It has taken 99 years to recognize, to uncover and acknowledge the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and much of that work is far from over.
It’s why in the 150 days before the massacre’s centennial, a coalition of groups and community stakeholders is committed to shining a light on one of the darkest days in America’s history. Organizers kicked off this new year campaign at a John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park press conference Friday afternoon.
State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, chairman of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, said the next few months are critical to ensure that the commemoration lives up to the legacy it represents.
“I’m so excited that we’re in 2021 and we’re going to see it to fruition,” Matthews said. “On May 31, 2021, we want the world to come to Tulsa, come to our great history center, come to this area and be part of our efforts to be a beacon of reconciliation around the world.”
Matthews said he hopes the COVID-19 pandemic will be behind Tulsa by then to allow for a full commemoration. But in the event that restrictions on gatherings remain in effect in May, he said nothing will stop the commission from holding a virtual ceremony to be seen around the world.
Speakers Friday emphasized that the centennial cannot be solely dedicated to remembering the past but must also serve as a commitment to changing the future.
Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, who opened Fulton Street Books & Coffee in July, spoke to that future. She said she and other Black entrepreneurs must stand taller for the sake of the generations before who sought success when that meant risking their lives to do so.
For the centennial, Asamoa-Caesar said she wants to see change — that Black entrepreneurs’ success stories would not be the exception.
“So many of our entrepreneurs have made it ‘in spite of,’” she said. “In spite of lack of access to funding, in spite of being able to access circles of social capital, … and when they break through those walls, we applaud them. My hope for 2021 is that we use our hands, our voices, our dollars — all the dollars — to break down the barriers that create success ‘in spite of.’
“And that we build an ecosystem that allows Black entrepreneurs to thrive. Because collectively, small businesses are an economic pillar in the Black community and essential to building a thriving city where more people have the opportunity to realize their full potential.”
Before the centennial commemoration May 31, the commission and other groups are holding numerous fundraisers, educational events and forums.
Friday also marked the beginning of the commission’s Greenwood Literature Festival, with the Public Education Teachers Workshop Series returning in March. The commission will also dedicate the Pathway to Hope walking path from the forthcoming history center to John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in April.
Matthews said the centennial itself won’t be the end of the commission’s work but rather the grand opening of what he hopes Tulsa will become.
“We believe that we’re going to be the place of reconciliation for the whole world,” Matthews said. “We’re the only city in the United States that we know where Americans bombed Americans” from planes. “We’re the only state in the United States where not one county voted for our first Black president.
“We’re the state where the Oklahoma City bombing has a national memorial where 168 people died — but three, four-hundred Black people died here, and you can’t find a tombstone. If we can be that city and come together around race, around reconciliation, we can be an example for the world.”
October 2020 video: Researchers find remains during search for Race Massacre graves
Gallery: Dedication of John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in 2010