Tulsa’s first cemetery operated at the site from 1882 to 1905. Some of Tulsa’s most famous pioneers were buried in the cemetery, and by the time the cemetery closed, Tulsa’s white settlers were likely most of its inhabitants. But a 1970 article in the Tulsa World described the site as “an old Indian burial ground,” and more recently, in 2017, the same paper—taking a more cautious approach—reported that the area “may have served as an American Indian burial ground.” Like most of Tulsa’s history, most of the names we know from the cemetery are white, while the identities of the people who came before are buried.
Tulsa comes from the Creek word Tullahassee, the name of a Creek mother town in the tribe’s homeland in the Southeast—probably in what is today Alabama. When Creeks were forcibly removed by the U.S. federal government, citizens of the Loachapoka tribal town carried embers of their council fire with them along the Trail of Tears. At the end of the trail, on a hill overlooking the Arkansas River, they used the embers to restart their council fire. They rebuilt their community on what is now Cheyenne Avenue, just south of downtown Tulsa. Because Tullahassee was Loachapoka’s mother town, “for a long time Tulsa was known as Tullahassee Loachapoka,” Colbert said.
“There might be a vague awareness among Tulsans generally that this was once a Creek town,” Colbert said. “But to the extent that there is, it is very vague and not very deep.”
The early days of Oklahoma held promise for black people fleeing the racial violence of the South. But the first law the state passed introduced Jim Crow, the racial caste system those migrants had come to escape.
And yet the Greenwood District thrived. It was more economically successful than many surrounding white communities. In part, segregation drove the economy. “The dollar, it is said, would circulate up to 19 times in this community before being spent outside of the Greenwood District,” Brown said.
“It was a self-sufficient community. They supported one another,” Wright said. “That, to me, is the most important part of the history.”
The early days of boomtown Tulsa are usually celebrated through the stories of the pioneers, the outlaws, the roughnecks, and the oilmen. What is rarely told is how that frenzy of white wealth came after extreme theft and violence against black people, Native people, and those who experienced the compound racism of being both. You could learn everything you need to know about the violent creation of the United States in the story of one midwestern city. But sadly, so many seem to know as much about this history as we know about the people who may lie underneath the Tulsa skyline—which is to say very little.
Tomorrow, Trump will rally on land where the sins of America’s past are buried. The president’s critics have had a perennial debate about what exactly he represents. Is Trump a novel assault on American values and democracy, or is he just the most recent manifestation of the racism that has always been here?
If the dead could speak, I think we know what they would say.