By Peter White
Can I tell you a little bit about my neighborhood?
Our family moved to the Heights neighborhood of Tulsa in the summer of 2017. One thought I’d held really loosely when we first moved here was a multiethnic church plant. I shared this with a friend and neighbor: “Good idea? Or bad idea?” She sighed. “Listen. I grew up a preacher’s kid. I get it. If God told you to do that, I can’t take that from you.” Another deep sigh. “But there’s a really good reason I go to my all-Black church on Sunday. It’s really hard being Black in Tulsa.”
So the journey I’ve been on since that conversation is waking up to just how real that is. I want to quote psychologist Resmaa Menakem from his book My Grandmother’s Hands. But I want to substitute “Tulsa” where he uses “America” because it fits too well:
“If we were born and raised in [Tulsa], white-body supremacy and our adaptations to it are in our blood. Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors.”
This is Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the scars of white supremacy run so deep.
In 2019, HBO aired its mini-series Watchmen. It was the first time that the Tulsa Race Massacre was portrayed in a significant piece of pop culture. I remember reading an interview at the time with the show’s creator, where he talked about how, in trying to come up with a plot premise for the show, he wanted something that not even a team of superheroes could fix. He had read about, and been deeply affected by, the story of the race massacre, so he picked race. Then he set the story in Tulsa. Even HBO thinks it’s hard to be Black in Tulsa. I think about that a lot.
Like a lot of downtowns, Tulsa has a loop of highways around its center. If you imagine downtown as a clock face, the Heights is at 11 o’clock. Just a couple blocks east of us, 1 or 2 o’clock on the clock face, is Historic Greenwood, which garnered the nickname “Black Wall Street” early in the 20th century and was the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In the years immediately after World War I, Greenwood was a haven for Black entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and other business people.
I grew up and graduated high school in a small town about 10 minutes west of downtown Tulsa. Prior to moving to the Heights neighborhood, I spent almost all my life living in homogeneous white spaces. Now, of my five adjacent neighbors, three are Black families, and one is a bi-racial couple. The Heights has uniquely diverse demographics for Oklahoma. Our kids are among the minority at the neighborhood public school. We started banking in the neighborhood and getting gas at the nearest QuikTrip. Just the simple act of running errands and shopping at the most convenient places now put me in proximity to people who did not look like me.
We had been living in the Heights for a few months when I had a breakfast meeting with a friend in midtown Tulsa. I was there a couple of minutes early, and as I scanned the room, the thought bubbled up, “There are no Black people here.” I can’t remember ever having that thought before. I simply hadn’t ever noticed what was missing around me. Soon after, our family started worshiping with a Black-led multiethnic church in north Tulsa. I’ve spent almost all my life in church, but I didn’t know any of the songs. I was discovering an entire world, even of church, that I was unaware of because I was white.
Those were some of the things I started to notice. My friend said it was hard to be Black in Tulsa. This rabbit hole is deep. In 2018, the mayor’s office created an Office of Resiliency and Equity. The first report that came out highlighted the ever-present fault lines between predominantly white south Tulsa and predominantly Black north Tulsa:
- South Tulsans are expected to live 11 years longer than north Tulsans.
- There are nearly 50% more bachelor’s degrees or higher in south Tulsa than in north Tulsa.
- South Tulsa’s median household income is more than two times that of north Tulsa’s median income.
- Nearly 20% of Tulsans live in a food desert, with limited access to fresh groceries. All of Tulsa’s food deserts are located in north Tulsa. (A grocery store was finally opened in 2021.)
- The report lists south Tulsa with a population of 103,561 and an average household income of $59,908. Midtown and Downtown have a population of 125,160 and an average income of $47,084. Meanwhile, north Tulsa has 85,374 with an average income of $28,867. The scars of white supremacy run deep.
How did it get this way? Perhaps one starting place is 1830 and the Indian Removal Act signed into law by President Andrew Jackson that uprooted the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Choctaw nations from their ancestral lands in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. This was the catalyst for the genocide that would be known as the “Trail of Tears” ending in Indian Territory. This is a pretty foundational story for white supremacy in our region.
After the Civil War, all-Black towns flourished in Indian Territory, so much so that there was a movement to create an all-Black state. The Land Run of 1889 changed all that, and when Oklahoma was formally made a state by the federal government in 1906, the first laws on the books related to Jim Crow. In a tragic turn of the story, vigilante lynchings of Black people became normal.
