Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which saw the city’s prosperous Greenwood District, home to the historic Black-owned businesses of Black Wall Street, burned to the ground in a deadly blaze. In memory of the victims and survivors, a new history museum and memorial, Greenwood Rising, is slated to open early this summer.
It’s an important moment for a city that for decades did not acknowledge the dark legacy of the massacre and the forces of systemic racism that shaped Tulsa as it rose from the ashes. Until 2019, the state of Oklahoma did not include the massacre as a mandatory part of public school curriculums.
“It’s time for us to stop sweeping this under the rug,” Phil Armstrong, head of Oklahoma’s 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission, which is overseeing the museum project, told Artnet News. “Let us honor the memory of those who lost their lives and the survivors.”
The 1921 massacre in Tulsa was ignited by a news story—later disproven—that a Black man had assaulted a white woman in an elevator. But it was more fundamentally fueled by simmering resentment over the wealth of Greenwood’s residents.
In an attack that gained broad pop culture representation in HBO’s in 2019, a white mob killed an estimated 300 Black Tulsans, destroyed the homes of 10,000 others, and caused some $200 million in today’s dollars in property damage, according to academic research.
A New Way to Present Traumatic Stories
Determining how to best tell the story of the massacre was a challenging process that evolved over time, particularly over last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests rocked the nation.
“From the onset we’ve been really sensitive to the visitorship who will be coming through, including communities that have been heavily impacted by trauma,” L’Rai Arthur-Mensah, the project director at Local Projects, told Artnet News. “In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, I came to the team and said, ‘I have a young Black son. I’m worried about how going to be able to engage with the material that we place in this museum.’”
Clearly, this called for a more sophisticated solution than a sign with a trigger warning, telling visitors to enter at their own risk.
That’s why Local Projects created two paths through the exhibition, one of which offered what it dubbed an “emotional exit” offering a less graphic telling of Tulsa’s history. The display will open for all viewers with a recreation of life in Greenwood before the massacre, including a holographic barbershop installation sharing the hopes and dreams of those who called Black Wall Street home.
Visitors will then be able to opt out of the more triggering visuals in the museum’s “Arc of Oppression” section, which details the systemic racism faced by Black Americans, particularly in Tulsa, including the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as a recreation of the chaos of the massacre itself. Projected photographs will showcase the destruction and violence of the deadly incident, paired with audio accounts from some of the survivors.
“A lot of people in the Black community don’t need to relive this history. It’s really about educating others,” Arthur-Mensah said. “So you can go through a separate path where you don’t see all the images or have to stand in the middle of the massacre as it’s happening.”
“We don’t want you to fully bypass the story. You should still understand this history, but you don’t have to trigger yourself in any way to do that,” she added. “You can find ways to educate without traumatizing.”
Regardless of what path visitors take through the galleries, they will end on a note of hope in a section titled “Journey Toward Reconciliation.” The exhibit explores how the community rebuilt after the massacre, how it was fractured again by urban renewal programs in the 1960s and the construction of a highway that split the town into two, and how it united yet again through telling its own story.
“The museum is really highlighting the history of the community and the resiliency of the people,” Arthur-Mensah said.
In telling that history, the Greenwood Rising team worked closely with the community to ensure that local voices were being heard. That included conversations with Tulsa educators, activists, and politicians, as well as a public forum that allowed the community to provide their feedback about how the story of the massacre should be presented.
“There were some hard conversations—when dealing with any sensitive materials, you won’t make everyone happy,” Arthur-Mensah acknowledged. “As designers, it is not our job to tell other people’s stories. It’s our job to provide platforms and vessels so that people can tell their stories for themselves.”
The 7,000-square-foot new museum is just one of the ways in which the community is marking the massacre’s centennial. The Tulsa Race Massacre Commission also runs the Greenwood Art Project, which will open an exhibition featuring 33 Oklahoma-based artists next month, among other programming. Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art currently has two exhibitions inspired by Greenwood history.
“This has not been a bed of roses,” Armstrong admitted. “There’s been a lot of time establishing trust and rapport and credibility with the community, not only among Black citizens, but white citizens [who worried], ‘Was this just another way to try to make white citizens feel guilty for what happened a hundred years ago that they had no part in, creating another echo chamber where nothing really gets done?”
The goal is to make Greenwood Rising “a safe space for healing from racial trauma,” Armstrong added. The museum hopes to offer this not only through its exhibits, but also through additional space for community meetings and programming. The objective is for visitors to come away “not just being lightened and educated on this history, but to leave with a commitment to better racial relations within their own individual lives and take that back to their communities.”