Senate hearing sets path to make Black Wall Street a national monument

“While the community is committed to the future, we should as a nation also remember our past and learn from it," said Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford.

A Black Wall Street sign is shown during the Biden-Harris administration's Investing in America tour event in March in Durham, North Carolina, where Vice President Kamala Harris was joined by Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. (Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu via Getty Images)

A U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday set a path forward to establish Black Wall Street as a national monument more than 100 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) testified in support of making Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District a national monument, telling the subcommittee on national parks, part of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, “While the community is committed to the future, we should as a nation also remember our past and learn from it.”

“North Tulsa remains a place of light and hope in the community,” Lankford testified. “They show their strength to overcome adversity and work towards reconciliation, which is something our nation should also do and never forget.”

The subcommittee’s senators heard over a dozen proposals seeking to establish or amend national monuments across the country as they examined President Joe Biden’s budget for national parks. 

Tulsa survivors fight for justice

The proposal to create the Historic Greenwood District Black Wall Street National Monument comes ahead of the 103rd anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Once one of the most wealthy Black communities in the nation and just one generation removed from slavery, Greenwood was obliterated after a white mob, deputized by Tulsa officials, burned over 35 square blocks of the district to ash. 

More than 300 Black men, women and children were massacred between May 31 and June 1, 1921, according to the Tulsa Historical Society. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma National Guard forced over 6,000 Black survivors into internment camps for days at a time, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Black survivors were forced into labor under threat of imprisonment, cleaning up the destruction caused by the white rioters.

Despite the odds stacked against them, the community rebuilt almost immediately afterward and successfully fought a legal battle to keep the city of Tulsa from confiscating Greenwood land. 

Yet government policies like urban renewal, when the city oversaw the construction of a highway that cuts directly through Black Wall Street, continue to leave a reverberating effect on a resilient community striving to rebuild decades later.

As “Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, 110, and “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, 109, await a decision from the Oklahoma Supreme Court on their lawsuit seeking restitution, descendants hope the national monument will be approved in their lifetime. 

The two survivors have endured every era of oppression, descendants say.

Descendants seek to memorialize the resilience of their ancestors

A sign marks the Historic Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Black Wall Street. A Senate panel heard testimony on making the area a national monument. (Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Dr. Tiffany Crutcher is the executive director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation and a co-chair of the Historic Greenwood District-Black Wall Street National Monument Coalition. She’s also a descendant of Rebecca Brown Crutcher, who barely escaped the city-sanctioned attack on Greenwood.

“No matter what happens, that’s very significant to know that we are echoing the voices of survivors who are no longer with us, of the two living survivors who are still fighting to not let them bury their stories, and the descendants and the Greenwood community, who never wants to see this story erased from the history books again,” Crutcher told theGrio.

On Sept.19, 2020, she worked with the Tulsa Community Remembrance Coalition and Equal Justice Initiative to establish markers at the site of Vernon AME Church, which was one of the only structures to partially survive the massacre. 

“To know that my great-grandmother Rebecca Brown Crutcher, who barely escaped, is looking down proud and that we don’t have to whisper about this anymore in fear of backlash, we don’t have to wait,” Crutcher said. “We wouldn’t have to whisper about this anymore. Like she did when she finally acknowledged what happened decades later.”

While the Greenwood community boasts the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, residents worry about the future of the district. Supporters of the national monument effort believe it would help preserve the integrity of the community’s boundaries for generations.

Reuben Gant is the executive director of the John Hope Franklin Center and a co-chair of the National Monument Coalition.

“We have a district that demonstrated the ability of its people by thriving at a time when all odds were against Jim Crow segregation,” Gant told theGrio. “Right after emancipation, they created a community not just to survive, but to thrive.”

While documentaries and television shows focus on the tragedy of the massacre, Gant believes the memorial could also show the triumph of a community that rebuilt and grew bigger afterward before city policies led to its ultimate decline. Today, Black Wall Street is largely relegated to one block at the intersection of Greenwood and Archer.

“I’m 72 years old, and I would love to see this happen in my lifetime,” Gant said. “And it should happen because it is an important part of American history.”

Statements added to Congressional Record

In testimony sent to the subcommittee and shared with theGrio, the Historic Greenwood District-Black Wall Street National Monument Coalition urged Congress to take immediate action.

“Our coalition is composed of more than 10 Greenwood-based organizations and an advisory council of proud Americans who descend from 1921 Massacre survivors. Although diverse in our racial backgrounds, professions, and political beliefs, we’re united by our concern that a federal monument dedicated to the Historic Greenwood District is urgently overdue,” the coalition stated in the testimony that has been added to the Congressional Record.

“May 31, 2024, marks 103 years since the start of a ruthless effort to wipe Black Wall Street off the map — and a state-sponsored campaign to erase it from America’s memory,” the coalition noted. “With one voice, we stress to this subcommittee that the time is now to help us preserve the rich heritage and lessons that make this community such an indelible part of our nation’s story.”

A bipartisan bill

The bipartisan battle to bring the proposed national park bill, S.3543, to President Biden’s desk marks the latest update in a years-long saga to memorialize Black Wall Street in the country’s national story and collective conscience.

Introduced in December 2023 by Lankford and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the bill would “preserve, protect, and interpret for the benefit of present and future generations resources associated with the Historic Greenwood District, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and the role of each in the history of the State of Oklahoma and the United States.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) speaks during the Senate Finance Committee hearing in April. This month, he spoke in favor of making Black Wall Street a national monument. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

It would also ensure that the government can only acquire Greenwood land through a donation exchange or purchase from a willing seller.

Like in 1921, when military-trained Black men from Greenwood fought to defend their community despite being vastly outnumbered, north Tulsa leaders continued to push for justice.

They follow in the footsteps of the late civil rights leader Don Ross, a former Oklahoma state representative who championed efforts to seek justice and reconciliation, culminating in a 2001 state-commissioned report to study the massacre and its effects. 

The report outlined several recommendations for reparations to survivors and descendants. They include direct payments to survivors and descendants, a scholarship fund, an economic development enterprise zone in the Historic Greenwood District, the burial of victims found in mass graves, and a memorial.

Biden’s promise to Greenwood

Efforts to memorialize and seek justice for Greenwood reached a peak in May 2021, when Biden became the first sitting president to visit the Historic Greenwood District.

During a prime-time speech inside the Greenwood Cultural Center, Biden vowed to repair the community and other Black communities damaged by racist physical and political violence.

“Only with truth can come healing and justice and repair … but that isn’t enough,” Biden told the crowd. 

Going beyond any president before him, Biden acknowledged the systemic racism that led to the attack.

“Millions of White Americans belonged to the Klan,” Biden said. “That hate became embedded systemically in our laws and our culture … we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know.”

At the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearing, no immediate action was taken on the proposal to establish a national monument for the Historic Greenwood District. Meanwhile, as survivors seek justice in the courts, as descendants seek justice in Congress and as supporters prepare to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the massacre at the fifth annual Black Wall Street Legacy Festival, Greenwood leaders refuse to give up.

“I always like to compare this effort to a relay race,” Crutcher said, “and I pray that this is the fourth leg of that race and that we can cross the finish line.”

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