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Date posted:  December 9, 2022

Break and build: They can break, but they can’t erase—they can build, but they can’t bury us

Gilcrease museum recognizes the indigenous land on which we’re located. Gilcrease Museum is situated on the unceded territory of the Osage Nation, who were the original stewards of this land along with the Wichita, Caddo, Quapaw, Pawnee, and other communities who called this land home before the influx of other communities under federal policies of forced removal and the eventual land runs. As guests on their land, we are indebted to their hospitality, we respect their individual histories, and we recognize their status as sovereign nations. In Tulsa, we also stand at the meeting places of the reservations of the Cherokee Nation and the Muscogee Nation, and in proximity to a total of 39 federally recognized tribes in what is now the state of Oklahoma.

We also acknowledge that a simple statement of territory and stewardship is insufficient for our role as an institution. As part of the work that Gilcrease Museum is doing to more appropriately care for, represent, and contextualize the collections we currently steward, we are also working to foster reciprocal, respectful, and long-term relationships with Indigenous communities whose lands we occupy and whose cultures and histories are reflected in the museum’s collections.

The Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre collection is an archive that is both timely and influential in informing what we know about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the Greenwood District at large. With more than a dozen hours of footage from survivors of the massacre, this archive pieces together a history that remained skewed and distorted for close to 100 years. But rather than rehashing the events of the massacre, I wanted this lecture to focus on the humanity of Greenwood and the Black and Afro-Indigenous Tulsans who inhabit this space. This lecture served as a tour through the Eddie Faye Gates collection, as there is so much substance that helps guide us through Greenwood pre-massacre and beyond. I wanted the voices throughout this collection to help me tell the story of Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and Black and Afro-Indigenous life in North Tulsa. 

You see, Tulsa’s history does not begin with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In fact, Mrs. Gates does a thorough job of representing Indigenous history and Afro-Indigenous history throughout this collection. Through her oral histories and her video tours around Tulsa we learn about the Perryman family and how they voluntarily settled in Tulsa in the 1820s. Before “The Town” became known as Tulsa, this new Native settlement was named Tallasi, meaning “old town” in the Creek language. The Perryman family, who would be considered Afro-Indigenous due to their Black and Native roots, became an influential family in this growing town we now know as Tulsa. And though their family’s history was represented in the collection, Afro-Indigenous histories have largely remained excluded from Indigenous history. 

As Gates said in oral history clip, Afro-Indigenous history was conveniently left out of history books, while Indigenous history has largely been watered down as well. Truth and history should go hand in hand, though Oklahoma is working overtime to uncouple these integral threads through House Bill1775. Make no mistake, this bill is meant to mar the truth in the name of White fragility, even if that means erasing or twisting the true history of marginalized groups in this country. 

We continue to celebrate coming together in the hallowed space known as the Greenwood Cultural Center. A space that unapologetically tells the truth with integrity. The Greenwood Cultural Center is more than a building or a place to gather; rather, it is a standing monument that honors, preserves, and celebrates Black pride and Tulsa’s heritage. Though before this space came to be, it started with a vision. One man who was instrumental in actualizing this vision was Representative Don Ross, who worked alongside Mrs. Gates on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Commission. In addition to Ross being heavily represented in photos throughout this collection, his oral history is included as well. During his years in the legislature, Representative Ross brought more than 79 million dollars in funding to North Tulsa. He increased economic development in the community, and his work to develop the Greenwood Cultural Center was essential to his development plan. In the following clip, Representative Ross talks about the function of the community center and why its existence was important then and remains important today.

Representative Don Ross spoke of the function of the community center, and why its existence was important then and remains important today in an oral history interview with Gates. As Ross puts it, the Greenwood Cultural Center is a staple in Tulsa’s Greenwood District. And whether lawmakers or philanthropists feel compelled to credit the importance of the space or not, I say that the Greenwood Cultural Center IS for us, by us, and there is not another space in the district that does Tulsa’s history justice with respect and grace. 

