Shifting Collective Memory in TulsaRoundup
tags: Tulsa, 1921 race massacre
Russell Cobb (@scissortail74), an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Alberta, is the author of the forthcoming “The Great Oklahoma Swindle.”
As a native Tulsan, I felt like I was dreaming when I saw a hologram of Henry Louis Gates Jr. greeting visitors at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla. But this wasn’t real life — it was the parallel reality of HBO’s “Watchmen,” where the fictional Gates character is the treasury secretary who helps descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 trace their history and claim reparations for what was — in the show and in reality — the country’s worst act of racial violence since the Civil War.
I’d been to the real Greenwood Cultural Center many times, and there were no holograms, no virtual reality displays of what happened in Tulsa almost a century ago. In the cavernous shell of the actual Greenwood Center, there is a no-frills, but emotionally chilling, history of a place once called Black Wall Street. A decidedly low-tech exhibition features black-and-white photo reproductions of a war zone, charred bodies and menacing white looters. Also in the real Tulsa: Reparations for 1921 are far more implausible than a Robert Redford presidency.
Since the debut of “Watchmen,” Greenwood has become a destination for celebrities hoping to see the real Black Wall Street. Michael Bloomberg and Cory Booker swung through the neighborhood while campaigning for the Democratic nomination. Phil Armstrong, a project director of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, told me that tourism, virtually nonexistent a few years ago, is thriving. The show, however, was mostly filmed in Georgia, and visitors are often perplexed by the massive overpass bisecting Greenwood, a product of a later plan for “urban renewal.”
More important than Tulsa’s pop culture moment are the African-American community’s efforts to change the narrative of the massacre that has been ingrained in the city since the last fires of 1921 died out. For almost one hundred years, Tulsa called the events of 1921 a “race riot,” when the city mentioned the event at all. As a kid in predominantly white Tulsa schools in the 1980s and 1990s, I never learned anything about the invasion and destruction of black Tulsa. The silence around the tragedy was broken two decades ago when a state commission was formed to study it. But its first recommendation — reparations to survivors — was never taken up. In 2018, one of the last survivors died, just as the battle over the historical memory of the “riot” became more visceral than ever.
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