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The Healing Power of Place
Visiting the Greenwood District
I just finished a trip this week, by myself. You see, my idea of a great vacation is to go to library and museums and roam through their archives…not my wife’s idea of a good time. So as you can imagine, I do these trips alone.
But they aren’t without purpose. I’m currently researching information for a book about the vaudeville team of the Pearson Brothers. They were from Iowa, and for a time they traveled with an Ozark team called the Weaver Brothers and Elviry. They were based in Springfield, Missouri, so off to Springfield where I visited the library and a wonderful museum called The History Museum on the Square.
I will have a full chapter on the Weaver Brothers in the book, so this called for finding as many primary sources as possible. I was not disappointed. There was a wealth of information there including some information about the Pearson Brothers.
I next went to Branson, Missouri, but not to see a show as most tourists do when visiting that town. I went straight to the Ralph Foster Museum on the campus of the College of the Ozarks. Everything in that part of Missouri has the name “Ozark” in it somehow.
This library archive was a bonanza of information and pictures I had never seen of both the Weavers and the Pearsons. The time passed quickly as I strolled through the material, taking snapshots of various sources and pictures on my phone. This fall I will be writing a final manuscript and getting it ready for publication.
If you like museums and are in the Ozarks anytime in the future, I would recommend both museums. They are quality museums and even if you don’t visit the libraries in the back, the exhibits and displays tell wonderful stories of the past. You will learn about the history of the United States and that region of the country.
But I suddenly realized that I was only about 150 miles from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I made a snap decision and made a beeline to Tulsa…well, in southern Missouri there are no straight roads, so it was a crooked beeline. Driving the roads that wind through the Ozark “mountains” makes you feel as if you are on a carnival ride. Anyone with motion sickness would not appreciate the ride.
I’ve been wanting to visit Tulsa for a long time. For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been on a journey toward “antiracism.” What does that mean? I think it means coming into connection with the lived history and stories of black Americans and seeing the world through their eyes. By using the power of my imagination to put myself in their place, I hope to understand the pain, frustrations, terror and sadness that has made up their collective experience in a country that is steeped in white supremacy.
By visiting historic sites like Tulsa’s Greenwood district, I can begin to connect to that experience in a way just reading about it will never achieve. I’ve experienced the power and energy of historic sites before when I have visited other places where important events have taken place.
If you are skeptical of my statement that historic sites have power and energy, then I suggest you visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. Those of you that have been there and have really taken the time to connect to those events understand that what I am saying is true.
Gettysburg is just one example. I have visited the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana where I could connect to the daily lives of enslaved people who labored for free for their owners. Where they suffered shortened lives because replacing them was so cheap, they were expendable. Where enslaved children were usually sold off once they reached 10 years of age and were forever separated from their families.
And here is the key. By connecting to the power and energy of a historical site you learn something new, and the learning changes you. It rewires your brain, not in an indoctrinating sort of way, but you connect to the truth of what that site represents. And once you learn that truth it changes you and you can never unlearn it.
Another way to explain this is as you connect to the truth of a historic site and accept the truth of that place, it begins to heal you. The truth shall set you free!
For white people, it sets us free from the invisibility of the power of white supremacy. When white supremacy becomes visible it becomes transparent. You can see through it for what it is. Fear!
This fear infects every white person that has been born in the United States.
It is fear that drives attempts to hide history such as the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921.
It is fear that drives white people to ban books.
It is fear that pushes white people to revise history to “soften” the story of enslavement and require teachers to talk about the supposed “benefits” that slavery provided.
It is fear that makes white people afraid of talking about their privilege.
It is fear that makes white people not want to have difficult conversations about the truth and reality of the legacy of the slave system and the subsequent Jim Crow oppression.
Fear drives white consciousness whenever this topic comes up. So, it is much easier to avoid it, run from it, hide it, and pretend it doesn’t exist. But self-imposed ignorance doesn’t change the truth. It is still there whether you look at it or not.
That is why we must be healed of the insidious virus of white supremacy. It wants you to remain blind to it and not see it. That is how the power sustains itself. That is how white supremacy survives from generation to generation. It keeps you blind and ignorant of its existence.
And it starts with me, and every white individual to connect to the truth. The truth is we are all white supremacists. Not because we are evil or bad people, but because we have been breathing and living in a white supremacist culture our whole lives and never stopped to see it for what it is.
