Listing through a catalog of images, archived under the title “Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 Archive: Documents and other Related Materials,1989-004-2,” I stopped. Image number 1989-004-5-27 (wrongly identified as 1989-004-5-26 on the page), shows two men, rifles on their shoulders, walking toward the photographer. Behind them, a group of women in dresses and a man move in the opposite direction, huddling alongside a row of cars and crowds of people amassing in street. The scene is set against the backdrop of a cloud of heavy smoke in the distance. The photo made me pause. Onlookers. People gather to watch as other people are being violated, mutilated and killed, and as houses, businesses, churches and schools are burned to the ground. We think about the victims, and we think about the perpetrators—here, the men with the rifles. Do we consider those who watch? Those who do not directly participate in the violence, yet stand to benefit? Who will eat the chewing gum stolen from the stores, who will play the piano dragged from the house before it is set on fire, who will build their homes on the site of residences destroyed by a mob? Who will benefit from a system of oppression that makes a spectacle of mutilated bodies considered to be of lesser value, who will pass their privilege on to their children and grandchildren? Who will provide a captive audience for atrocity?
The image made me pause because it brought to mind Czesław Miłosz’ observations at the wall around the ghetto of Warsaw in 1943. WhileJews imprisoned in the ghetto were fighting for their lives, using shovels, knives, or light bulbs filled with gasoline to fight off German SS-troops armed with flame throwers, machine guns and grenades, Gentile Warsowians enjoyed a lovely spring day, riding carousels and all.
Czesław Miłosz, “Campo dei Fiori”
I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
The abandonment of Warsaw’s Jews, the abandonment of Black residents of Greenwood were essential to the violence. At least 300 people died in the ruins ofGreenwood. 13,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during the uprising, most of the remaining 50,000 residents were captured and sent to the extermination camps of Majdanek and Treblinka. How many people watched? How many cheered? How many benefitted?
“Where are the accounts of the perpetrators? What do white Tulsans who watched, or their descendants, make of the massacre? What is their contribution to commemoration and education?” – Questions we repeated to ourselves many times as we visited the Greenwood district and explored various sites and initiatives addressing the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and its legacies. Answers remained scarce. Memory work often begins when victims begin to speak, when survivors speak about the violence they experienced, how it affected them and their community, and what they lost. To repair, we need those who watch and those who benefit, however innocuously, to pause and to participate in the labor of memory.
The day we visited Tahlequah, 70 miles southeast of Tulsa, the Cherokee National History Museum’s groundbreaking new exhibit centered on the Cherokee Freedmen had been open six weeks. On view until April 2023, the temporary exhibit is small, taking up only a portion of the museum’s first floor, but in a short time has attracted national media attention, with reports on CNN and other outlets. “We Are Cherokee: Cherokee Freedmen and the Right to Citizenship,” aims to fill a glaring gap in the larger permanent exhibition presented upstairs on the second floor. The contrast between that permanent exhibition and the story told in “We Are Cherokee” is striking. So are the curatorial and presentation strategies used to tell that story.
Upstairs, the permanent exhibition’s spatial design and didactic elements draw on conventional ethnographic and history museum practices, opening with traditional Cherokee clothing and artifacts inside vitrines, supplemented by contemporary artistic interpretations of the past. The timeline begins prior to European contact, with an evocative telling of the tribe’s mythic origin in a different part of the world, and a journey to this part of the world marked by tragic losses along the way: 14 groups set out in canoes, only 7 made it. That story, in some ways, foreshadows the Trail of Tears, the emotional climax of the exhibition, which comes about halfway through. The latter journey, however, was not chosen by the Cherokee (nor by other tribes forcibly removed from their lands in the 1830s) but brutally imposed on them by the U.S. government and its military forces. Some 4,000 out of an estimated 16,000 Cherokee died along the way. At this point, the museum visitor herself is pressed into an uncomfortable spatial narrowing, with tilted walls and sharp turns that call to mind Holocaust history exhibitions I have visited. Evocative first-person voices rise up all around, in audio and written quotes, and there is no way out but forward. Like Greenwood Rising, Tulsa’s new multimedia history center that tells the story of the 1921 massacre, the Cherokee history exhibition culminates in a brightly lit room that celebrates the community’s survival and resilience and its proud contributions to a larger American story (in politics, business, the arts, education, the military, etc.). Both the Cherokee and the Greenwood exhibitions assert that their communities today are alive and well and thriving.
Downstairs, the Cherokee National History Museum’s temporary exhibit “We Are Cherokee” disrupts a binary that persists in the public imagination, one that reduces important episodes of American history to “the Indian” and “the white man.” In eastern Oklahoma, as our visits to multiple sites of memory demonstrate, the reality is far more complicated than that. The Cherokee Nation and enslaved Black people and their descendants are intimately bound together a long suppressed, painfully intersectional history. The Cherokee held more people in slavery than any other tribe, nearly 1,600 in 1835 (a number that increased to around 4,000 by 1860). These enslaved people endured the Trail of Tears and the oppression and deprivation that followed on their arrival, still captive, in Indian Territory. Descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen have pushed for decades to have their rightful place in this narrative acknowledged, and waged legal efforts to win their right to Cherokee citizenship, which was finally granted in 2017. According to the tribe, more than 11,800 citizens of Freedmen descent are now enrolled in Cherokee Nation.
The largest wall of “We Are Cherokee” is laid out like pages from a family album. The museum’s curatorial team collected photographs, documents, and other materials from Freedmen descendants, and Cherokee Nation artists’ drawings capture scenes not otherwise portrayed. (This blending of documentary and imaginary approaches to public memory was a recurring motif on our study trip.) There’s an intimacy to the presentation that is distinct from the permanent exhibition upstairs, an invitation to linger with these individuals, their faces and their stories. They represent just a few of the vast community of descendants of Freedmen whose names were recorded on a 1907 Cherokee “Citizens and Freedmen” roll, names that fill four entire walls facing outward from the gallery space.
The exhibit itself constitutes a sharp turn in Cherokee Nation’s public posture toward this difficult history. The exhibit names names, featuring the frank presentation of Cherokee slaveholders’ portraits and handwritten documents, such as a “property list” of enslaved Black people and their assigned values, and a “Bill of sale of four slaves” that includes children. The turnabout is reflected in an official statement from Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. that also expresses the expiatory intent of an exhibit like this: “The enslavement of other human beings and the subsequent denial to them and their descendants of their basic rights for over a century is a stain on the Cherokee Nation. It is a stain that must be lifted.”
The publics addressed in this exhibit of multidirectional memory include everyone from outside visitors to local residents, across the identity spectrum. For some, it's an overdue history lesson; for others it’s a family reunion. Interviews with Black visitors demonstrate how meaningful it is to see one’s ancestors and community members represented on the walls of an institution that long resisted their inclusion.
A final note: According to the City of Tahlequah website, there are competing ideas about the origins of the town’s name. One is that it may derive from the Cherokee word “Ta'ligwu” meaning “just two,” or “two is enough.” Legend has it that, shortly after the Trail of Tears, three elders planned to meet. “Two elders arrived and waited for the third. As dusk approached, they decided that ‘two is enough’.” Although that legend does not involve the Freedmen, it might serve as a metaphor for a third party whose time has come. Two is not enough. The simplistic historical binary of the Cherokee and the white, long invalidated by researchers and in the lived experience of Oklahomans, has finally been ruptured within the public space of a museum. In that rupture, Black families’ stories can now be told. How might this vital truth-telling eventually be incorporated into the permanent Cherokee exhibition upstairs?
M4F in Tulsa - StudioLab Album