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The ancient elm’s trunk bows gently, gracefully toward the ground before reaching skyward again. Perhaps this unique shape is the result of the generations of children playing on its branches, or the weight of the history the tree has witnessed. The tree sits on the grounds of Carver Middle School, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was there before the school was built, and before the entire Greenwood neighborhood was destroyed by an angry White mob in 1921, leaving an estimated 300 Black residents dead and 10,000 people homeless.
This tree was a witness to the atrocities 100 years ago, and in 2021, it was dedicated as a memorial to mark the centennial of the massacre.
“This tree is still growing and adapting and changing,” says Bryan Meador, who organized the event. He says it is just as dynamic today as it was 100 years ago. “That’s the kind of energy that I want to bring to this centennial moment… This sense of dynamism, this idea that history is being created all the time and that we have the power and the responsibility to move it in a positive direction.”
Meador is a designer and the founder of the Plant Seads project, which aims to tackle climate change in the built environment through sustainable design. To mark the centennial of the massacre in his hometown, Meador invited students from Carver Middle School and the Tulsa community at large to pick up about 100 elm seedlings to plant all over the city.
“What I wanted to accomplish was, first and foremost, just getting the idea and the history of the Tulsa race massacre out into the world in a way, again, that acknowledges the past, and doesn’t shy away from the gravity of the situation, but also gives people—young people in particular—a sense that change is possible, that real growth is possible,” says Meador, who attended Carver Middle School, where he first learned about the massacre and was moved to take action. Meador says much of his childhood was spent in his family’s garden, learning about nature and his family’s Cherokee heritage, which continues to inspire his work. That’s why he sees trees as a powerful opportunity for community growth and healing.
“I’m a White person living in Tulsa,” Meador says, “but I think that it’s important to engage with this stuff, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s outside of what you would normally do, because that’s the work that really needs to be done to move past this—addressing these problems head-on and doing it in a way that is tender and is caring, but is also really in it for the long term.”
The seedlings distributed as part of the project were grown in partnership with the nonprofit Up With Trees, which has planted 40,000 trees around Tulsa in the past half-century, and the Dick Conner Correctional Center, 40 miles northwest of Tulsa.
“We take on these community projects all the time, but this one’s really been a neat one,” explains John Kahre, a retired horticulture professor who now leads a horticulture program at the correctional center. “Because when you grow, say, the butterfly milkweed—we do that—well, that’ll last a season. Or we can do annuals or vegetables for community gardens, but that’s a season.” But the trees, he adds, “can last generations.”
The lasting impact of the project isn’t limited to the trees, though. Kahre works closely with incarcerated people at the correctional center, including horticulture student Darrell Elliott, who Kahre says has enthusiastically “taken charge of this project.” In a video produced by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Elliott shows the elm seedlings that he planted to commemorate the people who lost their lives 100 years ago.
“They’re supposed to stand as a representation of a time in history that was a dark moment, but this is giving us a sense of hope, a sense of community,” Elliot says in the film. “I get emotional about it because to be a part of something so impactful and then to one day see these trees growing, it means everything to me. It does. It gives me a lot of vision and a lot of hope.”
Cultivating hope is just as central to the project as cultivating trees, lead organizers say. The April tree-planting event was one of many projects supported by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission to honor the legacy and resilience of the Greenwood District. “We are all… planting the seeds of reconciliation, and hope, and love,” says Glenda Love-Williams, the co-chair of fundraising for the Tulsa Massacre Centennial Commission. “This is our way of celebrating healing and reconciliation.”
Love-Williams grew up in the Greenwood neighborhood in the 1960s. By then, the commercial district had long since been rebuilt after the devastation of 1921 and the community was thriving again. But then came “urban renewal” in the late 1960s, which destroyed an estimated 1,000 homes in Greenwood, and the eminent domain that followed to facilitate construction of an expressway that demolished huge swaths of the district in the 1970s. “That was the one-two punch, and got rid of the community as we knew it,” Love-Williams says. That’s why she and the commission are working to create a vision of a thriving Greenwood once again, by hosting events, building a Black Wall Street History Center, promoting economic empowerment, and making the case for reparations.
“I believe it will come back in a different way,” Love-Williams says. “It will be different, but it will thrive again.”
A big part of the commission’s work has focused on education. Thanks in part to the commission’s recommendations, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has developed a new K-12 curriculum to teach students about the causes and ongoing ramifications of the massacre at every grade level. Tulsa Public Schools plans to start using the new curriculum in May, which includes map-reading skills for elementary students, lessons on gentrification for middle schoolers, and discussions of reparations for high schoolers. That continued learning is something the commission hopes the community at large will lean in to as well, to remember the past and rise above it.
Meador sees the goal of centennial projects like his tree-planting event as a key part of this commitment to the future of the community: “I’m hoping that I’m giving students a tangible manifestation of a promise to work towards a more just Tulsa.”
Correction: This story was updated at 5:09 p.m. on June 1 to correct John Kahre’s name, which was initially misstated as Jack Kahre. Read our editorial corrections policy here.
Breanna Draxler is the environmental editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.