More than a decade ago, as projects were finalized for Vision 2025 city improvement project grants, about $20,000 was set aside for historical markers in Tulsa’s downtown Greenwood District.
The money paid for dozens of bronze plaques that memorialized businesses destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Now, as the centennial of the massacre nears, many of the plaques are damaged, in disrepair or missing altogether.
Amanda DeCort, who is now the executive director of the Tulsa Foundation for Architecture, was the preservation planner for the city of Tulsa at the time the markers were first placed in the Greenwood District. She told The Frontier that although she has no current role with the city of Tulsa, she has been a part of a group email this week attempting to “figure out what plaques are missing and what can be done about it.”
The markers begin just outside the outfield fence of ONEOK Field, where the Tulsa Drillers play, and wrap around Greenwood Avenue under the Interstate-244 bridge toward the historic Vernon Chapel AME Church.
There are two sets of markers, some larger than others, that identify the business by name and address, and list whether it was reopened. Outside the ballpark, several of the smaller plaques are missing. As the bridge nears, some of the larger plaques appear to have been removed. And under the bridge several are covered in dirt and debris, and there are squares cut into the sidewalk, making it unclear if plaques were removed or simply never placed.
Earlier this week Kristi Williams walked through the Black Wall Street area with her cell phone, documenting the condition of the markers.
“Taking care of them is very important,” Williams told The Frontier. “Living here in Tulsa, a lot of people don’t see the importance of Greenwood and Black Wall Street, but people outside of here are very interested in the history. I get requests to give tours all the time, and they really do their research.”
Williams said the Greenwood District, which was burned by a mob of white Tulsans in 1921, rebuilt again into a thriving district before later diminishing, is more than just a piece of Tulsa history.
“It’s deeper than just gentrification,” Williams said. The Tulsa Arts District sits just to the west of the Greenwood District and has been growing for years, to the point where some businesses that exist in Greenwood advertise themselves as being in the Arts District.
Michelle Brooks, a spokeswoman for Mayor G.T. Bynum’s office, said the Downtown Coordinating Council would be placed in charge of upkeep of the markers in the future.
“The City has received inquiries regarding missing plaques within the Greenwood District. The Greenwood plaques were originally funded in Vision 2025 in partnership with the North Tulsa Community Task Force,” Brooks said in a message. “The City of Tulsa is working with the project owner to identify every location of where the plaques were placed to ensure the plaques are preserved and missing plaques can be replaced. Moving forward, the Downtown Coordinating Council has committed to assist with cataloguing, replacement efforts and future monthly maintenance.”
Glen Sams, the senior engineer in the city of Tulsa’s engineering services division, said he believes some of the plaques have been stolen.
“There is also the possibility that over the years, someone developing in that area might have taken the sidewalk out and some of the plaques out, without noticing,” Sams said. “We don’t know how many there are, or how many there are supposed to be. We’d like to find out who can go look for how many there are and determine how many are missing because we really don’t know.”
Sams said that it would likely take some sort of private fundraising effort to replace the missing plaques.
DeCort said there’s a “list of about 331 or so businesses that were destroyed.”
“We’re not sure how many markers there are supposed to be, but it’s fewer than 331, that’s for sure.”
Ross Group, a construction company building a mixed-use facility next to ONEOK Park, told the city that it had saved the markers that had been placed in the sidewalks that were torn up for that development so they can later be replaced, DeCort said. Williams told The Frontier that she would like to see those markers be held by a Greenwood District entity, such as the the Greenwood Cultural Center.
“Our ancestors had to watch the massacre happen, watch their homes be burned and looted,” Williams said. “They watched it burn and grew it back better than before, then watched it be destroyed again … all we have left is those markers. No economic justice, no restorative justice, nothing for land that was our birthright.”