A Gaslit Century: The Journey Towards Justice for Greenwood

by Staff Writer Kolby Webster

“Plaintiffs, Greenwood and North Tulsa residents and their descendants have experienced and continue to experience insecurity in their lives and property and their sense of comfort, health, and safety has been destroyed” is a recurring phrase in the Justice for Greenwood petition that expresses the generational losses that began with the Tulsa Race Massacre of May 31, 1921, which continues to adversely affect the North Tulsa community today nearly 100 years later. The petition lays out the explicit actions of seven defendants, including the City of Tulsa and Tulsa Regional Chamber, in contributing to the Massacre. The plaintiffs argue throughout that the Tulsa Race Massacre catalyzed 99 years of exclusion and targeted antagonism that manifested in extreme losses for the North Tulsa community. An examination of the Justice for Greenwood lawsuit highlights a myriad of racially and monetarily motivated attacks, policies and conflicts of interests from 1921 to today that have been well documented and corroborated by Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and records of the state. The central argument of this petition is somewhat built on a public nuisance strategy that was successfully used against major pharmaceutical companies that wantonly exacerbated the opioid epidemic in the state.

The Chamber 

The lawsuit implicates the Tulsa Regional Chamber and the City of Tulsa in several dire policies that began in the immediate aftermath of the Massacre that continue to have an effect until this day. These policies began with the captivity and slavery of Black Tulsans. On June 1, 1921, Oklahoma Governor B. A. Robertson declared martial law, bringing in the National Guard to establish some sense of order to the burning city. However, this instead turned into internment camps where thousands of Black citizens were held and subject to inappropriate seizures and processes with which to attend to their losses. Black citizens were held at the McNulty Ballpark, the Convention Hall (now renamed the Tulsa Theater) and the Tulsa Fairgrounds until a white sponsor could vouch for their character or provide proof of current employment from said white sponsor. Once released, the Greenwood residents were given a green card, which they were required to carry at all times or risk being sent back to the camps. These green cards were created and paid for by the Chamber and enforced by the City and the National Guard. The lawsuit notes that, “The ‘paroled’ Greenwood community members were required to wear or carry a green card bearing their sponsor’s name while out of the camp. Many Greenwood community residents were forced to work for their sponsors, or for the City, under threat of violence and without pay. These conditions amounted to a badge of slavery.” It’s also noted that Black citizens were to work their way out of the detainment camps by cleaning up the debris from  the Massacre, a policy set forth by organizations within the Chamber and imposed by the National Guard. On June 2, General Barrett issued Field Order Number 4, which decreed that “All able bodied [N]egro men remaining in detention camp[s] at the Fairgrounds and other places in the City of Tulsa [would] be required to render such service and perform such labor as [was] required by the military commission.”

Public Welfare

A Public Welfare board was created by the Chamber to oversee reconstruction and clean up efforts. References to the Public Welfare board in the lawsuit note that the board was made up of exclusively white members and excluded Greenwood residents, effectively keeping the community from having any input on the reconstruction efforts. Rezoning meetings began just a week after the Massacre with the Public Welfare board, the Chamber and the City attempting to implement an extension of the fire regulations and ordinances to make rebuilding costs prohibitive, take away any agency from the Black property owners and further place reconstruction powers into the hands of the City. Survivors successfully appealed interpretations of the ordinance implementations, but at a great financial cost, which the lawsuit is also seeking restitution for. The Public Welfare board notably denied aid from around the country in the midst of the displacement and ruin Black Tulsans were facing. The squalid conditions many Black Tulsans were left in during the interim are also included in the damages the defendants are seeking restitution for. The lawsuit succinctly outlines how the “defendants’ unlawful actions left survivors of the Massacre to live in makeshift tents as their shelter into the winter, subjecting them to cold, filth and disease for up to a year after the Massacre.”

Reconstruction and Renewal

There were very purposeful efforts to erase North Tulsa, cover up the Massacre and begin rebuilding without the Black community. To ensure the fires continued to burn throughout the night, white mob members threatened a Tulsa Fire Department crew at gunpoint when they arrived on the scene. Insurance agencies refused claims due to the blame being placed squarely on the Black residents of Greenwood by then Tulsa Mayor T.D. Evans. This also led to a halt of any formal talks of reparations. When it came to indictments related to the Massacre, an all-white grand jury exclusively indicted residents of Greenwood for the destruction of their own community. The jury also advocated for more aggressive policing of Black people. The lawsuit notes that this aggressive and unwarranted policing continues to this day. 

