A year after the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre, reparations are a distant hope

A $30 million history center divides Black residents as the last remaining victims pursue a lawsuit

TULSA, Okla. – As the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre approached last year, conditions seemed perfect for this haunted city to finally, meaningfully, move on.

Millions of people around the world were marching for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Corporations and organizations were holding themselves accountable for systemic racism. The 100th anniversary of the 1921 massacre in the Greenwood neighborhood was drawing worldwide attention from news reports, documentaries and the HBO TV series Watchmen. Survivors testified before Congress, and a bill was introduced to help them secure reparations. Singer John Legend, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams and President Joe Biden were coming to Tulsa for an event billed as “Remember and Rise.”

A year later, the city and state are fighting a lawsuit seeking reparations. Only three survivors remain, and two of them are 107 years old. Scholarship money intended for descendants sits unused. Black people own little of the new development in Greenwood. Tulsa built a history center to commemorate the centennial, but a significant portion of the community says the center does little to compensate victims of the massacre and their descendants.

There’s lots of construction in the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but little of it is being done by Black-owned companies.

Michael Noble Jr. for Andscape

The Greenwood district and its Black Wall Street was perhaps the most prosperous African American neighborhood ever seen. It was turned into a graveyard May 31-June 1, 1921, when an orgy of racist violence killed at least 300 people and destroyed 1,256 homes, plus several hundred businesses, churches, a library and a hospital. Tulsa police and the National Guard refused to protect Greenwood, and some people deputized by the city and National Guard participated in the violence.

More than 4,000 Black survivors were detained afterward in internment camps. The Tulsa City Commission blamed the massacre on “armed negros who started this trouble and instigated it.” Tulsa passed zoning laws making it harder for Greenwood to rebuild, and the City Commission helped prevent insurance claims by Black property owners from being paid. For more than 70 years, the crime was deliberately covered up.

In recent years, the concept of reparations has moved from an academic discussion to serious consideration in at least 11 cities across the country. But Tulsa’s limited response to one of the worst mass murders in American history raises the question: What constitutes reparations for the city’s crimes against its Black citizens?

And if cash reparations can’t be paid in Tulsa, where can they be?

“What we’re up against here, we’re talking about the most powerful, the most wealthy, the most well-connected folks in the city and the state,” said Damario Solomon-Simmons, who filed the reparations lawsuit on behalf of survivors and descendants.

“Now that they have taken over the 40 blocks of Greenwood that was Black-owned land, Black-owned businesses, Black-owned homes, Black-owned organizations, Greenwood is now half a block,” he said. “The rest is white-owned businesses, white- and city-owned land and state-owned land and county-owned land.

“They’re building Greenwood for themselves,” Solomon-Simmons said. “They own Greenwood.”

Lawyer Damario Solomon-Simmons, standing outside the Tulsa Federal Building, has filed a lawsuit seeking reparations for survivors and descendants.

Michael Noble Jr. for Andscape

In 1997, the state legislature created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Even in the ’90s, the massacre was still called a riot, the remnant of a strategy to avoid paying insurance claims and blame Black people for what happened.

In 2001, the commission released its report. It said the massacre began after a mob of white men gathered outside the city jail intending to lynch a Black teenager, and a group of armed Black citizens arrived to defend the teen. The report recommended that “reparations to the historic Greenwood community in real and tangible form would be good public policy and do much to repair the emotional and physical scars of this terrible incident.” It identified 118 survivors and at least 176 descendants of victims, and advised Oklahoma to provide direct payments, award 300 college scholarships per year, and create a Greenwood economic development zone and a memorial. “Reparations are the right thing to do,” the report said.

