Seen on the run: Remembering a city’s worst hour

One of the things about the places I like to run is that they often have some history behind them.

If I’m not on the trails or at a park, I like to run near my gym in downtown Tulsa. As my miles have gone up, I’ve explored more of the city on foot. Doing so has allowed me to not only see new things, but learn as well.

The area north of downtown is called the Brady Arts District. It’s booming right now. Apartment buildings are going up. Restaurants, bars and clubs are opening. A hotel is being built. Lots of other new buildings are being constructed built while old buildings are getting thorough renovations. It’s one of the hot new places to live, learn and play.

An entrance at ONEOK Field, a relatively new AA baseball stadium in downtown Tulsa. It’s the anchor of the redeveloped Brady Arts District, built where the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa’s early days used to be.

In addition to all those things, Brady is home to a cool AA baseball ballpark. And next to it is this excellent park, John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.

When I run up here, I like to go through Reconciliation Park. It’s a great little green space that’s well designed and a nice break from the streets, even if traversing it takes a matter of seconds. It’s named after a famous and noteworthy Tulsa historian and a prominent figure in the history of Black America.

But the most important thing about it is its significance. It memorializes something that happened in Tulsa more than 90 years ago. Something terrible.

John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park.

You see, Brady wasn’t always the trendy new neighborhood in town. Until recently, it was a dump – a collection of dilapidated buildings, empty lots and haunts for homeless, druggies and people in and out of the nearby homeless shelters and the county jail. The renovation of the district is welcomed, but most people don’t realize that before it was a neo-slum, it was something much, much more glorious.

In Tulsa’s earliest days, the city – like most in the country – was deeply segregated. But the black community in Tulsa found ways to prosper despite the enforced inequality. The businesses that populated the area around Greenwood and Archer comprised a district that was dubbed “The Black Wall Street” because of how well they were doing. In 1921, there was a lot to like about what was going on here.

But then there was a report of an alleged crime: a sexual assault of a white woman by a black man.

Anger ensued. Sensationalized local newspaper reports stoked the rage even further. A mob started to march to the jail to lynch the man accused of the crime. Many blacks in the area saw this as wrong. Many were war veterans. So a group of black men armed themselves and went to the jail to stop the lynching.

One of three statues at Reconciliation Park. This one is titled “Anger.” The others are “Hope” and “Humiliation.”

It’s not known who shot first. But a shot rang out, and violence ensued. White mobs flooded north Tulsa. People were attacked. Killed. Businesses and homes on Black Wall Street burned. In a matter of days, the business district of north Tulsa was in ashes, and more than 300 people were killed, by some estimates. Local authorities did little to stop the riot. When it ended, those in power basically ignored it.

But the facts afterward are irrefutable. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot arguably was and remains the single worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history. And the aftereffects still resonate today.

Fast-forward to the present time and you can see the community’s attempt to recognize and come to terms with the worst moment in Tulsa’s history. The park is an amazing tribute. Walk its path and you’ll be moved.

The corner of Greenwood and Archer, the heart of what used to be “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa. The city has gone through some efforts to recognize its past, but very little of the district survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Today, new buildings, businesses, residences and other facilities now occupy this part of the city, which has become one of the fastest growing and trendiest neighborhoods in Tulsa.

What it was and what it is are quite different. The racial demographic has changed, now younger and whiter. It’s rebuilt. And it’s turning into a place where people want to come, whether it’s for baseball games, for the arts, or to have a good meal. Old mainstays like Cain’s Ballroom and the Brady Theater remain, hosting live music by local and national acts. Some of the streets I run here a choked with construction machinery while others are home to new enterprises, such as two arts centers and another green space set to open in a week or so, one that will be geared toward the performing arts.

What was once dead is now alive. But it’s different than what it used to be. In the midst of all that’s new and exciting are the ghosts of the past, straining to remind us that the shine of the Brady Arts District is built atop the charred and bloodied ground of an urban battlefield. It’s important to remember what it used to be, and the awful reasons it’s not that way anymore.

Just something I see when I run.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


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