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Nate Burleson and his wife explore her ancestral ties to Tulsa Massacre

Nate Burleson's wife's ties to Tulsa massacre
Nate Burleson and wife Atoya explore her ancestral ties to Tulsa massacre 10:34

"CBS Mornings" co-host Nate Burleson and his wife, Atoya, recently went on an emotional quest to reconnect with her family's history, forever intertwined with the tragic Tulsa Massacre of 1921. This journey of discovery led them to the heart of what was once known as "Black Wall Street" in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where officials estimate that between 75 to 300 Black people were killed, and more than 30 blocks of Black-owned properties were decimated, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Despite being born in Oklahoma City, Atoya had never visited Tulsa. Her family lost three businesses in the massacre — a hotel, a real estate company and a barbershop.

The Burleson's recently went on a trek to learn more about the Tulsa massacre and trace its connections to Atoya's family history.

What is the Tulsa Massacre?

The Tulsa Massacre, one of the deadliest events in U.S. history, saw a White mob in 1921 murder hundreds of Black people and obliterate the area known as Black Wall Street. It is estimated that between 75 to 300 Black people were killed during the 1921 massacre by a White mob that targeted Greenwood, the Black section of Tulsa.

Over 1,000 homes were burned down, hundreds more were looted and destroyed, and the thriving business district known as Black Wall Street was decimated.

A journey in time

Their first stop was the home of Marcelia McGee, Atoya's aunt, where they learned more about the legacy of their ancestors. McGee's father and Atoya's grandfather, Robert Lee Wilson, moved to Oklahoma City after college. His father, Lafayette Wilson, left for California in the years following the massacre. He was the proud owner of a hotel. His father, Hezekiah Wilson, owned a real estate company.

"What my brother had told me is that Grandpa Hezekiah was a millionaire," Wilson said, revealing the magnitude of what was lost.

Historian Hannibal B. Johnson, who has spent 30 years researching the Tulsa Massacre, said there was a systemic erasure and minimization of the event's significance. 

"Tulsa was on an upward trajectory to becoming the oil capital of the world," Johnson said, highlighting the economic motivations behind downplaying the massacre.

"We also know that conservatively estimated, the dollar damage from the destruction was roughly $1.5 to 2 million, which is in the (equivalent) of tens of millions of dollars today," said Johnson.

Visiting Greenwood Rising

The Burlesons also visited Greenwood Rising Black Wall St. History Center, which stands as a testament to the resilience of the Greenwood district. It was there that Nate and Atoya hoped to find the exact location where the Lafayette Hotel once stood. Johnson pointed out, "If the address is 604 E Archer, it's right outside where we are."

John Adams, the building's security guard, said "Then they covered it up with what you see out there now."

Outside of the museum, markers on the ground suggest where some businesses once stood, an initiative started in the early 2000s.

Bittersweet moments as the journey ended

The end of the Burleson's journey was a visit to the Black Wall Street Memorial, where they found the names of Atoya's ancestors' businesses. This moment of recognition was bittersweet for Atoya, as it highlighted both the scale of the tragedy and the strength of those who sought to rebuild. 

"All 3! We found them all. Oh, oh my god," Atoya said.

For Nate, the trip was rewarding because it allowed him to help tell a story that resonated for his family.

"I'm happy for my wife because when she first discovered that her great-grandfather owned the Lafayette Hotel, I can tell that she was curious, but there were so many gaps in what she knew," said Nate. This is the most rewarding part of my job. It's one thing to do a piece that people watch. But to do something for my wife and her family, it's pretty special."

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