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US: Failed Justice 100 Years After Tulsa Race Massacre

Commission Alienates Survivors; State, City Should Urgently Ensure Reparations

(Washington, DC, May 21, 2021) – The failure by city and state authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to provide comprehensive reparations has compounded the harms of the May 31, 1921, Tulsa race massacre on its upcoming centennial, Human Rights Watch said today in a briefing paper and accompanying video. Authorities should promptly consult with affected community members to develop a comprehensive reparations plan that includes compensation to descendants of massacre victims, and immediately provide direct payments to the three known living massacre survivors, all over 100 years old.

Rather than working on such a plan, city and state authorities have focused most of their efforts on creating the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and its flagship project, the “Greenwood Rising” history center, which is meant to honor the victims and foster cultural tourism. The Centennial Commission has raised at least $30 million, $20 million of which went to build Greenwood Rising, but it has alienated massacre survivors and many descendants of victims by failing to adequately involve them in its planning.

“Creating a museum to showcase victims’ experiences can be part of reparations,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “But when it’s done in lieu of or at the expense of other types of necessary repair, and without properly consulting the survivors or the descendants it can be very damaging.”

At least one survivor, 106-year-old Lennie Benningfield Randle, has issued a cease-and-desist letter ordering the commission to stop using her name or likeness to promote the project. All three living massacre survivors have sued the city of Tulsa, accusing it of continuing to enrich itself at the expense of the Black community by “appropriating” the massacre for tourism and economic opportunities that primarily benefit white-owned or controlled businesses and organizations.

On May 19, the three survivors and several descendants testified before the US House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee about the ongoing impact of the Tulsa race massacre. Chief Egunwale Amusan, a descendant of massacre survivors, said in his testimony, “Today, the same city responsible for the crimes of 1921 are leveraging the suffering of the three living survivors and their descendants in the name of tourism.”

Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the Tulsa race massacre, testifies at a hearing before the United States House of Representatives in Washington, DC, on May 19, 2021. © 2021 Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

In a May 29, 2020, report entitled “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument,” Human Rights Watch detailed the massacre and the failure to prosecute anyone for the violence and subsequent destruction that left hundreds of Black people dead, and more than 1,200 black-owned houses burned to the ground in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, then known as “Black Wall Street.” The report described how the city thwarted attempts to rebuild, as well as more recent discriminatory policies such as redlining, the use of eminent domain and other measures to seize Black-owned property, and highway construction to prevent Greenwood and the broader North Tulsa community from advancing.

A state commission appointed in 1997 by the Oklahoma legislature (1997 Commission) spent nearly four years investigating the massacre with extensive community input. In 2001, it issued its final report with the following recommendations to state and local authorities, in order of priority:

  • Make direct payments to survivors and descendants of the massacre;
  • Establish a scholarship fund to benefit students affected by the massacre;
  • Create an economic enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood district;
  • Create a memorial for the massacre victims and for the burial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves of massacre victims.

In the 20 years since, most of the 1997 Commission’s recommendations have yet to be realized. No compensation has been paid to massacre survivors or descendants of victims. A scholarship fund was created, but since 2003 has only provided scholarships of $1,000 to 172 high school students and it contains no requirement for the recipients be Black or descendants of victims of the massacre.

Although there has been economic development in the historic Greenwood district, it has largely benefited mostly white business owners and developers rather than Black people in Greenwood and the wider North Tulsa area. In addition to the planned Greenwood Rising, the state and city helped to create a memorial, the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Center and Park, named after the acclaimed Oklahoma scholar, writer, and researcher. But it is much smaller in scale than planners envisioned and not fully paid for by public funds. Only in 2020 did authorities begin to exhume suspected mass grave sites of massacre victims.

Human Rights Watch reached out to the Tulsa Stadium Trust, which is responsible for developing parts of Greenwood, but received no response. We also reached out to Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who declined our request for an interview. Oklahoma Senator Kevin Matthews, chair of the Centennial Commission, said he agreed that reparations in line with the 1997 Commission recommendations were needed, but said that was something the Oklahoma legislature needed to do separately and defended the Centennial Commission’s focus on a history center as being important for reconciliation.