Hardly any of that happened. The inaction led to a 2003 federal lawsuit against Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma, filed on behalf of 200 survivors and descendants by a team of lawyers led by Johnnie Cochran and Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree. The lawsuit failed when judges ruled the statute of limitations had expired. In 2005, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Solomon-Simmons filed the current lawsuit on behalf of several survivors and descendants in state court in 2020. It argues that Oklahoma law permits claims past the statute of limitations if there is an “ongoing public nuisance.” This law is what led to a $465 million judgment against pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson for its role in the opioid crisis. Solomon-Simmons’ case says the massacre is responsible for current racial and economic disparities — the kind documented in a Human Rights Watch report — and therefore is an ongoing nuisance.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court overturned the Johnson & Johnson ruling in November 2021, saying the public nuisance law was wrongly interpreted. Solomon-Simmons told me the decision does not undermine his case, and he has filed those arguments with the judge.

Meanwhile, almost all the survivors have died.

The only ones still alive are Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle, both 107, and Fletcher’s brother Hughes Van Ellis, who is 101. In a 2021 interview with The Undefeated, Randle described what she saw that night: “They ran us from one place to the other, chased us like hounds chasing a rabbit. I saw people shoot people down on the street,” she said. “I saw people running, I saw bodies, I saw them kill the people and shoot people down.”

From left to right (front row): Survivors Lessie Benningfield Randle, Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis sing together at the conclusion of a rally to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre on June 1, 2021.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In May 2021, the three survivors testified in favor of reparations before a congressional subcommittee. “Please,” Ellis said, “do not let me leave this earth without justice, like all the other massacre survivors.”

The mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum IV, a descendant of three previous mayors, declined my interview request through a spokeswoman. On the centennial day in 2021, he apologized for the city’s failure to protect its Black citizens. He did not mention how city officials encouraged the violence, and that men deputized by the city participated in it. Bynum also said he opposes using property taxes to pay reparations: “You’d be financially punishing people in Tulsa that didn’t do anything wrong.”

When I asked Solomon-Simmons to explain the resistance to settling the reparations lawsuit, he responded, “At the end of the day, they don’t believe that we are deserving of anything. And the people that are in power now are the children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews of those who destroyed us.

“I could give you a myriad of reasons,” he continued, then quoted the writer Neely Fuller: “If you don’t understand white supremacy, everything else will only confuse you.”

The spiritual heart of Greenwood is the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street. Standing here 101 years ago, you would have seen dozens of Black businesses, including a bank, notary public, real estate agent, drugstore, barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants, undertaker, theaters, insurance company, confectionary, cleaners, printer, dressmaker, photographer, grocery store, doughnut shop, cigar store, rooming houses, the Mary Jones Parrish School of Natural Education, plus more than a dozen physicians, dentists and lawyers. There also were no fewer than three hotels, including the magnificent Stradford.

After these businesses were destroyed, none of their insurance policies were honored.

The “History in the Making” mural outside of Wanda J’s Next Generation Restaurant on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Michael Noble Jr. for Andscape

When I visited Greenwood in December, the corner of Greenwood and Archer was surrounded by new glass, brick and steel. Cranes towered overhead. Hard-hatted workers crisscrossed fresh concrete. The sounds of metal striking metal rang out. Two blocks of the new development are owned by GreenArch LLC, a company that is owned by the nonprofit Hille Foundation. The foundation was formed in 1997 by a white oil company owner and his wife. Their daughter Maggie Yar is executive director of the foundation. Her husband, Kajeer Yar, who runs GreenArch LLC, is a U.S. citizen who was born in Afghanistan and arrived in America when he was 2.

The crown jewel of all this development is Greenwood Rising, an 11,000-square-foot history center dedicated to the Tulsa Massacre. It sits on the corner of Greenwood and Archer, on a third of an acre donated by GreenArch. It was built with $30 million in donations from corporations, foundations and individual benefactors. The project was led by state Sen. Kevin Matthews, a Black Democrat whose district includes Greenwood. He handpicked a planning group of politicians, donors and community members, but initially excluded survivors and descendants.

Greenwood Rising is Tulsa’s biggest recognition of the massacre, where the city poured most of its centennial energy. It’s also the focus of hurt and anger among Black Tulsans.

