Greenwood’s Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre

Billowing clouds of smoke cover the sky. The world is on fire. Imagine, your entire neighborhood and businesses lit up like Gone with the Wind’s burning of Atlanta. Imagine seeing your friends charred, lying on the street, only you don’t know it’s them because they are unrecognizable. Imagine, a line of you and your neighbors with your hands held, being held up by people who have extreme hate for you because of how you look. Imagine fire bombs raining down from airplanes and angry men with machine guns coming for you. It’s not a Hollywood movie. It’s not a war story. It’s a massacre that happened in small town U.S.A. In 1921, on Memorial weekend, when we think of barbecue and family, a horror had occurred from a twisted story spurred by fear.  They can be seen on the faces living in Greenwood in print. Only the photos that are in black and white were once flesh and blood walking the Oklahoma streets doing what you and I do everyday, just trying to live the American dream.

Today I went to the Greenwood Culture Center. I looked again at the faces of those effected by an event that we can only, imagine. While I was there I overheard a girl there talk to a friend about how “All Lives Matter” and about how much nobody talks about “how the Irish and the Jews were mistreated”. It literally made me sick. The fact is when you bring that up in a place like the Culture Center you disrespect the horror that they went through. She did not look at one picture while there for another event. She did not show any respect or sadness for the loss there that happened on the very ground she was standing. It’s not about comparing wounds. It’s about showing one another compassion and learning from our history.

This leads me to talk about why it is so important to share this history with others in Oklahoma. Because on those dark days of May 31st and June 1st, a mob of white people living in fear and hate killed over 300 innocent people. Where they were buried has not been found.  This history that has been hidden for years, now that it is out in the open should not be minimized. The story needs to be told to as many people as possible.

Last week I went to John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, a beautiful park that tells the story through art and architecture.  As beautiful as it is, and a wonderful monument to honor those who lived through and lost their lives during the Tulsa Race Massacre it can sometimes feel too pretty for the pain and the anguish that my fellow Oklahomans had to endure. I feel that their story needs to be told in a way that honors their struggle and their history.

Last August I was able to join the Dar Williams Songwriting Retreat in New York and it was there that I became inspired to write an album that tells Oklahoma’s history through the eyes of the people who lived it. Because it had been on my heart, I decided to begin with the Tulsa Race Massacre. See, the crazy thing is that growing up I had heard of a “race riot” that happened here. I had never heard of what actually happened until recently. The riot was not a riot, it was a massacre. A mob of 25,000 white men rained down on Greenwood. That’s what really happened. Bodies were loaded up on the back of trucks and train cars and believed to have been dumped in the Arkansas River. As dark as this story is, I can’t imagine living through it. And I think the best way I can honor those who lived through it is to tell the story. And the way I tell stories is through song. To learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre read the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. To learn more about The Oklahoma Storyteller project I’m putting together see the page, The Oklahoma Storyteller.

Sarah Popejoy


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