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Tulsa Race Massacre: Ramifications of what happened in 1921 can still be seen today

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was May 31, 1921. It saw the beginning of one of this country's most horrifying episodes of racist mob violence. Over the course of a few days, hundreds of Black residents were killed in what's become known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Survivors lost their livelihoods as a white mob set fire to 35 blocks of the Greenwood District, which was known as Black Wall Street. In recent years, historians and descendants of survivors have worked hard to revive memories of this all but forgotten chapter, especially during the centennial of the massacre in 2021. But our next guests say the legacy of what happened in Tulsa can still be seen in Tulsa today. That's the subject of Victor Luckerson's new book "Built From The Fire." And he's here with us now, along with Oklahoma state Representative Regina Goodwin, a descendant. Welcome to both of you. Thank you both so much for talking to us about this.

VICTOR LUCKERSON: Thanks for having us, Michel.

REGINA GOODWIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Luckerson, I'm going to start with you. You tell the story of Greenwood largely through the Goodwin family. Why this family?

LUCKERSON: You know, too often, the Tulsa Race Massacre is reduced to statistics, Michel - 1,256 homes destroyed, 35 square blocks burned. But this is really a story about people. You know, I know on my very first trip to Tulsa, I participated in a vigil and a march down Greenwood Avenue to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. One of the folks I met was actually Regina Goodwin. She was really able to unspool for me this sort of epic family story about how their family had been moved to Tulsa from Jim Crow Mississippi in 1914, about how her great-grandfather, J.H. Goodwin, had opened a grocery store right there on Greenwood Avenue, how that store was destroyed during the race massacre. But it was actually Regina's great-grandmother, Carlie Goodwin, who, after the massacre, went to the courthouse and sort of demanded justice, filed a lawsuit seeking restitution from the city of Tulsa.

MARTIN: So Representative Goodwin, as Victor just told us, you're a descendant of J.H. and Carlie Goodwin. Do you know how your ancestors survived?

GOODWIN: Yeah, yeah. The night of the massacre, my grandfather was graduating - and my aunt, Anna - they were graduating from high school, and they were in a play that night of the massacre. And they heard that trouble was coming. They were able to leave that site and get to safety. And I know that my grandfather hid in a bathtub in the house. And also, my great-grandfather, James Henri, he was very fair complected. He looked like a white man. He stood on the porch of his own house and waved the mob away, and they thought he was a white man. So they weren't burning down white homes. They were just burning down Black folk's stuff. So that is how, I'm told, that they survived, and they would live to stay in the Greenwood area and rebuild.

MARTIN: Wow. Remarkable. Victor, can you describe Greenwood at its height? Like, give us a sense of what it looked like.

LUCKERSON: Sure. So Greenwood was really considered the Eden of the West in the early 20th century. This was a place where there were grocery stores, restaurants and even larger enterprises. You know, one of my favorite Greenwood businesses to think about is the Dreamland Theatre. You know, we also had the Stradford Hotel, which was one of the largest Black-owned hotels in the entire United States. And the Goodwin family also owned the Jackson Goodwin Funeral Home, which had some of the fanciest funeral cars in the southwest. So you really had enterprises, both big and small, making this community thrive early in the 20th century.

MARTIN: Well, but what about today, though? I mean, part of what - you know, you're talking about, like, 35 blocks of homes and businesses burned to the ground. It's disputed how many people were actually killed because there were so few remains. What happened in the years after the massacre?

LUCKERSON: You know, we don't know what Greenwood would have become if not for the massacre. We don't know what would have become of the Stradford Hotel, the Dreamland Theatre, The Tulsa Star. But it is a blessing that we had families like the Goodwins who stayed and did rebuild.

MARTIN: You make the point in your book and, Representative Goodwin, you make the point that what really kind of killed Greenwood as a business district was this expressway, this crosstown expressway that goes right through the business district. What impact has that had?

GOODWIN: Well, it is there. After the community did rebuild, then you had what white folks would refer to - some white folks would refer to as urban renewal - Black folks called urban removal. And all across the nation, you had expressways that cut through the heart of Black communities. Certainly, you then kill the business. So what happened is they cut right through the heart of Greenwood. We have been able to, through the Biden administration - he has a program called the Reconnecting Communities Program. And he simply said, in print, that he was looking for communities where interstates or highways had cut through Black communities. And when I saw that in print, I knew we were - had an administration that at least wanted to look at addressing the harm that was done in the past.

MARTIN: So, Victor, what was the ostensible argument for this urban renewal strategy?

LUCKERSON: Blight was a term used by federal, state and local officials to, in some ways, demonize properties in Black communities. If a property was deemed blighted, that meant the city, the state or the federal government had the right to remove it, destroy it. And, you know, families really couldn't do very much about that. In the Greenwood case, it's kind of a tragedy because, in the early era of urban renewal, there was so much positivity framed around it. There was the idea that the community might end up being rebuilt even bigger and better.

But this federal funding for the rebuilding actually sort of collapsed when the Nixon administration came into power. And so Greenwood ended up having acres and acres of empty land that was kept in control by urban renewal authorities and remains so to this day. Even to today, in Tulsa, the Urban Renewal Authority owns hundreds of acres of land in Greenwood and north Tulsa that hasn't been put to any use for decades.

MARTIN: Representative Goodwin, can I just ask you, what's your dream? What would you hope for for Greenwood?

GOODWIN: Long story short is that we do see that, were we to remove that expressway, with the Community Land Trust, there could be control for the historic residents - right? - so that we could stem the gentrification that occurs. Look, I am a realist. I understand that blocks now have been taken. There's a big baseball field there. There's a big university right there in the heart of Greenwood. So I understand that's not moving. What I am saying is that we can stem the gentrification. Ultimately, what I would like to see is the historic residents, particularly Black folks, owning and living again in that Greenwood district, having more rooftops, having more small businesses. That is the dream.

MARTIN: That's Oklahoma state Representative Regina Goodwin. In addition to serving in the Statehouse, she's a descendant of survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. We're also joined by Victor Luckerson. He's the author of the new book "Built From The Fire," and it is out now. Victor Luckerson, Oklahoma state Representative Regina Goodwin, thank you both so much for talking to us.

LUCKERSON: Thank you, Michel.

GOODWIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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