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Boundary markers will show the true scope of Greenwood was 'more than just a couple of buildings'

The first of what will eventually be six markers showing the boundaries of the historic Greenwood District was unveiled Friday in downtown Tulsa.

The marker stands at the southwest corner of Archer and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The concrete and granite markers are the final project of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. Commission founder and Chair State Sen. Kevin Matthews said people walking through what’s now known as the Tulsa Arts District are actually in Greenwood.

"And that's the part that people might not have known had we not put up these markers. When they learn the story of the destruction, they also need to see the footprint," Matthews said.

Greenwood Rising Interim Executive Director Phil Armstrong agreed with Matthews that the true scale of Tulsa’s thriving Black community is often forgotten.

"It's more than just a couple of buildings that they see on Greenwood Avenue. It was an entire neighborhood of families, of entrepreneurs, of a way of life that African Americans could only have experienced in a place like Oklahoma because of land ownership and because of oil and gas discovery," Armstrong said.

Armstrong said the commission waited until November for its final project because Greenwood residents started to rebuild their community that white mobs destroyed from May 31 to June 1, 1921, as soon as that November. They did a lot of the work at night to avoid inspectors out to enforce a requirement for flame-retardant building materials, which was a city ordinance enacted to prevent Greenwood from rebuilding.

The five remaining markers will be installed by early 2023 as far north as Pine Street and as far east as Lansing Avenue.

Matthews said there’s still more to be done to tell the stories of Black Oklahomans.

"Our goal is to bring the National Civil Rights Trail from Greenwood Rising to the Clara Luper Center through the 13 original Black towns. So, we're fleshing out that history and creating visitor centers in those towns across the state. That's what's coming next," Matthews said.

The Clara Luper Center is a civil rights museum in Oklahoma City named after the educator and activist who led the start of the sit-in movement.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.