Getting to Know Tulsa—Black Wall Street and Beyond

Tulsa-history-in-the-making-mural
"History in the Making" mural by Skip Hill in Greenwood. Image: courtesy of Tyler Layne Photography via Visit Tulsa.

When most of us think of Tulsa, we can’t help but focus on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. For the centennial last year, the massacre rightfully dominated the news cycle. After seeing the HBO shows Watchmen and Lovecraft Country recreate the horrific 1921 events of May 31 and June 1 when mobs of armed white men destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood District known as Black Wall Street for its many Black-owned businesses after a young Black man was arrested for allegations of assaulting a young white woman with no justice for Greenwood survivors and descendants, Tulsa is understandably not a must-see destination for most. 

Gentrification, especially in the Greenwood District, is an issue just like it is in many other places. And, disgracefully, those with Black Wall Street roots, where lives were lost, along with an estimated 10,000 Black people becoming homeless and damages of more than $30 million in today’s currency never recouped, are still fighting for reparations. Yet, surprisingly, some Black folks, who work remotely or are self-employed, have elected to relocate to the city through the Tulsa Remote program which is offering $10,000 grants and other perks to boost the city’s population. So should you find yourself in Tulsa, you might discover that it’s not quite what you expect. For one, it’s surprisingly affordable for what you get and scores high for its walkability as well as rideshare services that don’t break the bank. Below are just a few suggestions on how to get the most out of your visit.

GREENWOOD

Addressing injustice is a driving theme at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park (321 N Detroit Ave) named for the Tulsan who grew up to become one of the nation’s fiercest Black history advocates. An academic titan who taught at several institutions, including Howard and Duke, where he ended his career, Franklin, who passed away in 2009 at age 94, penned the bestselling textbook, From Slavery To Freedom. In addition to Franklin being six when Greenwood was attacked, his father Buck Colbert “B.C.” Franklin, an attorney, defended the survivors. So Dr. Franklin was very vocal about Tulsa and Black Wall Street throughout his life long before it became a pop culture staple. 

Sculptures created by the legendary Ed Dwight make loud statements. Most notable among them is the 26-foot-tall Tower of Reconciliation tracing Tulsa’s Black American history from Africa from 1541 to now through enslavement, the Trail of Tears, military service, Black towns and more. It is surrounded by the Healing Walkway, which includes moving quotes and poems. In-person tours of the park, with COVID protocols observed, also share the area’s complex history, including the trauma of the massacre. Thanks to the virtual option, you need not be in Tulsa to view the park. 

Murals, often bearing the “Black Wall Street” tag, serve as constant reminders of what happened here. Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church (311 N Greenwood Ave), which offered refuge to massacre victims, is still standing and holding services. Across from the church is the Greenwood Cultural Center (322 N Greenwood Ave), dedicated in 1995, that extends beyond the trauma of the massacre and also documents the triumphs of the community, including how Black Wall Street rose again until Interstate 244 cut through it, as well as Black Tulsans’ long fight for justice for Greenwood. A community center at its core, conversations and strategy meetings around reparations are frequently held here as well as other events that help to serve and advance the needs and concerns of Black people. Down the street is the much newer and much flashier Greenwood Rising Black Wall St. History Center that opened just last year.

EATS, DRINKS, KICKS & CULTURE

For those looking for a taste of traditional Black Tulsa, Wanda J’s Next Generation (111 N. Greenwood Ave) serves up some of the best fried chicken and catfish around. Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge (10 N. Greenwood Ave S-101), on the other end, is more community center than mere coffee shop. Lefty’s on Greenwood(10 N. Greenwood Ave, Ste. A) is not Black-owned but is known as a friendly spot with good bar fare and festive cocktails. Upscale sushi spot In the Raw Vū (110 N. Elgin Av) isn’t FUBU either, but it is one of the most stylish and impressive rooftop restaurants in the country, not just in Tulsa. The Greenwood Gallery (10 N. Greenwood Ave Ste. B) is a popular cultural haunt known for provocative exhibitions as well as spirited artistic gatherings while Silhouette Sneakers & Art (10 N. Greenwood Ave, Ste. C) easily mixes kicks and streetwear with arts and culture.

OFF THE TOURIST TRAIL

Venture a bit further from the core Greenwood District and learn even more about Black Tulsa at the outdoor Ellis Walker Woods Memorial (710 N. Greenwood Ave) honoring the first principal of the city’s iconic Booker T. Washington High School (1514 E. Zion St) at Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. In addition to Woods, the memorial features many other Tulsa trailblazers like 1932 BTW grad William “Bill” Spiller who helped break the PGA’s color line and 1940 BTW grads Matrue Sims and Luberta Waters who served in the US Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Service) during World War II. Tuskegee-trained brothers and architects William Shakespeare “W.S.” Latimer and Jayphee Clinton “J.C.” Latimer who designed and built the city’s historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church (419 N. Elgin Ave), located mere minutes away from the memorial, before and after its destruction in 1921 are also featured among numerous others.

The Tulsa branch of the state’s only HBCU Langston University (914 N. Greenwood Ave) is just steps away. Meanwhile the city’s George Washington Carver Middle School (624 E. Oklahoma Pl), which opened in 1928 with Carver himself attending the dedication a year later, is also worth the slightly longer walk or short drive from the memorial. And so is the Black-owned Fulton Street Books and Coffee (210 W. Latimer St) which has one of the best curated selections of Black books, especially targeting young adults, in the country.

SLEEP AND CHILL

Although Tulsa has many hotels, the Hotel Indigo (121 S. Elgin Ave), home to the popular rooftop bar and lounge Roof Sixty Six and first-floor eatery Prospect Bar and Local Kitchen, where ‘oilman’ items dot the menu, has a distinctive and modern style, plus it’s a manageable walk to the heart of Greenwood as well as other downtown haunts. Nearby restaurants and bars worth hitting include the beautifully modern Santa Fe-styled gem La Tertulia (311 E. 2nd St) where margarita, tequila, mezcal options are plentiful and the enchiladas and tamales are delicious, elegant Vintage Wine Bar (324 E. 1stSt) with its hiply curated vino list and pleasing classic cocktails, all-day and most-of-the-night chandelier-laden Hodges Bend (823 3rdSt) whose coffee cocktails are in a class of its own, and popular patio pub Brook Restaurant and Bar Downtown (201 E. 2ndSt) where grabbing a quick and uncomplicated bite rules. One spot worth venturing off for is the converted Phillips 66 gas station 473 Bar and Backyard (2224 E Admiral Blvd) specializing in unique craft cocktails, local beer, and live music events. 

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.

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