Tulsa Race Massacre

A white mob burned buildings in Tulsa's predominantly Black Greenwood neighborhood during the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. As many as 300 black residents and business owners were killed.

On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, we asked a cross-section of Oklahoma elected officials two questions: When and how did you first learn of the massacre, and how does it influence you as an elected officials. The responses we received are included below.

(Oklahoma Watch reporter Trevor Brown contacted the offices of Gov. Kevin Stitt and House Speaker Charles McCall early last week seeking their responses. Neither responded.)

Greg Treat, State Sen. Pro Tempore (R-OKC)

“I was fortunate to have an Oklahoma history teacher (in Catoosa) with the foresight and perspective in the 1990s to include in our curriculum teaching and discussion on the Tulsa Race Massacre, unlike many classrooms across the state.”

“It shocked me how something like that could happen so close to home and it reinforced in me the evils of racism and how good men and women must always stand up for the rights of all Americans regardless of their race, gender, creed or religion.”

Regina Goodwin, State Representative (D-Tulsa)

(Goodwin is the former Black Caucus chair for the state House. Greenwood/Black Wall Street is in her district)

“I just remember always knowing about it because I’m a descendant of race massacre survivors. The stories and the incident have always just been a part of me and so I’ve always known about it. My grandfather was preparing for his prom and they were decorating a hotel much like kids do today. And he got word while they were decorating that trouble was coming. And that was the first inkling that one of the worst episodes of racist terrorism on American soil would happen.”

“The people of Black Wall Street, they were creative, intelligent, bold people. They were serving each other. And as an elected official, I think job one is to be of service, to serve people, not, not to be self-serving. And those are lessons that I get out of that generation that literally came and built the greatest Black community in America. And they had come to Greenwood really with the whole idea of being self-sufficient, having a hard work ethic, having integrity, having faith in God. And all of that informs who I am today.”

Survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre gather at the entrance to a refugee camp on the fairgrounds on June 1, 1921. (Courtesy the Library of Congress)

Karen Keith, Tulsa County Commissioner

Keith said she heard things about Greenwood in the 1980s as a broadcast journalist. It wasn’t until she was given Rob Hower’s 1988 book 1921 Tulsa Race Riot that “it hit me square between this was real. It was astonishing to me that the community had never dealt with it, didn’t speak of it. That was happening on both sides of the community. Everyone on one side had a fear and I believe shame on the other side.”

“This is important because (the centennial) makes a difference. This sheds light on the story and then hopefully can bring about reconciliation and move our community forward beyond where we have been.”

Kevin Matthews, State Senator (D-Tulsa)

(Matthews is the founder and chair of the 1921 Centennial Commission)

“I was in my early 30s when I learned about the race massacre, that was then called the riot, from a great uncle who came back to Tulsa for a high school reunion at Booker T. Washington. He told me about it and gave me a VHS tape that talked about it. I was in shock and disbelief. But that’s when I first heard about it. It was shocking but made a major impact on me in regards to race relations in the city that I grew up in. It influenced me all the way up until we started this new commission to build a world-class history center to tell the story transparently.”

“I am in the odd situation of realizing that the government did so much as to deputize people to be part of this violence against my people and that the government kept firefighters, the profession I was in for 25 years, from putting out fires as they normally would. The government supported this effort that was in large part supported by the KKK and those types of groups, and now I’m part of the government. It is my goal to come up with ways to not only tell the story transparently but to convene those willing to address the atrocities that happened and move towards some type of reconciliation, which seems far from happening today. But it’s my goal to try to move the ball towards that in any way possible. We’ve just experienced in the last few years, although we were racially divided at that time, I’ve never seen such boldness of people being divided by race and culture as we are seeing today.”

Kara Joy (KJ) McKee, Tulsa City Councilor

(A portion of Greenwood is in McKee’s district)

“I am the second youngest councilor on the Tulsa City Council and I’m fairly certain I learned about it before any of my colleagues. Growing up in Norman, I had an excellent history teacher and she went off book in 1995-96. She told us there is a group in Tulsa who’s working to make sure that we tell the story of a massacre that happened, that nobody knows about, that was hidden from history. And so I learned about that in my ninth-grade history class.”

“When I’m in city hall, I can look out over the 40 blocks that were burdened. And I do. Every time I’m on the north side of the building, I look out towards Greenwood. I think about what was there at the time that Greenwood was destroyed in 1921. I can’t help, but imagine what the wealth, the diversity and the power would look like in Tulsa had that not happened. Would we be a model for a collaborative integrative society? I think Oklahoma had a path to be something very different but there were people who made sure that people of color lost the power that they had here. So, I think a lot about restorative justice.”

George Young, State Senator (D-OKC)

“I went to an all-Black school from kindergarten to eighth grade (while growing up in Memphis) so I recall it was something that was touched on when I was a child, but it wasn’t very much. But I’ve lived in Oklahoma for some time now and I have no idea why it’s never been as front and center as it is now.”

