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Visit To Site Of Tulsa Massacre Brings History To Life For A&M-Commerce Students

Buildings were destroyed in a massive fire during the Tulsa Race Massacre when a white mob attacked the Greenwood neighborhood, a prosperous Black community in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.
Library of Congress
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Buildings were destroyed in a massive fire during the Tulsa Race Massacre when a white mob attacked the Greenwood neighborhood, a prosperous Black community in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921.

For almost a century, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history was either absent from or underpresent in historical texts. In Tulsa in 1921, hundreds were killed when white rioters destroyed the city’s Greenwood neighborhood in a racially motivated attack. Today, people are learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre, and about the neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, where African-Americans built a thriving local community and economy before the disaster.

In this edition of North By Northeast, we hear from Texas A&M University-Commerce counseling professor Dr. LaVelle Hendricks, who recently organized a trip to see Greenwood. Graduate students Christian Henry and Miaya Love, along with undergraduate Vashti Moffett, describe their experiences and reactions to the tip. One June 29, students visited the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Greenwood Cultural Center, the Ellis Walker Woods Memorial, John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, and toured the current Greenwood business district.

NPR’s website has links to a number of recent feature reports about Greenwood, and you can also find more at the Greenwood Cultural Center’s website.

Audio transcript

Mark Haslett: From 88.9 KETR in Commerce, you're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News. And it's time for North by Northeast, conversations that matter to Northeast Texas. Thanks for tuning in. It's good to have you with us on this Tuesday, July 20. And we have a kind of bittersweet program for you today. We've got some happy and we've got some sad, the happy part is we're going to be talking about a really important experience that some university students recently had. But the topic itself is a grim one.

In 1921, in Tulsa, there was a neighborhood called Greenwood. It's still there today, although very different from what it could have been. At the time, it was one of the most prosperous, perhaps the most prosperous, black neighborhoods in the United States. Lots of black owned businesses, folks who had moved there from the southeast during Reconstruction, over the years, had put together a very strong social community and a strong financial community. There was a massacre sparked by events that will describe here later during this program. The result - hundreds of people killed an entire neighborhood destroyed. And then on top of that, there was a second tragedy, which was the omission of that incident from historical accounts. Students were just simply not taught that it was ever happened.

Today with our nation's increasing reckoning with past sins and misdeeds and an increase in efforts toward reconciliation and justice, awareness of the Greenwood massacre is something that we're coming into. And you can find evidence of that right here in Northeast Texas. Today. I'm joined by Dr. Lavelle Hendricks. And Dr. Hendricks has organized trips to civil rights sites in the southeastern U.S. before -- Birmingham, Selma, some other sites depending on time and resources. And most recently, Dr. Hendrix organized a student trip to Tulsa to see Greenwood. There's a lot to see in Greenwood today. And we're also joined by three students who made the trip. We have Christian Henry from Commerce, she is pursuing her PhD in counseling. Also pursuing her PhD in counseling, we have Maiya Love, a student from Texarkana. And Vashti Moffett, she's from Mesquite. She's a senior and she is majoring in theater, with a focus on acting and directing, folks. Good morning. It's great to have you here with us. We've got some folks sharing mics here. So be bold and lean in when you need to talk. And so LaVelle -  let's just basically kind of set the table here and tell us what this how this trip came about. And we'll go over what y'all did.

LaVelle Hendricks: As you know, Mark and first of all, thank you so much for allowing us to come in to share the experiences that the students had when we went to Black Wall Street there in Tulsa. As you know, the university is very committed to providing students with experiantial learning. As you pointed out a few minutes ago, whether it's going to Selma, Alabama, or Birmingham or going to Montgomery, the students get a chance first-hand to see history in and of itself. And so I'm very thankful for of course, Dr. John Humphreys, our provost, President, Mark Rudin, and, of course, my dean, Dr. Kimberly McLeod, for providing the resources for students to go, as in years past. Because it's the 100th anniversary of the Black Wall Street, students were saying, look, you know, can we do something with that? Can we possibly enjoy an opportunity go and learn there?