Some Black entrepreneurs feel shut out of the development opportunities and tax breaks that GreenArch and other firms received. Some community members ask why $30 million was spent on Greenwood Rising to tell the same history that the nearby Greenwood Cultural Center has told for decades. They object that $30 million was spent to “leverage” the memory of the massacre, but no money has been given to survivors or descendants. And they say $30 million was spent to declare that #TulsaTriumphs over an atrocity that Tulsa never healed or repaired with the victims.

In an interview, Kajeer Yar told me that according to his research, the two blocks covering 2.8 acres now owned by GreenArch were originally the property of the Creek and Cherokee nations. Those tribes sold or leased parcels to investors and speculators of all races. At the time of the massacre, Yar said, the two blocks now owned by GreenArch LLC had eight property owners, three of them Black. Those three owned three of the 13 lots, Yar said.

I asked Yar what point he was making with that history. “Diversity of ownership has always been the case in Blocks 53 and 54,” he said by email. “That diversity did not stand in the way of Black excellence on Greenwood, not then and not now.”

Inside Greenwood Rising’s glass front doors, the first thing I saw was a tall display panel titled “TULSA 1921 – A Look at the Tulsa Race Riot.”

“What’s in a name? Riot vs Massacre,” the text begins, then describes how “some say” the term riot was used to avoid paying insurance claims, while “it also was common at the time” to use the term riot.

Beyond that panel is a large, open space with video screens lining the left wall. They show photographs of the same location morphing from the present to the past — evocative animations that show things such as Greenwood Avenue before the freeway was built, or an alley where trolley car tracks once ran.

Greenwood Rising is poignant and beautifully designed. It’s laid out on a circular route that carries visitors from the arrival of Black people in Oklahoma, through the massacre and into the present day. It has large screens playing stirring videos, a holographic barbershop where you can hear discussions of past events, and an immersive section that uses lights and sound to recreate the massacre itself. Under the heading Journey Toward Reconciliation, a brief discussion of reparations features the quote “There can be no true reconciliation without reparations” from Rev. Dr. Robert R.A. Turner of Vernon AME Church, the only edifice that survived the massacre.

Phil Armstrong inside Greenwood Rising, which takes visitors from the arrival of Black people in Oklahoma through the massacre to the present day.

Michael Noble Jr. for Andscape

At the end of the circular route, near the exit, is a conference room. I sat down at the white marble table with Phil Armstrong, interim executive director of Greenwood Rising, an Ohio native who moved to Tulsa in 1997.

I asked how he felt about so much of Greenwood’s prime real estate being owned by white people.

“I’d rather see Greenwood come up with an investment, even if it’s not Black people owning it, but seeing vibrancy and economy coming back than to just have continuing year after year after year of dilapidated old buildings and property,” Armstrong said.

“If you got people like the Hille Foundation and Kajeer that says, ‘We have the resources, we know what this history is and we’d like to be a part of sparking something, even if we’re not Black’ — hell, yeah, we’re going to make some money from it,” Armstrong said. “What Black person is going to do this and not want to make money? But I try to tell people, don’t criticize them for figuring out a way to impact the community for years to come, and put some money in my pocket to do it. You can’t have one without the other.”

In an email interview, I asked Maggie Yar, executive director of the Hille Foundation, whether she considered the GreenArch development reparations. “In my mind, reparations are an act of making amends for an injury or wrong.  Defined in that context, the answer to your question is no,” she said.

She declined to comment on the current lawsuit seeking reparations. “We believe any persons who were denied due process for any life, liberty or property taken or destroyed during the massacre, should be provided an avenue to have the ability to rectify that omission,” she said. “The Hille Foundation does not have any issue with the city/state making cash payments to descendants and survivors. However, determining who is eligible to receive those funds, how they should be paid out or the mechanisms by which those funds are collected and administered, that is not for us to say.”

