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Service & Impact
summer 2021

Facing The Pain Of The Past

Tulsa Race Massacre Authority Hannibal Johnson Finds Hope in the Centennial Remembrances
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

It has been said that history repeats itself because no one listens, and that could be why May marks two important events in America’s troubled racial history.

Just a year ago, George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis sparked a wave of protests across the country that remain fresh in people’s memories, following the recent guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin. But as many heed the first anniversary of Floyd’s death, they are also being encouraged to look back a century, to a largely unknown event that is widely recognized to have been the worst single incident of racial violence in American history.

As many as 300 Black people were killed when thousands of white citizens descended on the affluent Black Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, looting and burning homes and businesses. Ongoing searches for mass graves mean that the true death toll from the event, sparked by a May 31 incident involving a Black teen accused of assaulting a white elevator operator, could be even higher.

An expert on the massacre, attorney and author Hannibal Johnson explores the legacy and lessons of the event in his recent Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples with its Historical Racial Trauma (Eakin Press). The book has been endorsed by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which is organizing a series of events to commemorate the anniversary. Johnson has been a key player in Greenwood Rising, a $30 million history center due to open in the fall.

It’s important to remember and reflect on what happened 100 years ago because “if we don’t know our history, then some of these things can be repeated,” Johnson says.

If we don’t know our history, then some of these things can be repeated.


A bigger story
Without diminishing the tragedy of the 1921 event, Johnson argues that the massacre itself “is not the be-all and end-all.” It is actually a chapter in a much larger narrative, he says, which is one about “the indomitable human spirit.”

Sometimes lost in the details of the massacre is that the Greenwood district’s reputation for business had earned it the nickname “Black Wall Street.” That, says Johnson, points to how Black people can be successful as economic engines and entrepreneurs “against really horrific odds. And if that is the case, if that is the foundation that’s been laid for us, if those are the shoulders upon which we stand, our possibilities are virtually unlimited.”

Turning from a century ago to the last year, Johnson remains optimistic despite everything, hoping that the response to some of the events of 2020 “becomes a movement, not a moment.”

Having said that, he has realized that “we’re not nearly as advanced as I had hoped that we were because the last few years, people who harbored these sort of racist, xenophobic and other kind of prejudices felt much more comfortable coming from behind the sheets and behind the shades and letting themselves be revealed.”

Part of that, he believes is a backlash against Barack Obama’s years as the nation’s first Black president. Yet in some ways that overt reaction is a blessing, he suggests: “I want to know who the enemy is and I want to know how much work it is that we still must do.”

Johnson doesn’t see a day when racism “just goes away, magically. That’s not going to happen. I see it as a chronic challenge that we have to face.”

Of particular concern to him is what he sees as “a pretty naked push” to disenfranchise Black voters. “It’s right in your face, so that’s a huge challenge because the ability to participate in the democratic process and to elect people to represent us and get us the kind of legislation we need to allow us to do the kinds of things we need to do economically and otherwise is imperative,” he says. “And that’s going to determine what our fortunes look like for the next 10 years.”

A wider market
What would his advice be to himself as an 18-year-old today? Recognize that change happens, “but it happens ever so slowly and incrementally.” So don’t get frustrated. Don’t get disheartened. Just continue. And “understand that you have agency, that you have the capacity to actually make a meaningful difference in your world. It’s not about the things that are done to you, necessarily. It’s about your ability to deal with the challenges that are presented to you.”

Even though he grew up only 100 miles or so from Tulsa—in Fort Smith, Arkansas—he didn’t know much about the events of May and June 1921 until he joined a law firm in the city after graduating from Harvard. Getting involved in the local community, he was asked to write a multipart history of Greenwood for the Black newspaper. He has since written four books on the topic.

From his study of Greenwood’s success, he offers some advice for Black entrepreneurs today. “We don’t always have to be competing,” he says. “There are ways that we can collaborate and support one another, patronize one another, promote one another. That’s something on which I think we could do a much, much better job. The market is not constricted necessarily by race.

“And so if your goal is to be a successful entrepreneur, a successful businessperson, then why would you limit yourself to a narrow market when there is a much broader market out there? Just because you’re a Black entrepreneur doesn’t mean that all your customers and clients have to be Black…

“While you might have a product that appeals mostly to a certain segment of the population, there are ways to expand those markets. I think of something as simple as soul food; we think of soul food as food that Black people like, but the reality is, yes, Black people like it, but so do a whole lot of other people if you market it properly.”

A better life
Johnson didn’t set out to become an authority on the Tulsa race massacre and an independent consultant specializing in diversity and inclusion/cultural competency issues. “This is just something that happened,” he says. “I think you have to understand opportunity when it presents itself and you have to understand what your passions are, what fulfills you, and you have to go that way, because you’re going to be, if not financially better off… better off in a holistic sense if you pursue something that really you find meaningful and fulfilling.”

Johnson’s late parents were formative in his sense of community awareness and involvement; dad was president of the local NAACP chapter. “His concern about his Blackness and his ability to navigate this world was really more inspirational in retrospect than I may have thought it was when I was growing up,” Johnson says. “My mother was active in the church, always very disciplined and community service-oriented, and all that stuff rubbed off on me as well.”

Johnson considers writer James Baldwin influential “because he had such command of the language and he was so in tune with American racism.” He also remembers his teachers for their inspiration, though he didn’t have a Black teacher until he was a sophomore in college. “I had mostly white women, but when people ask me about that, I say… yes, these were white women, but these happened to be white women who actually cared… I would have liked to have had some Black teachers as role models, but I’m fortunate in that I had teachers who actually gave a damn about my education.”