One thing we have found with these experiential learnings is that students can gain a tremendous amount of information by being there for a week versus perhaps sitting in a classroom for 12 or 15 weeks. So the students expressed an interest in it made a proposal to the administration, the administration was very supportive of it. And of course, the students start flocking to it. As I pointed out to you in previous conversations we've had, I don't have an issue with getting students interested in programs, I’m trying to find out how I'm going to tell certain students I don't have enough room to go. So I'm happy that these three individuals are here to share the experiences as well.

Haslett: Lavelle, y'all met at the Fieldhouse. For those who don't know, that's the gigantic quonset hut where they play basketball and volleyball here at the university. Y'all left and a quarter to four in the morning and rolled into Tulsa around nine o'clock. The first stop was Vernon, African Methodist Episcopal Church. So what was the significance of that stop?

Hendricks: Well, first of all, because you know, leaving at 3:45 in the morning because they love leaving at 3:45.

Haslett: That's a terrible idea that has Dr. Hendrix written all over it.

Hendricks: Yeah, firstly, we have to do it to feed my wonderful students here. So we had a wonderful time at one of the local diners there, and then I'll allow the students to share their experiences.

Haslett: The first step there was Vernon, African Methodist Episcopal so what was that Like?

Christian Henry: It was very heartbreaking, for sure. And just seeing that there was still damage from the fire and the bombs that were dropped on the church. It hit home for me because my dad's a deacon. And spirituality is very important to me. But there was some significance there because the people in the burned room actually weren't harmed. And so that was a story that stuck with me. Because with my faith, it just tells me that God was in the room. And so even though everything else was destroyed, and people were killed, like the people in the actual room survived, and their legacy stands today.

Haslett: That detail is something that's relevant to the overall story because unfortunately, local authorities were complicit and participants in this event, it wasn't just like they stood aside and let it happen, which was the case in lots of situations with lynchings and things like that. But in this case, local authorities were actually participating in the violence. They targeted churches, among other buildings. After folks were done at Vernon African Methodist, Episcopal then they went to the Greenwood Cultural Center. And folks, if you're listening at home and you have a computer or your phone handy, you can look at the Greenwood Cultural Center's website. I've got it pulled up right now. It's greenwoodculturalcenter.org, all one word. And you can take a look at the online presentation of what's there. So who'd like to talk about what y'all encountered when you went to the Greenwood Cultural Center.

Vashti Moffett: So when you go to the Greenwood Cultural Center, I think as an African-American woman, I felt anger. I would say that I felt that throughout the trip, not just to the point where I was going to, you know, start fighting somebody, but to the point of where I was upset as to why this was not taught to me, not only by the school, but by my parents. And then when I call my parents, they said, Oh, I thought the school would have done it. So you go into this room, and it's like a museum, they have different pictures. And they say this is so and so. He was a doctor, he was an OB GYN, which is what we would call him now. But back then it was labeled as specialized in female births are such things as that.

And it was a little overwhelming. So then I became emotional. And I started to tear up and I had to go to the bathroom because it's like, this is so much information. I'm 22 years old, and I know nothing of it. And when the first time I heard about the massacre was on Twitter, because of BuzzFeed. So it was not because of the school or because of my educators thought it was important for me to learn. I think what really angered me is we, as black people, are searching for where we came from. I have a friend from Mexico, she's Latinx, she can tell you from what country in Mexico she's from, and she can bring a flag and she can tell you about the food and things like that. I can't tell you a part of what part of Africa I'm from, I can tell you, I'm from, you know, Mesquite, Texas, and my dad is from New Orleans. But I mean, that's about as good as it goes.

And so for us to already not know enough about where we come from, and then you come here and it's like, okay, we're learning more. I think it angers me, because I wish I would have known sooner. But it was a beautiful experience to see that and to see black people in such a beautiful light because a lot of the times we're not in that beautiful light. But I think what's also beautiful about the Greenwood community is, it was us uplifting us. It wasn't us, you know looking for a handout from somebody else. It was us truly being black and authentic and what it means to be black during that time in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Haslett: Certainly that was a reason for the ferocity of the attack. You can use historical context and understand that the reason for the ferocity of the attack and perhaps contributing reason to the participation of local authorities was that this prosperity and success was viewed as a threat because it was outside of what was desired by the people who were in control at the time.

