One hundred years after the violent destruction of a prosperous Black neighborhood, a coalition of faith communities is building support for reparations.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church in Tulsa, kneels and prays on a Black Lives Matter mural on the surface of Greenwood Avenue, the heart of "Black Wall Street," the neighborhood that was destroyed in the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (© 2020 Associated Press/Mike Simons for Tulsa World)
Mechelle Brown-Burdex has spent her entire life in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where her family dates back generations. A Black woman, she grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood and her childhood was wholly embedded in an African American experience, including the schools she attended, her teachers, and her history classes. But it wasn’t until 1995, when she was 25 years old and on a tour of the brand-new Greenwood Cultural Center, that Brown-Burdex learned of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, one of the worst mass murders in American history.
That day, as she stood stunned before gruesome photographs of charred bodies, Brown-Burdex learned that an armed mob of white people—many of them deputized by the city—had gunned down or burned to death as many as 300 Black Tulsans. During a sixteen-hour rampage that began on May 31, 1921, the white crowd looted and burned more than thirty-six square blocks of Black homes and businesses in Greenwood. The neighborhood had been a thriving and prosperous community of doctors’ offices, schools, and small businesses known as “Black Wall Street.” An elderly Black couple was shot in the back of their heads as they knelt praying; one of the nation’s most prominent Black surgeons was shot with his hands up.
“As the tour guide began talking about it, I was in total shock,” recalls Brown-Burdex, who today is program director at the Center. “I went through the same range of emotions that I see now as I give tours, as people learn about it for the first time and see the photographs and exhibits—overwhelming grief and heartache and pain just imagining the hundreds of people who lost their lives and everything the survivors experienced.”
Despite the hundreds murdered and the ten thousand left homeless, no one was ever prosecuted. The city’s white leaders—including a founding member of All Souls Unitarian Church—blamed the Black victims and called the mass murder a “race riot.” The Sunday after the devastation, white ministers at many Tulsa churches spewed venom from the pulpit toward the victims, a destructive mischaracterization that assisted insurance companies in avoiding payouts to the businesses and homeowners of Greenwood.
For nearly 100 years, generations of Black Tulsans were terrified to speak of the massacre lest it happen again, while white Tulsans were only too happy to bury what they and their community had done, along with the bodies rumored to be in mass graves, which the city is finally investigating.
But the truth has a way of emerging—eventually—from even the most oppressive of catacombs.
This year, on its centennial, the Tulsa Race Massacre is drawing enormous attention in national and international media. The eyes of the world are on Tulsa, and as the city questions how to atone for the horror—indeed, how to give it proper recognition—local churches, including All Souls Unitarian Church, have a deeply committed answer: Reparations.
Reparations remains a very controversial issue in the United States, even among some progressives. But for the Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church in Tulsa, reparations is a clear-cut issue of morality. Unlike white families, the descendants of Greenwood have been unable to reap the benefits of the wealth their families created. “There is no expiration date on morality,” he says.
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A photo taken June 1, 1921, shows the aftermath of the May 31 massacre that destroyed the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The ruins of Mt. Zion Baptist Church are visible in the upper left. (Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
Turner, who is Black, notes that more than 82,000 Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II received $1.6 billion in reparations from the U.S. government; some slave owners were compensated by the federal government for the loss of their property—enslaved people—after the Civil War. “America doesn’t have a problem with reparations, it has a problem with reparations to Black people,” says Turner.
Each Wednesday for nearly three years, Turner has stood with a bullhorn at an intersection in Tulsa near where the city council meets, urging it to vote for reparations for the survivors and the descendants of the massacre’s victims. (He is not a descendant, he notes.) Turner, who is also part of a lawsuit against Tulsa for reparations, has been spat on and given the finger, but has also received honks of support by passing cars.
Across the United States, the tide may finally be turning. With the support of President Joe Biden, the House of Representatives is considering a commission to study proposals for reparations for African Americans, while in March, the City of Evanston, Illinois, became the first in the nation to approve reparations for its Black citizens, $10 million in compensation for past housing discrimination.
“It’s super crystal clear with Tulsa,” says the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls, “because you had a specific event that happened and was sanctioned” by the city, “with over 300 men who were deputized by the police chief and working for the city with the authority of the state. They led this effort, so it’s crystal clear the city has a responsibility, and all of us who are citizens have a responsibility” to right the past wrongs and its ongoing consequences. “When a police officer shoots somebody or a city bus runs into a car, the city has to pay; that’s how it works. With reparations we are trying to repair the system and remediate the problems and inequities the system has created.”
To commemorate the centennial of the massacre, Tulsa Metropolitan Ministry (TMM), an interfaith group, is asking 100 Tulsa faith groups to donate $1,000 each to raise $100,000 for reparations. (Individuals can also donate to TMM’s Tulsa Race Massacre Reparations Fund here.)
“The monetary funds are symbolic,” says Aliye Shimi, TMM executive director. “The bigger role is to get local, national, and international media attention to push for reparations and to educate our public.” Shimi and others hope to persuade the Tulsa city council to provide significant reparations to the three living survivors—one is 107 years old, two are 106—and to the victims’ descendants.
