A group of AmeriCorps members bring it in for some smiles during their visit to the Greenwood Cultural Center

History is not everyone’s favorite subject. Some find it boring. Others find it difficult to remember. Still others, prefer to focus on the future than relive the past.

But regardless of how we feel about the subject, we can’t deny history is part of our daily lives as we live in a world shaped by it, and in turn, we continually create it with our own words and actions.

City Year Tulsa AmeriCorps members listened to volunteer docent, Vanessa Adams-Harrison, as she speaks about the factors that led to what has been referred to as the "Tulsa race riots", but is now known as a massacre of the black community in the Greenwood district of Tulsa.City Year Tulsa’s AmeriCorps Members took time during their annual Mid-Year Summit to reflect on the ways history has impacted Tulsa, their students and themselves at the Greenwood Cultural Center where they learned about the Greenwood community massacre (also referred to as the “Tulsa race riots”) of 1921 and participated in leadership development exercises meant to foster cultural awareness and emphasizes the role social justice plays in the City Year experience.

Vanessa Adams-Harrison, volunteer docent with the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, spoke to our ACMs, recounting the dark day in Tulsa’s history when a group of white Tulsans, emboldened by growing racial tensions and jealousy for the prosperous black community in the Greenwood District (also known as “Black Wall Street”), crossed the railroad tracks into North Tulsa and burned the entire community to the ground.

AmeriCorps Members explore the artifacts on display at the Greenwood Cultural Center.Even though the Greenwood community was able to rebuild and has since worked to promote a more integrated and diverse city, many Tulsans are still unaware or reluctant to discuss what happened.

“It’s a piece of Tulsa history that many, even today, refuse to acknowledge or talk about” said Adams-Harrison. “Tulsa would rather build barriers, both physical and metaphorical, so that they don’t have to remember it or engage with this part of the city.”

However, City Year Tulsa Impact Director, Hailey Holferty, believes including cultural training opportunities like this one provide ACMs with a better perspective of the community and students they serve, even if the history is difficult to talk about.

“Many of our student’s families were directly impacted by the race riots and that has had a lasting impact on the neighborhoods and ultimately students we serve,” said Holferty. “Basic awareness of cultural history, whether it is our own history or not, allows us to serve our students holistically. Because we’re here to provide more than just tutoring, we’re here to serve the community too.”

Newspapers covering the Tulsa Greenwood community massacre from 1921 have been preserved and are on display at the Greenwood Cultural CenterHolferty hopes the Mid-Year Summit allows ACMs to step back from the day-to-day work and focus on the social justice and leadership development aspects of the City Year program:

“We know that for some ACMs, this year might be the only time they step foot inside a classroom. But even if education or teaching is not their calling, we want them to continue to advocate for the communities they worked in. So, being able to give them exposure and ways to speak about cultural history and social justice issues is an important piece of the City Year experience that we want to make sure to take time to focus on.”

Second-year ACM and Team Leader for the Webster Middle School team, Katy Mullins, agrees with the importance of having such cultural awareness and incorporating social justice into her work.

A group of AmeriCorps members discuss the artifacts on display at the Greenwood Cultural Center.“I believe in the saying ‘No one is free until everyone is free.’ And, I want our kids to know that I’m here to struggle with them, and work alongside them, from wherever they are coming from. Our kids typically have not been given what’s necessary to succeed in school or life, so our job is to help even the playing field.”

Mullins went on to explain how visiting the cultural center helped clarify and drive home the importance of learning the different cultural perspectives of Tulsa’s history, especially since she had learned about this piece of Tulsa history until well after moving to and working in Tulsa.

Though Sam Shelton, ACM on the Hale High School team, was born and raised in Oklahoma, he noted that this was the clearest explanation he has received about what happened during what he always knew as the “Tulsa race riots.”

Sam Shelton, AmeriCorps Member at City Year Tulsa, grew up in Oklahoma and remembers learning about this history in school growing up.Shelton said he remembered learning about the “Tulsa race riots” during his schooling, but recalls being told a very different version. Shelton now serves in a history class that will be covering Tulsa’s history soon, and feels hopeful that the teachers are trying to tell a more clear and inclusive story.

“I know Tulsa struggles with facing this part of our history, but it’s important for us to acknowledge our mistakes because then we’re better able to learn from our past and progress. I think that’s the idea behind the cultural center.”

After exploring the historical exhibits of the Greenwood Cultural Center, AmeriCorps members paired off and took an “Ubuntu walk” around an adjacent park pond in the balmy weather, sharing their own personal history and its impact on their service.

As many within City Year know, “Ubuntu” is one of our founding values and a term borrowed from the Zulu tribe of Africa meaning “I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours.” This concept focuses on the connection all humans have with one another, and emphasizes that since we all share this common world, the struggles of the few affect the many.

AmeriCorps members broke into small groups, enjoying the nice weather outside as they learned more about each other during the ubuntu session.Pairs took turns sharing anecdotes from their lives as they worked through prompt questions. One pair described their first experiences with racism while another discussed moments that changed their lives, like family illness.

Impact Manger, Lindsay Apuli said exercises like “Ubuntu walks” allowed AmeriCorps members a way to get to know each other more intimately and create stronger working relationships. She hoped that the day’s trip to the cultural center helped her team understand each other and their students a little bit better.

The day wrapped up with open group discussions around trending cultural topics like “climate change” “racism in the 21st century,” and “prison reform/school to prison pipeline” among others.

A small group of AmeriCorps members discussed "racism in the 21st century" during the open technology session of the day.While some in the “racism in the 21st century” discussion worked to create a modern definition of “racism” (even asking their phone’s Siri to weigh in), others posed questions like “Is racism inherit to humanity or socially taught?” and “Why are some communities more diverse or segregated than others?”

The dialog allowed ACMs to draw on what they learned from their historical reflections throughout the day and integrate it with their own experiences. In the end, we hope training like this will help our ACMS to strategize ways address racism and work towards social justice inside and outside the classroom.

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