A new pedestrian path is a small act of repair for Tulsa’s Black Wall Street.
Tucked inside President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan is $20 billion earmarked for communities torn apart by freeway construction and urban renewal. According to the Biden administration, the federal funds will be used to help reconnect these typically minority, often Black, communities and address decades of disinvestment and environmental racism.
Cities around the country might soon be looking to Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood neighborhood for ways to do so. Located just north of downtown Tulsa, Greenwood is home to what was known as Black Wall Street and is the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which 35 city blocks of Greenwood were burned and hundreds of Black men, women, and children were killed. (The event was narrativized in the HBO adaptation of Watchmen.) Greenwood was rebuilt by the families and business owners who survived, only for sections of it to be razed again to make way for what is now Interstate 244.
Now, as part of a centennial commemoration of the 1921 attack, a small but symbolic link between some of Greenwood’s most important institutions and gathering spaces is being reestablished. Instigated by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, the Pathway to Hope is a pedestrian walkway that runs from Greenwood Avenue to John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park along the south side of I-244. It’s just 900 feet long, but in creating a new public right-of-way between Greenwood and Elgin Avenues, it establishes an important link between the park—completed in 2010 as a site of reflection for residents and visitors—and the Greenwood Cultural Center, located just north of the freeway.
As the crow flies, the two sites are separated by a single city block, but the freeway, built on top of a large embankment, left them completely isolated from each other. “They give walking tours throughout the Greenwood District, and their tours begin at the cultural center,” says Robert Richardson, a landscape architect at Howell & Vancuren, the firm designing the pathway. “To get over to the Reconciliation Park, they would have to take this really circuitous route that goes north through OSU–Tulsa and then links back up to Elgin [Avenue] and heads south. It was just a really roundabout way to get over to the park.”
The Pathway to Hope creates a direct connection, carved from what had been the freeway embankment. That embankment has been replaced by a soil-net and concrete retaining wall, which forms the armature for a variety of historic photographs, interpretive panels, and public artworks curated by the artist Rick Lowe, all telling the story of Black Wall Street and Greenwood. A primary walkway of brick pavers is flanked by shade trees and seating areas placed near the various exhibitions.
Originally, the walkway was sited north of I-244, but it would have encroached on a local church’s parking area so it was relocated to the south side of the freeway, where it abuts a baseball stadium. “As it turns out, on the south side our opportunities were a lot more interesting,” says Joe Howell, ASLA, a principal at Howell & Vancuren, citing the visibility created by the ballfield. The path will also connect Reconciliation Park to Greenwood Rising, an 11,000-square-foot history and interpretive center being built just south of I-244 on Greenwood Avenue.
Phil Armstrong, who manages many of the Centennial Commission’s projects, calls the construction of I-244 an act of environmental injustice that brought about the “second fall” of Greenwood. “What can be done to try to reclaim these areas?” he says. “The Pathway to Hope is a beginning of that journey.”
Timothy Schuler is the editor of Now.