Reflections on the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial by Tom Momberg
Reflections on the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial
Imagine a community of great possibilities and prosperity
built by Black people for Black people.
Places to work. Places to live.
Places to learn and shop and play. Places to worship.
Now imagine it being ravaged by flames.
~ “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed,”
The New York Times, May 24, 2021
In a graphically artistic format, the article quoted from above allows the online reader to visualize where all the hotels and shops and churches were located when, up until a century ago, the Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood was “a fully realized antidote to the racial oppression of the time” (NYT, ibid.). Back then, there was no community like it in America. Today, it is nothing like it was before May 31st, 1921.
On May 30th I arrived in Tulsa for the two-day Centennial remembrance of the 1921 Race Massacre. During the first day, there were members of the press everywhere. On the second day, when the President came to speak, security guards, police officers, and the secret service swarmed the area that is a very small part of Greenwood’s original 40 square blocks, once filled with 10,000 residents.
Along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, and hundreds of others, I was present for the dedication of a Prayer Wall, part of the exterior of Vernon AME Church, the only church that survived. The basement was a refuge during the days following the massacre. It was meaningful to be part of that spiritually uplifting service.
But it seemed hard for me to find much else to lift me up. Plaques embedded in the Greenwood sidewalks, similar to the “stumbling stones” found all over Germany, with the names of churches, hotels, shops, and people who were victims - those helped. Murals, sculptures, and other forms of art were well worth taking in. Yet it was not until I drove past Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, turned around and parked, that tears flowed.
Perhaps I wept because I am a pastor. I have often taken part in funerals and graveside services. Those final resting places are so…well, final. And I have completed seven decades on this earth. Last things are on my mind much more often these days.
Perhaps I wept because, as part of the spiritual community called The Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, I have helped put soil from those very lynching sites into jars. In doing so we honor both those whose lives were taken from them and their loved ones.
I know I wept because of a simple serendipity. Suddenly I had stumbled upon a paradox, a story at once sad and uplifting: bodies in mass graves were being exhumed. A forensic team reported that it had finally unearthed 11 coffins at Oaklawn Cemetery. Records and research suggest there are as many as 18 Greenwood victims at that site.
The city of Tulsa is at odds with her citizens in several ways. There were never any arrests or convictions. There have not been any reparations, restitution that would make whole the three remaining survivors, who recently testified before a Congressional Subcommittee, as well as their descendants.
A new museum, “Greenwood Rising,” is scheduled to open in July. Its raison d’etre is being challenged by “Justice For Greenwood,” an advocacy group of attorneys, academics, massacre descendants and others. Conciliation - simply coming together to talk and to begin to work together - seems a long way off. Let alone reconciliation.
President Biden came to Greenwood on June 1st and spoke truth about what happened there 100 years ago. He called it “the massacre America forgot.” He observed a moment of silence to honor the victims. That’s not nothing. But it’s not enough.
In her stunning, comprehensive assessment of what needs to be done, Michele Norris states a fact. “Germany faced its horrible past.” Then she asks, “Can we do the same?” (Washington Post, June 3, 2021). President Biden answered her question this way: “We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.”
The one thing the city and citizens of Tulsa are doing; the one thing that brings tears of both sorrow and joy; the one thing perhaps everyone can agree is a whole lot more than nothing is this: a right reckoning of finding the bodies that can still be found, giving the respect and honor that is long overdue to those children, women, and men.
Imagine a community decimated by white hatred and violence. Imagine the city in which that Black community once thrived spending decades in silence and denial. Now imagine that city taking some kind of responsibility, doing at least one right thing.
This is only the beginning. But it is just that: a start. May the souls of all the Greenwood dead begin now to rest in peace, so that they can truly rise in glory.