In its 2020 report, Human Rights Watch urged state and local authorities to implement the 1997 Commission’s recommendations, but also build upon them to develop a comprehensive reparations plan, in consultation with victims of the massacre, descendants, and the broader Black Tulsa community that were responsive to developments over the two decades since the release of the 1997 Commission’s report. Despite some progress, Tulsa remains a deeply segregated society stemming in part from a failure to provide redress for the massacre, compounded by years of neglect and systemic racism in a variety of sectors. The longer harms go unaddressed, the more difficult it is to develop adequate reparations mechanisms that are proportionate to the gravity of the crime and to the harm caused, Human Rights Watch said.

In September 2020, after years of demanding reparations, including direct payments, survivors and some descendants sued the city and others. The suit seeks acknowledgment that the defendants’ policies, actions, and inactions deprived them of wealth and created inequitable health, education, housing, and employment conditions that can and should be remedied today. It also seeks restitution for the harm caused and lives and property lost, as well as an injunction preventing the defendants from exploiting the likeness of victims and legacy of the massacre for economic gain, particularly to raise funds for Greenwood Rising.

The three living survivors of the massacre have said they do not plan to participate in any of the Centennial Commission’s commemoration events. They will instead headline a community-sponsored event called the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival, which is the only centennial commemoration that includes and centers the survivors. They will be joined by US Senator Cory Booker, US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, and the creators of the HBO hit series “Watchmen,” which was situated in Tulsa and depicted the race massacre in its opening scene. Unlike the Centennial Commission’s events, the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival will emphasize the Black Tulsa community’s demand for reparations.

“If there were ever a time for Tulsa and Oklahoma authorities to rise to the occasion, genuinely reckon with their past, and work to repair the harm, that time is now,” Pitter said. “Instead, they are carrying out centennial commemoration activities in ways that continue to harm Tulsa’s Black community.”  

For more information about steps Oklahoma and Tulsa authorities have taken and not taken to implement the 1997 Commission recommendations and other measures to repair the harm stemming from the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, please see below. 

Victims of gross violations of human rights, like the Tulsa race massacre, are entitled under international human rights standards to full and effective reparations that are proportional to the gravity of the violation and the harm suffered. Reparations include, among other possible measures, direct compensation; truth-telling; measures to rehabilitate victims psychologically; commemorations or tributes to the victims and expressions of regret or formal apology; and measures, including legal and institutional reforms, aimed at preventing the recurrence of such violations. City and state authorities should immediately provide support, including direct compensation, to the known survivors of the massacre who are still alive. They should also develop and implement a comprehensive reparations plan through full consultation with affected community members. In Tulsa, this includes not just victims of the massacre and descendants of victims but the broader Black community.

Centennial Commission
In 2015, 94 years after the massacre, with the centennial on the horizon, Oklahoma Senator Kevin Matthews organized the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which formally launched in 2016. The Centennial Commission describes itself as following on from the work begun by the 1997 Commission. To date, the commission has raised at least $30 million to promote and plan for a variety of events connected to the centennial, as well as initiatives aimed at improving and revitalizing Greenwood. These include a Greenwood Art Project, a Commemorative Grant Program, an Economic Empowerment Day, education initiatives, and its “flagship” project, Greenwood Rising, a history center for which it said it has raised and spent at least $20 million.

The Centennial Commission has used the history, heroes, and imagery of Black Wall Street, but it has failed to involve many of those most directly impacted by the massacre in planning for the commission’s activities, projects, and actions. Many of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed say the Commission has not supported the massacre survivors, the victims’ descendants, or the Greenwood community in meaningful ways. As a result, the commission has alienated key members of Tulsa’s Black community, including survivors and many descendants.

Survivors Ignored
On April 14, 2021, lawyers representing 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield, known in the community as “Mother” Randle, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Centennial Commission, urging them to stop using her name or likeness without her consent in connection with the commission’s work. Phil Armstrong, Centennial Commission project manager, reportedly invoked her name during a public discussion on March 23, 2021. Doing so, her lawyers said, gives the false impression that the Centennial Commission supports Mother Randle’s “quest for justice” and that she benefits from the Centennial Commission’s work. In a press release Mother Randle’s lawyers stated that she currently lives in poverty and has received no support from the Centennial Commission, and that the commission has refused to meet with her despite requests to do so.

The press release quoted Mother Randle saying, “My family and I were 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, feels about their activities around the Centennial … my family and I still invite the Commission to meet to discuss how the Commission could tangibly support me and the other two known survivors who have waited 100 years for justice.”

