In its heyday, the Greenwood Neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma was called the “Black Wall Street,” an exemplar of what a thriving community could like. But that all changed. And today, something different is coming into being, something that may be almost as radical.
Sermon “Whatever Happened to Greenwood?” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
“Vibrant” has to be one of the most overused words in the English language these days.
We talk about it the church biz….”buzz” is the latest version of it. Which makes sense when you consider that both words are literally about vibration, a kind of energy that spreads, even if it is barely perceptible.
It’s a sense of excitement, characterized by a desire to bask in that energy.
In Urban planning, neighborhoods are called vibrant when they are destinations, places that have the kind of center that is dense. Vibrant neighborhoods have shops and restaurants that people want to patronize, and do. Barber shops, salons, galleries, stores and restaurants where people hang out together, sharing interests like politics or bicycling.
In a really vibrant neighborhood, you can get breakfast with a friend, hit the post office and the bank, get your hair done while you share all the latest news, meet another friend for coffee, and take in a movie afterward, before visiting the butcher for dinner’s main course. All without ever getting in your car.
These days, that kind of neighborhood is kind of a rarity. Such a rarity that there’s been a system devised to score the vibrancy of a neighborhood.
It’s called a Walk Score, and the rating is determined by the amount of things you can get done without ever having to get in motor vehicle.
Brooklyn NY scores a 98 out of a hundred. You don’t need a car at all to do any daily errands. Brooklyn, if you don’t know, has become one of the hottest, most desirable, most expensive neighborhoods in the nation, yet it still retains a kind of affordability for folks who are willing to live with less space and less privacy.
My neighborhood in Cleveland Heights scores a 54. It’s somewhat walkable. You can do some errands without a car, but if you don’t have one, chances are slim that you’ll be able to live your life without ever renting one or taking a bus or Uber. And Uber exists there. A driver could arrive in just a couple of minutes.
Unlike Kirtland. It could take a while to get an Uber, and if you don’t have a car, you’d have to get an Uber. Or rent a car. Because there are no busses and is has earned a walk score of 10. Out of a 100. This a place is described as sleepy. Not vibrant.
The thing is that back in the early part of the 20th century, before the car changed everything, most neighborhoods and towns were vibrant. People lived in close proximity to one another on small lots, with all the basic amenities nearby. People lived with the people they worked and prayed and played with, and those were the people who owned the shops and the services businesses.
Every City in the United States was segregated. Even in the North. There were not just black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods, there were Polish neighborhoods and German neighborhoods and even French neighborhoods. In Hartford CT, where I was born in 1966, we lived in Frog Hollow. (For those who don’t know, “frog” is a derisive word for French speaking people.)
Every neighborhood, for the most part, was a reflection of the social and economic status of the residents.
You could see wealth in the storefronts. Places like Park Avenue in New York City or Millionaire’s row on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland let you know who lived there, and the resources they had. And in just about every city, the black neighborhoods were modest. Usually very modest. There just wasn’t a lot of wealth there for folks who relied on employment outside of their neighborhoods.
Those neighborhoods were functional. There was energy because people lived there and relied on the businesses because they had no other choices. Not necessarily because they wanted “to be a part of it,” so to speak.
But Tulsa Oklahoma was different. Was no exception. But the thing that set it apart was its black neighborhood, Greenwood.
Greenwood was teeming with businesses, restaurants, merchants, brokers, bankers, salons, galleries, all black-owned and operated, and all the kinds of enterprises that still create vibrancy in neighborhoods.
And it was vibrant. Photographs of the place show how alive it was, and reveal the economic diversity of the people there. People who were proud to live there, and participate in a self-sustaining and mutually beneficial local economy.
Until May 30, 1921. Memorial Day.
Dick Rowland was, in the parlance of the day, a “delivery boy,” a legal adult, though a young one. He lived with his family in Greenwood, and had a good job that took him all over the city.
Sarah Page, meanwhile, was a white 17 year old elevator operator in an office building in downtown Tulsa.
Something happened in an elevator on that afternoon. I’ve read several different accounts of what happened. Some say the two were dating and met up there for a tryst and were discovered unexpectedly in the building they thought would be empty. Others say it was an innocent contact, that he accidentally brushed up against her to the horror of another rider of the elevator.
The story is inconsistent.
What is consistent in the story is that the next morning he was arrested, and the newspapers immediately started calling him “Diamond Dick,” implying that he was too slick to be trustworthy. And she was portrayed as an innocent girl, an orphan working her way through business college.
The newspaper coverage started that afternoon. The late edition of the Tulsa Tribune came out at 3pm. Above the fold of the front page was the headline: “Nab Negro for Attacked Girl in Elevator.”
Even though the article wasn’t nearly as incendiary as you’d think, the headline did a lot of damage. It wasn’t just a statement, it was a directive. The message was:
This smarmy “boy” attacked this innocent girl, and if you want to do her justice, and protect all white women everywhere, it’s your duty to “nab a negro.”
Everyone knew what that meant: Take out a black man.
