National Civil Rights Museum Shares History of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

National Civil Rights Museum Shares History of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

In April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis, Tennessee where he stayed at the Lorraine Motel near downtown. On April 4th, Dr. King was shot and killed - on the hotel’s balcony. Today, the area is like a peek into history.

An old car sits out front and a wreath hangs above the car at the motel. The site is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum, telling the history of the fight for freedom, including the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa.

"A lot of people visit us to see the place where Dr. King was assassinated but what they don't realize is they encounter 400 years of history throughout their journey and their visit," said Dr. Noelle Trent, the museum's Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education.

After a 2014 renovation, the museum first greets visitors with an exhibit called "A Culture of Resistance" - a history of the American Slave Trade.

"The importance of this for us was that we wanted people to understand that this idea of civil rights doesn't arise from the ether, that there is this act of resistance, this legacy of resistance that has been in this country before its founding and it was brought over by African Americans," Trent said.

Trent wants visitors to understand that the ideas behind the Civil Rights Movement started long before the 1950s and 60s. After slavery and the Civil War, African Americans faced persecution in cities across America.

"One of the trends that we see in African American history is that as the communities have economic success,” said Trent. “There's a violent reaction to that."

From Chicago, to Wilmington, to East St. Louis and Tulsa - the museum highlights riots throughout the early 20th century and honors those who died long before Dr. King.

"We have a responsibility to honor the dead and honor those dead, who died violently from acts of genocide or domestic terrorism and that's what this Tulsa memorial moment really does," said Trent.

Trent believes it is important this museum and other memorials telling the story of Tulsa confront the trauma of the past, but also show the resiliency of African American communities and how they bounced back.

"The joy that is there, the arts, there are so many great African Americans who have ties to Oklahoma, the work that they did," said Trent.

The rest of the museum focuses on the years that followed these earlier riots: from sit-ins, to bus boycotts, to freedom rides and Dr. King. The museum ends by taking visitors upstairs to the motel room he stayed in on April 4th.

It serves as a peek into history that Trent said is still very important and relevant today. The museum is one place telling the story of Tulsa and so much more.

"The story behind Black Wall Street is not just the damage that was wrought, but how people continue to fight to preserve that history and the work that's being done about it today,” said Trent.