The second destruction of a black community in Tulsa
Donald Thompson is a social justice photographer who lives and works in Tulsa, Okla., and has deep roots in the city’s Greenwood neighborhood. Once a thriving and prosperous black community, Greenwood was largely destroyed in 1921 by a mob of armed white citizens in what became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. During the 1960s and 1970s, Thompson photographed what he calls the “Second Greenwood Massacre”, when the city of Tulsa used eminent domain to bulldoze most of what remained of the Greenwood business district. . On the 101st anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, I interviewed Thompson about his more than five-decade quest to capture and preserve his beloved community in photos.
—Karlos K. Hill
That’s basically why I became a social documentary photographer. I wanted to show others what I was going through and what I was seeing with my own eyes. I wanted to highlight the disenfranchisement I saw in my community – the unrepresented and marginalized people, the oppressive social, political and economic injustice to which they were subjected. I wanted to provide an eyewitness account of what was going on. It was, for me, a horrible situation. But I think as I got more involved in Oklahoma and Tulsa, I started to understand why people accepted it. They were actually afraid to speak, because of what their parents and grandparents had been through in 1921. It was a brutal and traumatic experience.
Unfortunately, there are no known photographs of businesses in Greenwood prior to the 1921 massacre. Several photographers had shops there at the time, but they were destroyed by the invading mob. Reverend Hooker, for example, had a photography business on Greenwood Avenue. His shop was burnt down and I imagine his negatives or plates and other equipment was all lost in the fire. This is surely the main reason why we don’t have a record of Greenwood from before 1921 that shows the houses, businesses and people who were there.
KK: How did you become involved in photography and when did you start photographing Greenwood specifically?
DT: My interest in photography started in the 1960s when I was in the army. I was forced into it, in a way. I was stationed in Würzburg, Germany, as an information specialist and writing articles for the military journal Stars and stripes. One day the commander called me into his office and told me that General [Earle] Wheeler, the army chief of staff, came to our unit. “We need photographs,” he said. I said, “Well, what do you want me to do? I don’t even have a camera. He said, ‘Go to Würzburg and buy one, because we need photographs and we we don’t have a photography station here in our unit so I went to Würzburg and bought a small Yashica twin lens camera and spent half the night trying to figure out how to make it work I had been given an important mission and I didn’t want to waste it.
So I loaded up the camera, hoping I got it right, and went out the next day and started shooting the general. I took 12 pictures of him, then had the film developed, and only one frame out of those 12 came out correctly. The rest was not good – blurry, terrible exposure. But lo and behold, the only photo that came out showed him clearly and smiling. I showed it to my commanding officer, Colonel Tichnor, and he said, “It will be fine. That’s good.” So that was my introduction to photography. After I got out of the hospital and came home, I bought a little 35mm camera and started taking pictures of the limbs. from my family etc trying to get familiar with it and learn how to operate it properly and also trying to learn the trade I was there, a 21 year old kid who had never had a camera of his life, and I was entrusted with this mission.
KK: It’s an impressive origin story.
DT: When I got to Tulsa and saw what was going on, my first urge was to pick up the camera and use it as a way to show some of the things I was going through. Gordon Parks called his camera the weapon of choice: he could either take a gun or take a camera, so he chose to take a camera and use it to show social, economic injustice and politics he encountered. . I was doing the same, trying to show what I was witnessing. I felt that using a camera to document injustice could serve as a powerful catalyst for social transformation around the world. If I could use photography to transform someone’s preconceptions and bring some degree of empathy to the struggles we faced, if I could use it to fight oppression and poverty, that was my primary objective. I just wanted to dispel some of the misconceptions about our people.
KK: What were some of the first images you captured in Greenwood?
DT: As you well know, in the 1960s and 1970s the Greenwood area was declared a ghetto. This gave the city of Tulsa a sort of license to undertake urban renewal and assert eminent domain. In my opinion, they wanted to destroy Greenwood, and through the use of eminent domain and urban renewal, they did a very good job. I wanted to use my camera to document the buildings and businesses in this area, and the men and women who occupied them before the bulldozers destroyed everything.
My first photograph that was recognized was of the Greenwood Shine Parlor at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street. The owner, Mr. Smith, told me that his small shoe shine business wouldn’t be around for very long, as the city was determined to eliminate it, so I wanted to take pictures while it was still there. After that I hiked up and down Greenwood, photographing as much as I could before it disappeared. I could only come to Greenwood during the day, as I worked nights at McDonnell-Douglas to support my wife and two children. I arrived early in the morning and photographed as quickly as possible, but to my great regret, I was not fast enough to document all the buildings that were literally destroyed right in front of me. And it was as if they were demolishing everything willy-nilly, without any direction. I was able to capture a small section of Hotel Del Rio before the wrecking balls brought it down. It was a nice building, and they tore it down regardless of the fact that it was people’s livelihood, it was their community.
The men and women I spoke to had no idea what they were going to do and how they were going to survive. When I was photographing the Baltimore Barbershop on Greenwood Avenue, I asked the owner, Mr. Gardner, what his plans were. He said, “I have no idea. It’s my business. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years, and I’m too old to try to start another business. He added: “I’ve been told I’m next.” I told him that I would come back the next day to talk to him some more. I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow”, and he said, “OK”. When I came back the next day, his business had been bulldozed and he was gone. I never saw him again.
You may have noticed that there is still a small commercial section at the corner of Greenwood and Archer, before you get to I-244 Crosstown. This was saved from destruction by a group of black businessmen who got the city of Tulsa to agree to sell the businesses to them. One of these men was Ed Goodwin, publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle newspaper. So they managed to save this small section, but the rest was demolished. I wish I could have documented more before it all disappeared. But the bulldozers were faster than me.
When I think back to those days, I feel such a sense of sadness. In my opinion, I witnessed a second massacre. In 1921 the Greenwood District was destroyed by a mob of white Tulsans, but in the 1960s and 70s the area was again destroyed by eminent domain and urban renewal. A photograph can have a lasting emotional effect on people because it literally captures the moment: it was there. It happened. It’s here. We have the proof here. I wish we had more photographs from before the 1921 race massacre showing what Greenwood was like then, so people could see its uniqueness, power and how the people of the area lived.
KK: I think the work you were able to do to capture those scenes of Greenwood before the destruction was really important. And you continued to make a major contribution to the community and its history. I view your impact in this regard as similar to what Reverend Hooker was able to accomplish in photographs, the destruction of Greenwood in 1921 and the subsequent rebuilding of the community. Both sets of images tell the story of Greenwood’s resilience, a story that would be difficult to tell without this visual evidence. Thank you for all the work you have done and continue to do in your efforts to document the history of the Greenwood District.