Black Tulsans, With a Defiant Juneteenth Celebration, Send a Message to Trump

TULSA, Okla. — In a city that has become known as a landmark to black pain, Friday was a day for black joy.

More than a thousand people gathered along Greenwood Avenue — the site of one of America’s worst racist attacks — to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates when enslaved black Americans in Texas formally learned of emancipation. The end of a centuries-long massacre.

In any year, Juneteenth in Tulsa means something different than it does in other cities, according to black residents. The exuberance more palpable, the music more soulful, against the backdrop of the 1921 white riot that killed an estimated 300 black Tulsans and destroyed the area once known as “Black Wall Street.”

“We’re celebrating the emancipation of slaves, but we’re really celebrating the idea of being black,” said Jacquelyn Simmons, who has lived in Tulsa for 45 years. “We love it and we love us.”

But this was not any year. Organizers planned to cancel their annual Juneteenth celebration amid the national coronavirus pandemic. Then President Trump announced a campaign rally in the city, originally slated to be held on the Friday holiday but later moved to Saturday evening.

With that event looming, and national protests raging about racial injustice and police brutality, what was typically a celebration of resilience had transformed into one of defiance. “Black Lives Matter” was painted in bright yellow letters across Greenwood Avenue. Attendees said they were celebrating not only how black ancestors were freed from enslavement, but also the persistence of black Americans today — from a pandemic that has disproportionately affected black communities, police departments that disproportionately kill black people, and a president who has shown little willingness to acknowledge the reality of both.

“It’s not really about his rally for us,” said Otis Collins, 51, who drove more than four hours to Tulsa from Dallas.

He stood with his friend James Scott at the base of a memorial that lists all the unpaid claims that black Tulsans never received after 1921, a catalog of plunder.

“We want to show defiance to his act, but he’s going to have his rally and do his thing regardless,” he said. “This is about showing our people support.”

Tulsa residents understand a thing or two about confronting racist violence. Long before the killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd spurred a racial justice movement that is transforming American society, the city was dealing with its own history of white-on-black violence, and residents believe their journey can be a model for America.

For decades, white and black Tulsans refused to talk about the events of May 31, 1921, when a black man who worked as a shoe shiner was accused of assaulting a white woman. State history textbooks long ignored how a white mob formed at the courthouse where the man was being held, setting off a confrontation with armed members of the local black population. The city is still grappling with what happened next: A horde of thousands targeted the prosperous black businesses that were scattered on Greenwood Avenue, looting stores, burning homes in the neighborhood and killing several hundred black residents, according to witness accounts.

Much has changed in recent years, as “racial reconciliation” has become the city’s unofficial mantra, complete with street names and philanthropic efforts, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. What it means, according to Hannibal Johnson, a professor of African-American history and a Tulsa historian, is a three-step process of “acknowledgment, apology and atonement.” It’s a process he believes could set an example for the rest of the country. It also means something tangible, a multimillion-dollar museum and cultural center set to open in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the massacre, in the spring of 2021.

Of Mr. Trump’s rally, Dr. Johnson said, “the timing has been especially troublesome given the rhetoric and the actions” of the president.

“We’re a community that’s been working a long time toward this reconciliation as it regards to race,” he said. “And this rally is seen — particularly by progressive people — as partisan and unhelpful to that cause.”

ImageA plaque memorializing the black-owned businesses that were destroyed when white residents rioted in the neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” in 1921.

Credit…Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

Kevin Matthews, a Democratic state senator who represents Tulsa, said the president was creating a challenge for a region that should be a model. Mr. Matthews, who is black, is the chairman of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and has worked closely with Republicans like Senator James Lankford.

“If we can do this in this city, the same one that never acknowledged the hundreds of lives lost and hasn’t found all these graves,” he said. “If we can be a beacon of reconciliation — anybody can.”

Friday’s events paid homage to the city’s history and vibrant community. Bands performed on a large stage adorned with a “Juneteenth” banner. Vendors sold food and trinkets from local black businesses. Midday, around 100 protesters marched with a coffin draped in an American flag from Greenwood Avenue to the Tulsa County Courthouse.

In the evening, the Rev. Al Sharpton took the stage and led a chant of “No justice! No peace!” He called for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday, before moving to criticism of Mr. Trump’s signature slogan. Mr. Sharpton challenged those who say “Make America Great Again” to name the date when America was “great for everyone,” and free from injustice.

