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The Neighborhood Of The Tulsa Race Massacre Faces Increasing Gentrification


Over the past week, you have probably heard a lot about the Tulsa race massacre, when a white mob killed hundreds of Black residents in the Greenwood neighborhood on May 31, 1921. Well, as the 100th anniversary commemorations wind down, we are taking a moment today to look at the Greenwood of 2021. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch podcast traveled to Tulsa, and she's here with us now.

Hey, Karen.


KELLY: So as you were talking with residents about their thoughts on this anniversary, all the attention generated by this anniversary, what kind of things were you hearing?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, people were conflicted. Many acknowledge that more people knowing about this history, Mary Louise, is a good thing and it's important. But they also worry that the attention generated around this anniversary has just prompted another wave that's pushing historic Black residents to the margins. Here's one example. Tori Tyson owns a hair salon, Blow Out Hair Studio. It was located in historic Greenwood for decades until the rent got too high and Tori was forced to relocate to the edge of town a couple of months ago.

TORI TYSON: I might tell you without crying. It was hard. It was hard leaving Greenwood - my family, the customers, the history.

GRIGSBY BATES: Tori's grandfather had worked in a hotel in Greenwood before the massacre. Her grandmother had owned a hamburger restaurant that got burned to the ground. And now all these years later, she feels like she's being pushed out again, not by brute force but by an untenable economic situation.

KELLY: Is this gentrification? That's what's going on here. Businesses that have been there for forever are getting pushed out.

GRIGSBY BATES: It's definitely part of the problem. Businesses from downtown Tulsa have been pushing towards Greenwood for years. A hundred years ago, you had train tracks that divided Black and white Tulsa. Those tracks are still there. But Greenwood also been chopped up by urban development - you know, highways that go back and forth - which means even more Black families have lost homes and businesses.

NEHEMIAH FRANK: I feel like it's gone. Yeah, I feel like it's gone.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's Nehemiah Frank, the owner, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Black Wall Street Times, a digital newspaper that takes a critical look at Greenwood's equity issues. Nehemiah says his family owned real estate on Black Wall Street. But after the massacre, many of the families that wanted to stay in Greenwood couldn't rebuild their homes there because the city passed new safety and zoning laws that purposefully made rebuilding there prohibitively expensive.

FRANK: I like to call it the dry massacre - right? - without the bullets and the bombs and the mob. It was, yeah, a massacre by, you know, legislation. That's what that was.

GRIGSBY BATES: So now Nehemiah thinks the only way to make things right by Tulsa's Black community would be for the city to offer up some form of reparations.

KELLY: It's interesting because the conversation over reparations is obviously unfolding all over the country at this point. Is it realistically on the table in Tulsa?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, Mary Louise, when I was in Tulsa, I sat down with its Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, whose roots in the area go really deep. His great-grandfather on his dad's side was Tulsa's second mayor back in 1899. I asked Mayor Bynum about his take on the idea that Nehemiah brought up - you know, that some families want to be paid for what they've lost.

G T BYNUM: If the context is around cash payments, well, where does that come from? And the idea of financially penalizing this generation of Tulsans for something criminals did 100 years ago - that's a hard thing to ask.

KELLY: That sounds pretty close to a no from the mayor on reparations.


KELLY: What options does he want to look at?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, Mayor Bynum says there are other resources in development coming to the community that he thinks could help change Tulsa and everyone who comes to visit, like a new museum slated to open soon called Greenwood Rising. Lots of money has been poured into its creation with the goal of educating the public about the Tulsa massacre and creating racial healing.

KELLY: OK, so a museum, education. How does that take sit with longtime residents of Greenwood that you were meeting, Karen?

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, here's one - Michelle Brown-Burdex. She's the program coordinator for the Greenwood Cultural Center, and the center's been preserving the history of the massacre in the Greenwood community for several decades now. Michelle summarized the concerns of Black Tulsans this way.

MICHELLE BROWN-BURDEX: There is so much interest in the Greenwood district and in telling the story now that there seems to be a way to capitalize on it, to commercialize it, and that is disrespectful. We are hoping that all of the financial investment into telling this story, promoting the history, investing in organizations - that this continues after the spotlight is no longer on Tulsa.

KELLY: Yeah. It's the question of what happens, Karen, when national attention shifts away again. And you and I aren't on NPR talking about Greenwood, but Greenwood's still there. And the people who call it home are still trying to figure out how to make life better there.

GRIGSBY BATES: And they're going to be doing that for a while.

KELLY: Karen Grigsby Bates, thanks so much for sharing some of your reporting from Tulsa.

GRIGSBY BATES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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