Program Director at the Greenwood Cultural Center
It was while working as a caregiver for an older Tulsan that Mechelle Brown’s mother first realized the town had a dark chapter in its past.
“She had moved here from Arizona and knew nothing about the history of Tulsa,” Brown said. “Until that old white man she was caring for started wandering around in his old age.”
The man’s references to “fires, shootings, murders and smoke” made Brown’s mother curious. So she put her questions to her in-laws in Tulsa.
“They said to him: ‘We are not talking about it here – and don’t go ask anyone about it, ”Brown said.
As a child at the time, in the late 1970s, she still remembers hearing this conversation.
“It stuck with me,” she said.
Having grown up during that era of silence, when the Black Tulsans out of fear didn’t bring up the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, Brown has a lot to say on the subject today.
In fact, as a representative of the Greenwood Cultural Center, where she is a program director and tour guide, leading tours of historic Greenwood, she has been talking about it for 25 years.
“I actually consider myself a historical storyteller,” Brown said.
Having started at the center in 1996 as an office assistant, she learned firsthand from historian Eddie Faye Gates. Gates was giving tours at the time and Brown was able to accompany her, including once as she took civil rights icon Rosa Parks away.
The questions asked by visitors have not changed, Brown said. On the one hand, they want to know how the once thriving black community came about, given the times in which its inhabitants lived. Then they want to know what happened after it was rebuilt – “why we don’t have Black Wall Street today.”
Something that has changed over the years, however, is the story Brown tells.
“Our knowledge has definitely evolved with new information, new photographs, new oral histories. We are now in a position to tell a more precise – more complete story. “
The city’s ongoing mass grave investigation – Brown is part of a subcommittee of that effort – has prompted more people to come forward with family stories, she said.
“It’s been almost 100 years, but there is still a lot to learn.”
Brown hopes that black youth in Tulsa, in particular, pay attention.
“For role models, they often look to athletes, musicians and artists, but we want them to know that there are people, perhaps in their own lineage, who have grown up in this community that they should honor, respect and admire.
From business owners and lawyers, to doctors, electricians and plumbers, Greenwood was home to a strong and independent people who “had a sense of pride and community spirit,” said Mr. Brown.
“This is the part of the story that makes me happy and that I want to make sure our kids know about it,” she said.
Brown has no plans to stop telling this story. And with all the visitors expected during the centenary, she is recruiting more docents to help her.
For Tulsans and non-Tulsans alike, “I hope we all feel empowered and motivated by Greenwood, his resilience, strength and courage,” she said.