The Tulsa Regional Chamber did the right thing when it publicly donated copies of its records concerning the Tulsa race massacre to the Greenwood Cultural Center on Tuesday.
In places, the chamber’s minutes from 1921 are embarrassing, but the leadership not only released the records, it added an unvarnished commentary pointing out the organization’s shortcomings in annotations prepared by historian and author Hannibal Johnson.
Shortly after a white mob brought death and destruction to Greenwood’s thriving segregated business district, the chamber put out a press release that said, in part, “Tulsa feels intensely humiliated and, standing in the shadow of this great tragedy, pledges its every effort to wiping out the stain at the earliest possible moment and punishing those guilty of bringing the disgrace and disaster to this city.”
Those were brave words, but empty ones.
Within weeks, the records show, the chamber had disbanded its executive welfare committee amid a dispute with the city and with little accomplished; little meaningful help was given to those who had been left destitute and homeless. The city’s business leadership never said another word about “punishing those guilty,” and no white man ever faced criminal sanctions. Meanwhile, Tulsa was looking at Greenwood as a good place for a rail station and helping those who kept the massacre out of the history classes.
The promise to wipe out the stain of the race massacre became a conspiracy to erase it from the world’s memory.
“We know that this simple act cannot undo the damage occasioned by our past action — rather inaction — but we see this gesture as one small step toward atonement,” a statement accompanying Johnson’s annotations says.
Later, the statement says that “we cannot un-live the past,” but we can make sure that we behave differently in the future.
We admire the chamber’s honesty and transparency.
The presentation of records isn’t path-breaking concerning what we know about 1921. Historians had already mined the papers for information and had published them in part.
But if that process leads to a re-examination by the chamber of what kind organization it is and what direction it wants to lead the city, the value is obvious and a model for many Tulsa institutions.