The Oklahoma State University-Tulsa Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation launched in January to focus on racial equity specific to the deep history on and around the OSU-Tulsa campus — from its origins as the place where Muscogee, Cherokee and Osage Nation land converged to the growth of Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Quraysh Ali Lansana is acting director of the center, and in July will become director. The author, professor and “Focus: Black Oklahoma” creator/producer talked with us recently about issues related to racial healing in Tulsa.
Tell me about the center itself — how it was created and why.
The Center for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation at OSU-Tulsa is one of about 30 centers in the country that is a project of the (W.K.) Kellogg Foundation Initiative in partnership with the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Our team had to go through an institute on how to engage best practices in terms of racial healing circles, in terms of engaging in conversations about race, systemic racism, traumas connected to systemic racism, modes of engaging in difficult conversations. We went through that virtually last summer, and then we were eligible to apply to become an official center.
It’s (part of OSU-Tulsa President Dr. Pam Fry’s) many initiatives of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) work, particularly with a focus on connecting the campus to north Tulsa in much more sustained and real ways to change the narrative regarding north Tulsa, the narrative regarding OSU’s relationship with north Tulsa and the land on which OSU-Tulsa actually resides. (Editor’s note: In the 1980s, the Tulsa Development Authority acquired 115 acres of Greenwood land to create the University Center at Tulsa, a consortium of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Langston and Northeastern State universities that broke apart in 1999. OSU-Tulsa’s campus is located on that land.)
The center became official in January of this year, and right now it's a staff of one and then a team of colleagues who run different centers on campus already, who were a critical part of helping make this happen. I have thus far conducted I think three racial healing circles, all virtual, and looking to engage more. We will also integrate the curriculum addressing issues of systemic racism at OSU-Tulsa in terms of curriculum, faculty, staff top to bottom, as well as our relationship with Langston, with north Tulsa community leaders and the city, ultimately.
Is it accurate to say that as you’re teaching people about healing, the university itself is taking steps toward healing?
Yeah, that is accurate and again, it’s under the leadership of Dr. Pam Fry, who I think is a tremendous leader and is really perhaps the first leader in the history of this university to really acknowledge the years, if not decades, of neglect the university has perpetrated on the north Tulsa community, including in Greenwood. I applaud her for all of her commitment. Her predecessor was not as committed to this work, and I wouldn't have this role and I wouldn't be at the university if she weren't truly committed to this work.
What is the purpose and the process of a racial healing circle?
The purpose of the racial healing circle is really to engage folks in honest conversations about their own personal stories regarding race, regarding bias, regarding the stigmas or attitudes they may harbor that they may not even be aware of. There is such a thing as implicit bias.
As you know, I've been away from Oklahoma for 30 years. I've been back for two and a half years. And one of my sort of utterances about not only before I left 30 years ago, but returning is that I've met some of the nicest racists in Oklahoma. It's an interesting thing to think about that. They're kind, friendly folks. They might, you know, help you change a tire, let you borrow the gas can, who call you the N word when you leave. And so that exists here, and that exists in many places. But that exists here, in part, because of this idea of implicit bias.
I'll give you a couple of examples. So, in my racial healing work, I share an exercise conducted by a woman named Dr. Joy DeGruy from her book, “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” When she engages with audiences, she will ask folks to define white racism versus Black racism. And then she will ask the audience, in what ways does white racism adversely affect Black people? And folks will say everything from education to house loans to car notes, to fair housing, to property taxes, to medical care. And then she poses the question, how does Black racism adversely affect white folks? And there’s silence. Because Black racism doesn't, in any way, affect a white person's ability to get a home loan, to get a car note, to get into a college. And that, in and of itself, to me is a very poignant metaphor of what white privilege is.
You know, I don't, but I could despise you, Morgan, because you're white and it wouldn't affect your day. It wouldn't affect your life. But if you, in the position you are in, despise me because the color of my skin, you can have an impact on anything I'm tempted to do. After I share that particular anecdote, it engenders a lot of conversation because many folks have never thought about it like that, particularly when I'm conducting these racial healing circles, with business people, with folks from corporate America. They get that.