In 1923, a reconstruction committee attempted to double down on the efforts of the Public Welfare board by rezoning the Greenwood neighborhood for industrial use, further blighting the area and decreasing property values. Defendants note that the City of Tulsa and Tulsa Regional Chamber have a long history of excluding the Black community:

During the 1930s, the City, with the support of the Chamber, engaged in more extensive racial segregation in public employment than any other southern and southwestern city. For example, unlike other Southern cities, Tulsa did not hire African Americans for public service jobs, with the exception of those hired as police for the Greenwood community or teachers in the segregated school system. Similarly, in the 1920s through the 1960s, the City and the Chamber unlawfully excluded the few African American businesses run by members of the Greenwood and North Tulsa communities from participating in business opportunities. The Chamber excluded North Tulsa Black-owned businesses in its publicity materials commemorating Oklahoma’s fiftieth anniversary as well.

In the 1950s through to the 1970s, the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County and the Tulsa Regional Chamber used severe urban renewal development practices that in almost every way worked against North Tulsa’s social and economic interests by demolishing community-owned developments and taking valuable land via eminent domain. The first urban renewal projects in the state used eminent domain to take land in North Tulsa to create Highway 244 in 1965 and the Seminole Hills development, which completely transformed the landscape of North Tulsa from a walkable community of local businesses to what is now mostly parking lots for chain restaurants. In the mid-1980s, much of the original bustling hub of Greenwood was cleared out to make room for the University Center at Tulsa, now known as Oklahoma State University-Tulsa. The university initially asked the Tulsa Urban Renewal Authority for nearly 200 acres of North Tulsa land, but only 80 acres actually developed into the university by 1990. Here again, the plaintiffs note a total neglect by city entities where community members were purposely  excluded from having a say in how their community was rebuilt or even who it was rebuilt for. The petition notes that the highway and the sprawling Oklahoma State University-Tulsa development negatively impacted businesses, residents and schools in the North Tulsa community. 

The lawsuit tackles concerns for future developments in the North Tulsa community by stating that, “The defendants are working to bring business to Tulsa using the Massacre and Black

Wall Street as a cultural tourism draw. The problem is that they are doing so on the backs of those they destroyed without ensuring that the community and descendants of those subjected to the nuisance they created are significantly represented in the decision-making process  and are the direct beneficiaries of these efforts.” The plaintiffs have grievances not only with the last century of problematic policies, unlawful activities, avoidable death and property loss, but also with developments today which claim to be to their benefit that are to the contrary. Attitudes appear to be changing within leadership at the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Regional Chamber. However, residents still feel a lack of agency, which has been in place since the Massacre ravaged the community 99 years ago. 

The North Tulsa community to this day struggles to have community issues solved with community solutions. The descendants of these racially motivated events have been asking for restitution for decades without the support and care of organizations like the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Regional Chamber. The community today is severely split by costly infrastructure projects that simply do not serve the community’s best interests. Health outcomes are lower than anywhere else in the city. Policing has become so aggressive that murder is justified in everyday situations such as car problems. Children are beaten for jaywalking and charged while our state hovers near the highest incarceration rates in the world, with Black Tulsans making up a disproportionate percentage. Even with the extremely alarming data regarding policing solutions to these problems, input from the community most affected is still excluded.

When reading about the Tulsa Regional Chamber today on their Mission, Vision, & Values page, it could be assumed that the organization is ethically and financially equipped for addressing concerns such as these. It could be inferred that having positive conversations centering an important prosperous community and finding innovative solutions to rectifying a disastrous history would be seen as paramount. Yet, this does not appear to be the case. The Tulsa Regional Chamber’s actions over the past 99 years against the plaintiffs are described in brief spurts in the petition, but the pervasive nature and harrowing details of the Chamber’s actions can be found in North Tulsans’ everyday challenges. 

The plaintiffs assert that even future developments present problematic practices not unlike those of the past: “It is inequitable for the Defendants to retain the benefits they receive from marketing Black Wall Street rather than providing those benefits to the Black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District and North Tulsa, with top priority placed on those who are descendants of the Black residents who resided in the Greenwood District at the time of the Massacre.” It is unfortunate that there appears to be such a disconnect between the community and the institutions meant to bring them prosperity, with the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s responsibilities described on their site as, “the principal business-driven leadership organization improving the quality of community life through the development of regional economic prosperity.” Therefore, it is no surprise that North Tulsans are legally seeking what they are owed. 

Photo credit: Joseph Rushmore

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