That is why I wanted to visit Tulsa’s Greenwood district. I wanted to feel the power and energy that the site holds. And I wasn’t disappointed. I was able to connect to the abject terror and horror that occurred there just 102 years ago. But I also discovered there was another type of energy there: reconciliation and hope. Let me recap some of my observations as I explored Greenwood.
It was raining the morning I drove to the downtown Tulsa area, but I was struck by the emptiness of cars on the streets and people on the sidewalks. Perhaps it was the rain, or that it was early, around 8:30. Most museums and cultural centers weren’t open yet, but I knew there was a park in the area, and I went there first.
This park is called the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation. It is a beautifully landscaped park laid out in a labyrinth fashion so that as you walk through the park you can meditate, pray, or touch mindfulness in a way that allows you to connect with its energy. The gardens are symmetric, and they are meticulously maintained. I was the only person in the park which allowed me undistracted time to walk quietly through the lanes. I sensed the sacredness of this place.
In the center of the park there is a plaza with a sculpture called “Reconciliation Tower” rising toward the sky. As you raise your eyes to behold this amazing structure, your vision brings you to the rising skyscrapers of Tulsa just a few blocks away. I suspect this is intentional and there is a message. The tower is speaking out words of hope and reconciliation to the city that abused and burnt it down.
The tower depicts the history of the state of Oklahoma including the Trail of Tears and other events, culminating with the Race Massacre in 1921 toward the top. It is a detailed yet emotionally charged sculpture.
I was moved by this park. What I sensed was a combination of both sadness at what was lost and destroyed purely out of hatred, and a sense of rising hope for reconciliation and rebuilding. It seems that most of black history is a combination of these two emotions.
Ringing the Reconciliation Tower are a series of granite stands with informational plaques on them that tell the story of blacks in Oklahoma from the earliest days to the Massacre in 1921. Here is pictured one of those markers that is the last one in the circle. I love what is says at the end, “Now we must all climb together.”
Next, I went to the Greenwood Cultural Center. Still raining. I couldn’t help but notice the homeless population that dotted the area. Despite the efforts to rebuild and renew Greenwood, there is always the specter of homelessness nearby.
The Cultural Center is at the center of the Greenwood District. The sign pictured shows a “Black Wall Street” mural painted on an overpass of an interstate highway. If the race massacre in 1921 wasn’t enough humiliation, then splitting the Greenwood District in two by an interstate highway in the 1950’s was more salt in the wound.
The Center was just opening, and I was surprised to see that the person opening the doors was an indigenous woman. Then I remembered that Oklahoma was not only originally populated with indigenous tribes just like everywhere in the United States, but the Cherokee were forced marched here in the 1830’s to clear out the eastern half of the country. Thousands of indigenous people still call this home.
Again, I was the only person in the center at that early time. I browsed the displays showing the early days of Black Wall Street and its wealth and prosperity. These were juxtaposed against pictures of the attack on the people and the buildings that were burnt to the ground. It was sobering. But the cultural center itself stands as a beacon of hope for rebuilding and restoration.
Soon a tour group of about 40 people came into the center. It was an all-black tour group made up of both young people and older people. They had a tour guide who began to recall the events that led up to the massacre in June 1921. I couldn’t help but listen to her explanation. But she also explained the nature of racism and how it works. I’m glad she didn’t hold back because I was white.
Here is what she said based on my recollection.
“White people don’t see themselves in terms of race. They only see black people in terms of race. You will never hear a white person talk about someone using the adjective “white” as in he was a ‘white police officer’ or a ‘white baseball player.’ That is because white is the standard by which all people are judged.”
Its was timely to hear her say that because I had just finished reading a book that said the same thing. I tried a thought-exercise where I spoke of people I knew and identified them as a white person as I spoke of them. It was awkward. It didn’t seem natural to me to speak about someone being a white historian or a white musician. But it wasn’t uncommon to speak about a black musician or a black historian as if we have to identify their so-called race. White is the norm. White is the standard and basis for “normality.” It was a stunning experience.
There is much more I can say about this trip. I visited another museum called Greenwood Rising. This is an episode all to itself. I’ll write more later.
For now, I wish good healing to you as you explore the invisible world in which you live called “white supremacy.” I hope you will learn about it and be changed so that you can never unlearn it. Once it becomes visible to you, you will see it everywhere. Once you unmasked it, then its power is weakened. This is how we heal!