Who are the gatekeepers for the future of the historic Greenwood buildings?

by News/Investigative Editor Taylor Finley

As the 100th year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre approaches, the future development of the last two buildings on historic Greenwood have become a growing topic of conversation. This is especially true for many North Tulsans who feel directly impacted by its future. The success of the Greenwood buildings has the potential to bring much needed revenue into North Tulsa and spur economic development. However, this future seems to be rather foggy as community members often feel left in the dark about plans for development. Many questions have arisen about the ownership of the Greenwood buildings, the treatment of tenants, and whether the historic legacy of the buildings will be preserved. All of this ties back to the property’s primary managing entity, the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce.

The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce (GCOC) was established in 1938 by E.W. Clark. According to Freeman Culver, president and chairman of the GCOC, their mission is to, ”promote black entrepreneurship in Tulsa and [in] particular Tulsa North.” In addition to managing the historic Greenwood buildings, the GCOC also manages both Greenwood Centre Ltd., as well as the Greenwood Community Development Corporation. These three entities operate as one in the same. The Chamber uses its Greenwood Centre Ltd. organization for official communication with its tenants. Their management has been a source of controversy for both tenants and community members alike. The Chamber has been met with a lot of criticism about its leadership. Many believe they are intentionally attempting to force black tenants out of Greenwood.

Culver feels otherwise. “The perception is wrong. We are doing our best,” he said. He acknowledges that the buildings need serious upgrades, such as repairing the roofs as well as installing a new HVAC system. Despite these issues, Culver is confident things will get better. He went on to talk about the Chamber’s involvement with the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission. The GCOC serves on the steering committee, and he said they would be a part of Phase 2 of the Commission’s renovation project on Greenwood. This would include the revitalization of the two buildings on historic Greenwood. He also mentioned that they have an incubator for black entrepreneurs and that new tenants can get their first two years subsidized.

“He’s a liar. They don’t have a system like that,” says Tori Tyson, Greenwood tenant and owner of Blow Out Hair Studio. “Tell him to show you the paperwork.” Tyson has been very vocal about her issues as a tenant on Greenwood. She says they want her out because she has been so critical about their lack of action. She doesn’t believe the Chamber cares about her or any of the black tenants on Greenwood. Tyson says the issues with the building have been going on since 2014. She stated her business is full of mold and that Tee’s Barber Shop has not had working heat and air for over two years. All this withstanding, they continue increasing the rent by double or triple its market value. “They are trying to get all the money they can get. They aren’t doing it right.”

Tyson went on to say that the current board should step down. She says their goal is not to preserve the legacy on Greenwood but to increase capital: “Its prime real estate.” The Greenwood buildings are right next to billion dollar businesses. Tyson says they want the buildings, but they just don’t want black businesses to be there anymore. She wants to preserve Greenwood’s legacy but feels helpless in the wave of GCOC’s opposition. “But the way it’s looking, I’m just riding the wave. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. I ain’t going down without a fight and it hasn’t been easy.” Greenwood Centre Ltd. recently tried to implement a social media policy that banned tenants from commenting on the Chamber. So far, it has yet to be signed by any of the tenants.

Recently, the chamber enlisted the help of a group of OU-Tulsa MPA students in a strategic planning class. They were asked to come up with recommendations for the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce regarding a strategic plan for the development of the two buildings on Greenwood. Some students felt as though leadership each had their own agendas. Rebecca Marks-Jimerson, vice president and vice chair of the GCOC and Culver often had differing approaches. Contrary to the Chamber’s mission, Culver was adamant about having mixed race/integrated tenants on Greenwood. He wanted something similar to the main street models that existed in Downtown Tulsa as well as other cities across the country. However, Jimerson seemed surprised by Culver’s desire for an integrated space. Some students went against this recommendation in favor of maintaining the historical legacy of Greenwood being a black-owned space. They even suggested examples of successful black-owned main street models. Ultimately, they recommended that the Chamber contract out the management of the buildings to another organization.

The students also felt that the Chamber seemed to have unrealistic expectations about its future. They are confident that some of the money for the Commission’s revitalization project will go towards the Greenwood buildings to help with their own revitalization. However, there has been no indication of that nor has there been any announcement about their involvement with the project. In response to these issues, Culver insisted that he inherited the mess that the Chamber currently faces. He said that he asked the city for help and blames District 1 City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper for the city’s refusal to assist them. In addition, Jimerson was not receptive to the feedback given by the class. A student working on the recommendations said, “It felt fruitless. What was the point of reaching out to us for a recommendation if you were going to reject it?”

In May 2018, the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) and 501(c)(3) status were revoked. The 501(c)(6) designation allows organizations to legally operate as a Chamber of Commerce. According to the IRS, “To be exempt, a business league’s activities must be devoted to improving business conditions of one or more lines of business as distinguished from performing particular services for individual persons.” The 501(c)(3) status allows organizations to operate as a nonprofit. Also, the Chamber has taken a loan out on their mortgage. The First Bank of Oklahoma holds their mortgage. The bank has the ability to sell the property without going into foreclosure. As for the future of the Greenwood buildings, “It’s not that people over the years haven’t worked hard. It’s just that over time, you know it takes money to upgrade the property. We have a mission of being transparent. We have a mission of getting the buildings back the way they need to be. And we have a mission to regain trust within our community. We have to do that,” said Culver.

Revocation Status for Greenwood Chamber 501(c)(6)

Revocation Status for Greenwood CDC 501(c)(3)

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Illustration: Patrick Norman