NOTE: The following is an adaptation from the book “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.” It has been updated to reflect the name change of the events of May 31-June 1, 1921, in the Black Wall Street area of Tulsa, as well as that of the district north of downtown.
There are some things I’ve learned while on the run. Sometimes I’ll take a route by the baseball stadium. It’s a fairly new ballpark for Tulsa’s Double-A baseball team, and it’s a nice one at that. You can actually get good beer there (not just the swill most ballparks serve), and they shoot off fireworks at the end of Friday and Saturday night home games. Any seat in the house is good, with picturesque views of the downtown skyline clearly visible over the outfield wall.
The ballpark sits at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, once the nexus of what used to be called America’s “Black Wall Street.” Back before 1921, Tulsa’s Black community had built up some thriving enterprises just north of downtown. But an accusation was made – a black man assaulting a white woman, something that was never proven – and that set off an armed confrontation between white residents of the city and folks who lived in Tulsa’s primarily black north side.
It was a bloodbath. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 left Black Wall Street a charred, broken ruin. An untold number of black-owned business and homes were burned, and while official figures on the number of dead are in the dozens, most historians put the body count in the hundreds. Black Wall Street was dead, and it died violently.
Northside residents rebuilt after the attack, trying to recapture the glory that the neighborhood once held. To an extent, they succeeded, but urban renewal projects, including a highway loop around downtown, razed many buildings and cut through the heart of the area. As the years passed by it degraded into a warehouse district with few tenants and high crime. In recent years it’s been revived as an arts district, with lots of cool galleries, music venues, clubs, restaurants and bars. There’s a hotel in there, too, and a great little park that’s home to concerts, a farmer’s market and people just hanging out or grabbing some grub from food trucks.
There’s also that baseball stadium, and across the street from it, a smaller, less conspicuous park that was built to commemorate the losses of the race massacre. It’s called Reconciliation Park, and it’s an incredible little green space. People who visit and take time to read the placards installed at various stations will get a chance to learn a few things about what were undoubtedly Tulsa’s darkest days. It’s great that we have this park; I wish it was bigger, maybe more dramatic, something befitting of all that was lost in 1921. I realize that doing so might have inconvenienced those who built the ballpark, the television station not far away, and all the trendy businesses nearby. I just hope everyone involved in the establishment of these places understands their prosperity is built on the ashes of someone else’s long-ago broken dreams. The Tulsa Arts District is a jewel for my city, alive with people and commerce. But that was also true of Black Wall Street in 1921. It just so happened that back then the people who flocked here were of a different hue than the rest of the city, a fact leaving them relatively powerless to stop the nightmare that burned the heart of their community to the ground.
I usually run through that park at least a few times a week. I make a point of it.