“It’s a pretty heavy thing to think that 100 years ago there was a place that was wiped out just because of the color of their skin. Part of the reason for this 100-year anniversary celebration is that we can never have anything like this happen ever again. We want Oklahoma to be better and one way is to look at how this event played out, what transpired and how tragic this really was.”

Cyndi Munson, State Representative (R-OKC)

(Munson was just elected as state House minority leader)

“Growing up, I don’t remember having an extensive conversation about the Tulsa Race Massacre. And then when I was a participant in Leadership Oklahoma a few years ago we traveled around the state and in Tulsa we read a book together and we had conversations about the Tulsa Race Massacre. And then after that, I went to a lecture series and Hannibal Johnson was presenting. That was probably when I got the most information that I felt was accurate. So it wasn’t until my adulthood that I really learned the details.”

“I don’t want to repeat our history. Our job as leaders, especially those of us who are elected, is always to improve our communities and to do better than what has been done in the past. As I think about the things I want to work on, as I think about the issues that I want to support, it’s important that I listen to and keep in mind first communities that are marginalized and those who don’t have paid lobbyists in the building and those who can’t call their state representative or email them regularly because they’re living their daily lives. It’s important for me as a lawmaker, not just to wait for people to contact me, but for me to get on the ground and visit with those who are most disenfranchised or separated from their government so they know that there are people who represent their ideas and who represent the things that are important to them.”

Vanessa Hall-Harper, Tulsa City Council Chair

“I was born and raised right here in Tulsa, about seven blocks to the north, and never knew about it until I was an adult. I was probably in my late 20s or early 30s when I found out from a cousin. I was like, “what are you talking about?”… So after that, I just started doing my own research and was totally shocked about how it was not taught in Tulsa public schools.”

“The attack on Greenwood and what Tulsa needs to do to make amends is a constant concern for me and for many of my constituents. I work to see all our policies work through the lens of race equity and to keep the restoration of Greenwood/Black Wall Street’s legacy of prosperity in mind as I craft my agenda for making Tulsa the best it can be for all of us.”

Joy Hofmeister, State Superintendent of Public Instruction

“I did not learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre until I was an adult. As a Tulsan, I became cognizant only after community groups and city leaders began taking important early steps to bring awareness of this horrific event.”

“No Oklahoman should grow up, complete their education and graduate like I did without knowing the difficult truths of the Tulsa Race Massacre as well as the resilience and hope of the Greenwood community. For these reasons, I championed new Oklahoma Academic Standards for Social Studies in 2019 that were revised and written in partnership with members of the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission and historians. These long-overdue standards included the explicit teaching in elementary grades of the bustling Greenwood district and, for high school, the hard facts and conspiracy of silence.”

Ajay Pittman, State Representative (D-OKC)

“For me, it’s a little bit different because my family includes Tulsa Race Massacre survivors. So I learned about it fairly early because my great, great grandfather had a grocery in Tulsa. So I probably learned about it at home from my family. But even in our family, it is still a bit of a hush-hush topic. When it started being taught in school and other people started talking about it, that’s when I started getting into it more and started asking, why are we talking about this all the time and why don’t more people know. We took tours, we went to see the brick in Tulsa with our family’s name on it and where (my great grandfather’s) business was. And since then we have really dived into it and have been trying to find things like bank statements and land records over the past several years.”

“What we saw during this legislative session was the most culturally insensitive that I’ve seen and I’ve been around since my mom (former Sen. Anastasia Pittman) had been in office. And so in these moments, it’s disheartening to have conversations about how we move forward when we can’t talk about where we came from. Since people covered it up all those years, it has still created generational fear and generations of people not understanding the topic or the pain. Now we are in 2021, 100 years later, and we are still fighting for the acknowledgment, still fighting to understand what happened and its magnitude. We could’ve been so much farther along had we acknowledged it so much sooner and had the hard conversations with each other.”

David Holt, Oklahoma City Mayor

“I don’t recall a specific point of awareness but think I received pieces of it through my reading of the work of Ralph Ellison in my 20s. When serving in the Senate (2010-2018), I was able to support Senator Kevin Matthews and his efforts to raise awareness and became more knowledgeable at that time.”

“I think I’m influenced to make sure that stories from the past don’t go untold, whether they be the murders perpetrated upon my Osage tribal brethren, or whether they be the civil rights and sit-in stories of Oklahoma City. All of these chapters in our state’s history share a common theme — they were not spoken of in any official histories or remembrances until very recently. That approach is not going to help us learn from history’s mistakes.”

Oklahoma Watch reporters Trevor Brown, Whitney Bryen, Jennifer Palmer and Keaton Ross contributed to this report. Ashley Jones, who will join Oklahoma Watch as an intern this summer, also contributed to this report.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.

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