When Aaron Fletcher arrived in Oklahoma in 2015 to become an assistant coach at Tulsa, he was shocked to learn some local history.
Fletcher, who is Black, grew up in Texas and had never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 in one of the most affluent African American communities in the United States, known as Black Wall Street.
In what the Oklahoma Historical Society says is "believed to be the single worst incident of racial violence in American history," hundreds of people were killed and more than a thousand homes and businesses were looted and burned in the city's Greenwood District on May 31 and June 1, 1921.
For the past 1½ years, Fletcher said he has had conversations about how the school can connect with the community to spotlight this overlooked history (Oklahoma announced in February that it would be added to statewide school curriculum).
The first result of Fletcher's efforts begins with Friday night's game between Tulsa and East Carolina on ESPN2. It will be known as Tulsa's first "Legacy Game," featuring videos in the stadium of survivors, descendants and alumni from Greenwood.
Meet Leonelle Thompson, Assistant Dean & Director of the Business Career Center❗At our Legacy Game 🏈 we are highlighting TU alumni and recognizing the heritage, history and legacy of Black Wall Street & Tulsa's historic Greenwood District. #MyStoryMatters x #LoyalAlwaysTrue pic.twitter.com/jRfiG4BriI— TulsaHurricane (@TulsaHurricane) October 27, 2020
"The story was just mind-blowing," Fletcher said. "History has a lot of ugly things that people are ashamed of and things that very few people like to talk about. And this one just so happened to be here in the city of Tulsa."
Fletcher said the project started taking shape under former athletic director Derrick Gragg, who has since left to work for the NCAA. He said interim athletic director Rick Dickson and coach Phil Montgomery have been very encouraging of the efforts. And in a year in which social justice conversations have become more impassioned following the death of George Floyd, Fletcher said the campus community has embraced his passion project. Along with members of the school's marketing department and the football team's video staff, he began doing interviews with people with ties to Greenwood.
"We're just making sure that we are honoring and highlighting and commemorating those individuals, as well as acknowledging what's going on right now and building toward the future," Fletcher said.
The university has told Fletcher it is expected to become a yearly tradition.
"We've got the commitment going forward, that this initiative won't change," Fletcher said. "It will happen the second home game of every year, which I'm pleased with, and the people in the community are as well."
So excited about the opportunities this week presents. A big THANK YOU to Coach Fletch and the university for making this week happen! https://t.co/82I7E53am2— Philip Montgomery (@CoachPMonty) October 26, 2020
Fletcher has plans for an annual Legacy Week, featuring daily themes such as church visits with athletes and students on Sunday, tours and meetings with members of the community, and interviews or visits with former Tulsa athletes such as Drew Pearson, Lovie Smith and Barry Minter.
Fletcher is emotionally invested in the project and said he believes it's an important way for the university to help the city learn from its past.
"You can't put a Band-Aid on a broken bone," he said. "You've got to take the time to grow and heal. And another way you heal is by having those conversations. You have the conversation so you can come up with the solution to bring about healing."