he said, you know, you know what you reporters never talk about (laughter)? And I said, what? Tell me, what don't we talk about? And he said, you don't talk enough about Black self-reliance. You don't talk about the importance of buying Black and Black business ownership. And he went on to talk about, you know, how fast money leaves a Black community versus how fast it leaves a white community. And then he added, but it wasn't always that way. And he said, I bet you've never even heard of Black Wall Street. And I had to admit that, no, you know, I hadn't. So he walked away. And he said, look it up.

BATES: Yeah (laughter).

MERAJI: And I did.

BATES: This is so weird, Shereen. My sister and I were talking about this just last night, about how so much of what we initially learned about Black history did not come from school, but from Black teachers and Black Sunday school teachers who took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps left in public education.


BATES: So I heard about Greenwood when I was pretty young. But that was despite, not because of, my formal education.

MERAJI: Yeah. And, you know, I feel like that's still happening. I don't think this is taught in schools right now still.

BATES: Well, as a matter of fact, Shereen - speaking of public schools - one final irony. The day Alyssa and I left Tulsa, we saw a report that Oklahoma's Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, was signing a bill into law that forbids teaching critical race theory in the state's public schools. This new law bans teachers in K through 12 schools from teaching lessons that would cause, in the governor's words, "discomfort, guilt, anguish or psychological distress to any student because of their race or gender."


BATES: Yeah. How does that saying go? Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it.


MERAJI: And that is our show. Thank you, Karen Grigsby Bates, for bringing us your wonderful reporting.

BATES: You're welcome. This story was reported by me and Alyssa and produced by Alyssa. It was edited by Leah Donnella with help from Steve Drummond and fact-checked by Jess Kung.

MERAJI: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Gene Demby, Summer Thomad, Natalie Escobar, Kumari Devarajan and LA Johnson.

BATES: And a special thanks to our photographer Chris Creese, who accompanied us for part of the trip. You'll be able to see his portraits on the CODE SWITCH website.

MERAJI: You can find us on Twitter. I'm @radiomirage. Karen's at @karenbates.

BATES: And there's a short list of Tulsa-related books, because we're all about books, at our website, npr.org/codeswitch. Gene will be back next week. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

BATES: See ya.

MERAJI: Peace.


Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.