Preliminary exhibit plans for a $20 million Greenwood District museum elicited lots of questions, comments and suggestions but no voiced opposition Thursday night during the first public presentation.
“I like it,” said Cynthia Townsend of Tulsa. “I like the reality of it.”
“It’s a good start,” said Mike Reed, a longtime activist in the Greenwood area. “They put a lot of planning and energy into the endeavor.”
There were some suggestions, too. Eli Grayson of Tulsa is concerned that Creek freedmen won’t get enough credit for Greenwood’s economic vitality. Kristi Williams wants more about the “fight for Greenwood” she said continues to this day.
There were concerns about who will control and operate the museum and who stands to benefit financially from it. Others wanted to make sure the late educator E.W. Woods and the history of north side schools are included.
Very few questions concerned the 1921 Race Massacre, the event with which the museum seems most likely to be associated.
That event, which destroyed 35 square blocks of Tulsa’s African American community and resulted in untold deaths, is of course central to the museum’s thematic scheme. But historian and author Hannibal Johnson said it is not what knits the exhibits together.
“The overarching theme is the human spirit,” Johnson told about 50 people at Carver Middle School auditorium. “This is a specific story of the dignity of people who turned trials and tribulations and tragedy into triumph.”
As lead curator for the Race Massacre Centennial Commission, Johnson is overseeing what goes into the museum and how it’s presented.
On Thursday, he and designers Jake Barton and L’Rai Arthur-Mensah of Local Projects laid out the basic plans for the museum, which is scheduled to open just ahead of the massacre’s centennial in the spring of 2021.
Located just south of the Greenwood Cultural Center, the museum — for now being referred to as the Greenwood History Center — will be elevated above the planned “Pathway to Hope” running from Vernon AME Church to the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park about three blocks away.
The exhibit area will tell the story of Greenwood before and after the massacre, up to the present time. The final gallery will feature exhibits related to reconciliation and a discussion area.
One feature the designers described as unique will be an interactive experience in which visitors will sit in barber or hair salon chairs while the image of a barber or hairstylist talks about Greenwood.
The stories told by the images will be adapted from interviews of longtime Greenwood residents recorded in the late 1990s or earlier.
The experience is intended to re-create the community spirit of Greenwood, but the overall effect of the museum won’t be so warm and fuzzy. Much of it will deal with the “long-term oppression of African Americans,” as Arthur-Mensah described it, and the specific challenges of Greenwood.
Johnson said the ultimate goal of the facility is to weave “a compelling narrative” that reminds visitors that “the past isn’t really past at all. It’s part of our present.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt, Mayor G.T. Bynum and other elected officials are expected to view the proposal Friday.
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