Greenwood Rising Museum: A Walk Through History

By: Emma Nelson

The Tulsa Race Massacre was a catastrophic event that destroyed 35 blocks of the Greenwood district, also known as Black Wall Street. The history of Greenwood and the killings that took place, were not taught for a very long time in American school systems, including in Oklahoma. Many Tulsans were never aware of the destruction that occurred right in their own city. However, with the opening of the Greenwood Rising museum in August 2021, people now have the opportunity to go out and educate themselves.

Phil Armstrong, interim director of Greenwood Rising, spoke about why the absence of this topic in school can be so harmful.

“It caused further division, it caused further misunderstanding, it caused certain levels of prejudice and biases to continue to grow and divide the Black and white community,” said Armstrong, “Even now in 2021, you still have people who have varying negative thoughts from both sides of the community about what happened and where we are today.”

According to Armstrong, the curriculum was redone in 2018 to start making sure people are learning history. 

“The greenwood rising history center is going to be an additional aid to teachers because now they can bring their students here on field trips to support, visually and in an immersive experience, of what’s being taught in schools.” 

Walking into the museum, you’re immediately greeted with history. Panels in the wall show Greenwood one hundred years ago contrasted with the same area today. The changes are so drastic that I would never have recognized my city. The roads are narrower now than the ones in the pictures, and the buildings today are more steel and glass than brick. The entrance is decorated with posters discussing the history and the people that lived there. The main attraction of the entrance is an inspirational video playing with beautiful imagery. In the background, a poem is spoken aloud about life as a Black person in America and and resilience in the face of challenges.

The tour guide explained that this museum was about the entire history of Greenwood, not exclusively the massacre. The museum goes in depth on how african americans created their community and made it a safe place for all Black citizens to live. This is displayed from a video playing on the wall that showed Greenwood being built from the ground up. 

Guests watch the holographic barbers playing in the museum

Next, we went into a room decorated as a barbershop from the time. Holograms in the mirror pretend to cut guest’s hair while talking about what the residents of Greenwood wanted for themselves in the future. They spoke about the economics and politics of the time and showed how close they were as a community.  

A museum display of a KKK garment

Next, we went into an exhibit that showed “the systems of anti-Blackness,” undoubtedly the room that made me most uncomfortable. It showed multiple ways Black people were oppressed in our society, including being branded, tagged, and whipped. It also had a list of people in the Ku Klux Klan along with a robe and hat that they would wear. This room, for obvious reasons, is a huge trigger for many people; to minimize this issue, they have an “emotional exit.” The emotional exit is for people who want to learn history without triggering content and imagery. I found that it was an excellent alternative that still makes sure people are educated on issues built into our systems. 

An exhibit displaying a video in the Greenwood museum

After that, a video played among multiple screens designed to look like crumbling buildings. Real survivors of the massacre narrated the video, and it describes the events of june 1, 1921. The imagery combined with real survivors giving their stories and speaking on how it impacted them made it one of the most moving parts of the museum. 

Then, there was a section about Greenwood and the survivors and how they rebuilt their community. Right after this section, there is a room featuring many businesses from the time. Writing on the wall explained that we still have evidence of the oppression Greenwood faced. For example, as they were rebuilding, the city government exercised similar legal oppressions to ensure that it wouldn’t grow back the way it was before.

The thing that impressed me most about the museum was that it was about more than just the race massacre.  While that’s an important part of the museum, they also wanted to emphasize the systemic effects of segregation and white privilege that led to the killings. 

“People will have an understanding that there were incredible systems in place that were continually anti-Black that was put in place to make Black people in the community feel secondhand,” says Armstrong, “And when they got to the point where the animosity and the racial jealousy [reached a] tipping point there was a moment of destruction, and then that community stayed and rebuilt itself again and then there was a second destruction when they built the I-244 highway right through the heart of the economic part of the community.”

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A poem displayed on the inside of the museum

This museum is incredibly educational and touching; so many issues in our society and our history are overlooked and forgotten, but we are one step closer to being better with this museum and other resources. Everyday people leave the museum with tears in their eyes, with a new mindset on racial issues in our society. 

“It’s not about making one group of people feel guilty about what happened, it’s about looking at what happened in the past and seeing how we can heal from it,” says Armstrong, “how we can become closer and break down barriers, and get on, what we call, a journey of racial reconciliation and harmony, so it’s really a place of healing.”

I hope others can go to the museum and have just as moving of an experience as I did. At the end of the tour, you have the opportunity to write how you will commit to change and “breaking down racial biases.” A video wall showed multiple different responses to this. It was incredible to see all the different ways people plan to contribute and grow. 

“We’re only at the beginning points of really understanding what it means to have true community healing over a very terrible tragedy that took place.”

For more information:

Greenwood Rising website
Sunday | 12pm – 6pm
Monday | 10am – 6pm
Tuesday | Closed
Wednesday | 10am – 6pm
Thursday | 10am – 8pm
Friday | 10am – 8pm
Saturday | 10am – 8pm

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