Plans for John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa Go Forward in U.S. House

Historians in the News

David Walsh is assistant editor of the History News Network.

Plans to designate the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa as part of the National Park System received a boost last Thursday when Oklahoma Republican John Sullivan introduced a bill to conduct a feasibility study on incorporating the park into the NPS.  The park commemorates the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and is named for Tulsa native John Hope Franklin, the late Duke historian and Presidential Medal of Honor winner.  Dignitaries will assemble on October 27 to dedicate the park in his honor.

The park is sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2007.  The 2008 groundbreaking for the park was Dr. Franklin’s last public appearance.  In keeping with the theme of reconciliation, the park is intended to foster an inclusive narrative of Oklahoma’s history, one that incorporates the valuable role African Americans played in the building of the modern state.

The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park came about as a direct result of the 2001 Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  Several historians contributed to the commission, including Dr. Franklin and Scott Ellsworth, the author of the first historical work on the riot and lecturer at the University of Michigan.

The park will feature two major memorials.  Hope Plaza contains a sixteen-foot granite structure that showcases images from the riots, while the twenty-five-foot Tower of Reconciliation looms over the rest of the park, displaying images spanning the entirety of the black experience in Oklahoma, from the slaves brought along the Trail of Tears to the creation of Greenwood, Tulsa’s African-American district.

Thirty-five square blocks of Greenwood were razed in eighteen hours between May 31 and June 1, 1921, after a young black man was accused of a assaulting a white woman.  Nine thousand people were left without homes; most of the city’s black-owned businesses were destroyed, as were churches, offices, the local elementary school, and the all-black hospital.  Dr. Franklin himself, in a report to a 2000 state commission on the riots, estimated the death toll at between seventy-five and three hundred (by comparison, 54 people were killed in the 1992 Los Angeles riots).  “For some,” wrote Dr. Franklin, “what occurred in Tulsa…was a massacre, a pogrom, or, to use a more modern term, an ethnic cleansing.” 

The riot, although it made headlines as far away as Europe, was quickly banished from Oklahoma’s public memory.  The first (largely black) public commemoration of the violence took place in 1971, a full fifty years later.  That opened the floodgates.  Scott Ellsworth wrote the first book on the subject in 1982, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  Public interest began to rise, to the point where, in 1997, the Oklahoma House established a blue-ribbon committee to investigate the riot.  The panel eventually issued a lengthy report on both the history and the historiography of the riot in 2001.

Although he never wrote directly about the Tulsa riot, John Hope Franklin was one of the first prominent African-American historians and scholars of African-American history. By the time of his death, he was considered a doyen of the historical profession. His first major work, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, heralded a sea-change in how historians—and the general public—conceptualize American history when it was published in 1947. Dr. Franklin’s career as a public intellectual was equally as impressive as his scholarly output. He was a friend of W.E.B. DuBois, a consultant for the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, marched on Selma, the first black president of the American Historical Association, and a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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John Willingham - 9/28/2010

Thanks for this article, David. The center is an example of the kind of action needed in so many cities where racial violence has left enduring scars. Tulsa has an opportunity now to make lasting reconciliation one legacy of a tragic event in its history.