There are some accounts that elsewhere in the paper that afternoon there was an editorial that made the directive more explicit, but nobody knows for sure. No copies exist.
What we do know is that by 4 pm, authorities were on alert that a lynch mob was forming, and by sunset, hundreds of angry men with guns and torches were gathered in front of the courthouse.
Dr. Karlos K. Hill, chair of the department of African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma wrote in the Preface of Tulsa 1921
The Tulsa Massacre is the deadliest outbreak of white terrorist violence against a black community in American history. In 1921, Tulsa’s Greenwood District, or “Black Wall Street,” was the wealthiest black community in the United States. Yet, during the evening of May 31 and the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Tulsa exploded.
Enraged by rumors that a black man had attempted to rape a white woman, a white mob invaded the Greenwood District, indiscriminately killing any black person it encountered. … Some black Tulsans fled for safety while others banded together to defend their lives and property. In the end, black resistance was futile. The white mob looted and then set ablaze practically every home and business in the Greenwood District. All told, in less than twenty-four hours, the thirty-five square blocks that constituted the Greenwood District—more than one dozen churches, five hotels, thirty-one restaurants, four drug stores, eight doctors’ offices, two dozen grocery stores, a public library, and more than one thousand homes—lay in ruin.
The scale of destruction and loss of life unleashed upon Tulsa’s black community was unprecedented in American history; however, it is important to note that the Tulsa Massacre was not an exceptional event. Over the course of American history, more than 250 episodes of collective white violence against black communities have occurred. Just two years prior to the Tulsa Massacre, similar large-scale outbreaks of white terrorist violence against black communities occurred in Dewey, Oklahoma, Elaine, Arkansas, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois. In fact, in Dewey, Oklahoma, a white mob burned down the “negro district” and drove twenty black families out of the town in response to a black man allegedly murdering a white police officer.
At the time, 36 deaths were reported. 26 black and 10 white. Hundreds were acknowledged to be injured during the destruction. which is kind of incredible, even unimaginable, given the extent and the violence of the damage.
Walter Francis White was on the staff of the NAACP at the time, and later went on to be the organization’s executive secretary in 1929. At the time, he estimated that 150-200 black folks died, and 50 white. In 2001, only 56 deaths were confirmed legally.
There were rumors that many more had actually lost their lives. For generations, people would pass a particular area just outside of the city and whisper things like “that’s where they.” But it was rarely spoken about.
The whole thing was too scary, and a repeat of the event seemed too likely. History, we all know, is written by the victors, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the massacre was barely mentioned in textbooks, warranting little more than an occasional sentence.
In 1996, a bipartisan group of Oklahoma legislators authorized the formation of the state’s commission to study what was then called the “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921,” leading to new research and investigations.
As a result, among other findings, new DNA evidence of the soil of the area rumored for nearly a hundred years to be a mass grave … are proving to be true. The new death toll is estimated to be more than 300.
In 1999, journalist Randy Krehbiel was assigned by the Tulsa World to cover the work of the commission. His job was to research and compile an archive for his use and for the use of the newspaper. What he found was that no records were kept, at least not systematically.
(I should point out Krehbiel acknowledges that it wasn’t odd that records were destroyed. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that it became de rigeur for publications to archive all of its content for future reference.)
The Commission began a new conversation about the massacre. People were willing to talk, to share the stories of their own experiences, or more likely, because so much time had passed, the stories that were handed down through generations. And those stories were handed down quietly.
They had to be.
Everyone was terrified that if they talked about it openly, if they exposed the ugly truth behind disappearance of the most vibrant black community in the nation, there would be repercussions. If they ever doubted their own fears all they had to do was look to what happened in Dewey, Elaine, Washington and Chicago for a refresher.
Greenwood is a great example of how entire communities can suffer from a collective form of post traumatic stress disorder. Their individual hurts and fears reinforce each other, and even inform how their children and their children’s children view not only the traumatic event, but also their entire world view.
You may be asking yourself just about now what in the world this has to do with Unitarian Universalism.
The connection is simple. The Tribune, the newspaper that directed white residents to “nab a negro,” was founded and owned by Richard Lloyd Jones, and a silent partner in the endeavor was Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the director of the Western Unitarian Conference. Frank Lloyd Wright, a personal hero of mine, was Jenkin’s nephew and Richard’s cousin. They grew up together.
There’s speculation that the destroyed and very inflammatory editorial was written by Richard Lloyd Jones himself. And Richard was not only a member of All Souls Unitarian church in Tulsa, he was also one of the founding financiers of it, which makes sense considering it was the job of his father to plant new churches all through the westward expansion of the late 19th century, many of them served by Universalist women ministers.
It’s a shocking and embarrassing bit of Unitarian Universalist History, isn’t it? That one of our wealthiest and most prominent members may have incited what is probably the most devastating race riot in American History.
The thing is though, we have to take all of it with a grain of salt. You see, in 1921 The World, the other newspaper in Tulsa, was the bitter enemy of the Tribune. The two papers hated each other and wanted the other gone, and so the World jumped at the opportunity, daily, to blame the riot and massacre on the Tribune. Solely. The narrative of blame continued even after the two papers merged production in 1949, and didn’t really end until the Tribune finally closed in 1992.