So on the night of May 31, 1921, when 19-year-old shoeshine boy Dick Rowland sat in a jail cell for the alleged assault of a white teenage girl, Tulsa was a tinderbox. Ignite, it did. Fearing a lynching, members of the Black community poured in from Greenwood in support of Rowland. Blacks sought to protect one of their own. Whites saw an armed invasion of their territory. A gun went off and a firefight ensued between the two camps. A mob of white Tulsans invaded, looted, and burned Greenwood. The National Guard was called in and participated in the destruction. For the first time, American planes dropped fire bombs on American soil. By the next morning, Greenwood was no more. Nearly 35 city blocks had been burned, 10,000 Black Tulsans were left homeless, and as many as 300 Black Tulsans were dead.
For the next 75 years, the event wasn’t talked about. Greenwood would come back. So much wealth had accumulated that it was rebuilt despite not receiving a single penny from insurance claims. The common narrative follows that the Greenwood community ended because of racial violence in 1921. But it’s more complicated than that. More tragic. The urban policies of the city of Tulsa in the 1950s and ’60s finally crushed the neighborhood. Racial integration, expressway construction, and urban renewal all contributed to the end of Greenwood as it was known.
In addition, the transition of the Heights neighborhood from an all-white community in the 1920s to an all-Black community by the 1960s to a mixed—but ever-growing white—community in the 2000s involves the convergence of four particular sociological forces related to housing: 1) white flight, 2) redlining, 3) urban renewal, and 4) gentrification. These are each threads in the pattern of white supremacy. As white wealth spread south into middle-class neighborhoods, property values increased, and property taxes increased, pouring that money into the local schools. Meanwhile, the opposite was happening in the low-income, non-white neighborhoods of north Tulsa, further widening the gap between rich and poor, even in the very same public school system.
And all this history? A public educator can’t talk about it in the classroom for fear of reprisal after the passage of House Bill 1775, signed by Governor Stitt in May 2021. This bill limits what can be said in the classroom about race and gender. The district of Tulsa Public Schools has already had its accreditation demoted by the State Board of Education because of a complaint regarding a diversity training. The question for us in Tulsa—in all of America—is less about the lingering aftershocks of a 100-year-old massacre and more about the ever-present weight of white supremacy in our neighborhoods every single day.
Psychologist Menakem says:
“We will not change this situation through training, traditional education, or other appeals to the cognitive brain. We need to begin with the body and its relation to trauma.”
The Race Massacre of 1921 is a source of community trauma, and the city’s failure to atone for it more than 100 years after is a source of un-shalom in our city (or “unhealed dissonance” in Menakem’s words) and our particular corner of the city. The story of Jesus—the one that we rehearse with our bodies in the Anglican Eucharist liturgy—and his presence with us when we embody it, is our hope of healing from this trauma. The physical embodiment of this liturgy uniquely opens us to receive God’s healing and shalom because it acknowledges God’s own trauma at the cross. No city program or non-profit strategy can heal us. Only the love of God displayed in Jesus. Only our faithful presence to Jesus who, because of his deep love, is already with our neighbors in our neighborhoods every day.
I was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so white supremacy and my adaptations to it are in my blood. It has kept me from seeing so many things. There are days I feel like the blind man to whom Jesus says in Mark 8, “Can you see anything now?” Despite these harshest of conditions, I bear witness to the beautiful image of God in my Black Tulsa neighbors. I see Black pastors tending to the needs of the poor and leading people to Jesus. I see Black churches nurturing and empowering the dreams of children. I see Black men loving their wives and laughing with their kids. I see Black women creating businesses that enrich our community. We are a neighborhood of deep pain, and at the same time, grand beauty.
It should not be hard to be a human of any skin color in Tulsa—or anywhere in America, for that matter. This is the urgency of our ministry task.
Featured image: A mural on Greenwood Avenue lamenting the destruction of Black Tulsa installed for the centennial in 2021.
This article was originally published by The Diocese of C4SO as part of their celebration of Black History Month.
The Rev. Peter White is a C4SO deacon, a spiritual director, and the host and curator of the Sabbath Life—a retreat house and contemplative community north of downtown Tulsa. A native of the Tulsa area, he wrote a dissertation about gentrification, church revitalization, and the Heights neighborhood. Contact Peter.