Ninety-eight years ago, Tulsa became the site for one of America’s most shameful and horrifying events, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Every time the city looks itself in the mirror, the painful scar of the fiery and bloody carnage that unfolded May 31 to June 1, 1921, serves as a constant reminder of our past sins.
In error, some will make the argument the massacre transpired a long time ago and that we should all forget it. I’m obliged to think otherwise, a conviction made obvious when I see Lessie Benningfield Randle, a living survivor at 104.
The natural curiosity of the human spirit probes a critical question: How far has Tulsa come since the massacre?
I am of the humble opinion that most citizens measure Tulsa’s progress by the ending of Jim Crow laws, desegregation of the Tulsa Public School district, the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the election of America’s first black president — Barack Obama.
That quickly overlooks that Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour within the buckle of the Bible Belt we call Tulsa. We expeditiously forget that de facto segregation is alive and well in our neighborhoods and places of employment.
We haven’t come that far when 85% of black Tulsa Public School third-graders aren’t proficient in math and reading, especially considering that yesterday’s generations of black Tulsans built one of the wealthiest communities in American history, the Black Wall Street, which boasted plentiful doctors, lawyers, educators and entrepreneurs.
We haven’t come that far when a black Tulsan has a significantly higher chance of experiencing excessive force by a police officer than a white Tulsan. We haven’t come so far when our city has a life expectancy gap of more than 10 years between black and white Tulsans and when economic inequity still exists.
Diversity and inclusion continue to be the demand from black Tulsans, who look around and see high-paying careers and influential corporate and civic boards lack people who look like them.
This week, Tulsa Regional Chamber cracked its vault, releasing minutes from the summer of 1921, the year of the massacre. The chamber apologized for withholding the records and for its actions and failures to act 98 years ago.
We hear and appreciate the apology, but the records provide renewed evidence of the unfulfilled promise of compensation for the 36 blocks of black businesses and homes that were burned to the ground by racial envy and fear, forever altering the lives of generations to come.
How difficult it was for me to read that historical document as a black man living in the city that I love, today, 98 years later.
But my hopes and dreams have always been one for a united Tulsa, one where my neighborhood’s cultural legacy and excellence would be affirmed and even celebrated from the classroom to the boardroom, from the kitchen table to the pool table and from the burial grounds to the playgrounds.
I write this because hope remains in my spirit when I witness once glorified Confederate names on school buildings peeled away like scabs by Tulsans hungry for unity.
I have hope when school board members and a superintendent make, what I believe, are sincere public apologies and have the courage to change a vote to one that’s inclusive and morally just — as opposed to remaining silent and simply walking away.
I have hope when white folks are willing to put their jobs on the line, risking social reputation and income, to demand publicly justice for their black neighbors. My white friend lost employment fighting for a morally just Tulsa. She gives me hope.
I have hope when Mayor G.T. Bynum and U.S. Sen. James Lankford bare enough courage to recognize yesterday’s institutional wrongs and feel comfortable enough to use terms like white supremacy and acknowledge that what happened to black people in Tulsa in 1921 wasn’t a riot but a massacre.
While watching black and white children play together at the city parks is progress, at the end of the day, when we return to the loudness of our racialized identities, and all that comes with that, we know that due to lingering systemic issues, there remains significant progress that must be made.
So to the descendants of the perpetrators, victims and survivors of the massacre and all who came after: We cannot change the past, but together we can build a future full of brilliant ideas that can make our city the blueprint for racial healing in America. The coming centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre affords Tulsans a once-in-a-lifetime collective opportunity to show the nation what racial reconciliation in America can be.
Nehemiah D. Frank is founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board.