TULSA — Dark clouds and rain hovered added to the somber tone in the Greenwood District Monday as locals and visitors from across the country commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
On the night of May 31, 1921, a white mob flanked by police attacked the predominantly black community, known then as America’s Black Wall Street. Businesses were burned and as many as 300 residents and business owners were killed in the racially motivated attack.
Vernon AME Church was burned during the attack. Only the basement survived. But the congregation rebuilt and dozens gathered outside of the church to commemorate the centennial on the dreary Monday morning.
Bishop William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., told a crowd assembled on the southside of the church that the blood of those massacred “is still speaking” and “you cannot cover over the blood by trying to make a tourist event out of a tragedy.”
“The only way we can honor those that were killed and murdered is we must be more powerful than even they were,” Barber added, “so that nothing like this ever happens again in public policy or in public violence.”
Leaders from Hindu, Islamic, Baptist and Jewish faiths prayed at the service.
Most of the crowd was there to see the legendary activist Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., whose battle with Parkinson’s disease didn’t damper his message to “keep hope alive.”
After the ceremony, Jawara Riley and his sons pressed their hands against the church’s brick wall. Riley bowed his head and told his eldest son, Jalen, to “think about what you want from the future and put it out into the world.” Riley and his wife, Rachel Riley, drove from Colorado Springs to show teach their sons about the past, so they can better understand today.
In the church parking lot, Stephen Wiley used a megaphone to educate passers-by about the congregations that were lost and revived in Greenwood. Wiley is the pastor at Praise Center Family Church in Tulsa and Muskogee.
A waitress at Lefty’s on Greenwood restaurant said they had to shut down early this weekend because the kitchen ran out of food due to an influx of visitors arriving for centennial events. She said it has been a busy and emotional weekend for workers and residents in the area.
On the edge of Greenwood, signs lined the fence at OneOK Field. “This Is Not A Celebration. This Is Not Reparations. This Is Not Justice. This Is Not Resolved. This Is Not A Secret.”
Jasmine Gracey graduated from Tulsa’s Union High School this spring. She learned about the massacre in fifth grade, not because the state requires it but because her teacher understood the value of the lesson, Gracey said.
Gracey and her mother, Alice, attended a town hall at the Greenwood Cultural Center Monday afternoon where massacre survivors and descendants of survivors told their stories and advocated for reparations.
Among the descendants who attended Monday were Charles Edward Christopher II and his son, Charles Edward Christopher III.
The Dallas residents have been in Tulsa for days participating in centennial events. Charles Edward Christopher II’s great-grandparents, John and Loula Williams, owned the Dreamland Theatre and other businesses in Greenwood that were destroyed in 1921.
Christopher II said he has known about the massacre since he was a child but it wasn’t spoken about in detail. It was painful for his family to talk about. And it still is. But it’s becoming a little easier this week as he watches the world recognize the history that his family feared would be forgotten.
“It’s our time,” he said. “Today is our day.”