The beginning of this month marked the 100th anniversary of the white supremacist rampage that destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. What would eventually be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre took place over the course of May 31 - June 1, 1921, decimating a thriving Black community and leaving hundreds dead at the hands of a white mob angered by the economic success of America’s “Black Wall Street” and triggered by a false accusation against a Black man for allegedly assaulting a white woman.
The Tulsa Race Massacre isn’t taught widely, if at all, in school curriculums about U.S. history. In the past couple years, though, the events have been depicted in pop culture television shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. But I grew up knowing that history of violence.
While my family has lived in Oregon for six generations, I was actually born less than 50 miles outside of Tulsa in a little town called Nowata, Oklahoma. Nowata is where I spent my formative years and where I still return for family reunions. Because of this connection, I grew up learning about the massacre and paying homage to Greenwood, the legacy of those brutally murdered and the importance of the city to America’s Black community and history.
As we recognize 100 years since the massacre, I reflect on what it took away. Besides the lives, livelihoods and safety of so many, the Tulsa Race Massacre also stripped the Black community of the opportunity and future that it had worked so hard for. There is no telling what could have been without this loss of life and generational wealth.
But Oregonians have another centennial to reckon with as well. A hundred years ago, in June 1921, as the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre were interned and forced to clean up the destruction of their businesses, homes and lives, the Ku Klux Klan began implementing its methodical—and wildly successful—plan to expand into Oregon. The Klan sent scouts from its headquarters in Georgia to recruit members in Portland, gaining thousands within a matter of months. Within just a few years, Oregon had the highest per capita Klan membership of any state in the country.
The rapid rise of the Klan in Oregon was not an anomaly. Our state has excluded Black people since its inception. The original state constitution prohibited Black people from living, working or owning property in Oregon. Our state was also deeply resistant to the U.S. Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments, adopted into the U.S. Constitution in 1868 and 1870 respectively. Oregon rescinded its initial ratification of the 14th Amendment and did not re-ratify until 1973, over a hundred years after its adoption, and was one of only six states that refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, not doing so until 1959. As Juneteenth approaches this year, this history must not only be remembered, but reckoned with and reconciled.
Exclusion is critical to white supremacy. But the flip side is more than merely inclusion. Participation and representation is needed to counterbalance the history of violent exclusion, racist laws, outright refusal to expand civil rights, ongoing systems of white supremacy and so much more.
Last July, Meyer Memorial Trust announced Justice Oregon for Black Lives, a five-year, $25 million initiative to make strategic investments in Black lives, our largest single initiative ever. Our goal with Justice Oregon is to deepen support for Black-centered organizations, uplift a just system of community well-being and invest in long-term lasting strategic change. This isn’t about just tinkering at the margins or funding implicit bias sessions for cops. It’s about investment in Black organizations, communities, leadership, families, wisdom and opportunity. Black success, indeed Black life—and everything that means from personal wellbeing to public safety, financial stability to building generational wealth, owning our narrative and telling our own stories—is precisely what most threatens white supremacy.
As we began to plan for this initiative, the primary question for us in philanthropy was how to honor the values that we set forth and how to hold ourselves accountable to the community and those values.
To that end, Meyer has embraced participatory grantmaking in our approach to Justice Oregon for Black Lives. To build Black participation and representation, we must do more than just deploy funds; we must democratize philanthropy. Sharing power is fundamental to finding a new model of philanthropy—one that repairs and restores based on a community’s needs and the principles of justice, not just what’s thought best by those who’ve long held the purse-strings. As Meyer’s President and CEO, Michelle J. DePass recently said, “Justice is about scaling up a corrective opportunity. It’s about making up for lost time.”
We are working with an advisory committee of Black community members, creating a space where they can authentically talk about their needs, the needs of Black Oregonians and ways philanthropy can be a transparent partner with them to support Black resilience and liberation. We recognize the importance of working hand-in-hand with the community to not only hold ourselves accountable, but to also create a space where partnership and collaboration can thrive. There is motivation and momentum right now, and we must not squander it by biding our time or smother it in red tape.
This summer, Meyer will continue to engage with the community, to be best informed when it comes to identifying outcomes, the process for grant applications and other factors for the successful rollout of Justice Oregon for Black Lives. We are listening. We are learning how to do this right and will continue to do the work—in community—with our eyes, ears and hearts open.
We’ll have so much more to report and celebrate come this Fall. And throughout this process, we will remain accountable to Oregon’s Black communities and to all aspects of Black life—the pain and trauma of both the past and present, yes, but also the resilience, the resistance, the joy and the strength that have, for centuries, allowed us to persevere and persist, to fight and flourish, in the face of exclusion, hatred and violence. Liberation is a process, not a moment in time.
We honor those who made it possible for us to be here today—from Greenwood in Tulsa to Albina in Portland, from the Strand District in Galveston to South Minneapolis—and remain dedicated to them, their struggle, their success and their justice.