Greenwood Rising: a history museum, a monument to history
TULSA, Okla. – How to best commemorate the heroes and the events of time? You raise a statue, put a plaque, don’t you? But history cannot be contained in objects. It’s a slow explosion of a dirty bomb. An event like the George Floyd murder may sound like a sudden flame that lit a fuse, but in fact that fuse has been unrolling, burning and smoldering for generations, and will continue to do so.
Some of our most interesting new historical monuments seem to be designed with this dynamic in mind. They take the form of museums: walk-in, multimedia, spaces rich in context. Recent examples include the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, which debuted in 2017, and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened the following year. Here in Tulsa, another museum-monument has just been added to the count.
Entitled Greenwood Rising, it is devoted to three interlocking narratives: the long history of racial violence in the United States; the story of a black community which for a time managed to avoid this violence; and the story of what happened when that violence finally ended.
For two consecutive days in the late spring of 1921, Tulsa witnessed one of the largest and deadliest episodes of white-against-black terrorism on record in the United States. After a rumor spread that a black man attacked a white woman in the city’s downtown core, an armed white mob invaded the then thriving African-American neighborhood of Greenwood and set it on fire. The entire neighborhood – some 35 blocks of residential and commercial properties – was leveled. As many as 300 black Americans were killed and nearly 10,000 were left homeless.
Then, for nearly a century, the massacre fell into oblivion. For various reasons – trauma, shame, moving – the people who lived through it were silent. The politicians haven’t talked about it. Schools did not teach it. It is only very recently that it has returned to view, notably as dramatized in the 2019 HBO series “Watchmen”. And as the 100th anniversary of the attack approaches, Tulsa has decided to recognize and commemorate it. A 1921 Tulsa Running Massacre Centennial Commission was formed, with the Greenwood Rising Museum as the flagship project.
The work of New York-based design firm Local Projects and Selser Schaefer Architects, Greenwood Rising is centrally located in the still existing North Tulsa neighborhood. Although no pre-1921 structure survived the racist pogrom, two landmarks, a short distance from the museum, remain in place: a railway line that drew a line between white and black Tulsa, and an elevated highway that was built in the ‘revival’ of the 1960s and sliced the then revived Greenwood but struggling like an injury.
Although the neighborhood was originally shaped by Jim Crow’s segregation, its early black community – which included lawyers, doctors, educators, and real estate developers – turned racial exclusion into entrepreneurial gold. At the start of the 20th century, the neighborhood was wealthy and self-sufficient. Booker T. Washington, after an admiring visit, called him “the Negro Wall Street,” and Greenwood returned the favor by naming his main public school for him.
The museum’s opening galleries, labeled “Greenwood Spirit”, pay tribute to these founders with a photographic portrait salon. And it evokes the everyday lives of its citizens in a sort of barbershop setting, with swivel chairs, vintage news clips, and three holographic hairdressers joking as they work to underestimate clients, professional hopes. and the growing threat of white resentment.
“The people right in front of these tracks hate us because we do better than them,” says a barber named Jerome. “They will use our success to justify their hatred.”
The hatred was real, national and already old. Its trajectory is traced on the walls of a gallery called “Arc of Oppression”, in a chronology composed of images and overwhelming objects: chains of slaves from the 19th century; a photo of a Black Chain gang; another of a lynching; a whip; and a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
(The reverberations lasted for decades: Brady Street, which runs through today’s downtown Tulsa Arts District, was named after Wyatt Tate Brady, a founder of Tulsa and member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 2013, city council, under pressure and in a compromise measure, voted to keep the name but transfer the namesake to Mathew Brady, the Civil War photographer.)
The barber’s timeline and installation, with its references to everyday Greenwood life, provide context for the museum’s multimedia centerpiece, a filmed recreation of the 1921 massacre projected onto ceiling-high plinths with a track audio adapted from the stories of disaster survivors.
If Greenwood Rising had been conceived of as simply the museum equivalent of a docudrama, or as a memorial to a disaster, its mission would likely end here, with a climactic event that, in its centenary, has gone from almost unknown to being the equivalent of a last-minute sensation, filled with a visit to the disaster scene by the President of the United States. (Mr. Biden walked around the neighborhood a few days ago, not stopping at the not quite finished museum. A dedication ceremony was held there later in the presence of more than 100 descendants of massacre survivors. )
In fact, the evocation of this event occurs about halfway through the museum. There is much more material to see and read yet to come, in galleries that follow the history of the neighborhood to the present day.
What we get first is a sort of resurrection story, that of a community that, after unspeakable destruction, has physically rebuilt itself, despite the roadblocks in its path. Tulsa city commissioners have passed fire ordinances to ban reconstruction. White-owned insurance companies have refused to be compensated for property lost in what has been called a “black uprising”. Black Tulsans’ appeals to the United States government for reparations were dismissed and came to nothing. (The fight for them continues today.)
However, the district has effectively recovered and flourished; a group of 1940s signs bear witness to a lively commercial and cultural revival, as does a cry, in the form of a second portrait gallery, to its charismatic figures, including musicians, writers and preachers. (You can find more such material in the local, archival-rich Greenwood Cultural Center, which has provided significant loans to Greenwood Rising and is currently exhibiting selections from the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.)
In the 1960s, a slow decline began. The reasons were multiple and complicated. As in the Bronx in the same decade, “urban renewal” has targeted black and immigrant neighborhoods, locking them up and tearing them apart. Greenwood was one of them. Simultaneously, the legal end of segregation weakened the unifying impulse that once helped create a solidly black and proud socio-economic enclave.
In the last gallery, “Journey to Reconciliation”, we enter the present and exchange a familiar museum experience, rich in images, for a participatory experience. The images here are mostly texts emblazoned on the walls, starting with two questions: “How do you take down the anti-black systems?” How can we come together as a community? “
Additional checklists address specific themes: educational inequality, criminal justice reform, reparations, and – immediately relevant to Greenwood in 2021 – gentrification. Together, they aim to provoke public reflection and interaction, to transform the museum into a social space, a mixture of public forum, classroom and therapy session.
For visitors accustomed to the conventional “do not speak, do not touch” museum model or the memorial in statue or plaque form – and there are several such monuments in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park nearby – this fluid environment can be uncomfortable, or negligible. In my opinion, it is crucial to define what can be both a history museum and a monument to history.
Museums are valuable in that they connect the past to the present and illuminate and assess both. In Greenwood Rising, the connections are obvious and we are invited to reflect on it, to recognize that the white-against-black violence of 1921 is still with us and that the denial of black rights, like racism, remains entrenched. The very presence of this museum in a neighborhood that is still predominantly black, but which no longer belongs to a few blacks, is a reminder to what extent the first uprisings in Greenwood were a struggle and that of today.
And there is an uprising going on, in this neighborhood, in this city and in this country. You can read it symbolically in the fact that Greenwood Rising exists in the larger context, in a dark red state, and in a city where Donald Trump chose to hold one of his first mass gatherings after the coronavirus took hold. closed most of the country.
The change is happening, nowhere near fast enough, or strong enough, or whatever, but it’s there, and it’s complicated as hell. We need museums that will explain it, good and bad, from time to time, and monuments that will honor and call it. Greenwood Rising does it all.
Rise of green wood
23 North Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa, Okla. The opening to the public is tentatively scheduled for July 3. greenwoodrising.org.