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Controversy swarms around new museum commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre

Greenwood Rising is a high-profile attempt to tell a more complete version of the events before, during, and after the massacre—but it may also be a permanent reminder that demands for reparations are not being heard.

Controversy swarms around new museum commemorating the Tulsa Race Massacre
[Photo: Mel Willis/Local Projects]
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In the darkened room of a new museum in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, visitors are taken back to the night of May 31, 1921. It was on this night and into the next morning that a mob of white residents ransacked the economically vibrant neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, beating Black men, women, and children; firing bullets on the street and from airplanes flying overhead.

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It’s still unknown how many people died, but estimates suggest up to 300 residents lost their lives and many more were injured as the mob burned more than 1,200 homes and virtually all of the businesses, churches, and other civic buildings in Greenwood, according to a report issued in 2001 by an Oklahoma state commission. In a relative instant, one of the country’s most prosperous Black neighborhoods was reduced to rubble.

[Photo: Mel Willis/Local Projects]

The impact and aftermath of those events are part of the story being told at Greenwood Rising, a new $20 million museum memorializing the massacre. Greenwood Rising is a history center that shows how the neighborhood grew to prosperity for many of its 10,000 Black residents, and how that wealth was destroyed, stubbing out a source of generational wealth that would have grown to millions of dollars for the people of Greenwood in the subsequent decades.

The massacre recreation and other immersive and interactive exhibitions were made by the experience design studio Local Projects, known for its storytelling-centric exhibits and installations at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. “There’s a lot of ways to do history in general, and for our part as a studio we always think about history in the context of why we tell the story, not just what the story is,” says Local Projects founder Jake Barton.

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That context continues to be complex. The idea for the museum has been in the works for years, with accompanying controversy about whether the $30 million raised partly to commemorate the massacre should be spent on reparations to the affected community rather than a museum. In addition to the state commission that issued a report on the massacre in 2001, a second centennial-focused commission was launched in 2015 to plan ways the city could honor the victims of the massacre and educate the public about the event’s continuing effects.

Ahead of the centennial anniversary, the commission had planned a large commemorative event, but renewed tensions over the funding led to its cancellationIn addition to the $20 million that went toward the museum, the commission’s fundraising will support a local art project, district markers for the neighborhood, the renovation of a cultural center, and $1.5 million in grants and other community programming. The project continues to stir controversy in Tulsa, with community members questioning how the project will benefit residents. 

Greenwood Rising is now officially open to the public. The 11,000-square-foot museum features eight main spaces that tell the story of the development of Greenwood from frontier days to the present, along with its history as a center of Black life and prosperity in Tulsa. There are also several areas that explore and address the impacts of systemic racism on this community and many others.

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Although the massacre is the museum’s central element, it’s only part of the historical narrative being explored. Barton says it was important to address this very violent event, but also to tell a more comprehensive story about the neighborhood’s history, as well as the massacre’s dark legacy.

Designed by Tulsa-based Selser Schaefer Architects, the building sits at the historic entrance to Black Wall Street, and features a facade patterned with voids that create striking shadows during the day and are illuminated in color at night.

Inside are traditional museum displays and artifacts, as well as projection mapping and holographic effects that aim to give visitors a visceral experience of Greenwood’s history and trauma. A video shows the history of the area, from its Native American roots to the construction of railroads to the growth and heyday of Black Wall Street. Another room recreates a local barbershop from the era, with holographic barbers discussing the neighborhood’s early 20th-century goings-on. Visitors can sit in barber chairs and see the holographic barbers trimming their hair. Other rooms explore what the museum labels “systems of anti-Blackness”—ranging from Jim Crow rules to the Ku Klux Klan. The most vivid element is the recreation of the night of the massacre.

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[Photo: Mel Willis/Local Projects]

“We don’t want to be egregious with the violence. We don’t want to do it unnecessarily. We don’t want to put people through an experience that’s not justified or that would be unproductive,” Barton says. The rooms focused on the massacre include what Local Projects calls an “emotional exit,” which can be used by visitors to bypass the space. “On the other hand, this is a site of mass murder, and it’s not something that anyone would want to sugarcoat or diminish.”