They understand the de jure versus the de facto reality of segregation and racism, that I present to them in this sort of black and white manner, if you will. And that engages conversation and folks that think and that's really at the root of this work: Let's talk about what you know about systemic racism. Let's talk about how some folks have benefited from it and others have not. Let's talk about the difference between de facto and de jure in Oklahoma. Racism has been on the books in every state this country, period.
Can you explain the difference between de facto and de jure?
Sure. De facto racism is that “I just don't like you; therefore, I will inhibit your ability to progress in your life because I can.”
De jure is legislated. De jure is legal. De jure is the really awful new voting regulations that were just passed in Georgia that are going to make it very difficult for poor people and BIPOC people to vote. That's legislated. That's a law, that's de jure. In Oklahoma there used to be a sundowner law where Blacks couldn't be out after the sun went down. That was a law till 1976.
What are some misconceptions white people have about racial healing?
Oh, that’s a great question. I would say one, I believe many white folks believe they are not part of the problem — that the problem was their ancestors or their elders, or their people before them, and they don't think like that. But at the same time, if you don't engage in the work of it, you're then — what did (Martin Luther) King say? “Silence just perpetuates the status quo.” You’ve got to use your voice, and white folks have the ability to be silent and be fine.
One of the things that was most encouraging to me as a professor and as a 56-year-old Black man who’s been engaged in this work for all of my life — what was encouraging about last summer's protests were the number of white allies that were in the street. There were more white allies in the streets in Portland and even in Tulsa, and all over the country, than who marched with King.
I asked folks in these racial healing circles, why do you think that is? Why do you think there were so many young white allies in Portland and elsewhere? And some folks said social media. Some folks said young people are more politically engaged. It could be a combination of those things, but in my mind, if you were a thoughtful or inclusive individual — between Ahmad Arbery, George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and others — there's no way you can look at the summer of hatred and killing we experienced and not be awakened. Unless you choose not to be ... which would be racism.
I think it's important we acknowledge that. I do believe there are more young people, certainly more young white folks, who are engaged in at least seeing more expansively than even in parts of my generation, and certainly among those who walked with King, and I think that's an incredible thing. But I think we also have to remember that there are just as many young white folks who don't support any of that. And nine times out of 10, those are the most privileged folks, and those are the folks who have access to power.
Where do you start with somebody who believes racism no longer exists? Those aren't the people who are coming to your workshops. Those aren't the people who are wanting to be a part of a racial healing circle, or who would read a book like “White Fragility” (by Robin DiAngelo). They're not open to that. So where do you start?
Unless they've been forced to by their corporate job, right? I would start I start with this. And I just shared this recently, as well. When (Barack) Obama was elected president, there was all this chatter around the country that we now live in a post-race society somehow because the first non-white president ever in the history of this country was elected.
First of all, it was not true. Secondly, I don't know why anyone would want to be engaged in this concept of post-race. I think about it in a couple ways. When the European immigrants came in via Ellis Island, or Corpus Christi, and they got to the Lower East Side of New York, and they Americanized their names, and they killed one another to get to the top of the crab barrel, to the construct of whiteness, to the construct of WASP, they lost, they willingly gave up, abandoned, their ethnicities to achieve this construct of whiteness for the assimilation and the success that construct of whiteness afforded them.
Black folks, folks of color, can't do that. I also don't believe anyone would want to do that, because don't you want to honor your grandmother and your great-grandmother and where you've come from? And that's a part of who we are. … You don't want to give up who you are, where your people come from. And if you do, what are you giving up for? You're giving it up for this construct of whiteness, which says, “I'm superior.” And I don't have to be Irish. I don't have to have Polish roots. I don't have to claim my German ancestry — because I'm white. But there's no Whitelandia. So that's one.
