Anniversary of the 1921 Greenwood
(Black Wall Street)
by Venecia Eubanks Sutton Price
I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but not at Moton Hospital. It was a difficult pregnancy, so I was born at St. John's Hospital. That was unusual in 1957. I attended John Burroughs Elementary and George Washington Carver Junior High. I also attended Orville and Wilbur Wright Junior High in South Tulsa (but only four days during the forced busing the year Carver was closed, which is another story for another time.) I graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1975. I was baptized and said my "Easter Speeches" at First Baptist Church on Greenwood Ave. As preteens, my brother Chuckie and I would try to sneak into the Rex Theater, most times unsuccessfully, where we would drink grape soda and toss popcorn over the balcony. We shined shoes, sold the Oklahoma Eagle newspaper and ran errands on our bikes for the elders in Greenwood. We would also try to sneak into Jack's Funeral Home to hide in the caskets, although I'm really not sure why. My dad got his hair cut and played pool (billiards) on Greenwood Ave. We took our TVs and radios to Wilson's for repair.
My maternal grandfather, George Henry Fortner, was born in Kansas. After attending the University of Kansas, he, like many others, served in World War I. In 1917, he was an Education Secretary at Camp Dodge, Iowa teaching African American soldiers to read and write, as many were uneducated. After the War, he was an elementary school principal in Kansas. In 1919, he left his young family behind and moved to Greenwood to teach at Booker T. Washington High School to earn more money. He later moved his family to Tulsa and raised his six children in Greenwood. He was a minister and co-founder of the Hutcherson YMCA. His picture is in the display case in the hallway at the Y. He finished his teaching career at Carver Junior High in the 1950s. My mother, aunts and uncle graduated from Booker T. Washington in the 1930s and 1940s. My siblings and cousins graduated in the 1960s through the 1980s. So, I guess I can proudly consider myself and my family "from Greenwood."
Like many others I read about or recently saw on TV, I felt compelled to share my "Greenwood history." Although, I realize and fully appreciate that family history is not required to care about and support Greenwood. So many people are profoundly devoted and have made and continue to make significant contributions to Greenwood who are not from there. At the same time, though, I was delighted to hear the stories and backgrounds similar to mine. Keep in mind, most of this history has been untold.
I wrongly expected so little attention to be on Greenwood's Centennial that I spent five months in 2020 researching to create a two-part video for my family. With the help of my cousin, Sharon Cobbs Galloway, the goal was not only to tell the story of the Massacre to our younger generations but also to tell how our family is connected to Greenwood. Our story was visually told by showing news articles, street addresses and images of the places our earliest known Greenwood ancestors Lived, Learned, Worked and Worshiped. It was inspiring to see others also used many of the same photos and news articles!
I had no idea the 100th Anniversary of the Greenwood Massacre would garner so much national attention. I guess I assumed it would go essentially unnoticed on the national scene, much like the 50th and 75th anniversaries. Nevertheless, I eagerly watched, read, logged into and downloaded everything I could about the activities surrounding the 100th Anniversary from my home in Houston, Texas. In the end, I was incredibly proud, but surprisingly for me, I was also a bit angry and overwhelmed.
I'm proud of Tulsa to host the various events in which so many people of all ethnicities and backgrounds participated as part of the 100th Anniversary Commemoration. It was heartwarming to see familiar faces and hear so many family names of Greenwood Massacre survivors and their descendants. There was hardly a family name or location that I didn't recognize. It was also pleasing to see so many people who "took up the fight" just because it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether or not they were "related to Greenwood."
I was a bit angry it had taken 100 years for the story to reach national prominence. On the other hand, I do know there have been similar atrocities elsewhere in our nation. Some are known; others are still awaiting their turn for national attention. Hopefully, it won't take much longer.
For decades, I and many others from North Tulsa have been part of a kind of secret club that was unique, inspiring and tragic all at the same time. It was like a deeply buried family secret was finally out, and it wasn't clear what the response would be. Thankfully, it seems many Americans were amazed and appreciated as much about the triumph and importance of what Greenwood was as they were justifiably upset about the tragedy. I'm not a sociologist or psychologist. My background is engineering, but I'm sure some psychological and sociological concepts can theorize how Tulsa, its Greenwood survivors and their many descendants are or should be processing things these days.
I fully realize it has been challenging and tumultuous with different groups of varying interests trying to agree on what is in the best interest of Greenwood and Tulsa and when and by whom should those things be done, not to mention at what cost and source of funding. But, those critical issues notwithstanding, the view from afar from someone who remembers the near silence of a history not shared for all of one's life, the 100th Anniversary Commemoration was refreshing and appreciated.
As part of the Centennial, there were movies, podcasts, documentaries, tv news features, online symposiums, discussions, news articles, photos and books about the Massacre leading up to the 100th Anniversary. To make sure my younger family members across the country were aware of the events, I put together a family guide of those dates, times and TV networks for our Family Facebook page. I even had a contest for anyone who spotted an ancestor in any of the images presented!
I watched every minute about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that I could find, including CNN (Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street), the HISTORY CHANNEL (Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre) and, PBS (Tulsa, The Fire and the Forgotten). I also logged into an online Symposium (the title escapes me, but it was with a representative of the Jewish Faith, a filmmaker, a Historian, among others on the panel). I even downloaded the Tulsa Fox 23 News app to watch the news airings my Tulsa family told me about. I was excited because I "think" I saw a 3-second video clip of my grandfather in the PBS video. I will definitely research that.
