Commentary: Altus Airmen visit historic Black Wall Street in Tulsa

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Cameron Silver
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

As someone who has always enjoyed learning and studying history, it is not often that I am truly shocked to learn of a particular historical event. However, even with several high school and college history classes behind me, it wasn’t until two years ago that I first heard of the Tulsa Massacre. 

At the beginning of summer in 1921, an estimated 75 to 300 black Tulsans were gunned down in the uniquely flourishing segregated Greenwood district, dubbed “Black Wall Street”. Roughly 10,000 were left homeless as their houses and businesses were burned to the ground. I was astounded to learn that such a despicable act of hatred and terror was committed period, let alone only 101 years ago and at such a scale. I had many questions. Why was this the first time I’ve ever heard about this? Did the city officials at the time really enable it? Why were airplanes involved in the attack? 

I had since found the answers to my questions, but when I heard that the Black History Month committee at Altus AFB was organizing a tour of modern-day Greenwood, I knew I needed to see this place in person and learn more about this significant time in our country’s past that seemed to have been largely left off the history books. The tour group of about 25 boarded a bus and made the three and a half hour trip from Altus to Tulsa.

Our first stop was a popular black-owned coffee shop named the Black Wall Street Liquid Lounge. The shop was filled with celebrations of black culture, both past and present, with artwork and historical photos covering every wall.

After, we made our way across the street to the Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center. It was new, having just been built in the summer of 2021, and contained numerous exhibits painting the picture of life in Greenwood before, during and after the tragedy. As we walked through and saw how it all unfolded, the details of the massacre were gut-wrenching. 

An allegation of a black man harassing a white woman in a hotel elevator turned into an angry white mob that proceeded to gun down the Greenwood residents and set the area ablaze. It hit even harder to hear the audio recordings of survivors’ first-hand accounts of seeing their family, friends and homes disappear before their eyes. One quote that stuck out was when one man described seeing black birds falling from the sky. Upon further inspection he realized “those weren’t birds, those were bullets” being fired from an airplane that was being used to cause even more damage from above. To make matters worse, historical investigation into the event revealed that city officials, police and the national guard sided with the white mob and even took part in the violence. In the end, many lives were lost, thousands more were changed forever and the equivalent of $35.47 million in real estate and personal property were destroyed.

While the atrocity of this horrible event and the gravity it has cannot be overstated, the thing that struck me most from the museum was the resilience of the people of Greenwood. 

Only a few years after the massacre, Black Wall Street was incredibly resurrected and to some was arguably even more successful than its first incarnation. As the years have gone by, that level of success has fluctuated and numerous other great obstacles have gotten in the way of Black Wall Street being able to fully thrive. But that’s when the name of the museum hit me: “Greenwood Rising.” The focus wasn’t put on the massacre or the devastation that followed. The emphasis was put on the relentless spirit that propelled Black Wall Street to come back stronger and continue to grow and carry on the historic banner of those black-owned businesses back in 1921.

After touring the center, we made sure to visit a large mural outside that was particularly powerful. The words “Black Wall St.” were emblazoned on a wall and each was filled with vibrant and colorful depictions of Greenwood through the ages. We then had lunch at Evelyn’s, a local soul food restaurant. It was a unique feeling to be engaging with this growing area and see that it truly is returning to being a hub of business, education and culture.

Altus Airmen weren’t the only ones who got to experience Greenwood; some brought their families along too. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Janiece Lucky, 97th Force Support Squadron first sergeant, organized the trip and brought her two young sons. She shared with me that she wanted to provide them “the opportunity to learn about our history through setbacks, the dark and ugly truths, but also our triumphs.” She hopes that it gives them pride as African-Americans.

From an Airman’s perspective, I recognize the importance of absorbing this history and truly appreciating the positive changes that have been made for the diversity and inclusiveness of our military and our nation. There is still plenty more progress to be made, but today I am proud to be able to stand next to my black sisters and brothers in arms to help protect the freedoms that all Americans should be able to enjoy. 

If this experience could be boiled down into a single takeaway, it would be this: our country has many dark moments in its past, but through educating ourselves and taking action, our future can be just as bright as that Black Wall Street mural.