TULSA, okla. (AP) – Hundreds gathered Monday for an interfaith service that dedicated a prayer wall on the centenary of the first day of one of the country’s deadliest racist massacres outside the historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood.
National civil rights activists, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and William Barber joined several local religious leaders in offering prayers and remarks outside the church, which was largely destroyed when a white mob entered the affluent black neighborhood in 1921 and burned, killed, looted, and burned an area of 35 square kilometers razed to the ground. Estimates of the death toll range from dozens to 300.
Barber, a civil and business rights activist, said he was “humbled to stand on this sacred ground.”
“You can kill the people, but you cannot kill the voice of the blood,” he added.
Although the church was nearly destroyed in the massacre, parishioners continued to gather in the basement, and a few years later it was rebuilt and became a symbol of the resilience of Tulsa’s black community. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
As the ceremony ended, the participants placed their hands on the prayer wall on the side of the sanctuary while a soloist sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Traffic buzzed on a nearby freeway that cuts through the Greenwood District, which was rebuilt after the massacre but slowly deteriorated 50 years later after homes were taken from major domains as part of urban renewal in the 1970s.
Activities to commemorate the Monday massacre were to culminate with a headline event “Remember & Rise” at nearby ONEOK Field, which featured Grammy-winning singer and songwriter John Legend and a keynote address by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams. However, that event was scrapped late last week after no agreement was reached on cash payments to three survivors of the fatal attack. This situation highlighted broader debates about redress for racial injustices.
Disagreements among black leaders in Tulsa over how to handle memorials and multi-million dollar donations have resulted in two different groups planning separate event schedules for the 100th anniversary of the massacre. In addition to the 1921 Centennial Commission of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the Black Wall Street Legacy Festival has a number of separate events scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.
In a statement tweeted on Sunday, Legend did not specifically address the event’s cancellation but said, “The road to restorative justice is crooked and bumpy – and there is room for sane people to explore the best path to healing collective trauma contradict white supremacy. But one thing that is out of the question – a fact that we must hold with conviction – is that the path to reconciliation is through truth and accountability. “
On Monday evening, the Centennial Commission plans to hold a candlelight vigil downtown to honor the victims of the massacre, and President Joe Biden is due to visit Tulsa on Tuesday.