The Rituals of Remembrance

Remembrance helps individuals process trauma, but government officials should only engage in it if they're also willing to do the hard work of repair

Welcome to Run It Back, my biweekly newsletter about neglected black history. During 2021 the newsletter is focused on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, which I’m currently writing a book about for Random House called Built From the Fire. See more updates on the Run It Back Instagram page.

Instead of fire, May 31, 2021 brought rain. The morning of the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre began dour and gray, beneath a sky that was already welled up with tears. But the downpour held off long enough for Greenwood community leaders to hold a soil collection ceremony at Standpipe Hill, the site where National Guard members trained a machine gun down upon the community during the 1921 attack. “You are standing on sacred ground. Take in the energy of this space,” said Kristi Williams, community activist and chair of the Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission. She was standing beneath an archway of decorative flowers which she and others had erected as an entrypoint to the typically desolate landmark. “I also call this the valley of the dry bones, and these ones have been speaking out for a very long time,” Williams said. “Today, we’re going to honor them.” 

For two years Williams, along with Tiffany Crutcher, founder of the Terence Crutcher Foundation, and Chief Egunwale Amusan, president of the Tulsa African Ancestral Society, have been conducting soil collections around Greenwood at sites where black people were killed during the massacre. The ritual is modeled after a program launched by the Equal Justice Initiative to collect soil samples from lynching sites across the United States. Here in Tulsa high school students, church members, and everyday citizens have been invited to participate in the ceremonies, collecting soil representing more than a dozen black people who were killed. But the elaborate floral decorations were new, and quietly restorative. As part of the ceremony, the commander of the Oklahoma National Guard apologized for the organization’s role in the massacre. 

Thirteen miles away, as soil was being collected at Standpipe Hill, Charles Christopher knelt behind a tombstone at Rolling Oaks Cemetery, tending the soil around the grave with a hand rake. Every Memorial Day--which often coincides with the anniversary of the race massacre--Christopher and his family visit two gravesites where their ancestors are buried. He is a great-grandson of Loula Williams, the proprietor of the Dreamland Theater, and the grandson of W.D. Williams, who was a teenager at the time of the massacre and became a key truthteller of Greenwood’s history. It was W.D. who began the family’s Memorial Day tradition decades ago. Now Christopher and his siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews tend to his grave too. As a light rain began to fall, Williams descendants polished each tombstone and carefully adorned each plot with a bouquet of colorful daisies. A pair of young girls no older than seven or eight, themselves massacre descendants, placed the flowers at every grave. 

Loula Williams is buried alongside her mother, Sallie Cotten, and the two women share a joint tombstone. Loula’s day of death reads Sept. 13, 1927. Sallie’s is Jan. 9, 1936. Before stepping over to polish the granite, Byron Crenshaw, a great-great grandson of Loula’s, noticed the unusual discrepancy. “I didn’t realize her mother passed after her,” he said as he eyed the dates. 

“The race riot took Loula out,” Charles said. “It took a toll on her.”

A floral memorial for massacre victims at Standpipe Hill in Greenwood

I have been thinking a lot this week about last summer’s groundbreaking ceremony for Greenwood Rising, a new $20 million history center in the heart of the Greenwood District. The entire structure was erected in a nine-month whirlwind construction project, so that massacre descendants would have an opportunity to step inside when visiting during the centennial. I don’t doubt that the center’s designers, historians and developers have built a series of moving and impactful exhibits that will help bring the story of Greenwood alive for a wide audience. 

But on a fundamental level, Greenwood Rising seems to be built for the benefit of tourists learning about the story of Greenwood rather than the black Tulsans and massacre descendants impacted by that history. At the groundbreaking ceremony last August, one of the first speakers was Matt Pinnell, the lieutenant governor of Oklahoma and the secretary of tourism in the state. Pinnell did not acknowledge that in June 1921 the governor of Oklahoma declined to offer state funds to help with the rebuilding of Greenwood, or that the state attorney general pursued black entrepreneurs such as A.J. Smitherman and J.B. Stradford across the United States in hopes of extraditing and prosecuting them. Instead, he spoke in the warm platitudes of what we in the media often call “the power of narratives.” “We’re going to tell the world this story,” Pinnell said. “It will be one of the premiere locations in this country and one of the foundational blocks of the tourism department in the state of Oklahoma when it is built.” 

City and state leaders have convinced themselves ritual is enough--that as culpable entities in the destruction of Greenwood, their role is the same as community members collecting the soil of the fallen and massacre descendants tending their great-grandmothers’ graves. This is farcical. The city of Tulsa is not grieving; the city of Tulsa is benefiting from the renewed interest in Greenwood, which is now mostly controlled by white land developers. 

Because Greenwood Rising has had the backing of politicians such as Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, and state senator Kevin Matthews, who represents the Greenwood district, it has gained credibility as the “official” avenue for commemorating Greenwood history. Corporate donors have thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars at the organization to signal that they care about Greenwood, even as they pluck families’ narratives from the community without consulting them. This is the self-satisfying work of remembrance without the hard work of repair, and it is wrong for government officials steering the same entities that destroyed and deprived Greenwood to be part of it. 

Admission to Greenwood Rising will be free for the first year, according to its website. The day admission starts being charged at this facility, its leaders should already have in place a vetted list of massacre survivors and descendants who can benefit from a portion of the revenue generated by ticket sales. In the 1990’s, the state of Florida created an entire bureaucracy in its attorney general’s office to identify and pay victims of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre. In Alaska, citizens receive a dividend every year based on profits generated by the state’s most precious resource--oil. Models exist to make this work, and it is a shame such a model was not already in place to help survivors and descendants directly benefit from the vast profits that were reaped by the media bonanza around the centennial. 

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The night of May 31, 2021, ended with a candlelight vigil at the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, right next to the new Greenwood Rising center. One hundred years earlier at that exact hour, residents of Greenwood would have been hearing increasingly loud gunfire as the shootout that began at the county courthouse crept closer to the neighborhood. They would have seen the first fires being lit over on Boston Avenue, where firemen were forced to abandon their hoses by members of the white mob. They would not have been able to predict the scale of the horror that was set to unfold over the next 18 hours. 

The energy at the vigil was peculiar. There was no listing of the names of lives lost or property destroyed, or even a historical account of exactly what had happened on that street a century earlier. It was left to the heavens to provide commentary, as the patter of rain that had soundtracked the day grew into a roaring, torrential downpour just as the vigil began. There would be no flames of terror on the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, but in a city still groping its way toward justice, the water could not bring absolution either. 


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