The second thing, when I think about this post race construct, is I pose this question. If former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had won the election for president, do you believe that shortly after she assumed office that women would be paid the same amount as men? No. Now women deserve to be paid an equal amount as men, if not more, on the dollar, but that would not have happened just because she, Sen. Clinton, became president. So how in the world can you even harbor the notion that just because the first non-white president was elected ... now all of a sudden everything is right in this country? And we can all forget that my people come from Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas, and I’m an eighth Cherokee? Why? What do I gain from that? Does that put me closer to the construct of whiteness? And how would I benefit from that?
I lived in Chicago. I lived in New York for a while. And, you've been to those cities, I'm sure, and others where there are large parts of town that are ethnically based. There's Chinatown in Chicago, Chinatown in San Francisco, LA, New York. ... I lived in Chicago near the Italian village where a large portion of Italian Americans moved. Chicago has the largest population of Polish folks outside of Warsaw. And what do they do? When folks come in from the mainland, they take them in, they have Polish-owed banks in the community to lend folks money to get their business started or to build their houses or buy a home. They keep their dollars in the community. And the money flows in their community, and they take care of one another.
That's what Greenwood was until it was destroyed. The difference is that the Chinatowns, the Italian village, they still exist, and they're self-sufficient. But all of the neighborhoods or communities like that, that were Black in nature, most of them are gone or are shells of their former selves. That's what distinguishes Greenwood from a Chinatown, Greenwood from the Italian village. Greenwood was destroyed because of economic jealousy and racist hatred, period.
Obviously Black Tulsans are not a monolithic group. But how would you characterize the generational trauma of Black Tulsans specifically, knowing our history with the Tulsa Race Massacre, and then urban renewal and other policies that hurt that community repeatedly over the past century?
I say there were several massacres, not just one, and probably three. There were also three reawakenings or three renaissances, as well. To answer your question, no, Tulsa is not a monolith. But I think for the most part that generational trauma is profound and manifests in a variety of ways.
There's no hospital. And there hasn't been a hospital in north Tulsa for some time. A grocery store’s under construction. And that's the first one, I believe, since 2017. But it's one grocery store for a huge demographic, a huge square mile radius of human life. There's one. So there's no hospital, there's very little fresh produce without having to drive for a few miles. North Tulsans live 11 years less life than south Tulsans. Drive five miles on Peoria, and you gain 11 years of life.
And then the stresses of excessive policing, food insecurity, that public education is based on property taxes. The overwhelming majority of north Tulsans are renters, which means they're not necessarily directly responsible for the upkeep of their houses, which means those property taxes are going to be pretty low. Therefore, the school funding of McLain and other schools are going to be affected tremendously by the property taxes, and that's just another insidious and ultimately racist form of policymaking.
I think about this related again to the (Greenwood) District. So J.B. Stradford had one of the nicest hotels in Tulsa, in the state, and that hotel was destroyed in the Massacre. If that hotel had not being destroyed in the Massacre, we might know Stradford’s name like we know the Hiltons and the Marriotts and the Holiday Inns because of the wealth that was already there. Simon Berry was worth $2 billion annually in today's money, and that was before he sold his bus line to the City and started the charter plane company. All that wealth was destroyed, and what we know about Tulsa is it’s one of, if not the most philanthropic city in the country. Why? Old, old money. Old oil money. But none of that money is Black. It's not Black wealth because ours was destroyed.
In order for healing to more fully occur in Tulsa, do you think it's necessary for the City to pay reparations to survivors of the Massacre?
I think reparations are a part of the healing. I think there's more to it than that, but do I believe the descendants and the living survivors deserve reparations? Unequivocally, absolutely yes. But I think it's larger than that, too. I think it's also investing in economic development in north Tulsa. It's investing in those schools in north Tulsa. It's providing a hospital in north Tulsa. It's addressing the issues of food insecurity. It's addressing the issues of folks experiencing homelessness. It’s so many things, Morgan.