On September 1, 2020, after seeing no movement on the part of the city or state toward meaningful reparation, Mother Randle, along with several descendants of massacre victims, filed a lawsuit against the city and others asking to be compensated for the losses they endured as a result of the massacre, as well as ongoing harm connected to it. On February 2, 2021, the two other survivors, 107-year-old Viola “Mother” Fletcher, and 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis, joined the suit, amending the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks remedies for government entities’ failure to provide redress following the massacre and subsequent policies that have created additional disparities; conditions that have prevented the plaintiffs from acquiring wealth and accessing jobs, financial security, education, housing, justice, and health. In addition, the lawsuit seeks to bar the defendants from using the names and likenesses of survivors and descendants of massacre victims, as well as the history of the massacre, for their economic benefit; particularly in their efforts to raise money for Greenwood Rising, without any of the funds going to benefit the survivors of the massacre, their descendants, or the broader Black community. It also accuses the city, county, and other government entities of continuing to enrich themselves at the expense of the Black community by “appropriating” the history of the massacre for their own financial and reputational benefit.

“The problem is not that the Defendants want to increase the attraction to Tulsa,” the complaint reads, “it is that they are doing so on the backs of those they destroyed, without ensuring that the community and descendants of those subjected to the nuisance they created are significantly represented in the decision-making group and are direct beneficiaries of these efforts.”

Lack of Effective Outreach
Jamaal Dyer, a pastor in Tulsa whose family owned a funeral home in Greenwood for 50 years, told Human Rights Watch that he had high hopes for the Centennial Commission. Recruited in 2017 to be the commission’s project manager, he said, he thought it could help inform people about what happened in Tulsa, ensure that survivors and descendants were not forgotten, and promote the revitalization of the Greenwood and greater North Tulsa area. He considered community engagement essential to its success. “The key thing we want people to know is that this is a community commission,” Dyer said in 2017. “Give us your ideas. Give us your thoughts.” But two years into the job he said he realized the commission had no intention of involving the community.

He said he suggested numerous times that the commission involve descendants, survivors, and members of the broader Black community in a variety of ways, but the commission leadership refused. For this and other reasons, about two years ago, Dyer said he chose to resign. “Some things took place that were not in line with my morals and beliefs, so I chose to step away and do work in support of Black Wall Street and the community at large.”

Dyer said he was also troubled that the Centennial Commission never considered providing any support to survivors of the massacre or descendants of victims. “It never even occurred to them that maybe they could give even a small portion of what they’ve raised to them,” Dyer said. On March 26, 2021, after not previously taking a position, the Centennial Commission issued a statement on reparations, expressing “strong” support for reparations, but making a distinction between monetary compensation to individuals and investments in public spaces. The statement made clear the Centennial Commission’s focus is the latter while individual monetary compensation “is an important subject for discussion.”

Oklahoma Senator Kevin Matthews, chair of the Centennial Commission, told Human Rights Watch that he supports reparations in the form of direct payments and other assistance, such as housing or health care, but that providing such payments is not a function of the Centennial Commission. “The Commission was never formed to do that. It was formed to create a history center and that has been done,” Matthews said. He said that he and his team raised money for Centennial Commission activities and Greenwood Rising, and that he cannot redirect it to individuals.

However, Matthews formed the Centennial Commission in 2015 and chose to seek legislation that focused on a memorial, and commemorative activities instead of other remedies. Greenwood Rising also was not a project of the Centennial Commission until mid-2019. When asked whether he considered making support for survivors and descendants in the form of housing, healthcare, or direct payments for example, a part of the work of the commission instead of building a history center, Matthews said the Centennial Commission solicited input but that no one ever raised this.

When Human Rights Watch pointed out that the 1997 Commission had made providing direct payments to survivors and descendants its first priority in its recommendations, Matthews said he did not even know about 1997 Commission’s recommendations until years into his work with the Centennial Commission, after he started working with historians. He has since read the 1997 Commission report, he said, and supports the recommendations, but reiterated that he thought the legislature needed to take up the matter separately.

When asked what the Centennial Commission had done to reach out to massacre survivors, descendants, and the broader Black Tulsa community to get their input and views, Matthews said he is a descendant himself but in addition, Brenda Alford, a descendant of race massacre victims, was doing most of the outreach for the Centennial Commission. Human Rights Watch reached out to Alford for comment several times by phone but did not receive a response.