According to Krehbiel, the reporting was atrocious, inaccurate, and unapologetically biased. On both sides. Terrible reporting by today’s standards, he writes.
When I look at all of this in the context of today’s reporting about the assassination of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani, and the rioting that has followed, it’s reminder that we all have to look at everything critically, take nothing for granted. It’s a reminder that everybody, every organization, has a bias, and we each have a responsibility to ask about that bias.
You know, in times like these, the kinds of times that create fear and trauma that can last decades, it actually serves us all better to not just tear down every opinion that challenges our pre-existing worldview. We all owe it to each other to ask questions.
Who is served by this reportage? Who benefits? Who loses?
Whose voice is left out?
What was happening in this place I’ve never been to before
What were the social dynamics at play? Who had power? How did they get it? Who didn’t have power? And who benefited from restricting their power?
And how will this all be viewed by future generations?
Are we — am I — behaving in a way that I can be proud of when I speak about those who come after me?
And what responsibility do we — and I — have to right the wrongs?
Two people who are constantly asking themselves those questions and more are Rev. Marlin Lavanhar and Bishop Carlton Pearson. Both are ministers. And you probably have already guessed it. They are ministers at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa. The same church that was founded by Richard Lloyd Jones. The same church that is today by far the single largest congregation in our entire national association of congregations.
Bishop Pearson, who is black, was the very charismatic minister of an enormous Pentecostal church in Tulsa, whose mission was not only to bring people to Jesus as their only path to salvation, its mission was also to be intentionally multiracial. To be a force of healing in a time of informal but no less systematized segregation.
And it was working. Until the unimaginable happened.
In praying about Muslim children dying in Africa from war and hunger, he couldn’t imagine them being damned to eternal hell by god, simply because they’d never had the opportunity to be brought to the salvation of Christ.
In other words, he had a conversion to Universalism. And when he started talking about it from the pulpit, at first as a kind of personal reflection about the nature of salvation, then more emphatically as a theological statement of conscience, he lost his congregation.
Thousands of people just left him, so distasteful was his message to them. And in that tradition, where the minister is a kind of prophet and CEO rolled in one, something more like a sole proprietor than a servant of members, he lost his congregation and his livelihood. Within months he was down to a few members. Destitute.
That’s when Rev. Lavanhar reached out to him.
All Souls was already a big church. After all, it’s in one of those places with lots of financial resources and a strong public expectation that everyone goes to church. No exceptions. All Souls and Pilgrim Congregational UCC were the only theologically liberal churches in a region with dozens of massive theologically conservative churches.
Rev. Lavanhar invited Bishop Pearson to come to All Souls, to use the space for worship in his own community, so they would have a chance to feel safe, to regroup and possibly grow again.
It’s turned into something pretty amazing. They aren’t two separate churches anymore.
They are one, served by no fewer than seven ministers, with services in different styles and a diversity of theologies and practices that make them stronger. Not only are they much larger in number since Bishop Pearson joined them, involvement is deeper. Commitments are greater. More needs are being met, more lives saved. There’s more vibrancy. More Buzz.
They are constantly asking the tough questions about power and history and responsibility.
It’s never easy. There’s always some disagreement. People even get upset and leave now and then. But they are doing the work of racial healing in a way that very, very few communities are doing anywhere in the world.
Especially now, when we are more likely to align ourselves with the kind of reporting that affirms our pre-existing world views, instead of challenging them to more health, justice and inclusiveness.
The story of All Souls in Tulsa is a reminder that we didn’t live the history. We have no direct responsibility for what our ancestors did or did not do. But we have a responsibility not question how those events shape who we are now. Not so that we can beat ourselves and each other up with shame and retribution. But so that we can change things for the better.
I always try to imagine what it’s like for people who live in places like Greenwood. Or Detroit. Or Hough, or Grenville.
Places that were destroyed by attacks from outside or uprising from within. Every day, they live with the physical reminders of a brutal and oppressive history. It may not be manifest in quiet tales confirmed by DNA tests of soil, but it likely is evident in the blocks of vacant lots in formerly bustling shopping districts.
I see that every time I drive from Cleveland Heights to the West Side Market or Playhouse Square.
The area I drive through has a horrible Walk Score. Almost as bad as Kirtland’s despite its small lots, public transit and proximity to downtown. And that’s the legacy of a history I had no part in. But it’s also a legacy that affects me deeply. A legacy I have a responsibility to heal.
I could take a different route, one that would make me feel safer and a little less sad. but then, I think of all the people who have no choice but to engage every single day with all those visual reminders of a history that we all share.
As Martin Luther King Day approaches, followed by Black History Month, I’m especially mindful of all of this. It makes me want to act better. To do more. In community. And my hope for us is that we can find a group that we can partner with and come together, as the people of All Souls have.
Imagine what we could do. The ways we could more effectively and widely live out or mission to love, revere, discover and connect.