‘Bring It To Light’: University Archives Hold Story Of Tulsa Race Massacre

Thursday, November 19th 2020, 10:18 pm
By: Jonathan Cooper

TULSA, Okla. -

99 years after Tulsa burned, after people were killed and after families were ripped apart, the realities of the Tulsa Race Massacre live on in photographs, in historical records and archives. They are collections that local universities have worked for years to build and expand.

"Some of these are not pretty. There are slain victims in these photos, burned out homes," Lynn Wallace said.

Wallace is the library director at Oklahoma State University - Tulsa. She oversees a wide collection of transcribed interviews and photographs.

"If you want to get the real story, reading these interviews, it'll gut punch you," said Wallace.

OSU-Tulsa sits on the very spot where much of the race massacre took place.

"We are ground zero for this event," Wallace said. "I feel a huge responsibility to make sure that these items are curated properly."

A large portion of OSU-Tulsa's collection is thanks to Ruth Sigler Avery. At seven years old, Sigler Avery stood on top of Standpipe Hill and watched as black Tulsans were murdered in cold blood. That horrific memory stuck with her, but in the decades that followed, she realized nobody really talked about what happened.

"There was a large amount of fear continuing in the black community of you don't talk about this, you just don't talk about it. And she wanted to bring it to light," said Wallace.

In the 1970s, Sigler Avery took it upon herself to find out as much as she could. She gathered news clipping, collected maps and tracked down others who lived through it, recording their conversations on tape. Over the years, Sigler Avery conducted 41 different interviews. In 2004, a few years after Sigler Avery's death, her daughter donated those interviews, some of her photographs and more to OSU-Tulsa.

The University added to the collection ten years later and have expanded it with additional research on the KKK and artifacts from other race riots in the early 20th century.

"I think we're just one of many Universities that is wanting to bring light on the level of research," Wallace said.

Across town, another University is also doing just that. The University of Tulsa has one of the largest institutional race massacre collections in the entire country.

"I actually started at TU in very late 1986 and have been building this collection literally for 31 years," Marc Carlson, director of special collections at TU, said.

"There aren't a lot of actual artifacts for the event because a lot of it didn't survive," said Carlson. "The major things we have are photographs."

With more than 250 original images, Carlson said he's able to go through and identify where many of them were taken. The collection is closed to the public right now because of COVID-19, but last year we got a chance to see it, including photos, newspaper articles and even census documents. Each artifact tells its own story.

"The goal for it is to make sure this history is not lost again. There's been too much that is lost," Carlson said.

Carlson said he's always looking to add to the collection, whether that be the original news reel or lost photographs of mass graves. He said there's a lot more to learn and a lot more to understand.

"We can find new things and we can find new ways to interpret what's going on," said Carlson.

At both universities, the story of this dark chapter in Tulsa's history lives on with the artifacts within its walls and the people there who work to keep the story alive and never forgotten.

"Hopefully I can make a difference somehow," Carlson said.

"We still look for somebody's unheard voice and I think there's a lot to come in the future," said Wallace.