Human Rights Watch spoke with or reviewed statements from more than a dozen descendants of race massacre victims, none of whom said the Centennial Commission had reached out to them to seek their input or suggestions. Lawyers representing the three known remaining massacre survivors and some descendants said they had spoken to scores of descendants who also had not been contacted.  

“I can tell you I’ve received a big fat zero from them in terms of contact,” Barbara Barros, granddaughter of two race massacre survivors said when asked whether the Centennial Commission had contacted her for input. Barros, whose grandmother, Daisy Scott, was a political cartoonist for the Tulsa Star, one of the two Black owned and run newspapers in Tulsa at the time of the massacre, said that none of her more than 40 relatives in Tulsa had been contacted either.  

At a May 20, 2021, press conference in Tulsa, Tedra Williams, a descendant of massacre victims said that in October 2016 she tried to attend a meeting organized by Senator Matthews, after having been invited by another state legislator. But, she said, she was told by Matthews in an email that she could not attend. The email from Senator Matthews, which she shared with those in attendance at the press conference, said:

Hello Teddie, I am sorry for the mix up. The current commission is a working committee for planning. It is not an open committee to the public. All members are elected, or public officials, or have ties to private funding to make this five year initiative happen. Survivors and their families and interested individuals will be able to join a committee and/or be recognized once the current commission finalizes funding mechanisms and National designations required for long term tourism and historical benefit … We are not adding survivor families at this point in the process. We do have opportunities for participation as we move forward in the future, as interviews, videos, audio, photos, print, historical documents are essential to the effort.

On April 7, 2021, Human Rights Watch also reached out Phil Armstrong, project manager for the Centennial Commission via email to request an interview. We received an email response from Armstrong declining our request but forwarding the Centennial Commission’s March 26 statement on reparations.

Human Rights Watch asked Armstrong if he would, in lieu of an interview, answer written questions we sent, including a question about whether the Centennial Commission had worked with survivors of the massacre and descendants in their planning, and if so, which ones. We received no response.

However, a “Frequently Asked Questions” page added to the commission’s website sometime between May 6, 2021, and May 8, 2021, according to web pages saved by the Internet Archive, in response to the question “What has the Centennial Commission done to honor survivors and descendants?” states: “The Greenwood Rising creative team read survivor testimonials and listened to recordings of survivor interviews to inform the exhibits that will educate present and future generations.”

In addition, sometime between March 26, 2021, and April 3, 2021, according to web pages saved by the Internet Archive, the Centennial Commission posted on its website an “invitation to survivors and descendants” to be the commission’s “VIP Guests at Commission Centennial Events.” On April 14, 2021, Human Rights Watch asked J. Kavin Ross about the invitation. Ross, who is a well-known historian of the massacre and a grandson of Isaac Evitt, who owned the Zulu Lounge destroyed in the massacre, was surprised, said it was the first he heard of it, and asked for a link to it. The Centennial Commission’s invitation explained that though the commission had collaborated with some descendants of the massacre, they were issuing the invitation since there was “no updated registry of all survivors and descendants.”

On April 3, 2021, the Centennial Commission did provide a $200,000 donation to Vernon African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. The church, located in historic Greenwood, was damaged during the massacre but has since been rebuilt. At least one descendant of massacre victims praised this donation. “[The Centennial Commission] gave AME Church $200,000, rightfully so, it should have been $2 million dollars,” said Ike Howard, Viola Fletcher’s grandson. Senator Matthews pointed to the Centennial Commission’s provision of up to $200,000 in grants to people wanting to tell the story of Greenwood through art and the Centennial Commission’s Commemorative Grant Program as examples of ways the Centennial Commission had supported the community. The Centennial Commission’s website says the Commemorative Grant Program awards up to $10,000 grants for “community member-driven initiatives and events” during the centennial and says the grants were made possible through the generosity of WPX Energy.

Appropriation of Black Wall Street Heroes, History
Even as it has alienated key members of the Black community, including massacre survivors and descendants, the Centennial Commission has continued to draw on the imagery and history of the Tulsa race massacre and Black Wall Street, as well as the likeness of survivors and descendants, in its promotional materials. While it is understandable that the commission would want to drive public attention to its work, its use of such materials to attract donors for Greenwood Rising and promote tourism to the district has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many community members.

