HomeLifestyleTulsa Travel: Take Route 66 To A City Of Reconciliation And Growth

Tulsa Travel: Take Route 66 To A City Of Reconciliation And Growth

I ran into a friend at a religious service in Los Angeles. I mentioned that I had gotten a COVID-19 booster because I was traveling.

“Where are you going?”

“Tulsa, Oklahoma.”


It is true that many Americans, when they think of Tulsa, think of it as a dusty oil town.

Sure, the food is good, the people are friendly and historic Route 66 brings thousands of travelers into town. The area has beautiful parks, outdoor activities, and fine restaurants with $10 hand-crafted cocktails. The city also boasts one of the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the US. The Tulsa Remote program, which pays out-of-state remote workers up to $10K to move to Tulsa for a year, is said to be more competitive to get into than Harvard.

But there are deeper reasons to visit Tulsa, from its work to acknowledge its tortured past to its efforts to create a greener and more diverse present.

This year marks the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst in American history. In 1921, the prosperous Greenwood area, the “Black Wall Street,” was destroyed when armed white men crossed the railroad tracks to attack the community. Nearly three hundred people, overwhelmingly African Americans, were killed when a 35-block section of homes, churches and businesses were burnt to the ground. Ten thousand were left homeless. The recent HBO series WATCHMAN included the massacre, and President Biden spoke at the commemoration this spring, to a crowd that include three elderly survivors.

Tulsa is making a significant effort to recognize its past, comparable in some ways to Germany’s effort to address the Holocaust. After years of neglect, the city hosted a truth and reconciliation commission, chaired by noted African American historian John Hope Franklin, a Tulsa native.

The haunting John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park  is part of the effort to memorialize the massacre and tell the story of African Americans’ role in building Oklahoma. Some 12% of visitors to the park are international, with the rest coming from across the U.S.

Now part of the African American Civil Rights Network, the park includes a pair of sculptures by sculptor Ed Dwight, a former USAF test pilot and America’s first African American astronaut candidate. The sculpture “Hope” features three bronze figures referencing the massacre with themes of Humiliation, (a man with his hands up) “Hostility” (a man with three guns), and “Hope” (a Red Cros director holding a baby.) The second installation is a 27’ tall cylindrical “Tower of Reconciliation,” depicting the complex history of “Blacks, Native Americans and Black Indians in Oklahoma from the 1830’s” including slavery, the Civil War, Buffalo Soldiers, the building, burning and rebuilding of Greenwood and today’s efforts at reconciliation.”

“This is not Black history. This is American history,” said a park guide, adding “Reconciliation is a process, not a destination.”

The city and private funders have also built a $30 million museum, Greenwood Rising, that discusses the history of the Tulsa African American community, including the oil boom that helped create its prosperity, with multimedia presentations like a barbershop peopled with holographs. One of the museum’s films includes a soundtrack of poet Maya Angelou reading her poem “Still I Rise” against scenes of Black life in today’s Tulsa.

The massacre is portrayed in multimedia with videos, text, and wrenching audio. As executive director Phil Armstrong noted, before Greenwood Rising, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was commemorated “but no one was commemorating the worst domestic terrorism in US history.”

Today, the Greenwood district is indeed rising. One area hub is the Fulton Street Books and Café. Opened in June 2021 at the height of the pandemic, its resourceful owner Onikah Asamoa-Caesar not only sold coffee and snacks from the door of the closed café, but she also started a book club to help drive business.

The store, now open for walk-in business, is stocked with books of interest to the African American and general community. It has become a destination for readers and a site for author events.

Other areas of Tulsa are awakening as well. Tulsa has a long connection with historic Route 66, the “Mother Road” (named by John Steinbeck in THE GRAPES OF WRATH), the first all-paved US national highway stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles. Hundreds of travelers fascinated with the West and its Mother Road, many from distant countries, cruise through each week. A Tulsan, Cyrus Avery, is considered the “Father of Route 66” which celebrates its centennial in 2026.

Mother Road Market, Oklahoma’s first food hall, celebrates Route 66 and the enterprising spirit of Tulsans. A non-profit development of the Lobeck Taylor Foundation, Mother Road is an incubator for restaurant and retail start-ups, who get low-cost access to kiosks and the facility’s 3000 square foot commercial kitchen. Retail includes the 19&21 retail kiosk featuring local Black-owned businesses including the Greenwood Ave. clothing brand.

Customers get food of all descriptions, like sushi in the middle of Oklahoma, local favorite Andolini’s pizza, burgers, Mexican and Latin American cuisine and more. “The demand for vegan food is through the roof” noted a spokesperson. A team using the on-site food truck (an Airstream trailer) made $2000 on vegan food in a recent week. Opened in 2018, Mother Road, which includes a large outdoor space and a 9-hole mini golf course, has become a destination for Tulsans and Route 66 travelers.

Mother Road has worked with more than 150 food entrepreneurs, with over 50% being women-owned businesses. Several have ‘graduated’ to opening standalone restaurants. The goal with this program and other community entrepreneurship efforts by local foundations is “establishing generational wealth,” including helping budding entrepreneurs acquire skills to run their businesses.

The city has become home to many immigrant groups, including significant Hispanic and Asian communities. One man who came to Tulsa from Vietnam in 1991 at 18 eventually opened an Asian supermarket, a Vietnamese restaurant, and now owns much of the shopping center. A Mexican American family that moved from Los Angeles went from selling food at a supermarket kiosk to owning three La Tapatia ice cream shops.

Tulsa also has a growing amount of green space. A $465 million dollar, 64-acre park by the Arkansas River, the Gathering Place, is the largest privately funded community space in US history. Five acres is an enormous, children’s playground complete with slides, swings castles and whimsical animals. A waterway offers kayak and paddle board rentals.

Designed by famed landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, the park includes public indoor spaces where people can relax in the oversized armchairs or sit by the enormous indoor and outdoor fireplace. A recent informal count revealed cars from thirty states in the parking lot. There is Wi-Fi in the buildings but not outside—a spokesperson said, “We hope people hang up and hang out.”

Another park, 600-acre Turkey Hill, repurposes an old drilling site as an urban wilderness with hiking trails, ponds and off-road biking trails.

Tulsa has many other attractions, including the Philbrook Museum of Art and its gardens, and the Woody Guthrie Center which hosts the folksingers’ archives.

But Tulsa’s most interesting attribute is its determination to recognize its past while it invests in its people for a successful future.

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