The Fight for Tulsa’s Soul
A Jewish billionaire, a Southern preacher, and the side of Tulsa no one is talking about
BY ADRIAN BRUNE
READING TIME: 8 MINUTES
Sometimes it’s hard to know whom to believe: the philanthropist or the preacher, the Good Samaritan or the man of God. Only, in this case, the future of a small Southwestern city — which 100 years ago this week saw the brutal massacre of as many as 300 people — may be at stake.
The philanthropist is George Bruce Kaiser, a native Tulsan, son of Holocaust survivors, and resident billionaire. Before he built his own local socio-political empire around fighting the segregation and inequality that still exists in Tulsa, Kaiser, 78, ran the day-to-day operations of his family’s oil-exploration company, Kaiser-Francis, followed by Bank of Oklahoma, now the state’s largest bank. Kaiser is close friends with Tulsa’s mayor, George Theron (G. T.) Bynum IV, the latest in a long line of oil-baron Tulsans to helm the city.
The preacher is Reverend Robert Turner, the 38-year-old pastor of the Vernon A.M.E. Church and the voice of Tulsa’s Black community, as well as a thorn in the mayor’s side.
Bynum is the first mayor to take serious steps toward publicly acknowledging the Tulsa Massacre, which saw a white mob attack residents, homes, and businesses in the predominantly Black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood. In addition to claiming a staggering number of lives, the mob left destruction in its wake — in fact, Turner’s church is the only surviving structure left over from the massacre — and the few remaining survivors carry the trauma of what some have called the American Kristallnacht with them to this day.
Not only has Bynum helped bring renewed attention to the horrific and largely forgotten events of 1921, he has also backed the excavation of a mass grave thought to contain the bodies of those killed during the massacre, in order to give them proper burial.
But Turner is demanding something Bynum won’t budge on: reparations.
Same, but Different
While Kaiser has used his money to back projects that help the city’s poor and underserved, a large percentage of whom are Black or Hispanic, through the George Kaiser Family Foundation (G.K.F.F.) and the Tulsa Community Foundation (T.C.F.), Turner and his followers have taken to the streets to push for reparations for the events of 1921.
And although Kaiser and Turner have been around each other, most notably as a part of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission (Turner serves on the board with several Kaiser representatives), nowhere will the two men’s divergent opinions be more on display than during the events of the 100th anniversary of the massacre this weekend.
“I believe in reparations in the broader sense,” Kaiser told me. “To repair the damage to those who have been denied an equal opportunity for life success” through private investment in the community, “not just to compensate for one unspeakably evil event or the survivors or heirs of it.”
Turner, on the other hand, refuses to endorse a private solution to a government atrocity, even if that fix comes from one of Tulsa’s most powerful — and wealthy — citizens. “The white community once called [the massacre] a myth, and any Black person who said anything was killed or run out of town,” Turner told me. “But if you burn down someone’s house, you do something. You atone. You make repair. That is the definition of reparations, and they don’t work if they are not from (the agencies) that caused the harm.”
That the centenary of the massacre comes at the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with major thinkers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. advocating for reparations, puts Tulsa in the midst of a racial reckoning.
“If you burn down someone’s house, you do something. You atone…. That is the definition of reparations.”
Adding fuel to the flames, in mid-October, 12 wooden coffins emerged that could contain victims of the massacre. The coffins, a grim reminder of an unreconciled past, were discovered around the same time as the city was breaking ground on the $30 million, state-of-the-art Black-history center, Greenwood Rising, which was partially funded by the G.K.F.F.
Around this same time, a collection of parties, led by then 105-year-old massacre survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle, sued the city, alleging, among other matters, that Tulsa’s leaders had hatched “a plan to profit off the Massacre by turning it into a tourism attraction and primarily White-owned commercial hub,” and calling for reparations to remedy “this brutal, inhumane attack [which] robbed thousands of African Americans of their self-determination … and rendered members of the Greenwood community insecure in their lives.”
In 2003, led by attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogletree Jr., massacre survivors sued for civil-rights violations in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court before getting dropped. It resulted in a poorly remunerated effort at private reparations (just $28,000, or roughly $200 per survivor).
So far, Greenwood Rising remains on track for completion by late summer. The Randle lawsuit has yet to be settled.
Changing the Game
Reparations, at least in the rest of the country, are gaining traction. In 1994, then Florida governor Lawton Chiles signed a bill granting survivors of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre $2.1 million. And earlier this year, the city of Evanston, Illinois, pledged $25,000 to 16 households as part of a $10 million resolution to address discriminatory housing policies in the Chicago area from 1919 to 1969.
Bynum said recently that mayors of other small cities in which racial atrocities took place, including the sites of the Red Summer of 1919, have called him for guidance. But the Tulsa mayor sees the situation as a criminal-justice issue. “If a member of your family is murdered here, then we will do everything we can to find out what happened to them,” he told The New York Times in February of last year.
“I know people have opinions when it comes to reparations, but the things I’m focused on is just not a cash payment to people,” Bynum has said. “Making cash payments to people really divides the community on something we should be united on.”
While Bynum is staunchly opposed to reparations, both Kaiser and Turner embrace the term, openly and frequently, if not with the same voice.