My recent efforts to learn as much as I could about Greenwood and its history were not unusual. Years earlier, I read about the U. S. Supreme Court ruling to not hear the case because the Statute of Limitation had expired. I also read the 1921 City of Tulsa Meeting Minutes and the Centennial Commission Report. A few months ago, I listened to every minute of the 15-episode Podcast "Dreams of Black Wall Street." Plus, I read the complete December 31, 1921, 200-page Red Cross report of their heroic efforts immediately after the Massacre. Thanks to digital access, I also looked at hundreds of photos and numerous articles from newspapers, the National Archives, Smithsonian and Tulsa Historical Society sites. I feel that I owe it to my ancestors to be as informed as possible to make sure the story lives within our family.
Almost all videos and image collections had the iconic image of the Williams family in their early model car. It caused me to flash back to when I had the privilege to interview Mr. W. D. Williams at his home in the 1970s. I went there to learn the history of Booker T. Washington High School to write a term paper for Mrs. Ella B. Bratton's English class. He knew my grandfather and spoke highly of him. As I understand, Mr. W. D., as a little boy, is so often seen in the back seat of that early model car with his fancily dressed father and mother driving on Greenwood in the 1920s.
Over half a century after he'd survived the bombing of North Tulsa, Venecia Eubanks Sutton Price interviewed William Williams, the little boy riding in the 1913 Norwalk driven by his father John Williams, his mother Loula Williams, manager of three Dreamland theaters and a confectionary shop, sitting next to her husband in one of the Greenwood District's most immortal photos. As the month of June, 2021 came to an end, Price wrote about her view, from her home in Texas, of the commemoration the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Read Now.
Below, the 92nd Street Y and the University of Oklahoma talked to direct descendants of 1921 Survivors, Brenda Alford [TULSA BURNING] and the Emerson family [OU].
Mr. W. D. talked with me about the history of BTWHS, the football teams and the Miss Hornets, but nothing about the Massacre. He was an eyewitness. His family lost everything, including the Dreamland Theatre. He knew my teachers and my family but still didn't speak a word about the Massacre. Maybe he thought I was too young? Maybe, he thought it was too soon? I wish I had more than my 16-year-old maturity to have probed him more. But then again, I never asked my grandfather or other Greenwood elders about the Massacre, either.
My most profound emotion was the repeated coverage of Oaklawn Cemetery. The news stories caused me to flashback to when I attended Carver Jr. High in the late 1960s. My dad became sick and had to miss work for a few weeks. As the oldest girl, my mother took me with her to do "Day Work" in the neighborhoods south of the cemetery. As she always did, whenever as we passed Oaklawn, she would point and say, "That's where those bodies are buried."
We would turn right off Peoria Avenue into neighborhoods with large brick homes, many with white columns, huge hardwood trees, meticulously manicured lawns and a small building or an attachment at the back of the house. I later learned those were the servants' quarters from the early days. Many Greenwood residents would live on the south side during the week before returning to Greenwood and their families on the weekend. I also learned some Greenwood Massacre victims were sheltered in those same types of quarters immediately after the Massacre…because their homes had been destroyed.
My mother would locate the hidden key and open the back door. She would yell out, "Hello!" to make sure no one was home. As she put down her purse, she would always say under her breath, "These are probably the same people who burned Greenwood." I was stunned. One time, I remember asking her, with all of my 12-year-old logic, "So....why don't we just burn this down and leave?" She immediately, calmly but firmly said, "NO! Because we're better than that!" I was confused. We had just passed the cemetery. So, I cleaned toilets, washed dishes, swept floors and made the beds. We were glad to have the work, and I learned not to "Spite my face." Thankfully, my dad recovered. We stopped doing "Day Work," and I didn't have to see her anguish as we entered those homes. I was shocked to learn many others also heard their own stories about Oaklawn from their elders.
I will continue to follow all things Greenwood, especially the search and identification of the 1921 Massacre victims at Oaklawn Cemetery and elsewhere in Tulsa. Then, hopefully, comfort will come for those families who lost loved ones, suffered losses and experienced the trauma.
So, while I did not attend the 100th Anniversary Commemoration of the Greenwood (Black Wall Street) Massacre in Tulsa, I followed the events as close as possible and was there in Spirit.
For after all, based on recent events…it appears Momma was right! Sadly, there were bodies buried, and thankfully, "We are better than that!"
-- Forever Greenwood!
© Venecia Eubanks Sutton Price 2021-06-11
GRAVES INVESTIGATION UPDATE
CITY OF TULSA
June 25. 2021
The City of Tulsa and archeology experts announced today that the first phase of the 1921 Graves Investigation at Oaklawn Cemetery is now complete, which consists of the archeological exhumation and fieldwork.
Dr. Stackelbeck and the teams from the University of Oklahoma – Oklahoma Archaeological Survey (OAS) and CARDNO have now completed the first phase of exhumation and fieldwork at Oaklawn Cemetery and will be returning home while the final phase of the investigation continues with forensic analysis experts.
The last phase in the 1921 Graves investigation will focus on the forensic analysis of the 19 exhumed human remains from Oaklawn Cemetery. Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield and her team will remain in Tulsa and will conduct their portion of the investigation at the onsite lab inside Oaklawn Cemetery, which is expected to take three to four weeks. The lab is closed to the public.
With field work complete, the City will not have daily updates or news updates since ongoing analysis is underway. Once the forensic investigation is complete, Dr. Stubblefield will present a formal report with findings from the forensic analysis to the Public Oversight Committee during a public meeting.
Once the forensic analysis is complete, the exhumed remains will be reinterred at Oaklawn Cemetery. The excavation area on the south west side of Oaklawn Cemetery will be blocked off until the final reinterment takes place. Oaklawn Cemetery will open to the public by early next week.
For the latest news and information on the 1921 Graves Investigation, including photographs and drone video from inside Oaklawn Cemetery, visit www.cityoftulsa.org/1921Graves and follow 1921 Graves on Facebook, @1921Graves.