Greenwood Rising addresses the massacre’s racism head on, which is no small gesture in Oklahoma, where Donald Trump received 65% of the vote in both 2016 and 2020. The fact that the museum was even a possibility is somewhat improbable, but the idea had a powerful advocate in Oklahoma state senator Kevin Matthews, a Democrat representing Tulsa, who pushed for the establishment of the Centennial Commission, and got powerful figures including Governor Kevin Stitt, Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell, and Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum to join.

There was resistance from the start. The 2001 report didn’t translate into measurable action, which made many Greenwood residents distrustful that the wrongs of the massacre would ever be fully addressed, according to Phil Armstrong, project director of the Centennial Commission.

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[Photo: Mel Willis/Local Projects]

“It was submitted with five specific recommendations for reparations, and here we are in 2021, 20 years later, and not one of those recommendations has ever been acted upon by the city or the state government agencies that were found to be complicit,” says Armstrong. This lack of action also caused some in the community to be wary of the Centennial Commission and the museum idea, says Armstrong, a sentiment that remains strong among some.

But the goals of the Centennial Commission were broader than reiterating the previous commission’s recommendations. While the primary aim was to push for a historical and educational space where the story of Greenwood could be told, economic development efforts in the present-day Greenwood community were also a consideration.

Focusing on the museum, the effort gathered political support, even among the state’s leading Republicans. Armstrong says Stitt invited him to speak about the museum during a dinner at the governor’s mansion—a chance to make the case to an audience of potential supporters who might otherwise be uninterested in the subject matter. “They invited key people from around the state to hear from us about what Greenwood Rising is, what it’s going to do,” says Armstrong. “Sometimes the person that’s making the phone call to say you need to listen to this can be just as important as the message itself, because a lot of these doors would not be open had it not been for who’s asking people to be there.”

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But the politics of Oklahoma were never far below the surface. In early May, Stitt was removed from the commission after he signed legislation banning the teaching of certain race concepts in Oklahoma schools. Stitt’s office characterized his participation in the Centennial Commission as “purely ceremonial.”

The museum concept hit a different kind of headwind in Greenwood. Local Projects’ L’Rai Arthur-Mensah, project director for Greenwood Rising, participated in public meetings from the early stages of the firm’s involvement, beginning in 2019. She says the meetings were full of debate, with plenty of different opinions. “And not just different opinions about the story being told, but, at a higher level, whether or not this space should even be built,” she says. “The key here was transparency from our side: being very clear about what the intentions were, why we were employing certain design techniques, how this would be supporting the story, and opening ourselves up to critique.”

Arthur-Mensah says those public meetings, though sometimes uncomfortable, helped the designers broaden the scope of what Greenwood Rising could provide. The last spaces in the museum are titled “Journey to Reconciliation,” and are intended to encourage further discussion of topics like reparations, restorative justice, and other ways systemic racism can be not just acknowledged but eliminated.

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The question of reparations is still up for debate in Greenwood. On Memorial Day, to honor the 100-year anniversary of the massacre, a commemorative event had been scheduled. It was to be televised nationally, featuring a keynote address by voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams and a performance by John Legend. Days before the event, a dispute about using the Centennial Commission’s funds for reparations boiled over. Both Abrams and Legend withdrew, and the event was cancelled.

The wounds in Greenwood are still raw, even 100 years later. Though Greenwood Rising is a high-profile attempt to tell a more complete version of the events before, during, and after the massacre, it may also be a permanent reminder to some in the community that their demands for reparations are not being heard.

The Centennial Commission’s stance is that the reparations recommended in the initial report should be provided to the community, but that the money should come from city and state funds, not from what it raised to support its education, commemoration, and economic development goals. Greenwood Rising, it suggests, can be a venue for further discussion about reparations.

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Barton says that’s precisely the role of this type of institution: to raise these larger questions and push conversations forward.

“Whether it is Greenwood Rising or the 9/11 Memorial, you build a memorial museum specifically to be a lightning rod for public controversy. You don’t build it to bury controversy. You do it because it’s what brings these issues to the forefront,” Barton says. “It helps us deal and resolve and ultimately heal them.”