In February 2021, the Centennial Commission took out a full-page ad in a USA Today special edition for Black History Month, with images of an iconic Black Wall Street mural, among others, celebrating Black life in Tulsa. The ad mentioned the Greenwood Cultural Center (Cultural Center), a 25-year-old institution that many describe as the "cultural hub" of Greenwood, and stated: “Tulsa Okla. is leading America’s journey to racial healing. As the city grapples with its painful past, communities are coming together to connect at the Greenwood Cultural Center, [at John Hope Franklin Park], and can experience an emotional opportunity for learning and reflection at Greenwood Rising opening in 2021. Tulsa Triumphs, and you can be a part of this pilgrimage to Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District as the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial is commemorated in May 2021.” The ad directs readers to the Centennial Commission’s visitor page, which includes a “donate” tab.

In addition, as of April 20, 2021, the homepage on the Centennial Commission’s website had a page titled “Honoring a Trailblazer,” with an image of Maxine Horner on it. The page is no longer available on the Centennial Commission’s website, but it is archived here, the eighth slider image. Horner, who died in February 2021, was a longtime Oklahoma state senator, supporter of the 1997 Commission, co-founder of the Cultural Center, and a Centennial Commission member. Oklahoma State Representative Regina Goodwin, a descendant of race massacre survivors who represents the Greenwood District, told Human Rights Watch that Horner told her during a phone conversation in early February 2021 that Horner had left the commission over concerns it was not serving its intended purpose, and that principles were being compromised for money.

Goodwin was also a member of the Centennial Commission but formally resigned last year over “issues of integrity and concern that their activities were misdirected and off purpose,” she said. She also told Human Rights Watch, “How can you have a reckoning with the Tulsa race massacre and do nothing in support of the survivors and their descendants who need help?”

Senator Matthews admitted that the Centennial Commission had used imagery of the massacre, Black Wall Street, and its heroes, but said that so had many others. “Why is it okay for them to do this but not okay when we do it?” he asked.

Community Mistrust – Cultural Center
Members of the community also expressed anger over the way the Centennial Commission courted and fostered a relationship with the Cultural Center, and then used that relationship to raise millions of dollars for its own activities and projects without providing more than a small portion of those funds, $50,000 to the Cultural Center.

Of the $30 million that the Centennial Commission raised, $5.3 million was secured by the commission from the city specifically for Cultural Center renovations. But because these funds are in the form of a bond measure, they were not immediately accessible, according to sources knowledgeable about the financing. Because of the delay, the city provided a $500,000 advance payment on the funds so that the center could make some quick improvements in advance of the centennial. As of April 19, 2020, Tulsa World reported that the Centennial Commission had raised $21 million of a $30 million goal, which included the $5.3 million approved by voters for the bond measure and another $1.5 million in state funding. The rest of the funding came from individual, corporate, and foundation donations. However, the Centennial Commission often fundraised using their cooperation with the Cultural Center, Goodwin and other sources said.

For example, on May 10, 2019, when Greenwood Rising was just a concept, and the Centennial Commission was hoping to build it on the Cultural Center’s parking lot, a Tulsa World article described the announcement of the project as a “joint collaboration of the Race Massacre Centennial Commission, the John Hope Franklin Center of Reconciliation and the Greenwood Cultural Center,” for which $9 million in private funds had already been raised. The story notes that the project was part of a $25 million capital campaign. Though the three entities had entered into an agreement to collaborate, that agreement broke down in April 2020 and the Centennial Commission decided to build Greenwood Rising at another location in Greenwood.

Dyer, Goodwin, and others said that the commission’s fundraising has undermined the ability of the center and other organizations to raise their own funds. Goodwin said she personally requested funding for the Cultural Center from the state during the appropriations process last year but the state gave funding, $1.5 million, to the Centennial Commission for Greenwood Rising instead. The center had previously received a small appropriation from the state that was discontinued about a decade ago.

In addition, members of the community complained they were not consulted, and questioned whether the project would benefit the neighborhood financially. They said they wanted assurances that Black-owned businesses would have a fair chance at construction projects.

“We need transparency,” Kristi Williams, a long-time community activist, descendant of a massacre survivor, and vice chair of the Tulsa African American Affairs Commission, said at the meeting. “I’m really insulted to have just found out about this now, this way, when we should have been involved from the beginning. Greenwood doesn’t just belong to you or me it belongs to all of us,” she said at the meeting. She also expressed concern that so much money and resources would be going into the project when two remaining Greenwood structures were dilapidated and run down, referring to two buildings on the 100 block of Greenwood Street where there are about 20 black owned businesses.

