History Hangs Heavily Over Tulsa’s Lone Black Councilwoman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because to chart a future, Tulsa must reckon with its dark past.
To engage with Vanessa Hall-Harper is to grapple with the tragic history of race relations in Tulsa. Reckoning is the only option when sitting down with the 46-year-old, who, within minutes, is digging into what was — and what could have been.
They called the city councilor’s North Tulsa district “Black Wall Street” in the early 20th century, when African-American aristocrats paraded their automobiles down roads lined with more than 200 Black-owned businesses. But on May 31, 1921, everything changed. Resentment over Black wealth erupted, with white vigilantes taking to the streets, killing at least 300 of their neighbors of color and firebombing their businesses in what would be dubbed a “race riot” by the history books — and then promptly forgotten.
Too often, the past becomes destiny. It’s a thought internalized by Hall-Harper, a history lover since she studied political science and organized sit-ins at the historically Black Jackson State University in Mississippi. “It’s a slap in the face to call it a riot,” she says. But now, the native daughter of a Tulsa structural mechanic can start righting the wrongs of the past. Elected to the city council last year after defeating 12-year incumbent Jack Henderson, she has crafted a constituency around grassroots activism, expanding access to food in her district and reviving traditions that speak to the area’s once thriving African-American community. She has elevated the concerns of those who had forgotten their power, says Chief Amusen, a Black organizer and guidance counselor in Tulsa. “Instead of her being the voice, she became the messenger for the community’s needs. Whether it’s police matters, social justice, mental health, you name it, she’s been a part of it.”
She is the only person of color on the nine-member city council, at a time when the election of Donald Trump has inflamed racial tensions across the country.
It’s quite the ascent for Hall-Harper, a self-professed “class clown” in high school. Her first job after college was flipping burgers at Wendy’s. She later became a receptionist for the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau and eventually worked her way to manager of the Tulsa Health Department’s Healthy Living program.
Hall-Harper arrives at a key moment for both her city and the nation. She is the only person of color on the nine-member city council, at a time when the election of Donald Trump has inflamed racial tensions across the country, “as bad as during the Civil Rights Movement,” she says. Her historical sense sees similarities between the white jealousy that sparked the Tulsa massacre and the recent reaction critics had — after players knelt to protest racial injustice — to her beloved Dallas Cowboys: “Shut up, because you are fortunate enough to make money,” she says, summarizing their complaints.
Since taking office in January, Hall-Harper has worked with the mayor to create the first African-American Affairs Commission, an action her predecessor had been loathe to champion. She has revived Juneteenth, an annual festival dating back to 1865 that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. and once drew names like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles. Her work was instrumental in bringing a Save-A-Lot to North Tulsa, which has “needed a grocery store for a long time,” says the district’s State Senator Kevin Matthews, who previously backed Henderson. “[People] are excited about some movement on development in the area,” he adds.
In 2021, North Tulsa will become a flash point again, as the city observes the centennial of the Tulsa massacre. Philanthropic organizations have gathered some $4 million to date, Hall-Harper says, to enhance the district with revitalized parks and tourist attractions to take advantage of the returning spotlight. “It is true the world will be watching,” says Matthews. Positively spun, the funding will be used to honor the victims and create sustainable businesses in the struggling district. But Hall-Harper is quick to question why it’s taken this long to get the much-needed investment: “You’re doing it now because of the attention the city is going to have,” she says.
Hall-Harper is working with local leaders to create a set of community policing standards — a divisive issue nationally, and in her own home. Last year, she stood with the family of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man shot by the Tulsa police, when they held a press conference after his death. Meanwhile, her husband, Marcus Harper, was the chief officer investigating the case. The college sweethearts make an unlikely duo: Marcus is a brawny officer resembling “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker” of YouTube fame; Vanessa, a petite 5-foot-4, shows her grit through fiery speeches and high-stakes matches of Spades or Dominoes.
Asked her feelings about the police, Hall-Harper doesn’t mince words. Most are good, she says, but “there are a few rotten, horrible apples. They are not above the law, and they do, oftentimes, take on this God-like mentality.” Her husband, meanwhile, acknowledges that clear errors were made in cases like Tamir Rice’s in Cleveland or Philando Castile’s in Minneapolis, but he hesitates to try cops further than they already are. “You’re talking about overhauling the criminal justice system,” Harper says. The couple presents a fascinating portrait: the cop and the councilor caught in a national debate that’s inciting both sides. The conflict is embodied in their daughter, whom they say is as likely to wear a Fraternal Order of the Police shirt as a Black Lives Matter tee on any given day.
Walking in North Tulsa, there’s no ignoring the past for the city councilor. It sits in the bricks beneath her feet, listing the names of the victims from 1921, and in the graffiti behind her that crosses out “RACE RIOT” and replaces it with “MASSACRE” in bold red letters. It will take time to change that legacy in a district that is a shade of its former self — and folks like Hall-Harper working hard to keep history’s clock from turning idly.