TULSA -- Hundreds of people gathered Monday for an interfaith service dedicating a prayer wall outside historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood on the centennial of one of the deadliest racist massacres in the nation.
National civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and William Barber, joinedlocal faith leaders offering prayers and remarks at the church that was largely destroyed when a white mob descended on the prosperous Black neighborhood in 1921 -- burning, killing, looting and leveling a 35-square-block area. Estimates of the death toll range from dozens to 300.
Barber, a civil and economic rights activist, said he was "humbled even to stand on this holy ground."
"You can kill the people but you cannot kill the voice of the blood."
Parishioners continued to meet in the basement of the church after the massacre and it was rebuilt several years later, becoming a symbol of the resilience of Tulsa's Black community. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
As the ceremony came to an end, participants put their hands on the prayer wall along the side of the sanctuary while a soloist sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Traffic hummed on a nearby interstate that cuts through the Greenwood District, which was rebuilt after the massacre but slowly deteriorated 50 years later after homes were taken by eminent domain as part of urban renewal in the 1970s.
HONORING THE VICTIMS
Also Monday, survivors and descendants of the massacre gathered at Standpipe Hill, where Black World War I veterans fought fiercely in a battle to hold off the white mob. They collected soil from the steep slope to honor the victims.
Viola Fletcher, who was 7 at the time, sat beside her brother, Hughes Van Ellis, 100, as the dirt -- once stained with the blood of Black veterans -- was solemnly poured into jars. They'll be sent to the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, where thousands of jars of soil from lynching sites across the country are being collected.
Greg Robinson, 31, activist and descendant of massacre survivors, said he wanted to come to Standpipe Hill to bear witness not just to the pain Black Tulsa endured but also to its resilience.
"Today is a day full of somber energy," he said. "But also a day in which you feel and understand the true strength of the ancestors."
Tulsa spent much of the last century denying and dismissing the racial terror that unfolded. Now, the city is finally acknowledging the history and its lasting scars, even as it resists calls for reparations for the survivors and descendants.
A Remember & Rise event headlined by John Legend and Stacey Abrams was scrapped last week after an agreement couldn't be reached over payments to three survivors of the deadly attack, a situation that highlighted broader debates over reparations for racial injustice.
Disagreements among Black leaders in Tulsa over the handling of commemoration events and millions of dollars in donations led to two groups planning separate slates of events marking the massacre's 100-year anniversary. In addition to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival scheduled its own events over Memorial Day weekend.
In a statement tweeted Sunday, Legend didn't specifically address the event's cancellation, but said, "The road to restorative justice is crooked and rough -- and there is space for reasonable people to disagree about the best way to heal the collective trauma of white supremacy. But one thing that is not up for debate -- one fact we must hold with conviction -- is that the path to reconciliation runs through truth and accountability."
President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Tulsa today, when the city resumes excavation of a mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery that may be connected to the rampage.
Information for this article was contributed by Peter Smith of The Associated Press and DeNeen L. Brown of The Washington Post.