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1921 Booker T. Washington yearbook shows Greenwood days before massacre

1921 Booker T. Washington yearbook shows Greenwood days before massacre (Tulsa City-County Library){p}{/p}
1921 Booker T. Washington yearbook shows Greenwood days before massacre (Tulsa City-County Library)

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May of 1921, the Booker T. Washington High School class of '21 is finishing their last semester.

It's time to graduate and dream big.

But before May is done, those dreams will turn to nightmares, and the place many call home will be erased by fire, ashes, and death.

Booker T. will survive the deadly massacre, becoming a temporary field hospital for victims with the help of the Red Cross, but most of Tulsa's thriving Black community, Greenwood, will not.

Today, there's a memorial where Booker T. once stood on OSU Tulsa's campus.

It's feet away from where the Greenwood Cultural Center is today.

Rocky Bright, Greenwood Cultural Center board member, discovered something about four years ago that's a precious piece of history.

"I was just surfing on the internet researching Tulsa history," Bright said, "As I'm clicking through, I'm thinking not a lot of people don't know that this exists."

What he found is as close to a time capsule as we may have to understand the Greenwood community in its heyday--The 1921 Booker T. Washington yearbook.

Bright shared his thought when he was first scrolling through the 51 pages online.

"I was just in awe as a Booker T Washington graduate. Just holding the yearbook and seeing the individual stories and the plans for these students and the happiness and just the environment of not knowing what the future soon held," Bright said, "It was great and it was heartbreaking at the same time."

The yearbook would've come out weeks, if not days, before the massacre.

We wanted to know what current students and staff at Booker T. thought of it.

Kia Hightower, a BTW theatre teacher, is a fourth-generation Hornet.

"Oh my, my heart just sunk, my heart literally just sunk," Hightower said.

Seniors Jackson Bailey and Garrett Bland had also never seen it.

"That just like, that's like an artifact honestly," Bland said.

None of them knew it existed. So we gave them time to flip through and take it in.

"Class poem, we never did a class poem, we should've done that," Bland said.

The yearbook has existed for years on the Tulsa City-County Library's website in the digital archives.

"What? Why didn't we know about this? See they're keeping more secrets from us man," the students and teacher said, "We laugh to keep from crying, that's frustrating."

It's true that most of the evidence of the massacre was hidden with little left to tell us about Black Wall Street.

People have relied on oral history handed down over the last century.

But the Rudisill Library, in north Tulsa, has a copy of the yearbook you can check out.

North Regional Manager, Keith Jemison, said they knew the value of the original so it's locked away in a safe.

"One day a lady came in and her family had actually inherited the 1921 Booker T Washington yearbook," Jemison said, "I tell you, I was so excited I'm getting excited now just thinking about it."

The library bought the book from the woman and digitized it later.

It can be used today as a primary source for research, Jemison said.

"Yeah, these are primary sources because these are original yearbooks," Jemison said.

P1130457 1:49 LILY "Could this be seen as a primary source. I mean, could people pull from this in doing research?"

"Yeah, these are primary sources because these are original yearbooks."

With only 18 graduates in 1921, the number of real copies is rare.

We don't know how many of the 18 students survived, but we do know that graduation and prom were the same day of the massacre.

Instead of celebrating, the students watched as their community burned to the ground.

Before the bombing, murder, and injustice, the yearbook also gives evidence of how Greenwood was a thriving, self-sufficient community.

In the back of the yearbook, there are ads from a lot of the Black Wall Street businesses of the time.

Bright reflected on seeing those ads.

"What legacies have been lost. What legacies have been stolen," Bright said, "And what mom and pop stores would be national or international brands by now. You know, so those are the things you kind of think about when you thumb through the businesses that are in the back of the yearbook that also supported the yearbook and the students."

We asked the students and teacher what they hoped North Tulsa is another 100 years from now.

BTW Freshman, Payton Guillory, was the first to respond.

"I hope it's booming again," Guillory said.

"When people keep equating thugs and gangsters and all of these negative and all these negative words with North Tulsa," Hightower said, "We were a thriving community and we could be again, but we have not seen any reparations."

Without justice, Booker T. persevered with a 1922 graduating class.

Now as 2021 graduates navigate a challenging year, the yearbook serves as an inspiration to remind them what they're a part of.

"My grandparents and my uncles and my aunts, every time they talk about this school it's always like you can see a light in their eyes a little bit," Guillory said.

No matter what year you graduated, that seems to ring true.

Bright read the 1921 Class Poem and said it was powerful to hear aloud.

"With joy, we once did greet you, but with sadness, we depart," Bright read, "And though we are to leave you, we go with an aching heart. When folks my school should ought to know, should look them in the eye and say with pride and gladness we hail from Washington High."

"To read that they felt the same way as I felt in 1997," Bright said, "That's a testament to the community. That's a testament to the community."

A community that the worst moments in U.S. history can't destroy and time can't tear apart.

If you want to see the yearbook it will be a part of a display commemorating the 1921 Race Massacre at the Rudisill Library.

The display kicks off May 4 and will run through June.

Because of Knight's discovery, it will eventually be in the Greenwood Cultural Center once they reopen.

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