This city, where the question of when all residents were free from injustice is embedded in its history, is where the Trump campaign chose to hold a rally, though the president’s campaign manager did not initially realize the significance of June 19. Just blocks from the Juneteenth celebration, a sea of Mr. Trump’s supporters braved rainstorms and 90-degree heat near the venue where he would be speaking, lining up 24 hours before the rally was set to begin.

The contrast, embodied by these two groups gathered a short walk from each other, is a microcosm of the ways Mr. Trump has defined this political era. Outside the arena, his supporter base of overwhelmingly white Americans traded stories of grievance, praising a president who they believe is the buffer between them and a rapidly changing country. At the Juneteenth celebration, officially titled “I, too, am America: Juneteenth for Justice,” a racially diverse crowd saw a link between past and present, a through line between the white anger that once set Greenwood Avenue ablaze and the coalition that elected Mr. Trump after eight years of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.

Charman Sanders, 70, a black Tulsa resident whose family in the region dates back to 1921, said there was no way to see Mr. Trump’s actions as anything other than “disrespectful.”

“Trump is going to be down there,” she said, pointing toward the Tulsa stadium where the president is slated to appear. “And we’re going to be down here. That’s the way I look at it.”

Members of the centennial commission said, if anything, the president’s rally distracts from how Tulsa can be a model for how both parties can unite behind the need for racial reconciliation — citing the involvement of Mr. Lankford and the city’s Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum. They took pride in recent gestures by city leaders, which include a reconciliation dinner where residents eat a meal with a stranger and a recent apology by the Tulsa Police Department for its role in the 1921 killings.

But leaders are also cleareyed regarding the city’s persistent inequalities. Earlier this year, Mr. Bynum and his police chief, who is black, condemned an officer who appeared on a radio program and said, “We’re shooting African-Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.”

Credit…Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

In a high-profile incident in 2016, a black Tulsa man named Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by a white police officer, who was charged with manslaughter but eventually acquitted. Though Mr. Crutcher was unarmed, police recordings revealed that one officer said, “That looks like a bad dude, too, could be on something,” before the shooting began.

Last year, the nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the relative economic insecurity of black Tulsa residents, and later recommended they should be provided reparations for the 1921 massacre, citing the more than $2 million in unpaid property claims that were never given back to surviving residents, valued at more than $30 million considering inflation. Despite high poverty rates in Tulsa’s black community compared with other groups, leaders have consistently rebuffed efforts at financial compensation for the descendants of victims. This also mimics a challenge currently facing the country, where the “acknowledgment” and “apology” steps of Mr. Johnson’s path to racial reconciliation may be easier than the final step — “atonement.”

“You can’t fix what you haven’t faced,” Mr. Johnson said, defending the process and paraphrasing the writer and activist James Baldwin.

But some residents see a city that has mastered the art of talking about racial unity, without the actions to support it. Ms. Simmons pointed out that the city is home to both descendants of the massacre victims and the white perpetrators.

“They have to back up what they’ve been saying,” Ms. Simmons said. “I think the white people still view us as not worth anything. When we really want the same things that they do.”

Members of the centennial commission say the interest has sent fund-raising through the roof, and makes the reality of the proposed museum, called Greenwood Rising, closer to a certainty. Stars like LeBron James, the singer John Legend and Russell Westbrook have also announced intentions to produce film projects about the massacre, continuing to bring Hollywood’s attention to Tulsa’s history, following the acclaimed HBO show “Watchmen,” which depicted the events of 1921. Ms. Sanders, who was a teacher in Tulsa for 40 years and said the massacre was never taught, praised a recent decision by local and state leaders to include the event in the curriculum.

Brenda Alford, a descendant of Tulsa residents who lost their thriving businesses during the massacre, said she grew up hearing stories about how her grandmother had to hide in a church, but “I never knew what that meant.” She recounted what some family members would say when they drove past a local grave site: “You know, they’re still there,” referring to those killed in 1921.

Today, Ms. Alford leads an effort to exhume the mass unmarked graves and give the deceased a final resting place.

“I want to find my great-grandmother,” she said. “I know we need to give the people who suffered such tragedy on that day the due respect that they deserve.”

Credit…Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump claimed credit for popularizing the Juneteenth holiday, though its origins date more than 150 years. “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” he said, referring to news coverage of the original rally date. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”

Mr. Matthews, asked about the quote, sat in silence for 10 seconds before responding.

“I was shocked,” he said, though he seemed to appreciate the president’s acknowledgment of the holiday and the injustice of slavery that it connotes.

The next steps, as Tulsa knows, are apology — then atonement.

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