In the early morning of May 31st, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a young Black man by the name of Dick Rowland was falsely accused of making a pass at a white women. Although the story of what actually transpired differed according to the respective storyteller, the simple insinuation of a Black person offending a white individual caused detrimental rumors to swirl. Following instigating headlines published by the local newspaper, droves of enraged white people enveloped the historic Greenwood District of Tulsa—known as Black Wall Street—in flames. On June 1st, the area was burned to the ground. Today, historians believe that more than 300 people were lost in the tragedy.
The Greenwood District was a safe haven for Black folks following World War I and a thriving example of economic excellence and prosperity developed by Black Americans for Black Americans. As the events of what happened over a century ago become more acknowledged in the public consciousness, many are still unaware of the full scope of the story.
Opened August 4th, 2021, the Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center has become a beacon of truth committed to uplifting the holistic past, present and future of Black Tulsans. Greenwood Rising is the legacy project of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission which began in 2015 under the leadership of Senator Kevin Mathews. The center not only memorializes the lives lost during the massacre but prioritizes the advancements made both before and after through substantial exploratory programming, technologically immersive displays and exhibits.
The space is lead by Interim Executive Director Phil Armstrong and Hannibal Johnson, the curator of Greenwood Rising. In the video below—directed and produced by local artist and Greenwood entrepreneur Trey Thaxton, the two speak in detail about the inception, historical significance and cultural impact of Greenwood Rising.
Beyond the devastation and beyond reparations, the history of Tulsa today represents resilience and strength as it did before 1921.
EBONY spoke with Stacie Gillian, a co-founder of Maestra and Jordan Vaughn, the Heads Campaigns of Maestra, an organization that actively interfaced and provided integral support in amplifying the stories of Tulsa Race Massacre descendants throughout the creation of Greenwood Rising.
EBONY: Let's reflect on the work that you've done in Tulsa, specifically with supporting the efforts of Greenwood Rising.
Stacie Gillian: I originally went to Tulsa a couple of years before we fully dug into our work with the commemoration of the race massacre. And it's heavy—you feel the depth, the weight and the pain but also the desire for growth. These are points that have challenged us to make sure that the community can grow and thrive in the way that it should, both the Black community and the non-white community. What touched me as we got to know the businesses and the people on the ground were the deep moments that allow us to understand the connective tissue that really changes how we think about what it means to rebuild community. To see this work come to fruition in a larger way and then can be spoken about with others so that the world knows, changes the game.
Jordan Vaughn: I think the thing that is the most beautiful to me about Greenwood Rising is the fact that these family stories are being institutionalized and memorialized in perpetuity, and executed at a local level at that. It's not the National Museum of African American History and Culture where the exhibit may switch out or at some point there may be a focus on something. This is for Tulsa, by Tulsa and with Tulsa in the forefront forever. There's so much power to that because, again, so many times our people's stories are only told orally. We don't get to have it cemented in actual artistry and exhibits. Greenwood Rising does such a phenomenal job of showcasing that history, touching on the trauma, showcasing the resilience, and then giving you the opportunity to reflect through this really educational moment. I believe that Black communities across the country and across the world have a need for that.
Why is it important to center the survivors and descendants when talking about the greater story of Tulsa?
Vaughn: Tulsa is such a beautiful story as people oftentimes think that Black excellence and success started with Martin Luther King Jr. That's just not the case. Black folks were fighting for their rights during slavery, taking over statehouses, running for office and winning as senators, congressmen and governors. So, Tulsa, in and of itself, is a case study of what Black people are capable of when you allow us to create self-sustaining communities. That was the most attractive to us about Tulsa and this project. This story isn't about the struggle and strife. It's about the prosperity that existed in this Black economic center and what would that look like today. Tulsa is such a beautiful reflection of what Blackness, Black community, economic development and support can look like when folks work and band together. Greenwood Rising is derivative of the heritage and the foundation that was built long before 1921.
Gillian: Centering the survivors and descendants provides a specific understanding as they are a part of the journey of people walking through that space. When you walk into Greenwood Rising, you walk into something that's deeply intense, like seeing that KKK robe with the blood stain on it. There's an understanding of what that meant; however, then you realize that, for example, that the mother of the Interim Director of Greenwood Rising Phil Armstrong was the keeper of a lot of those artifacts. It provides deeper context for what that meant to him as he headed up the commission, and fought for the world to know the importance of this moment in history because it has been something that we often brush under the rug. We aren't being taught in the way that we should, so centering specific narratives within the history of the United States is internalized in a deeper way. We can change minds and hearts or at least be impactful enough to get people to question and think more deeply about things they hadn't put thought about previously.