Implementation of the 1997 Commission’s Recommendations

As noted above, in 1997 the Oklahoma legislature established a state commission that spent nearly four years investigating the massacre, incorporating extensive community input. This eleven-member body of academics, lawyers, activists, and businesspeople – including six Black members, one survivor, and two residents of the historic Greenwood community – held open meetings and received extensive community input. Their final 200-page report, released in 2001, is an authoritative account of events and set of recommendations, most of which remain unfulfilled.

  • Direct payments to survivors of the massacre and descendants of survivors:

When the 1997 commission issued its final report in 2001, 118 survivors and 176 descendants had been identified. As noted above, after years of demanding reparations, including direct payments, in September 2020, the three massacre survivors still alive today and a number of descendants, sued city and state entities.

In 2003, more than 200 survivors and descendants filed a federal lawsuit seeking similar relief. That suit ultimately failed after courts decided that it was barred by the statute of limitations. Lawyers representing the massacre survivors and descendants in the current case believe the new lawsuit has a stronger chance of success since it is based on a different theory, one predicated on the ongoing harms, which should not be barred by the statute of limitations.

  • Establish a scholarship fund to benefit students affected by the massacre:

In 2001, the state created the Tulsa Reconciliation Education and Scholarship Program, which, since 2003, has provided 172 high school students $1,000 each, that they could use at any accredited Oklahoma college or public career-technology center. But the scholarship contains no requirement that recipients be Black, be descendants of survivors of the massacre, or have any connection to it in any way.

For generations, the 1921 race massacre was absent from Oklahoma history books and was not taught in Oklahoma’s public schools. In February 2020, state leaders and educators announced that, beginning in May 2021, schools in the district will be incorporating different topics connected to the Tulsa race massacre into their curriculum across all grades, an important and long overdue step.

However, on May 7, 2021, Oklahoma enacted HB1775, a bill that prohibits Oklahoma educators from teaching that any one race or sex is superior to another or in support of racial stereotyping, but also anything that makes students feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

The law is dangerous because teaching about the Tulsa race massacre and other US racist history will likely make students feel uncomfortable and may be stressful, Human Rights Watch said. Though the bill does not explicitly disallow this history from being taught, there is a risk that some districts may seek to use it to avoid discussing the massacre or related issues in the classroom.

After the bill passed, Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education Chair Paula Lewis said “as a mom, community member, and the Chair of the OKCPS Board of Education, I am appalled at the flagrant, attempt to erase factual, incomprehensible history that has occurred in the United States. Our history … if told accurately, is uncomfortable and should be heartbreaking for Americans that look like me, white.”

Importantly, the Centennial Commission took a strong stance against the legislation, urging Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt to veto it. “HB1775 chills the ability of educators to teach students … and will only serve to intimidate educators who seek to reveal and process our hidden history,” Armstrong wrote in a letter to Stitt on May 11. When the governor signed the legislation, the commission removed Stitt as a member.

  • Create an economic enterprise zone:

When asked about reparations in February 2020, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum indicated he did not think direct payments were viable, and said he preferred to focus on developing property in North Tulsa and in the former Black Wall Street area. One of the recommendations of the 1997 Commission was that the city create “an economic enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood district.” City and state authorities have undertaken efforts to develop the Greenwood area, but many members of the community say these efforts have benefited mostly white business owners and developers instead of Black people in Greenwood and in the wider North Tulsa area.

Only a portion of Black Wall Street, the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue located between Archer Street and the Interstate 244 overpass, remains somewhat preserved as a Black-owned business district. Where the thriving Black business district known as Black Wall Street once stood, now stands: ONEOK Field, a multi-purpose sports stadium and home to the Tulsa Drillers baseball team; Oklahoma State University and Langston University satellite campuses; luxury condos; and sushi bars, with Interstate 244 cutting right through Greenwood’s center. A planned BMX area and headquarters, which should be completed this year, promises to “bring extreme sports to Tulsa’s historic Greenwood district.”  

