Raymond Doswell is bringing a baseball background to ‘Black Wall Street’
Formerly the curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Doswell will take over Greenwood Rising which educates on the once-thriving Black community in Tulsa
A search committee phoned Raymond Doswell with a straightforward question: Did he know anybody who might be interested in running Greenwood Rising, a year-old museum that serves as a brick-and-mortar remembrance of the May 31, 1921, mob attack that obliterated a bustling, cultural haven for Blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma?
Doswell, vice president of curatorial services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, threw a handful of names the committee’s way.
“I didn’t think of myself initially,” he said.
He should have, because a short while later, representatives of the Tulsa museum called him back with a more specific question: Was he interested in the position of executive director?
Their call got Doswell to thinking about the prospect of putting his signature on a $20-million museum with little history. He knew he had played a significant role in what the baseball museum has become. He spent 27 years there, but he never guided its direction from the topmost post.
Built in a neighborhood referred to as “Black Wall Street,” Greenwood Rising could give him that opportunity, Doswell told himself.
“It started to click in my mind, ‘Oh, you know, my experience fits here,’ ” he said. “The things I talked about seemed to just align well with what they were seeking in a new leader.”
Doswell was right, too. The committee offered him the job. He accepted it last month.
As one of the leading experts on “Black baseball,” Doswell brings a researcher’s insight into the job, which he officially starts Jan. 17. He’s also a serious academic with a doctorate in education.
He was what Greenwood Rising needed. For its mission mirrors what the baseball museum Doswell helped grow was trying to accomplish, which is to tell history in a thorough and compelling way, said Hannibal Johnson, a Harvard-educated attorney who’s on the Greenwood Rising Board of Directors.
“We want to inform the public about this history in a variety of ways,” said Johnson, who wasn’t part of the initial search for an executive director. “We wanted to leverage the fact that cultural and heritage tourism is a thing in the United States.”
He said the board crafted a strategy on how to build such a facility from the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, a legacy museum that chronicles the history of lynchings and wrongful convictions. About 30 people from Tulsa spent a couple of days in Alabama talking to museum officials there.
The group returned with an eye toward someone like Doswell, whose experience as an educator in Kansas City dovetailed with what board members wanted the museum to become. They plan to work closely with the Tulsa public school system to build a curriculum and a pedagogy that work well for students.
While lean on artifacts like the Latimer’s Bar-B-Q sign, Greenwood Rising relies on oral recollections and technology to tell the history of a 35-block neighborhood that sprung out of the “Great Migration” of Black people from the Deep South in the early 1900s.
Historians have said a marauding band of armed white people killed as many as 300 Black people, injured 300, looted scores of Black businesses and torched homes.
“The massacre is an element of the Greenwood history,” Johnson said. “But it’s not half of what the museum is about. I tell people the overarching theme of the facility is the indomitable human spirit, which is a universal theme.”
Doswell, who will replace interim director Phil Armstrong, is tasked with making sure that “indomitable human spirit” never ebbs. His vision, his extensive experience in Black history, and his expertise in historical research should push the museum to the forefront of historical reflections on race and culture in America.
Some historians and Black Tulsans have contended the destruction in Greenwood of a theater, restaurants, banks and medical offices in 1921 was pure racism run amok. The spark for the vigilantism was the rumor a Black shoeshine boy — his name was Dick Rowland — assaulted Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white girl, inside an elevator.
Page declined to prosecute.
Johnson and historians have argued that white people on the other side of Tulsa, a city that prospered on oil money, were angry and jealous of the wealth of Black residents.
“Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District is both inspirational and aspirational,” Johnson said in an article for Adventure.com. “The historical role models who created the Greenwood District and made it into a nationally renowned Black business and entrepreneurial hub did so against great odds, not the least of which was systemic racism in its most blatant forms.”
Johnson’s hope is the new Greenwood will prosper like the old Greenwood did, and the museum should serve as an economic magnet for more businesses as well as tourism, which museums like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati have done in their communities.
Johnson, an authority on “Black Wall Street,” has lectured around the United States about the massacre, and his book “Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with its Historical Racial Trauma” is one of the seminal works on the riot. He insists the story of Greenwood must be told.
As soon-to-be executive director of Greenwood Rising, Doswell shares that sentiment. He’s coming to Tulsa with that purpose in mind and also to turn the museum into a destination for tourism.
“Yeah, I’m capable of that,” he said. “I’ve got to do fundraising. I’ve got to do, obviously, management of the staff. We have a sizable staff — mostly part-time. They guide people through the museum, so we’ll cultivate them and grow where possible.”
Doswell did admit he’ll miss the baseball environment; it was so much a part of his living in Kansas City and working for the museum there. Yet should he miss the sport too much, he’ll have an easy fix: Just a short distance from his Greenwood Rising office, Doswell can walk out the front door to Oneok Field, a 7,833-seat ballpark across the street.
He can watch the Tulsa Drillers play there. The Texas League team is the Double A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Major League franchise that broke the color barrier when it put Jackie Robinson on the ballfield April 15, 1947.
But baseball games will have to wait awhile — a least until the 2023 season starts in April. Doswell has meaningful work ahead of him before then. He must make certain Greenwood continues to rise.
“The motto in my head,” he said. “is ‘Never forget, never again.’ ”