Hendricks: And also more keep in mind as history has shown that, for the most part, several historians who were there were saying that the dollar that went back to the Greenwood district, that dollar circulated around at least six times. So you can see the financial worth, the financial power to know that you had over 300 businesses destroyed. Thirty churches destroyed, countless number of homes destroyed. The Greenwood district as you know, Mark, was 48 blocks long. This area was the most prosperous black community in America in 1921. Physicians, lawyers, doctors, you name it. Everything was right there in the area. And the irony of it though, Mark. It was located where across the tracks from the main area there in the Tulsa area, yet they still thrive tremendously. There in the Black Wall Street area.

Haslett: We're visiting this morning with Dr. Lavelle Hendricks of Texas A&M University-Commerce. We just heard from Vashti Moffett, she's an undergraduate at A&M-Commerce. Also earlier we heard from Christian Henry of Commerce. Miaya Love of Texarkana is also in here with us this morning. She's another student. We're talking about a trip that the students along with some other students and a few staff and faculty from A&M-Commerce took to Tulsa to see the site have what's known variously as the Black Wall Street Massacre, perhaps the Greenwood Massacre, the Tulsa Race Massacre, it happened in 1921. And the 100-year anniversary of the event, combined with our overall trend over the past year and a half or so of being aware of advancing social justice, and reconciliation. All of these things contributed to make this trip happen. And after the Greenwood Cultural Center. The next stop on the itinerary was at the Ellis Walker Woods Memorial. So Miaya, could you please tell us a little bit? Who was Ellis Walker woods? And what was that stop about? And if Dr. Hendrix needs to step in and help, that's fine, too. But I do want to hear your reaction.

Hendricks: He was one of the pioneers there in the Black Wall Street area, and of course, there are several landmarks there in the area in memory of them.

Miaya Love: Okay, so, um, my experience, it was just very moving to be on those grounds and to experience the stories that were being told, while we were there. Because those were stories that I think, like I could research as much as I wanted to, but actual people that were in the city and a part of the city could tell me even more that I wouldn't get just from research, because they're local people. And they have a different view and a different sense of the history of what happened there. And so that they were able to give me a different type of insight and that I also appreciated that as well.

Haslett: Did you talk to people who had ancestors in the event? Yes. And what anybody what what was, what was that? Like? What do they have to say? What was it like to talk to somebody who had family?

Hendricks: What we found is that individuals were saying, what does an American know about this? Why? Why was all of this whitewash? Why was it all covered up? And why is it taken 100 years, actually, to bring this to light. I learned about Black Wall Street back in the early 90s, from reading stuff from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper. I was not even aware of Black Wall Street, but a lot of individuals there, we went to one of the local churches, they were talking about the individuals were like 106, 107 - survivors. And Mark, cognitively, their minds is still sharp as a tack, but they're wondering what is going to happen. What is Tulsa going to do? What is the state of Oklahoma going to do about this? No one can give a definitive answer.

Haslett: It's an ongoing process. This is something that's moving, this is history in action. Our improved awareness is itself a historical moment. And it's a historical event that we're all participating in right now. You're listening to North by Northeast on 88.9 KETR. We'll be back in just a moment with more from Christian Henry, Miaya Love, Vashti Moffett and Dr. Lavelle Hendricks this morning. (station break) … they're all A&M-Commerce students who recently went to went on a trip to Tulsa to see Greenwood, the site of the Greenwood massacre and the site of Black Wall Street. We've alluded to the incident and we don't have time to discuss it in detail but let's take a moment to add a couple have more details. Dr. Hendricks, could you please describe a short version of what exactly led up to this massacre.