“This is not, ‘Here’s your check and we’re done,’” emphasizes Shimi, a Muslim woman who sought input from many Black leaders before proceeding with the plan. In addition to considerable gifts to the three survivors, TMM plans micro-grants to Black business owners to revitalize the Greenwood area and “put those descendants back where they should have been in the first place. The idea is, once they are successful business owners in a few years or whatever, they pay it forward, so this is a continually giving gift. We want to build that legacy for Greenwood and our African American community members who have been affected so adversely by this massacre.”
One of the white ministers who in 1921 used their pulpits to blame the victims was W. Tate Brady, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and minister of Centenary United Methodist Church. A few weeks ago, the current minister of Centenary, the Rev. Keith McArtor, donated $1,000 to the TMM reparations fund from the church, says Shimi. To Turner, it’s proof that redemption—however long in coming—is possible for everyone, if they accept responsibility and make amends.
For All Souls, which celebrated its own centennial in March with a virtual service featuring Unitarian Universalist Association President Susan Frederick-Gray, the issue of reparations is personal. All Souls was founded just weeks before the 1921 massacre by a group that included Richard Lloyd Jones, a lifelong Unitarian and publisher of the Tulsa Tribune, whose stories, including an editorial entitled, “To Lynch a Negro Tonight,” helped foment the massacre. “This was lighting a match in a pile of dry wood in the City of Tulsa,” says Lavanhar, who has preached about Jones’ complicity and blaming of the victims. [See “Tulsa’s 1921 Massacre Leaves Painful Legacy” in the Spring 2017 issue of UU World.]
Lavanhar, who is white, has been pushing for reparations for over twenty years, ever since a state-commissioned “2001 Race Riot Report,” the first official investigation of the massacre, made reparations its top priority. A past president of TMM, Lavanhar helped launch a reparations fund. Its first donation came from the Unitarian Universalist Association, he notes. It eventually raised $57,000, he says, which was paid out to the 170 survivors still alive at that time.
“We got these letters, people saying, ‘I’m in tears. I can’t believe anyone is even recognizing [the massacre].’ One person said, ‘I’m framing the picture of the check and putting it up in my house,’” recalls Lavanhar. But the effort stalled when a lawsuit seeking reparations was dismissed as past the statute of limitations.
“There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” says Lavanhar. “This is a crime scene, it was a crime against humanity, it was a mass murder, and it was never investigated and no responsibility was taken.”
Now the matter of reparations is back on the table, through TMM’s reparations fund and other efforts, including a livestreamed discussion at All Souls about reparations in May with Lavanhar, Shimi, and Turner. “I feel like we’re trying to turn the public eye to say [reparations] is not a crazy idea, but this is something we can and should do,” says Lavanhar, who notes that only recently has the city started calling the 1921 incident a massacre instead of a riot, which “changes the whole tenor of this.”
One way Lavanhar is keeping the issue in the public eye is by drawing editorial cartoons about the massacre for the Black Wall Street Times, one for each day of May 2021, in a series entitled “Is the World on Fire?”
“Let’s be a part of something that is good, a collective effort on behalf of a city one hundred years later to do the right thing, something truly morally significant and having a true economic impact on those who for 100 years have been waiting,” Lavanhar says.
“All Souls has always led the way, in not just the UU faith but all faith communities in Tulsa,” says Shimi. “We are so grateful to All Souls and their leadership, their diverse leaders from [Bishop] Carlton Pearson and Marlin Lavanhar and others. We’re grateful for the work they do.”
There are many kinds of reparations, these proponents emphasize.
The basement wall of the Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church is the only edifice of the original Greenwood neighborhood that survived the conflagration. On May 31, the church is holding a dedication for a planned Prayer Wall for Racial Healing at the site, which will eventually include a baptismal pool and a place to hold weddings, and for which Turner hopes to raise $700,000.
“It’s really important to say [that] reparations means repair, and there are lots of ways this can and should happen,” says Lavanhar.
All Souls has a publishing house launched with seed money from the family of Richard Lloyd Jones, which recently published The Victory of Greenwood by All Souls member Carlos Moreno, which tells the stories of historically significant figures in Greenwood’s history. Lavanhar wants the press to create a division whose focus is publishing articles, essays, plays, and books by Black writers about the Greenwood story. “That’s a reparative thing,” he says, “taking money given by the family that used publishing to harm the community and try to support the community and its views, not from what white people think about this but the story Black people want to tell.”
All Souls held a service that included Turner and hosted a forum on reparations, and Lavanhar began publishing his editorial cartoons, and Lavanhar feels it is all adding up to positive change. Some city councilors are having “serious conversations” about reparations, he says.
To other UU congregations, Lavanhar has this suggestion: “Look at your own history, because there may be things you’re unaware of,” he says. “Was there a prominent member or a minister that may have caused harm to a community on the margins of your society, and, if so, how can you talk about it and learn about it, and is there a way to make any kind of amends for it?”
Brown-Burdex says, “Absolutely reparations are due, because we cannot truly have reconciliation in the city of Tulsa unless there are reparations.” The attention to the massacre—and the push for reparations—are “forcing white people to make a decision and take a stand,” she says. “You can no longer stand on the sidelines and pretend you don’t know any of this exists—‘Oh my God, people are racist! I didn’t know there was so much inequality!’ You cannot say that any longer, and you’re either going to stand against it and be an ally to the Black community, or you’re going to be complicit, you’re going to be quiet, you’re going to pretend you don’t have to say anything.”
Like the silence that hovered over Tulsa for a century, but which—through the efforts of so many people—is finally lifting.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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