By the time the 1997 Commission issued its final report in 2001, many of Greenwood’s Black residents had already been pushed out of the district by redlining, “urban renewal,” and highway construction. Redlining refers to a federal policy, starting in the 1930s, which rated neighborhoods around the country by their “desirability,” systematically rating Black neighborhoods as “red” or “hazardous,” and making it impossible for people in those communities to access mortgage loans. Highway construction projects, which sought to “redeem” urban areas, disproportionately low-income and Black, were a significant aspect of the urban renewal era. Beginning in the 1950s, the city condemned property in areas including Greenwood, forcing the residents to move to build seven expressways, funded mostly by the federal government, including Interstate 244. Many of those forced to move ended up worse off.

One of the most contentious Greenwood redevelopment projects in recent years was the building of ONEOK Field, which opened in 2010. To develop the project, the City Council voted in June 2009 to require property owners in the area, including Greenwood, to pay an annual fee of 6.5 cents per square foot of land for 30 years. This was assessed to repay a $25 million bond taken out to pay a portion of stadium construction costs and maintenance around the area.

Many Greenwood property landowners objected to the tax saying it was unaffordable, that they did not want the stadium to begin with, and that they did not anticipate benefiting from it. J. Kavin Ross suggested that if the city of Tulsa really wanted to build the field to benefit Black business owners and the Black community, they should have exempted them from the tax.

Many property owners who didn’t pay were threatened with foreclosure and in 2009, many sued the city alleging the tax was illegally assessed. After a nearly four-year court battle, the lawsuit failed as a court found that the plaintiffs had not objected to the tax within 30 days of the city council passing it, as required by statute, even though they had objected shortly thereafter.

Though ONEOK Field has brought many people to the district for games, many longtime Greenwood community members say these visitors are mostly white and they do not bring much value to their local businesses.

“What we were told years ago is that the ballpark would bring jobs. However, when you go to the ballpark, you rarely see a lot of African Americans working there and definitely not in administrative positions. It did nothing to bring jobs to our community, and it has not had a huge impact economically,” said Mechelle Brown, program coordinator for the Cultural Center. Human Rights Watch reached out to Tulsa Stadium Trust, the entity that owns ONEOK Field and to whom the assessment is paid, to ask, among other questions, how many Black people the stadium employs at varying professional levels, but did not receive a response.

A recent survey, known as the Tulsa Equality Indicator Report (see below), found that very few Black people are employed in high level executive positions in Tulsa. Tulsa received a 1 out of 100, the lowest score possible, when measuring equality in the number of business executives by race. “The lack of women and people of color, especially African Americans, in executive-level positions in Tulsa is indicative of a persistent imbalance in the distribution of power and wealth in the Tulsa community,” the report reads.

Former City Councilor Jack Henderson, who is Black and supported the ONEOK Field project from the beginning, however, believes the stadium has helped revitalize the district and inspired commercial development in the area, something he says might not have been possible before the minor league baseball facility existed. “I see it as a positive,” he said.

Some Black business owners in Greenwood have struggled to pay increasing rents. In December, Tori Tyson, who has operated her business, Blowout Hair Studio, in the same location on the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue for 40 years, said she had her rent raised three times by a total of nearly $1,000 a month over the past three years. In December 2020 she was served an eviction notice, which she tried to fight in court. But she lost in March 2021 and had to vacate the premises. To her, the city’s centennial commemoration is just “another slap in the face because the same people who destroyed Greenwood are still here continuing to destroy it, just in other ways.”

Kian Kamas, chief of economic development for the City of Tulsa, admits the city has not done enough to engage the Black community in economic development opportunities. “I think historically, the reality has been, we just weren’t good at that [engaging the Black community],” Kamas recently told the Tulsa People, “[w]e didn’t do it enough. We didn’t have the relationships in place for people to trust us, even when we did ask for their feedback and their opinions and their input. And then, even when we did get that feedback, we might not have listened to it as well as we should have. … We recognize we have to do a much better job at systematizing those forms of community engagement and input.”

For future projects separate from those near ONEOK Field, Kamas said her team is working on creating development opportunities that include more Black community involvement, potentially in land trusts or development corporations, to help ensure all or a portion of revenue generated is reinvested back into a specific community.

Human Rights Watch reached out to the Tulsa Stadium Trust, owners of ONEOK Field, in late March 2021 for comment on these and other issues and did not receive any response. We also reached out to Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who declined our request for an interview.