Some view reparations as separate from investment in all of those areas where there are disparities. Some would say those things should have been equitable already — that's the baseline — so reparations for this tragedy that occurred, of which the City played a part — those reparations should be above and beyond.
Again, they're part of the whole to me, but yes. Do I think descendants and the remaining survivors deserve to be economically redressed in some significant way? So I'm clear to answer your question, yes, I do. But in addition to that I also very firmly believe — I mean, what is north Tulsa now? There's only one halfway original replica block of the district from 100 to 146 North on Greenwood and there's a highway, then there's OSU and then there's all this community, but that is in need of help and in need of services, in need of support. And again, we're talking about over 600 businesses (destroyed in the Massacre). We're talking about over 1,200 or so homes (destroyed). We're talking about John and Loula Williams (owners of the Dreamland Theater, which was destroyed in the Massacre), who were probably worth a couple million in today's money alone, annually. And we're talking about several folks who were bringing that kind of wealth, that kind of prosperity, that kind of entrepreneurial opportunity to other Black folks in the district, and that's gone.
So yes, I do believe (in) a real commitment to hospitals, to addressing the food insecurity, to addressing home ownership, to providing money for Black-owned and BIPOC-owned businesses, startups, incubators, guaranteed monies, to help Black folks and folks of color invest in their own communities. More opportunities for young people to learn, to grow, both inside and outside of the classroom, whether that's vocational training or whatever. I absolutely believe it's incumbent upon the City of Tulsa to address all of that.
I shouldn't say this shocked me, because I guess it really nothing should shock me about Oklahoma. But I moved back here from Chicago, and when I learned Oklahoma is a race-blind state regarding bids and contracts, I just didn't understand it. There's no way to compete for those contracts without investors, and some wealth in the bank, some money in the bank, and a track record and some generational wealth. And so there's very little way a Black contractor can compete in a state that says we don't care if the numbers are skewed, if there's no parity. It's all about the money. And we traditionally don't have that kind of money, so we don't get the bids, which means we can't get the money. It's a vicious cycle that can keep us at a place “less than,” and that's legislated.
Do you see any signals that the City is seeking to work toward healing or reconciliation with Black Tulsa?
Yes and no. I was pleased when I returned to Oklahoma, moved to Tulsa, that they had an Office of Resilience. Krystal Reyes is wonderful. She and her team are wonderful, and I think they're doing important work. So I think in some aspects, yes. But probably in many more, no.
The City of Tulsa really needs to make a commitment to, first of all, just really remembering north Tulsa is actually a part of the city and not some sort of island floating off into the ecosystem or whatever — that north Tulsa residents deserve the same kind of access to everything that south Tulsans have. But that equity is just not there, and only the City and philanthropy can change that.
We did a series of stories for “Focus: Black Oklahoma” on COVID in north Tulsa. It's a three-part series called “The Black Plague.” And one of the things that really struck me from our third episode, which was about evictions and homelessness, is that the philanthropic community, during our two weeks of sub-zero temperatures, put millions of dollars into providing donations, firewood, temporary shelter hotels, for our population of folks experiencing homelessness … The outpouring of monies from philanthropic organizations to restore hope and housing solutions was wonderful. But they were temporary fixes. If the philanthropic community could pull together roughly $5 to $7 million in a week to help get folks off the street during our bad stretch of winter, I'm sure with $5 to $7 million some affordable housing could be built so folks were really off the street for good.
And so when we did the research for the story, the more I thought about that, it's like, what is behind the temporary fix, versus taking that $7 million and finding a piece of land and building some affordable housing and say, “Come live. Get off the street”? I don't understand the rationale. Does it make sense to you in some way? So I believe the City has not done enough, and I believe the City needs to make a real commitment to north Tulsa in terms of those things I mentioned. And in my two and a half years, I have yet to see it.
Do you have any thoughts on the mass graves investigation?