Kaiser, a slight, demure Harvard Business School grad who avoids society events, seldom gives interviews, and plays down his Forbes ranking, thinks cash reparations can’t work. “I participated in funding a reparations plan for just the then living survivors 20 years ago,” he says, “but the funding was never completed because of the [Cochran and Ogletree] lawsuit.” Kaiser sees his community building as a more efficient form of reparations.
“My family did not arrive in America or Tulsa until almost two decades after the massacre, through a last-minute escape from Nazi Germany, which orchestrated the murder of fully one-third of the worldwide Jewish community,” Kaiser says. “I have not supported [racial reconciliation in Tulsa] for any sense of personal or familial or even community guilt or responsibility, but just because it is the right thing to do.”
Turner sees things differently. A University of Alabama graduate and self-described millennial who is “passionate about my calling to speak truth to power,” he has gathered a crowd outside City Hall to demand reparations for massacre descendants nearly every Wednesday since he landed in Tulsa, in 2017. “For certain people to admit what happened was wrong, but not wrong enough to do something about it, shows just how little Black lives matter in Oklahoma,” Turner says.
“I have not supported [racial reconciliation in Tulsa] for any sense of personal or familial or even community guilt or responsibility, but just because it is the right thing to do.”
In the end, shouldn’t Tulsa’s next steps boil down to the wishes of the Black community?
Drew Diamond, a former board member of the Tulsa Reparations Coalition, thinks so. “We wanted educational funding and family payments, and we got a park with a monument in it. That’s the three-card monte,” Diamond tells me. “You find the card that makes us peaceful — reparations — but that card isn’t even on the table. Instead, Tulsa leadership says, ‘We gave you a park. We gave you the first Black police chief. Why are you complaining?’ The object is to get the communities worn out,” Diamond says, “so that they just give up.”
Despite the city’s phenomenal growth in the past 20 years, due to natural-gas wells and infrastructure investment, things are only getting worse for the Black community. The Tulsa Equality Indicators 2020 Annual Report (published by the Community Service Council, another organization Kaiser helps fund) found — among many other inequities — that the median household income by race from 2019 to 2020 increased for whites and decreased for Blacks, and that unemployment for Blacks was more than double that for whites.
If the Randle reparations lawsuit doesn’t meet its end in Tulsa County District Court, where, coincidentally, Bynum’s uncle, Bill LaFortune — another former mayor and heir to an oil fortune — serves as a judge, it could be tossed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, where Tulsa’s white-majority Republican ruling class is well entrenched. It could throw out the suit, or recommend that Tulsa leaders come up with a solution, bringing matters straight back into the hands of Bynum.
“You find the card that makes us peaceful — reparations — but that card isn’t even on the table. Instead, Tulsa leadership says, ‘We gave you a park. We gave you the first Black police chief. Why are you complaining?’”
While few will dispute the fact that Bynum has done more to solve Tulsa’s race problem than any other mayor, he favors Kaiser’s approach over Turner’s. “He’s a brilliant man who wants the best for Tulsa, so I appreciate having him as a sounding board when the occasion merits such a discussion,” Bynum has said of Kaiser. Bynum’s wife, Susan, is similarly close with Kaiser, working for Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers, which represents Kaiser in nearly all of his dealings.
So it should come as no surprise that despite demands for Tulsa’s white community to “Stop with these half-hearted efforts … and the illusion of action,” as summed up by Regina Goodwin, the state representative for the district that holds Greenwood, the Massacre Centennial weekend’s planned activities feel torn from the Kaiser playbook — well intentioned, perhaps, but not putting the needs and demands of Black people first.
The Centennial, which counts Kaiser among its sponsors, will see the release of Fire in Little Africa, a hip-hop album recorded at the mansion of a former Tulsa merchant, city founder, and Klansman.
“Remember and Rise,” the Centennial’s headline event featuring “celebrities, performers, and other VIPs,” including John Legend, was slated to be broadcast on national TV from a baseball stadium built smack in the middle of Greenwood. The event was canceled suddenly on Thursday, just four days before it was scheduled to take place. CBS News reported that the cancellation follows demands from lawyers representing survivors and their heirs — including $1 million each for survivors of the massacre and a non-negotiable $50 million pledge to a fund for survivors and descendants — that the organizing commission considered unreasonable. (Ken Levit, executive director of the G.K.F.F., did not respond to AIR MAIL’s request for comment about the cancellation.)
This same weekend, during the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club, players are expected to wear black ribbons and recognize the massacre with a moment of silence. The country club, which still has a very limited Black membership, is predicting up to 8,000 spectators per day for the four days of the tournament — a fraction of whom will know anything about the massacre-commemoration events six miles to the north.
Both Kaiser and Turner will be in attendance for the Centennial. “I am energetic and committed but old and impatient to see major progress in my lifetime,” Kaiser says, “and have the comfort and pleasure of knowing that my children, and the other G.K.F.F. trustees, are committed to seeing this happen.”
Turner is “more optimistic than I have ever been in my life,” he says. “People would be mistaken to consider … even reparations as an end. We still have those against progress, but the fact that we have individuals that are willing to take a stand for what we believe in, and against the status quo, especially as it relates to white supremacy, means that we are one step closer to a world in which we are seen by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin.”
Adrian Brune is a London-based journalist