Later in the email, she and her husband said that the current state of affairs in Greenwood is not the finish line. Those who say white people are primarily benefiting from Greenwood development conflate profit with investment, they said, and unfairly ignore Black-owned businesses renting GreenArch storefronts “that are making money from the investments we have made in Greenwood.”

“We are, at best, in the first inning of a nine-inning game and to call winners and losers at this stage is premature and frankly, too pessimistic,” said the Yars, who were named 2021 Tulsans of the Year by a local newspaper.

The history center was not able to fully open in time for the centennial. Select visitors were invited to a 10-day preview, Armstrong said, including 160 descendants and their families. “When I tell you the tears that were shed, the relief, the joy, the laughter,” Armstrong said. “These families are proud because they see what this will lead into.”

Reparations “is so much more than just a check,” he said. “Reparations is making sure the educational curriculum of the state now reflects accurate history of Greenwood. Building a world-class facility where people can come and learn this information.”

I asked about the view that Greenwood Rising is a symbol of white supremacy — proof that the city and state will only do what benefits them.

“I specifically see Greenwood Rising and the work that the [history center planners] did as part of the context of reparations … I equate monetary reparations with the same as environmental or structural reparations,” he said. “Educational facilities, scholarship programs and checks. I say this is all reparations.

“One should not be done without the other,” Armstrong continued. “But one is going to have much more sustainable benefit to the community than the other. I will say that. Me giving a check, or the city giving a check to the individual — that’s where it stops, with that person, and they deserve it. The reparations that we’re doing, generations are going to benefit from it for years and years to come. The sustainability of the impact that it has on the society and the community is what I see as being much more beneficial than the writing of a check.”

As the centennial approached, Solomon-Simmons, the attorney for survivors and descendants, asked for a check.

Hardly anyone considers private donations to be reparations, because the perpetrators are not the ones paying. But they are better than nothing. Greenwood Rising had raised $30 million in private funds. Why not give some to the three survivors? Greenwood Rising responded that it was legally bound to spend that money on the history center and related projects. So why not raise money specifically for the survivors?

President Joe Biden (left) speaks at the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1, 2021, as survivors Hughes Van Ellis (center) and Viola Fletcher (right) watch.

MANDEL NGA/AFP via Getty Images

According to Armstrong, Solomon-Simmons initially asked for $100,000 for each survivor, then upped the ante with “non-negotiable” demands. Matthews told reporters at the time that the request rose to $1 million per survivor and a $50 million reparations fund. Solomon-Simmons said the only non-negotiable demands were for a fund that would provide direct payments to survivors and descendants, that the fund be administered by descendants and community members, and the fund be placed in a Black bank. Matthews did not respond to my calls or an email asking whether he supports cash reparations paid by the city or state.

The negotiations broke down. Legend and Abrams pulled out of the “Remember and Rise” centennial event, and it was abruptly canceled. President Biden visited the Greenwood Cultural Center — not Greenwood Rising.

“This was not a riot,” Biden said during his speech. “This was a massacre.”

Since opening in 1995, the Greenwood Cultural Center has seen part of its mission to be a caretaker of the massacre’s memory. Today, it offers community programs, rents out an event space, and exhibits photographs and educational displays about the atrocity.

The most vivid section is a room full of survivors’ testimonies, recollections printed on simple white paper beneath framed photographs of elderly Black faces. They preserve memories of beautiful homes destroyed, grand pianos burned, wagons and horses lost, and unfathomable death.

“The militia took my dad and my uncles to detention,” reads the testimony of J.B. Bates, born June 13, 1916. “My mother slipped away with my sister Roxanna and me and ran to hide in a chicken house. With us was an old man on a walking stick. While we were running, an airplane flew over real low and someone in the plane shot and killed that old man!”