  • Build a memorial for the massacre victims:

Following the 1997 Commission recommendations, the city and state did provide some funding to build a memorial, but much less than planners hoped. In 2001, the state legislature authorized the creation of a memorial design committee that initially envisioned an $18 million facility with exhibits and archives that would attract visitors from around the world, but the state legislature only appropriated $3.7 million, and in 2008 the city of Tulsa supplemented this with another $500,000. With these funds, and others raised by private donation, the foundation created in support of the memorial, the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, ended up building the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which broke ground in November 2008.

“What the city has done so far falls very short of those five recommendations that [the 1997 Commission] made in their report,” J. Kavin Ross said. “I wish the city and state had done more 20 years ago other than just taking the easy route, supporting the memorial. If so, we would be in a much better position today.”

  • Provide for the burial of any human remains found in search for unmarked graves:

In 1998, after the 1997 Commission was formed, consultants to it began a limited investigation into the potential existence of mass graves stemming from the massacre. This investigation was stalled and not pursued until 2018 when someone questioned the current Tulsa Mayor, G.T. Bynum, at a news conference following a Washington Post report, exposing unresolved questions of the massacre and the failure to investigate the existence of mass graves. Mayor Bynum then restarted the investigation, a decision welcomed by many in the community but also seen as long overdue.

In December 2019, forensic scientists detected anomalies consistent with mass graves in at least two locations, an area called “The Canes,” located on a bluff along the Arkansas River near Highway 75, and the Sexton area of Oaklawn Cemetery, which is a few blocks from Greenwood; two of the three areas identified by the 1997 Commission where there may be mass graves. Project archeologists uncovered at least 12 sets of remains at Oaklawn in October 2020 and evidence of three more possible coffins. The city is still in negotiations with the owner of the third site, Rolling Oaks Memorial Gardens, to allow radar scanning. An exhumation of the remains discovered last year at Oaklawn Cemetery could begin on the centennial on June 1, 2021.

Continuing Racial Disparities Reflect Past and Ongoing Discrimination

Black neighborhoods in Tulsa remain underdeveloped and under-resourced. Large percentages of Black people live in North Tulsa, usually defined as the region above the 244 Freeway and Admiral Boulevard, which is significantly poorer than other parts of the city and includes the historic Greenwood district.

According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch analysis, more than 35 percent of North Tulsa’s population lives in poverty compared with 17 percent in the rest of the city, though in some census tracts in North Tulsa the poverty rate is even higher, with 63.7 percent of residents living in poverty. Citywide, the Black poverty rate is 34 percent while the white poverty rate is 13 percent.

In addition to these disparities, Black people are subjected to more aggressive policing than white people in Tulsa. The rate with which police use physical force against Black people in Tulsa is 2.7 times greater than the rate used against white people on a per capita basis, according to data Tulsa police provided to Human Rights Watch for a 2019 report. While making up about 17 percent of Tulsa’s population, Black people are subject to almost 40 percent of police violence.

Additionally, Human Rights Watch found Tulsa police more frequently stopped drivers in areas that tend to have higher poverty rates and have predominantly Black populations than the rest of the city. Traffic stops are not only more frequent in these sections of the city, but they also last longer, with a greater likelihood of removal from the vehicle, search, questioning, and arrest. Black people in Tulsa are far more likely to get arrested than white people in the city, 2.3 times more likely on a citywide per capita basis, Human Rights Watch analysis found.

The city did undertake an important initiative in 2017 by agreeing to take part in an Equality Indicator program. The program helped Tulsa, one of five other cities selected in 2018 to participate, to develop a tailored tool, in consultation with the community, to measure and track progress toward creating greater equality or equity in a variety of sectors.

The city has produced three annual Equality Indicator reports since 2018. Its overall score has improved, with the city improving significantly in the sectors of education, public services, and public health. However, according to the latest report, life expectancy remained 2.9 times lower in North Tulsa than in South Tulsa, and infant mortality is 3.3 times higher. The report also gave Tulsa the lowest possible score, 1 out of 100, for the existence of “food deserts,” defined as low-income areas with a 20 percent poverty rate or higher that are not within a mile of a full-service grocery store. Nearly three-fourth of residents in North Tulsa lived in a “food desert,” while zero residents did in South Tulsa. On May 17, 2020, the first grocery store in North Tulsa opened, a sign of progress, which may increase Tulsa’s score on this indicator for the next report.

The report also found that unemployment overall for Black people is 2.5 times the rate for white people, and that the white median household income is $24,979 more than the Black median household income, a gap that has slightly worsened since 2018.

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