Hendricks: There was a young African-American boy, who was in one of the elevators with a young white female. They had an issue with the elevator lever system, somehow it jolted, she screamed, and as a result of screaming, they saw the black boy running back to his area. The mob got together, history shows that the local law enforcement started deputizing members of the mob, they basically destroyed the Greenwood district. History also shows based upon the narratives that were shared with us, that the black boy and the white girl that allegedly were involved with all of this, they knew each other. And after the riot started, they left and they get married. Again, this is 1921.

But as a result of that, that the mob went out and destroyed 48 blocks, took everything out, just destroyed things. It's a part of history. It's a sad part of history. But we have to talk about these things as well. And we don't know how many people died, we don't know. But one of the things in the young people can tell you also is that they're trying to say it was 300. But it was way more than 300. Because we went to the cemetery where they are currently examining some of the bodies to give them a proper burial as well, we went by the site. And of course, we were told it was very sacred site, which which, which it is, but they're trying to do some things there in Tulsa to give those that died record shows that they saved was 300.

Some believe it was maybe 600, could have easily doubled that. There were sites where they built a new, I think is a triple A or double A baseball stadium where the Dodgers actually play. And one of the historians saying, you know, it's bodies, they're even under the stadium, where they're currently playing double a, triple A baseball. So it's a sad, sad story. But I'm just glad that these young people are here and A&M-Commerce is providing an opportunity for those individuals to learn through history.

Haslett: Folks, if you're curious about this incident, and what's in Tulsa today, in that area, you can go online to greenwoodculturalcenter.org and take a look at their website, they have a number of items there for you to review and increase your understanding of this event. Folks, there's a lot we can talk about. And we've only got about 10 minutes left. So let's do what we can with 10 minutes. I’d like to open up the program and let folks describe their reactions to this experience. Anybody - and it looks like looks like Christian has something to share.

Henry: I'm really passionate about social justice and equality. At find it hard to look at myself and think that my skin color is a weapon. When my ancestors were living peacefully in Africa, and was taken against their will, created their own businesses in Greenwood, and have it stripped away from them. And then to know a couple of weeks ago, we can't teach oppression to little kids. So you're telling me I have to deny who I am.

I'm a first generation college student. I'm pursuing my doctoral degree to show other African American children it's possible. So when I reach the top, am I going to get mistreated? Because my skin color is a weapon. And I'm getting like teary eyed because it makes you mad, that we didn't ask for this. And then the fact that based off of our skin color, as a community, we're separated. Because I'm light skinned, I'm “better” than somebody dark skinned. Now, we're in the same boat. And it makes me upset. Because no matter if I'm a doctor, my pay grade is going to be a little bit lower. Because I'm a female, my pay grade is going to be a little bit lower. Why is that?

Haslett: And it's still going on today, which is part of why such anger and sorrow is justified. It's not like something that is over. It's It's not over, we're in a better place than we were. And it seems like for the most part, we're moving in the direction where we need to go. But it's still very real.

Hendricks: And I think it's always important to understand in situations of this nature. When you look at Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief, you have the denial that wow something like this actually happened. And then you can go towards anger. You can go towards depression, you can go towards bargaining. You can go towards acceptance and it's not linear.  You can vacillate from one stage to the next. So when you hear Christian, being very, very passionate about her feelings and emotions, that in itself is very therapeutic, because she gets now an opportunity to share how she's feeling just this think about what took place there. When those mobs came in there, those individuals didn't have a pretense to hide. They didn't know what was going on, bombs were dropping from on high, people was shooting into their homes, it's in the middle of the night, and they didn't know. And then to wake up the next morning, and to see their streets filled with dead bodies, for no apparent reason whatsoever. It's something that we have to talk about and continue to move forward as a nation.

Haslett: We've got about six minutes left in the program, I’d like for somebody else to have a chance to speak a little bit more. This is Miaya Love from Texarkana.

Love: Thank you. So in my experience, it's just, it's one, like I mentioned before reading, but experience history, like I was like, I'm walking the streets where my people had to experience a massacre, because they were thriving, they were minding their business, they were just trying to make a living. And because someone felt that that was a threat to them, and it was allowed to happen. And then you see through the city, like how they took advantage of that area, and how they built structures over those areas and other people.