The center also houses the offices of the Terence Crutcher Foundation. Crutcher was an unarmed Black man killed in 2016 by white Tulsa police officer Betty Jo Shelby, who was acquitted of all charges. The foundation is run by Crutcher’s twin sister, Tiffany, who happened to be there during my visit, wearing a sweatshirt with “REPARATIONS” printed on the front.

Tiffany Crutcher’s twin brother Terence was shot to death by a white Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer in 2016. She says that same state-sanctioned violence was responsible for the Tulsa Massacre.

Michael Noble Jr. for Andscape

I asked her what was standing in the way of cash reparations for injustice as obvious as the Tulsa Massacre.

“White supremacy,” Crutcher replied. “If you look at all of the entities that are responsible for the massacre, starting with the city of Tulsa and its police department, who sanctioned Klansmen and sanctioned white civilians to kill and destroy … I always say that the same state-sanctioned violence, the same police department, the same city that existed 100 years ago, is the same police department, the same city that killed my twin brother.

“We believe it is our duty as descendants to take on the mantle and never give up the fight,” said Crutcher, whose grandmother survived the massacre. “And we made declarations that we would not allow anyone to exploit our legacies or our histories.”

The biggest exploitation of that history, Crutcher says, is Greenwood Rising. “I am not opposed to public education,” Crutcher said. “I am opposed to the very entities that are enriching themselves and making money off of the legacies of the people who were harmed, and those same people are the ones who actually committed the harm. That is what I am against.”

What feels like salt in the wound is that, standing outside the cultural center, you can see Greenwood Rising and all the surrounding construction, just a tenth of a mile down Greenwood Avenue.

There is much symbolism in the current landscape of Greenwood, starting with the six-lane freeway that cuts the cultural center off from all the new development. Greenwood managed to rebuild itself after the massacre, then declined as integration took Black dollars elsewhere and misguided “urban renewal” programs left land and properties vacant. In the late 1960s, when Interstate 244 was built smack through Greenwood, it proved fatal. Today, south of the freeway is prosperity: Greenwood Rising and acres of new development adjacent to downtown. Further south are Tulsa’s historically white neighborhoods. North of the freeway is the cultural center and most of the city’s Black residents.

Egunwale Amusan, who goes by Chief and is a massacre descendant, runs “The Real Black Wall Street Tour” in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Michael Noble Jr. for Andscape

The day after speaking with Crutcher, I met Egunwale Amusan, who goes by Chief, outside the cultural center for “The Real Black Wall Street Tour.”

As we walked, Amusan, who is a descendant of a massacre victim, spoke about the founder of Greenwood, O.W. Gurley, a landlord and hotel proprietor. He described how A.C. Jackson, one of the most respected surgeons in the United States, was gunned down in the street with his hands up during the massacre. He calculated that the real death toll is not the official number of 300, but closer to 1,500, based on population totals and mass graves only now being uncovered. He said that much of Greenwood’s prime real estate was taken over by the city when urban renewal left Blacks unable to hold onto the property.

We walked under the highway and along the block of small businesses — barbershops, souvenir stores, soul food joint, insurance agency, bail bonds — that is today’s Black Wall Street. We were approaching the hive of activity around the new history center. Chief has never been inside.

I asked him about claims that Tulsa has triumphed, reconciled, embraced the truth. “It’s a lie,” Amusan said. “It’s performative. It’s cosmetic reconciliation. You put on a parade. You show up in your best suit. And you have nothing comprehensive to give to those survivors whose story you enriched yourself off of.”

A jackhammer pounded as we looked at the building called Greenwood Rising.

“The name itself,” he said, “is an illusion.”

The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce was supposed to own 50% of GreenArch. How it lost control of that land shows what Black Greenwood is facing as it tries to determine its own future.

The chamber was born in 1938 to promote local Black businesses. Now run by a majority Black board of directors, it owns 10 small buildings that are today’s Black Wall Street. This is the only Black-owned real estate in redeveloped Greenwood, according to Freeman Culver, the chamber’s president and CEO.