Representative Don Ross also acknowledges the resiliency of Black Tulsans who rebuilt Greenwood bigger and better than ever. Similar sentiments were shared by Wes Young, who was a survivor of the massacre and played a heavy role in seeking reparations for survivors. In his oral history he said, “From 1922 to 1932, Black people were busy securing loans, getting money, to rebuild. They had to go out of state for money and building supplies. White Tulsans didn’t want Black Tulsans to rebuild. They (whites) still wanted the Greenwood area so they could expand northward. But Blacks were determined to rebuild. There was new prosperity in the Greenwood area. In fact, Tulsa had recovered so well that it hosted the National Negro Business League Convention in 1926! That league had been founded by Booker T. Washington in the early 1900s. There was such a determination in those Black Tulsa businessmen in those days. They just could not be kept down.” Of the many important takeaways from this collection, this one, for me, was the most important. Black Tulsans, like many Black folks, continued to make a way out of no way—as Essie Beck, also a survivor of the massacre, describes in her oral history.  
Building the district was done out of necessity, as Jim Crow laws prohibited where Black families could live. Rebuilding the district was done out of sheer determination and durability. Clearly, bombs of fire were no match for the fire within Black dreamers here and everywhere. 

Standing in the Greenwood Cultural Center I couldn’t help but feel closer to Mrs. Gates. As Michelle said during our tech run through, anytime Mrs. Gates was in the center she surely made herself at home. Eddie Faye Gates was born February 5th, 1934, in Preston, Oklahoma to Ferman and Vivian Minter Petit. She grew up and became a true trailblazer—a griot of Tulsa, if you will. But before Mrs. Gates became a name cemented in history, she was a shy, skinny, homesick teenager at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, she wrote in her memoir Miz Lucy’s Cookies. I’m certain that a young, homesick Eddie never imagined how integral her work would become decades later, like being honored as a newsmaker award winner. 

Throughout her journey of helping people and standing up for the rights of everyone, she often faced backlash. While she uncovered some disturbing truths about the massacre that were buried deep, she also experienced joy—like the prom she attended with massacre survivor Veneice Dunn Simms. Working in this collection often took a toll on me emotionally and spiritually. Listening to such graphic stories from survivors spurred on a range of emotions, though mostly consisting of anger, sadness, and full-on rage at times. But the clip that highlights Veneice Simms’ second chance at attending her prom is an example of the lighter parts of this collection that were tender. On May 31, 1921, innocence was stolen from an entire class of high school students who thought they’d spend their night dancing rather than scurrying away from stray bullets and bombs dropped from the sky. Veneice was finally given the chance to experience a sort of rite of passage called the prom.

The stories in the Eddie Faye Gates collection are a form of resistance toward a decades long endeavor to carelessly bury the truth—in true Oklahoma fashion. While the title of this collection may formally be known as the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre Collection, the contents of this archive are far wider than this 24-hour history. Furthermore, the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre collection is an archive by the community and for the community. While archives are typically used by scholars or for scholarly research, I’d like to remind you all that this collection is more than a data source. It is a living, breathing remembrance of Greenwood and Black Tulsans, and I know that Mrs. Gates would want us all to (re)member North Tulsa’s history regardless of our proximity to research or the academy. Power is defined by the storyteller. Before Mrs. Gates set out on this journey, power remained in the hands of those who wreaked havoc on helpless Black lives, on young Black children, for merely existing. Gates’ work created space for folks like Otis Clark, Genevieve Tillman, Veneice Sims, Hal Singer, Wes Young, Eldoris McCondichie, Thelma Thurman Knight, Robert Holloway, Robert Fairchild and countless others to speak truth to power. The baton has been passed, and we are all now responsible for keeping these stories alive while capturing new ones over time. 

As a history teacher, Mrs. Gates understood the importance of storytelling, especially when it came to documenting the histories of marginalized groups. Working with this collection inspired me to begin my own personal archive. Our lives are worth documenting and preserving—if we don’t, who will? Mrs. Gates took loads of pictures and recorded everything. While a majority of the content in this collection centered around Tulsa’s history, other parts of the collection documented Gates’ family and other aspects of her personal life. Personal archives represent a departure from the collective formality and systemic organization found in other types of records. Personal archives, like the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race massacre collection, reflect not only what a person does or thinks, but who they are. I feel honored that for the past two years I’ve gotten to better know Mrs. Gates and this North Tulsa family. 

