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History center Greenwood Rising dedicated

Tulsa World

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    TULSA, Oklahoma (Tulsa World) — The dedication of Greenwood Rising may coincide with the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, but the brand new history center will give visitors a broader view of what came before and after and also what is still possible in the future.

A large gathering of descendants from all over, as well as other residents and community leaders from throughout Tulsa filled the intersection of Archer Street and Greenwood Avenue for two hours Wednesday to mark the occasion.

The $18.2 million legacy project of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission was funded with private donations out of the total $30 million total raised by the Commission, including local and state dollars. It will open to the general public in July.

State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, who is chair of the commission, said local voices were emphatic about the importance of telling the stories of the entrepreneurs and other early settlers who built, then lost and then rebuilt Greenwood, and the disastrous consequences of so-called “urban renewal” efforts in later decades.

“Greenwood Rising is not a history center dedicated solely to the tragedy of 1921. No, not just that,” said Matthews. “It is a history center dedicated to telling the entire history, before, during and after the massacre.”

As for the present and the future, Greenwood Rising also includes dedicated space for dialogue and commitment to racial reconciliation and restorative justice.

In his invocation, the Rev. Robert Turner, pastor of Vernon AME Church, spoke of the God-given ability of Tulsans of every race, religion or creed today to confront the city’s troubling past and to establish a better future for all.

“This generation you have equipped to address and make right the evil deeds of the past,” Turner prayed. “This generation has the power that you’ve given us to do what no other generation has yet to do. That is to give justice; that is to give restitution; that is to give reparations to those that lost everything.

“Give us your courage, Lord. We may lose some friends. Give us your courage, Lord. We may lose some elections. Give us your courage, Lord. This community is divided — this city, this state — but you can unite us for such a time as this.”

Indeed, the commission and its flagship project has drawn its critics, who have complained that among other things it does nothing to address the injustices that resulted from the massacre, including the economic hardships suffered by survivors and their descendants.

Three known living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, whose attorney has been at odds with the commission over potential survivor payments and fundraising for reparations, were not present.

Throughout the event at one street corner, a handful of demonstrators stood quietly, holding signs reading “Justice for Greenwood” and “Reparations Now.”

After it concluded, they began chanting “no justice, no peace” and calling for reparations.

Descendants who spoke said they welcome a place that gives a platform for uttering the names and history of their relatives who died or survived in 1921, especially after so many decades of only family lore — or utter silence.

Tracy Gibbs shared how her grandmother, Ernestine Gibbs, had been just 17 years old and studying for a high school test when a violent white mob descended on her neighborhood.

“Even when she was 90 years old, 100 years old, she could still close her eyes and still see it,” Gibbs said.

Ernestine Gibbs and her husband, Leroy Gibbs, owned and operated Gibbs Market in the Suburban Acres Shopping Center, and she taught in Tulsa Public Schools for more than 40 years.

Brenda Nails Alford’s experience is an example of how hidden the history of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre could remain, for many, many decades in some cases.

She said she was well versed in the history of her grandparents, James Nails Sr. and Vasinora Nails, and great uncle Henry Nails’ ownership of Greenwood businesses that included shoe and record shops, as well as a dance pavilion and skating rink.

But in 2003, her life changed forever when she received legal notice that she and many others were being included in a reparations lawsuit.

Afterward, she learned that “my grandparents and their then-2-year-old daughter ran for their lives,” said Nails Alford.

Oklahoma’s Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, a Tulsan, said Greenwood Rising not only ensures that the race massacre is never forgotten, but in telling the story of Greenwood’s remarkable entrepreneurs it presents an opportunity to inspire and empower a new generation of black-owned business owners “not just in the city, not just in the state — but all around the world.”

Musical performances included Phil Armstrong, project director for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, singing “America the Beautiful,” accompanied by the father-son Ryan and Ryan piano duo; Tulsa-native Anthony Mason; and the Booker T. Washington High School honors and select choir.

At Wednesday’s dedication, significant focus was placed on the creative, technical, financial and philanthropic forces that made Greenwood Rising possible, including Selser Schaefer Architects; more than 30 black-owned contractors and subcontractors; and the Hille Foundation and 21 North Greenwood LLC, which halted construction and moved the site of a planned mixed-use building to donate the land where Greenwood Rising now stands to the Centennial Commission.

Afterward, the doors of Greenwood Rising were opened for a limited preview for descendants of the survivors and victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which continues through June 8.

A preview for the Tulsa community at large will run June 9-12. Both preview events require timed-entry tickets. Organizers said they are dedicating 10 days to preview Greenwood Rising before it closes for finishing touches and officially opens in early July.

Tim Stanley contributed to this story.

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