“One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation, if
honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”
Dr. John Hope Franklin (Race and History, Selected Essays, 1938 – 1988)
In life, Tulsa’s hometown hero, Dr. John Hope Franklin, challenged us to identify that which is broken in the world, and then set about fixing it. That legacy has now passed to the Tulsa institution that bears his name, The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation (the “Franklin Center”). The Franklin Center is focused on pushing forward racial reconciliation.
Tulsa is a fitting venue for racial reconciliation work of national scope. As is true of so many other American communities, our history still haunts us. Because we have been slow to acknowledge and, where appropriate, apologize and atone, we have allowed old wounds to fester and new ones to surface.
Tulsa is the site of the worst “race riot” in American history. The catastrophic 1921 Tulsa Race Riot obliterated the prosperous, nationally renowned Greenwood District, “Black Wall Street.” In fewer than twenty-four hours, people, property, hopes, and dreams vanished. The Greenwood District burned to the ground. Property damage ran into the millions. Scores, likely hundreds, of people died. Many others lay injured. Many African-Americans fled Tulsa, never to return. In an instant, Tulsa stood defiled and defined. We are, in some respects, still recovering.
The decades-long silence surrounding this tragic past left an air of suspicion and mistrust among some sectors of the community. The absence of dialogue, let alone, truth, about the city’s darkest hours tarnished black/white relations for generations.
Only by owning our history do we stand a chance of real racial reconciliation. Coming to grips with our racialized past requires intentional, constructive engagement. The Franklin Center has already initiated a number of trust-building, reconciliatory projects.
The Franklin Center launched its inaugural national symposium, Reconciliation in America: Moving Beyond Racial Violence (the “Symposium”) earlier this month. Plenary and concurrent sessions during the Symposiumexplored: (1) current academic research addressing the American history of racial violence; and (2) community programs, projects, and initiatives that seek to build bonds across racial lines and mend communities riven by racial strife, past and present. A town hall meeting provided insight into the role of the Franklin Center locally and nationally.
In addition to the Symposium, the Franklin Center has already undertaken a number of other ambitious initiatives:
- Groundbreaking for John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, with Dr. John Hope Franklin making what would be his final public appearance (November 2008);
- The formation of a steering committee on 1921 Tulsa Race Riot curriculum development for the Tulsa Public Schools;
- A community-wide meeting on assessing race relations in Tulsa, in conjunction with the University of Oklahoma Center of Applied Research for Nonprofit Organizations;
- An Inaugural Dinner of Reconciliation featuring Dr. Scott Ellsworth, a Franklin protégée, as speaker, with the presentation of Hope Awards to three Tulsa Mayors;
- A tribute book, Remembering John Hope Franklin, featuring personal essay from his colleagues;
- A documentary study, The Power of Memory: Tulsa, Greenwood, and the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, that will explore historical memory about the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot in multiple generations of a few families, black and white; and
- The John Hope Franklin Medal of Reconciliation, which will be awarded for exemplary work in the arena of racial healing.
John Hope Franklin helped illuminate, and then span, our generations-old racial chasm. We honor his memory when we do the hard work necessary to sustain the momentum he and others generated toward racial reconciliation. That is what the Franklin Center is all about.
Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, and consultant specializing in diversity issues, human relations, and non-profit management & governance. He has taught at The University of Tulsa College of Law, Oklahoma State University, and The University of Oklahoma. His books, Black Wall Street, Up from the Ashes, and Acres of Aspiration, chronicle the African-American experience in Oklahoma and its indelible impact on American history. His memoir, Mama Used to Say, is an inspirational tribute to motherhood. No Place Like Home is a middle reader set in the all-Black town of Boley, Oklahoma. His latest book, IncogNegro—Poetic Reflections on Race & Diversity in America, opens a dialogue on issues of difference and on our overarching “shared humanity.”