As a historian, as somebody who has researched Greenwood and the district for almost 20 years, I certainly believe there are hundreds of folks buried. I believe that there are significant numbers of folks. I believe the majority of the folks are in south Tulsa in that housing subdivision where there's a fight about the property owners not wanting folks to dig there. That's where I believe the majority of folks are. I think there are some in Oaklawn. I have read and researched about folks being put on trains and trucked all the way to Oilton out that way, but I believe that the most significant number of bodies are out there in south Tulsa. And that's a part of why we're not going to be allowed to dig. The dig’s not going to happen. And I think after 100 years that actually attempting to do this work of excavation is a good thing. But it's sad it's taken 100 years for any mayor to consider it important. And I think we can directly connect the fact that it's been a century since this event occurred and the search for mass graves is just being done conducted, to the state of north Tulsa right now. And those are two different kinds of deaths.
I asked some folks in one of my racial healing circles, “Do you believe people in Tulsa harbor a stigma about north Tulsa? And if so, what might what might those stigmas consist of?” And folks said everything from crime to perceived racism to perceived (un)safety and other things, and I said, “OK, so if you all are admitting that you believe people in Tulsa harbor a stigma by about north Tulsa, what you're acknowledging is that stigma is 100 years old, at least.”
White folks have felt the same way about north Tulsa for over 100 years, and they still do. Even when it was thriving, when it was prosperous, they felt the same way they feel right now. That has not changed in probably more like 125 years. But the folks don't see it like that. They don't think about things that way. Again, I'm happy the search for mass graves is happening. It's inexcusable that it's taken a century for that to happen. And that has to do with attempting to erase this history, burying this history. I heard something yesterday ... Someone yesterday said, “I know folks who don't believe the Massacre actually happened.” And we both have read about folks who have said, “You know, I don't believe the Holocaust happened.” But that was thousands of miles away. This is in your own city. You believe somebody would make this up? For what benefit? And who’s benefit?
How does education play a part in the healing of a community like north Tulsa?
Part of the reason why I co-authored “Opal’s Greenwood Oasis” is to introduce the (Greenwood) District at its height at its most vibrant life to young people who live in hoods everywhere, really, but particularly in north Tulsa. Because when they walk out their door, they see pain often — not everywhere, it's not monolithic — but they often see pain, often see despair, often see hopelessness, often see blight, neglect. And I wanted to introduce young folks where they live to what it was before it was destroyed. So if they can see it, they can have the ability to imagine it and then dream. Dream beyond the block.
That's why so many of our young people get to high school and leave this town, because those are the kids who can dream beyond the block. When they see the block it’s like, is this it? Is this all? This is my life? Is this all life is? So, and that's the problem, the Tulsa experience of brain drain. And so what I really wanted to see, again, having lived a majority of my life on the south side of Chicago, and thinking about the west side of Chicago, or North Philly or different spots in Detroit, and thinking about wanting to write a book like this so children can see something that was Black-owned, built by Black hands. And to provide them the ability to remember that's in their DNA, that is who they are, and they have the ability to dream, to construct this world Opal resides in, in 1920. And so I believe education is critical.
One of my favorite quotes Clara Luper said late in her life is, “My biggest job now is helping white people understand that Black history is white history. We cannot separate the two.” That quote really is a foundation for all of the work in which I engage. But one of the ways in which it manifests to me most profoundly is that if we have been through K-12 public education, and certainly K-12 private school or charter school education, we have all been taught history through the white lens. All of us.
And it's damaging to all of us, not just folks of color. It's damning for all of us because it's not real history. It's not based in truth. It's based in what puts the white man in the least compromising situation so you don't feel like the history of whiteness is as awful as it really has been. And again, anyone who's been through K-12 education in any form or format for the last 100 years, we've been taught that. We're all damaged by that. So education is critical. But we’ve got to undo some of these things and some of the ways we've been taught, particularly ways which suggest BIPOC people are “less than” simply because they are BIPOC people. And that's a part of the ways in which those (text) books are written, across the book, across the subject area.