Restricted by Generosity: Greenwood’s Battle Against Local Philanthropy’s Agenda

by Staff Writer Lindsay Myers

“This is the compromise, the truce, distilled: Leave us alone in the competitive marketplace, and we will tend to you after the winnings are won. The money will be spent more wisely on you than it would be by you. You will have your chance to enjoy our wealth, in the way we think you should enjoy it.” – Excerpt from Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas

White individuals destroyed Greenwood in 1921 and it is white individuals that seek credit today for its history of overcoming oppression. As Greenwood mourns its past and what could have been while imagining its future, suddenly white heroes are swooping in to mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Where were these white saviors during the past 100 years and where will they go when the spotlight fades? More importantly, white guilt is again prioritized over Black resilience as the community prepares for this historical marker.

Philanthropy is a huge industry in Oklahoma. The over 1,600 foundations in Oklahoma earn more than a combined $2 billion in revenue each year. Tulsa is perhaps the most charitable of all, ranked among the most giving cities by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Co-founded by George Kaiser, the Tulsa Community Foundation (TCF) is ranked as one of the 20 largest foundations in the country, with over $4 billion in assets. Because of its community foundation status, TCF does not have a requirement to allocate a certain percentage of its assets toward charitable giving, whereas private foundations are required to spend 5% of their assets each year on charitable giving. Similarly, the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) is listed as a public foundation and therefore does not have giving requirements. According to U.S. News, this level of philanthropy creates public dependence on charitable giving and excuses the local government from funding essential services, allowing them to reduce taxes while slashing the budgets of public services. By shifting the funding source, foundations have the freedom to decide where and how their money will be spent without any community feedback. In turn, the community receives only a few niche services that are susceptible to the whims of the wealthy elite. If the donor is unhappy with the outcomes that they have established, they have the freedom to pull the plug without warning or personal consequence. 

The Greenwood community is familiar with the consequences of private philanthropy, but is still not immune to it. According to a lawsuit filed in September of this year by the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, the City of Tulsa, among others, “began enriching themselves by promoting the site of the Massacre as a tourist attraction,” while “the residents of the Greenwood neighborhood and North Tulsa have reaped no significant direct benefits from Defendants’ appropriation of the Massacre.” The lawsuit is ongoing just as the use of the Massacre for tourism is growing. As we draw nearer to the 100th anniversary of the Massacre, initiatives that create positive publicity for white stakeholders are increasing, such as this photo-op to mark the Oklahoma Regents’ implementation of curriculum about the Massacre in history classes. 

While the 2021 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is led primarily by active Greenwood community members and local public officials, Ken Levit, the Executive Director of GKFF, is listed as a commissioner. This implies that the Commission’s funder also plays a significant role in decision-making and agenda-setting. Two additional GKFF staff members sit on the steering committee, which implements the Commission’s programs and events. The only other organization with this level of representation on the Commission and steering committee is the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation. Beyond these two organizations, there appears to be a broad variety of groups involved with the Commission, including city and state leaders, universities, local businesses and nonprofits. Hille Foundation Executive Director Maggie Yar also sits on the steering committee. Her husband, Kajeer Yar, is a co-owner of Lefty’s on Greenwood and an attorney for GreenArch, a building consisting of apartments and businesses, including Lefty’s, at the corner of Greenwood and Archer. This building is a significant piece of the downtown encroachment on Greenwood. Because of this, the intentions of the Hille Foundation’s involvement with the Commission become questionable.

The Commission’s list of initiatives include events, art installations and educational programs that will mark the 100th anniversary of the Massacre. While one of the initiatives, Greenwood Beyond, aims to raise $1 million to help sustain these initiatives, there is no specific information on what this money will be used for. At this time, no representatives from the Commission have responded to inquiries regarding how these initiatives will continue beyond 2021. This fundraising initiative appears to be separate from the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce’s GoFundMe campaign, which will “go towards the development of an education curriculum that teaches the history of Black Wall Street” and training for small businesses. The Black Wall Street Chamber is doing similar work by providing support for small businesses in the community. GKFF launched a separate program in 2018, Dream Tulsa, for aiding Black-owned businesses. However, it appears to have lasted for only a brief period after some positive press. There is no readily available information about what this program contributed to the community, what business owners were involved or why it ended so soon after its launch. The lack of transparency regarding this program raises some questions about GKFF’s intentions both with Dream Tulsa and its involvement with the Race Massacre Commission. Additionally, the discontinuation of Dream Tulsa is concerning as the Commission continues raising financial support for sustaining its initiatives beyond 2021. Another initiative is a tourist attraction, Greenwood Rising, a museum dedicated to remembering the Massacre located on Greenwood Cultural Center property. Given that the Greenwood Cultural Center has been deemed “the keeper of the flame for the Black Wall Street era,” it is unclear why the Commission is taking part in opening a newer additional museum rather than funding and supplementing the work the Center is already doing.Greenwood has rebuilt before and Greenwood is rebuilding again, albeit within the confines of private philanthropy. Recent initiatives by the Black Wall Street Chamber and others signify that the Black community is turning the tables. The Justice for Greenwood Foundation is uncovering “a cynical attempt to whitewash an atrocity against Black Americans—to transform it into not only a demonstration of the city’s virtue but a tourist attraction.” Greenwood will repair what was destroyed, will reclaim what was always theirs and will restore hope for future generations.

Photo credit: Joseph Rushmore

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