This collection is a powerful start to a burgeoning relationship between Gilcrease and the North Tulsa community. I urge you all to engage with this archive in any way you deem fit. Whether it is to educate, research, or just to feel closer with Tulsa’s Black and Indigenous history, the Eddie Faye Gates Tulsa Race Massacre collection is for us all. More specifically, this collection is the perfect response to this present moment in time in education. If you’re sitting here today, then it should come as no surprise that education in Oklahoma is under extreme attack. Legislators, namely Kevin Stitt, are using House Bill 1775 to exploit White fear through political rhetoric that accuses information distortion about race and its effect on democracy. But people have a right to understand the society they live in, and the Eddie Faye Gates collection helps us analyze and understand the past in a way that could deeply inform Tulsa’s present condition and its future. 

For example, Juanita Adams teaches us about empathy, compassion and community through her oral history. Alfred Stanley Dennie breaks down Tulsa’s extravagant music scene, which was, and continues to be, an essential part of what makes Tulsa, Tulsa. Laverne Davis teaches us about early settlement in Oklahoma, Indigenous tribes, and growing up in Greenwood. Donald Stevens talks Black cowboys and rodeos while Lieutenant Major Clark teaches us about Buffalo Soldiers and the integral role Black soldiers played in every war. The lessons throughout this collection are endless. I know that educators feel cramped by this fear-based legislation, but sustained engagement with the Eddie Faye Gates collection is a good start in pushing back against such wayward political rhetoric. Eddie Faye Gate’s collection, and subsequently her life’s work, helps us all feel more connected to Tulsa’s history and Oklahoma’s history at large. This collection offers moment to moment decisions that changed lives and altered a community. The collection offers salient backstories that are essential connections between biography and history. This collection literally brings a curriculum on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to life, offering students the opportunity to realize that they are surrounded by, and are part of, the creation of history. But really, it is my hope that by using this collection in classrooms students begin to develop empathy toward the North Tulsa community past and present.

There’s this popular narrative that archives are old, dusty, and in disarray which often leads to the general public shying away or not showing interest at all. On the contrary, archives are one of the most precious national assets because they are the gifts of one generation to another; and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization. Archives replace hands that have vanished and lips that are sealed. So, let’s continue to breathe life into the work of Mrs. Gates, race massacre survivors, and Greenwood’s past. 

I have immense gratitude for Michelle and her team for their integrity and their commitment to the Greenwood Community. I would like to extend my upmost gratitude to the Greenwood cultural center for making sure that this history remains accessible and is told with community input. As the district continues to draw in tourism as Black business owners are forced out, let me remind you that they can build, down the road, but they cannot bury the extreme value this space holds in the heart of the community.

I’d also like to extend a special thank you to the Gilcrease family, and especially those who played a vital role on the core Eddie Faye Gates collection team. Thank you to Susan Neal for recognizing the importance of acquiring this collection and assembling a team who would honor this collection with care and respect. I also want to thank Susan for recognizing a need for Gilcrease to swiftly act on forming a more mutualistic relationship between the museum and the community in which it stands. Another thank you to Dr. Billy Smith for remaining a true ally and championing this collection alongside me. I’ve received unconditional support throughout my time as a research scholar, and that could not have happened without a team who recognized the major task at hand. And to the Gates family, thank you for sharing your mother with Gilcrease, with Tulsa, and with the world. Lastly, to Angela Guillory, girl, thank you. For everything.

As I close, I’d like to quote Mrs. Gates and her encouraging words at the beginning of her book They Came Searching: “To every Black person who has ever been name-called, put down, and discriminated against – and that is most of us! -- May you continue to get up, shake off the dust, and keep on keeping on until you find your Promised Land!” 

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant CAGML-247978-OMLS-20. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.