Take route 66 to a city of reconciliation and growth
I met a friend at a church service in Los Angeles. I mentioned that I received a COVID-19 reminder because I was traveling.
“Where are you going?”
It is true that many Americans, when they think of Tulsa, consider it a dusty oil town.
Sure, the food is good, the people are friendly, and historic Route 66 brings thousands of travelers to town. The area has beautiful parks, outdoor activities, and great restaurants with $ 10 craft cocktails. The city also has one of the largest collection of art deco buildings in the USA. The Tulsa remote program, which pays out-of-state remote workers up to $ 10,000 to move to Tulsa for a year, would be more competitive than Harvard.
But there are deeper reasons to visit Tulsa, from its work to recognize its tortured past, to its efforts to create a greener and more diverse present.
This year marks the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst in American history. In 1921, the prosperous district of Greenwood, the “Black Wall Street”, was destroyed when armed white men crossed the railroad tracks to attack the community. Nearly three hundred people, the vast majority African Americans, were killed when a 35-block section of churches and businesses was set on fire. Ten thousand were left homeless. The recent HBO series GUARDIAN included the massacre, and President Biden spoke at the commemoration this spring, before a crowd including three elderly survivors.
Tulsa makes a significant effort to recognize her past, comparable in some ways to Germany’s effort to fight the Holocaust. After years of neglect, the city has hosted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin, originally from Tulsa.
The haunting John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park is part of the effort to commemorate the massacre and tell the story of the role of African Americans in the building of Oklahoma. About 12% of park visitors are international, with the rest coming from the United States
is now part of the African American Civil Rights Network, the park includes a pair of sculptures of sculptor Ed Dwight, a former USAF test pilot and the United States’ first African-American astronaut candidate. The sculpture “Hope” presents three bronze figures referring to the massacre with themes of humiliation, (a man with his hands raised), “Hostility” (a man with three guns) and “Hope” (a director of the Cross. -Red holding a baby.) The second installation is a 27-foot-tall cylindrical “Reconciliation Tower” depicting the complex story of “Blacks, Native Americans, and Black Indians of Oklahoma since the 1830s,” including slavery, the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers, the building, burning and rebuilding of Greenwood, and the reconciliation efforts of today.
“It’s not black history. It’s American history,” said a park guide, adding that “reconciliation is a process, not a destination.”
The city and private donors have also built a $ 30 million museum, Greenwood Rising, which deals with the history of Tulsa’s African-American community, including the oil boom that helped create its prosperity, with multimedia presentations like a barbershop populated with holographs. One of the museum’s films includes an original soundtrack of poet Maya Angelou reading her poem “Still I Rise” on scenes from black life in today’s Tulsa.
The massacre is portrayed in multimedia with videos, text and heartbreaking sound. As executive director Phil Armstrong noted, prior to Greenwood Rising, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 was commemorated “but no one was commemorating the worst domestic terrorism in US history.”
Today, the district of Greenwood is well and truly on the rise. A regional hub is the Fulton Street Books and Café. Opened in June 2021 at the height of the pandemic, its resourceful owner Onikah Asamoa-César not only sold coffee and snacks at the door of the closed cafe, but she also established a book club to help boost business.
The store, now open for walk-in business, is filled with books of interest to the African American community and in general. It has become a destination for readers and a site for author events.
Other regions of Tulsa are also awakening. Tulsa has a long relationship with Historic Route 66, the “Mother Road” (named by John Steinbeck in THE GRAPES OF WRATH), America’s first fully paved national highway stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles. Hundreds of travelers fascinated by the West and its mother route, many of whom come from distant lands, crisscross every week. A Tulsan, Cyrus Avery, is considered the “Father of Route 66” who celebrates his centenary in 2026.
Mother Road Market, Oklahoma’s premier food hall, celebrates Route 66 and the entrepreneurial spirit of Tulsans. A non-profit A development of the Lobeck Taylor Foundation, Mother Road is an incubator for food service and retail start-ups, which have low-cost access to the facility’s 3,000 square foot kiosks and commercial kitchen. Retail includes the 19 & 21 retail kiosk showcasing local black-owned businesses including the Greenwood Avenue clothing brand.
Customers get food of every description, like sushi in the middle of Oklahoma, the locals’ favorite Andolini pizza, burgers, Mexican and Latin American cuisine and more. “The demand for vegan food is through the roof,” a spokesperson noted. A team using the on-site food truck (an Airstream trailer) made $ 2,000 in vegan food in a recent week. Opened in 2018, Mother Road, which features a large outdoor area and a 9-hole mini golf course, has become a destination for travelers to Tulsans and Route 66.
Mother Road has worked with over 150 food entrepreneurs, over 50% of which are women-owned businesses. Many are “graduates” to open independent restaurants. The goal of this program and other community entrepreneurship efforts by local foundations is “to build generational wealth,” including helping aspiring entrepreneurs acquire the skills needed to run their businesses.
The city became home to many immigrant groups, including large Hispanic and Asian communities. A man who came to Tulsa from Vietnam in 1991 at age 18 eventually opened an Asian supermarket, a Vietnamese restaurant, and now owns much of the mall. A Mexican-American family who moved from Los Angeles went from selling food at a supermarket kiosk to owning three La Tapatia ice cream parlors.
Tulsa also has an increasing amount of green space. A $ 465 million, 64-acre park on the Arkansas River, Gathering Place, is the largest privately funded community space in U.S. history. Five acres is a huge children’s playground with slides, swing castles, and whimsical animals. A waterway offers rental of kayaks and paddleboards.
Designed by the famous landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, the park includes indoor public spaces where people can relax in the oversized armchairs or sit by the huge indoor and outdoor fireplaces. A recent informal count revealed cars from thirty states in the parking lot. There is Wi-Fi inside the buildings but not outside – a spokesperson said: “We hope people hang up and hang out.”
Another park, 600 acres Turkey hill, transforms a former drilling site into a wild urban area with hiking trails, ponds and off-road bike paths.
But Tulsa’s most interesting attribute is her determination to recognize her past while investing in her people for a prosperous future.