From 1998 to 2013, the chamber was led by Reuben Gant, who now is executive director of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation. Gant clashed often with the city about his belief that it favored outside developers over local Black folks. The chamber negotiated with the city, acrimoniously, to secure rights to develop the two blocks south of Greenwood and Archer — lots 53 and 54.

Gant told me that the chamber lacked capital and development experience, so it partnered with the Hille Foundation. Ownership was to be split 50-50, with Hille contributing development funds and the chamber contributing land rights. But in 2009, when it was time to finalize the contracts, city officials refused to forgive the purchase price of the land. That forced Hille to purchase the land at market value of $668,000, which reduced the chamber’s equity stake to 10%.

I asked Gant why would the city do that. “Because [the development] was being led by a Black organization. That’s the only reason I can think of,” he said.

So where does Gant think things stand for Black people in Greenwood, after all these decades of development?

“I don’t think anything’s changed, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think it’s a continuing battle, a struggle that probably will not be realized in my lifetime.”

There is actually one pot of cash that has been set aside to repair damage from the massacre: the scholarship fund recommended by the 2001 state report. But the size of the scholarships was slashed, and much of the fund has not even been spent.

Following the report, the state passed a law to recognize the work of the Race Riot Commission, fund the memorial and establish a minimum of 300 full-tuition college or vocational scholarships to be administered by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. But lawmakers refused to allocate money to fund the scholarships, according to Bryce Fair, the regents’ associate vice chancellor for scholarships and grants.

Instead, in 2002, the legislature established a second category of scholarships: two $1,000 scholarships per year for each high school in Tulsa. Unlike the original scholarships, this second category of awards does not give preference to descendants. “That’s the category that has been funded,” Fair told me. “The regents never received funding for the first category.”

Since then, Oklahoma has awarded 172 $1,000 grants. Eight were given out last year. The scholarship fund contains about $800,000 in unused funds, Fair said.

Have any recipients been massacre descendants? “Not that we know of,” Fair said — the application doesn’t even ask for that information.

The regents only have race and ethnicity data going back to 2013. There were a total of 55 recipients during that time — 28 were Black; six were multiracial, including Black; five Hispanic; two Asian; and one Native American. Thirteen recipients provided no racial information.

The gutting of the scholarship fund was called to my attention by the state representative for Greenwood, Regina Goodwin. She told me that Republicans who control the state government oppose giving Greenwood victims and their descendants any money. Last year, when she introduced a resolution to recognize the centennial, Republicans told her to remove a reference to the report saying reparations were due. She had to scratch and claw to retain that language, and it only passed on the last day of the session.

In the state Senate, Matthews helped assemble a centennial resolution that did not mention reparations, Goodwin said. It passed easily.

Goodwin took it upon herself to raise money for the survivors last year, and helped secure donations — not reparations, but private donations that she calls a “love offering” — of $625,000, mostly from Transformation Church in Tulsa. In January, she introduced a bill that would establish a $300 million fund to pay cash reparations. She did not ask Matthews to support it.

“I always think about our ancestors,” said Goodwin, whose grandmother survived the massacre. “People that were murdered, never seen again, lied upon, land stolen, houses burned down, businesses burned down.

“You draw strength from that particular spirit, and we should not do any less than what is right. As long as generations are being born, we need to keep fighting for right. So that’s how we keep going.”

There is little chance of Republicans passing Goodwin’s reparations bill, even though Oklahoma is sitting on a sizable budget surplus. But those long odds are fuel for those who insist that reparations are owed, that the city and state must pay, that real justice for Greenwood is not a history center, some new buildings and a few thousand dollars per year in scholarships.

“For me,” said Tiffany Crutcher, “the fact that we’re having impact on something, that’s winning. Impact is when an object collides with another object and causes a disruption. What we’re trying to do is disrupt the power structure. We’re trying to disrupt systemic racism and systemic oppression.

“The fact that we actually believe that we can win, and that we believe that we are owed, is a victory within itself.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.