“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” — Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan was the reason we drove over eight hours earlier this month to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
My mother is a huge Dylan fan, and we hit the road to check out the recently opened Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. Though it’s a strange location for the museum, as Dylan has no real ties to Tulsa, the center is a thought-provoking and incredible place. It’s attached to the Woody Guthrie Center, as the Oklahoma native was one of Dylan’s inspirations.
As spectacular as the Dylan and Guthrie centers are, it was a less hailed museum in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood that was the most revealing and informative.
Aside from a Black Wall Street mural along the roadside, the area surrounding the Greenwood Cultural Center was largely nondescript. The building is far from flashy, but the significance of the exhibits inside of the museum can’t be overstated.
To briefly summarize, in 1921, white mobs killed an unknown number of Black residents in the Greenwood neighborhood. The Tulsa massacre started when a white elevator operator accused a Black teenager of attempting to assault her. Those allegations are still highly questionable, but what’s undisputed is the carnage that followed her claims.
The exact number of Black people who were murdered isn’t known. A state commission in 2001 estimated the number to be between 100 and 300. As terrible as the loss of life was, it’s only part of the story.
Tulsa was a heavily segregated city, but many Black entrepreneurs and workers were thriving at the time of the massacre. The Greenwood area was dubbed Black Wall Street because of the financial success. White mobs set about burning down businesses and homes during the massacre, destroying investments while murdering the people who had worked so hard to overcome racism and blind hate.
Then came the coverup.
The former Tulsa Tribune newspaper published biased stories cheering on white rioters as they pillaged Greenwood. The writer of a Tulsa Tribune editorial on display at the center called Greenwood a “cesspool of iniquity” while using degrading, racist and dehumanizing language to describe the Black residents of the neighborhood.
Insurance companies refused to pay claims filed by Black residents and business owners, as Black Wall Street was all but destroyed.
Only over the past few years have I become aware of the Tulsa Massacre. In 2021, for the 100-year anniversary of the tragedy, our newspaper company produced some special coverage including a full-page graphic about the massacre. I interviewed Shawn Carruthers, a Tulsa native and current Floyd County Commissioner, for a story. Though it was one of the worst racial attacks in the history of this country, Carruthers said it was rarely discussed in Tulsa during his childhood.
Of course some believe such instances of violence and cruelty have no effect on current times. Likely their grandparents and great-grandparents never had their businesses and homes burnt down because of the color of their skin. Just imagine how the massacre affected generations of Black Tulsa residents. If that’s hard to do, think about your children. How much more difficult would it be for them to succeed in life if suddenly you lost everything without any sort of safety net to help you get back on your feet?
Ironically, on the same day we visited the Greenwood Cultural Center, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt released a video message calling for a special audit of Tulsa Public Schools. Among his reasons, Stitt said school system officials had violated the state’s law banning public schools from teaching critical race theory. School system officials have denied his assertions.
Joining the scare-tactic parade, Stitt signed the CRT ban into law in 2021. One has to wonder, did Stitt or any of the legislators that voted in favor of that bill ever visit the Greenwood Cultural Center? Have they read the accounts of what happened in 1921 in Tulsa? Are we so blinded by politics that we can’t acknowledge that terrible atrocities occurred, and they certainly affected generations of people?
If there were ever an example of systemic racism, upheld by the media, government and law enforcement, it’s the Tulsa Massacre.
Here in Southern Indiana, as we prepare for school board elections this fall, be mindful of the views espoused by candidates. We aren’t that far removed from our own racial injustices and segregation. There are too few Black officials in our public school systems and on our school boards.
As World War II was raging, Woody Guthrie famously painted “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar. Guthrie wasn’t beating Nazis to death with his musical instrument, but he was referring to the power of knowledge and expression.
It is the knowledge of our past that prepares us to create a better future. Those who wish to deny that knowledge should be heavily scrutinized.