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There’s not much to see yet at Greenwood Rising History Center. The tall, off-white walls are bare, the exhibits nowhere to be found.
Yet walking through the empty spaces, filled with the screeching of circular saws and the thumping footsteps of construction workers, the place stops a visitor in his tracks.
Here on the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, where a century ago Black Tulsans were killed and their homes and businesses destroyed because of the color of their skin, this city will finally reckon with its darkest days.
And as one listens to project director Phil Armstrong explain the sequence of exhibits — from the Spirit of Greenwood to the Arc of Oppression to the Journey to Reconciliation — it becomes clear that the story to be told when the history center opens in June will be about much more than the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
“Greenwood Rising is going to be a place for the community to face what happened here 100 years ago, to tell the truth, and to begin a place where we can start to heal from the wounds of the past and make our way to our future of reconciliation and racial harmony,” Armstrong said.
That will require an understanding of how we got here, and the history center wastes no time digging into that.
Visitors will enter through large glass doors off Greenwood Avenue and immediately be met by what Armstrong calls view ports — rectangular screens built into the north wall at various heights.
“What you will do is you will look in and it will give you images of Greenwood … some of it will be modern day, some of it will be old, some of it will be moving visuals, some will be still shots,” he said.
Nearby, a brief video on the history of Greenwood and what visitors can expect to see in the center will be displayed on a large LED wall. Docents will be available to answer guests’ questions.
The Spirit of Greenwood exhibit can’t be entered without crossing over a replica of railroad tracks, a somber reminder of the Frisco railway lines that once separated Black Tulsa from white Tulsa.
The exhibit tells the story of how Greenwood — and the state’s historically Black towns — came to be and casts a spotlight on O.W. Gurley, A.J. Smitherman and other African American leaders who helped lift the neighborhood into prosperity and prominence.
Inside T.C. Barbershop, three holograms of barbers banter amongst themselves and share stories of 1920s and ‘30s Greenwood with their customers.
“It is the history of Greenwood being told to you by holograms that are talking to you,” Armstrong said. “You sit in the (authentic) barber chair, look in the mirror, and they’re talking to you, they are laughing and talking with each other, talking about the history.”
The idea for the holograms came from the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where slave holograms tell their stories from inside “slave pens.”
The Arc of Oppression exhibit will provide an unvarnished look at the discriminatory practices of the Jim Crow era and the lynchings and mob violence that predated the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
“1921 and May 31 (1921) was not something that just happened itself,” Armstrong said. “There was a building of this racial animosity and tension that was building and building and building and building until you get to this May 30, May 31. Tulsa was like a tinderbox … waiting for a striking of the match.”
The 1921 Massacre Gallery is the largest display area in the 11,000-square-foot history center. Using videos, audio recordings, pictures and projections, it will tell the story, from start to finish, of the days that changed Tulsa forever.
“This was just a normal day that turned ugly, and it turned quick, all the way till 10:30 at night, when the first shot was fired and the massacre begins,” Armstrong said. “Sixteen to 18 hours of mass destruction.”
It can be tough to get through, Armstrong acknowledged.
“There are still moments that I have to stop and just back away for a moment because it is just so powerful, it is so gripping,” he said.
Local leaders began thinking about building a 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre memorial center after the National Museum of African American History and Culture produced an exhibit on the subject.
A steering committee comprising representatives of Greenwood Cultural Center, John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and other local officials led the early efforts to define the history center’s narrative and scope.
Historian Hannibal Johnson is curator of Greenwood Rising, and Local Projects — the company that designed the National September 11 Memorial & Museum exhibits — is doing the same for Greenwood Rising.
Local Projects made multiple visits to Tulsa to meet with stakeholder groups, and Tulsans were invited to Carver Elementary School in late 2019 to view renderings of the history center and comment on them.
“Basically, they (Local Projects) sat down and asked, ‘’If we were to build a history center, what would you like to see in it?’ And the ideas came from the community,” Armstrong said.
He added: “The one thing that the community said is, ‘Tell the truth, don’t whitewash anything, don’t gloss over it. This should tell the full truth, in all of its grittiness, the good, the bad and the ugly.’ And this is what we’re going to do.”
The $18.2 million project is being funded with local and state dollars and private donations. It will be dedicated June 2 as part of the Race Massacre centennial commemoration, with a staggered opening to follow. Race Massacre survivors, their descendants and the north Tulsa community will receive first access to the history center.
Greenwood Rising’s last exhibit, Journey to Reconciliation, will include an amphitheater for programming. It will also serve as a safe space for people to discuss issues and attitudes related to racial inequality.
The exhibit’s displays remind visitors that Greenwood rebuilt bigger and better after the 1921 Race Massacre, only to be battered back by the forces of urban renewal and the federal highway program of the late 1960s that led to a section of Interstate 244 being constructed through the heart of the neighborhood.
Before visitors can slip out of the building and back to their lives, they are asked to make a commitment to do something to foster racial reconciliation, and to write it down for all to see.
The commitments are highlighted on the wall before they fade into the background as new ones appear.
Only the visitors themselves will know whether they make good on their commitments, but Armstrong is holding out hope they will. After all, he points out, this telling of the story of Greenwood is about more than looking back at what was; it’s about what could be.
“This is really what I think Greenwood Rising will become known for. When people come here and experience this, they will leave different.”