Just in a sense, to me, it was like a disregard of what happened. And now 100 years later, because of things like social media, people can't hide from different histories. And people can't write it off as much, because so many people are being so vocal, and I appreciate that. And also, like you could walk down a street, we were under a bridge, and there's like, just plaques of different things and structures that were there. And it's heartbreaking because it's like, we're walking over that there is no structure there. There's no honor given more than just a small plaque of this massacre. And also even while I was there, I learned that they had the concentration camps as well. And I don't hear about that a lot. And that was brutal in the fallout and even in the things where I would hear where someone would say that their parents or their grandparents or something took in people that were jailed.

But we learned the stories behind that is people needed maids, and people would know that someone had a certain skill and they were basically, in a sense, for lack of better word, like enslave them because of their skill and take advantage of them past that as a survivor. And so that was something.

Haslett: Yeah, it was a pretty shameless, pretty shameless exercise in brutality. Vashti is recording this morning, you can't see if you're listening, if you're following along at home, you can't see, she's doing a little bit of video production, in addition to everything else, recording this morning's conversation. Vashti, I'm sure that you share some of the same sentiments that we've heard from Christian and Miaya.

Moffett: I do. And I want the community to understand black, white, Latinx, however however you identify, kind of the pain that black people experience. And that's not to take away any pain from any other culture or race or out any other nationality. But we as black people suffer a lot. And I don't think we as black people really realize how much emotionally we are hurting. For example, when George Floyd passed away, I spoke with a doctor therapist, if you will.

And she had said, we as black people across the world feel that, even though we weren't, you know, in the city or in the state that he was in or we weren't from there, we still feel that, because we have an uncle, who may look like George Floyd, we have a son, we have a brother, we have a sister who looks like me, looks like Brianna Taylor, I look like Brianna Taylor, you know, so it's like these kind of things hurt us. So I don't think people realize how important it is for us as black people to get these experiences. And I really want the college community to take advantage of if Dr. Hendricks or another doctor is going on a trip like this to take advantage of that.

Because it is very easy to become teary eyed. Because it hurts you, it angers you and you want to do something about it. And you want to go to the state of Oklahoma and say this is what we need to do, but they're just kind of like okay, and I wonder what really got this up and moving. Because like I said, I saw it on Twitter and I saw it on BuzzFeed. And then people were like, Oh my gosh, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So was it that was it the peer pressure, if you will, that made y'all do this? Did you do this because it was the right thing to do, because that makes a difference to me. That makes a difference to me, just like there's a story of a man who was walking down an alley and there was a young girl being raped, and he stopped the man. And everybody was like, Oh my gosh, you know, just amazing. He said, I shouldn't be getting praised for doing the right thing. So I want to know, Oklahoma, Tulsa, are you doing this? Because social media, because now the younger generations, we have such a heavy presence? Are you doing this? Because we were like, Look, if you don't do this, they were scared of what was going to happen? Or did they do this? Because they looked at it and they said, hey, there's a culture, 48 blocks of it, that has been taken away. And they may have descendants in Texas and Kansas. And you know, so I want to know, what really started this and what makes them want to -

Haslett: Would doing it for cynical or self-interested reasons be better than not doing it at all?

Moffett: It’s a catch-22. Yeah, it's a catch-22, because we already, I think, don't feel 100% appreciated. And then when we try to reach for that appreciation, everybody's like, Oh, well, you know, you're black, you get this, you're black, you get this. Yeah, but we get this because of what was taken from us.

Haslett: Right. So representation is important. But the danger of representation is that it allows people to, like the young folks say, front, and, and come up with a way where they're really more concerned about their image. You know, is that better than not feeling that pressure? I don't know. There's a lot to talk about. But this conversation will continue thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hendricks and Christian and Miaya and Vashti. Thank you all so much for being here with us. And again, if you're looking for more information about this event, and what’s in Tulsa today, you can find at greenwoodculturalcenter.org.  This is North by Northeast. I'm Mark Haslett.

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