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Black History Always

George Hill wants to talk about the Tulsa Race Massacre

The Sixers guard reflects on his trip to Black Wall Street in Oklahoma

George Hill had one mission as the trade deadline neared this season. Take the nearly two-hour drive to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to visit the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre before being dealt by the Oklahoma City Thunder. On Feb. 28, just weeks before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, Hill made the trip that he’ll never forget.

“I just kept telling myself I wasn’t going to leave Oklahoma City until I went to go visit the Black Wall Street,” Hill, 35, told The Undefeated. “And then as I get to Black Wall Street and seeing what is left of it really was mind-boggling to me.”

One hundred years ago, approximately 10,000 people lived in the booming Greenwood District also known as Black Wall Street. This affluent community spanned 35 square blocks and had successful Black doctors, lawyers, business people, churches, hospitals and more. For these Black people, many of whom were descendants of slaves, the area was viewed as a safe haven from the racism and violence of the Jim Crow South.

But on May 31, 1921, the community was changed forever when 19-year-old Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old white woman in an elevator the day before. The Tulsa Tribune followed with a story that riled up a white mob who wanted to lynch Rowland. Black people responded by mobilizing at the courthouse to protect him. Killings and destruction ensued.

Over 24 hours, the white mob attacked and killed many of Greenwood District’s residents and destroyed and burned their homes, businesses, churches, schools and a hospital. Instead of helping the people in peril, the Oklahoma National Guard arrested hundreds of Black survivors. Airplanes dropped turpentine bombs on houses, according to witnesses. Other witness accounts estimated 300 Black people were killed, thousands were left homeless and Black bodies were dumped into the Arkansas River and into mass graves.

The commemorative plaque that stands on Black Wall Street today.

George Hill

“I was a little distraught when I first learned about it,” Hill said. “You hear about everything else that happened. The first thing you think about is, ‘Why don’t they tell us about this? Why isn’t this part of history when everything else is?’ And I don’t take away the history of 9/11 or anything like that, but this is one of the first major massacres in [American] history. And for it to not be anywhere in any history book is just a slap to the culture’s face, but also a slap to history.”

Hill was first educated about the Tulsa Race Riots by a mentor in his hometown of Indianapolis last year named Amp Harris. So when the Thunder acquired Hill in a three-team trade from the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 23, 2020, he realized he would be close enough to Tulsa to make a trip.

“I just wanted to go down there and learn a little bit more about it and figure it all out,” Hill said. “I never heard about it previously, and they don’t tell you about that in history books at my school.”

From the time Hill arrived in Oklahoma City, there was the expectation that he would be traded from the rebuilding franchise at some point. As the trade deadline approached, Hill made plans on an off day to drive down to Tulsa. Hill said he consulted with Ayana Lawson, Thunder senior director of community and lifestyle services, for guidance on his trip, and she helped find him a guide. Hill invited his Thunder teammates to join him, but none took him up on the offer.

Hill visited the Vernon A.M.E. Church, the only building from 1921 still standing today. He took pictures of several decaying plaques commemorating Black businesses that were destroyed and rebuilt. He went to the site where the white mob first fired gunshots.

Hill also spoke to Silhouette Sneakers & Art store owner Venita Cooper, who opened a store in 2019 near the site of the Grier Shoemaker store, which was destroyed in 1921. He said he spent nearly seven hours visiting the site.

“They pretty much burned the whole Black Wall Street down and take over their land and then sell it to a university like Oklahoma State University, or sell it to minor league baseball team, that LA Dodgers affiliate, to put those things right in the center of where history was. And to put a highway straight through the main street of Black Wall Street was just mind-boggling to me,” Hill said.

“You wouldn’t take the site of the World Trade Center and build a stadium on top of that. You wouldn’t take things that are big focal points in this world and just sell it to build other stuff on and not remember what those things were. That’s what monuments are about. So for me, why wasn’t that saved? Why isn’t that talked about more? Why isn’t that shared, especially for our youth? Our African American kids need to know what Black Wall Street was all about.”

On March 25, the Sixers acquired Hill from the Thunder in a three-team trade. With NBA All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons leading the charge for the championship-contending Sixers, head coach Doc Rivers says Hill’s leadership and basketball IQ have made him a key reserve.

“He has a strong voice and willingness to share and speak up,” Rivers said. “In shootarounds, he’s turning guys’ shoulders for their angles on pick [and rolls]. He’s just been great.”

Hill is confident he can win his first NBA championship with the Sixers this season.

“Our chances are very high,” he said. “We have every opportunity in front of us. We got to continue to trust each other, play the right way on both ends of the floor. Take advantage of every opportunity, every possession, every moment of this.” 

Rivers said he has also enjoyed talking about social injustice and race issues with Hill, who was a member of the Bucks in the NBA bubble last season when he opted not to suit up in a playoff game in protest of the shooting of African American Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Bucks made history by collectively deciding not to play. The NBA ended up postponing all three games that day, and no playoff contests took place over three days.

“From what he did last year, that brought some cachet with him [to Philadelphia],” Rivers said. “It’s been great having conversations with the team on social things with George there.”

While Hill is in the midst of the NBA playoffs, he said he plans to talk to his teammates about the Tulsa Race Riots as the anniversary arrives. He hopes one day the story will be taught widely in American history classes.

“Why can we talk about 9/11, but not Black Wall Street? What’s the difference?” said Hill. “Is it because another country started the 9/11 and our own country started the (Tulsa Race Riots)? What is it about? Why is it not possible to talk about that when we can talk about a whole lot of different things that are considered history in the world?

“Why is that not considered history?”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.