The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum held a special collaborative session to discuss the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Oklahoma City bombing.
The “Better Conversations” event included discussion between the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum’s Executive Director Kari Watkins, Memorial Board Chair Bob Ross, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission Project Director Phil Armstrong, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission Chair and Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews (D-Tulsa), and hip hop artist and community activist Jabee Williams.
In an interview with The Daily, Watkins said Better Conversations began last year as a program to bring up “tough topics” for discussion between people of different backgrounds and opinions. She said revisiting the events of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the Oklahoma City bombing forces people to “see what we did wrong.”
“History is hard, and we have to go over these moments,” Watkins said. “We have to relive these moments and understand them so that we can then move forward and be better.”
During the session, Matthews said he created the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission in 2015, which has “paved the way” for Greenwood Rising — a history center under construction in the Greenwood District in Tulsa.
Armstrong said the exhibition will tell the story of the original Black Wall Street and reconnect its “iconic” African American enclave.
“Greenwood Rising honors the icons of Black Wall Street, memorializes the victims of the massacre (and) leverages the lessons of the past to inspire positive action in the present and chart a new positive, inclusive course for the future,” Armstrong said.
Williams said he sees a parallel between the Tulsa Race Massacre and Oklahoma City bombing in ideals and principles centered around hate and destruction.
“People of all races in Oklahoma have had to be resilient to massive tragedy,” Williams said. “This should bring us together as a state and not drive us apart.”
Armstrong said violence should never be used to communicate a message, and Oklahomans “have to hold each other accountable” to peaceful values.
“Violence, hate crimes (and) terrorism (are) never okay,” Armstrong said. “We have to teach people there’s an alternative way to get your message across.”
Williams said hate crimes and domestic terrorism both stem from the dehumanization of different groups.
“Whenever you demonize someone, it's so easy to be violent towards them,” Williams said. “Violence isn’t partisan. Violence isn’t anything that we try to attach it to sometimes. It is connected to dehumanizing people.”
Armstrong said the country is reaching a dangerous place for race relations and warned that history often repeats itself. He said people need to talk to each other to understand their differences.
“The work is never done,” Armstrong said. “The journey to reconciliation is … a continual journey, and that’s what we need to continue right now.”
Williams said the state’s resilience is apparent when people discuss the two tragedies, even if they are “touchy subjects.” He said although the topics are sensitive, a conversation is still necessary because race issues continue to emerge.
Matthews said people must listen to move past Oklahoma’s “violent” history, which also means doing “the right thing instead of what’s popular.”
Williams said to prevent similar tragedies in the future, it is vital to reach the next generation of people to educate them and to “not hide the truth.”
“Part of the reason we're even having this conversation today is because the truth was hidden for so long about Tulsa,” Williams said. “(There are) generations who grew up not knowing.”
Watkins said it shouldn’t take more tragedies to unite the nation and remind people to be kind.
“Let’s work to unite like we have seen when our nation is in trouble,” Watkins said. “On these very sacred grounds, let’s work to find common ground.”