The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 100 years after the Tulsa massacre, the city was a mix of light and darkness

A young bicyclist performs a trick in front of a Greenwood mural during events surrounding the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa on Saturday. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

TULSA — I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. At that moment, I just knew I needed something to drink.

It had been a day of endless walking over haunted ground. I took refuge at the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge coffee shop at Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street. I originally ordered a Rosa Parks lemonade from the menu board. But Dwight Eaton, co-owner and a descendant of a Tulsa massacre survivor, suggested I instead try the “Red Summer,” which mixed hibiscus, mint and lemonade.

“Do you know about the Red Summer?” Eaton asked, as he started to make one for me. I told him I was only now — an educated American in my 30s — coming to learn about the broad racial terror of the summer of 1919, during which scores of Black people were killed and displaced by White mobs in cities all over America. “Tulsa was the Super Bowl,” he said. “But what happened in 1919 was America’s regular season.”

Then he handed me the drink. The red hibiscus mixture sat on top of the lemonade. It tasted fantastic. It looked like blood on concrete.

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Over Memorial Day weekend here in Tulsa, it was like that — that same mix of light and darkness. Music and dancing at the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival. Vendors selling T-shirts, hats, ice pops and other goods. Celebrities and activists in town to give speeches.

But I couldn’t shake a feeling of heaviness and dissonance. One hundred years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, what is there to celebrate? How can we speak of reconciliation between descendants of survivors and perpetrators when white supremacy is still the order of the day? I wasn’t the only one who felt it.

“This should not be a celebration,” said Dwight’s father, Bobby Eaton Sr., whose own father had survived the massacre in 1921. “It should be a commemoration, not a party.” There is still blood in the ground, another customer at the coffee shop noted.

To be sure, it is a good thing that Black people for generations to come will know what Greenwood once was. It is affirming to understand that there were Black towns with enough wealth and resources to rival and even exceed that of White communities of the era.

And now, thanks to a year of pressure over racism and police brutality, more people the world over know that in 1921, after a false report of a Black boy attacking a White girl, a resentful White mob attacked and destroyed the thriving Tulsa enclave of Greenwood, killing as many as 300 Black men, women and children, and forcefully interning thousands more in camps in the aftermath.

Yes, all of this is to be celebrated. It is a victory when the truth of the Black experience pierces the myths that White America has shielded itself with for so long.

But at the same time, how do we process how the viciousness of the past and present are intertwined? For despite the rhetoric of renewal and reconciliation, the economic deprivation of Black Tulsans remains palpable.

In Tulsa today, Black people do not own many of the buildings near Black Wall Street, and it is doubly sinister that the city possesses much of the land that once sat under the gorgeous houses that burned and yet has done so little with it. One of the lots is called the “Stairs to Nowhere” — nothingness on display. A highway runs through the heart of the area, hampering the possibilities for Black economic progress.

And there is no washing over the continuing violence, injustice and inequality that still exist here; it’s in your face. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum opposes reparations for Black survivors and descendants. It is evident in the fact that North Tulsa, where the majority of the city’s Black residents live, was a food desert until a few weeks ago, when a new grocery store finally opened. The indifference to Black suffering is on display when, so far, financial reparations have been denied even to the living survivors of the massacre, yet Tulsa touts a new $465 million city park.

On Monday, pouring rain forced a cancellation of the keynote events and candlelight vigils, and I was left feeling like I had no way to mourn all this with others. But that’s when I was steered toward “Fire in Little Africa,” a multimedia hip-hop project commemorating the massacre by Oklahoma artists. “Listen to a few songs," said Turner Cooper, an educator who is a supporter of the project. “Then let’s talk.”

And sure enough, an imploration in the lyrics lifted me — “keep on shining.” In the music, I heard the light and dark reconciled, by artists wielding the subversive power of hip-hop to speak about Black power, pride, pain and promise at once. The combination of levity and resistance in the same space offered me some healing.

The battle for justice in Tulsa is far from over. But as long as there are artists, there is hope.

Read more:

Karen Attiah: The horror of Tulsa still reverberates. It shows why America needs to take reparations seriously.

Eugene Robinson: It was much more than Tulsa

Robert J. Walker: I’d be a Republican if it weren’t for the Republicans. So might many other African Americans.

Jennifer Rubin: Why Biden is right to go to Tulsa — and why the GOP won’t listen

Michael Gerson: When it comes to knowing U.S. history, we should all be ‘woke’