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Black Wall Street: An Untaught History Lesson

Black and white image from Black Wall Street of a Black man, woman, and child in an old vehicle.

Via Tulsa Historical Society and Museum 

The day I am sitting to write this article, June 1st, marks the 101st anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. While this is just a normal day for me, this date was the finale to what was a historical event fueled by hate that negatively impacted the lives of hundreds of Black Americans. This horrendous incident tragically put an end to what is popularly known as “Black Wall Street.” In 1921, this massacre left hundreds injured and led to 36 confirmed deaths (though it is believed the death toll was much higher and could’ve been as high as 300). Taking place in Tulsa, Oklahoma's Greenwood district from the morning of May 30th until June 1, the race massacre was a violent white mob attack that devastated the nation's Black cultural and economic mecca. This attack resulted in the deaths of many residents, the burning of more than 1250 homes, and destroyed years of Black success. 

What is ‘Black Wall Street’ 

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Black Americans built a community of economic prosperity. Founded and developed on former Indigenious Territory, this Black community resided in Tulsa Oklahoma with about 10,000 residents. The neighborhood of Greenwood utilized North Greenwood Avenue as the main street of its commercial district. Since segregation laws prevented Black residents from shopping in white neighborhoods and aiming to keep money circulating in their own community, Greenwood residents funneled their funds into local Black Businesses. Greenwood was a promising neighborhood that grew into a vibrant and self-sustaining community filled with successful businesses including barbershops, salons, clothing stores, jewelers, restaurants, and taverns. 

According to Hannibal B. Johnson’s Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District, O.W. Gurley, the wealthy Black landowner who purchased and named Greenwood is “credited with having the first Black business in Greenwood in 1906.” Gurley “had a vision to create something for black people” and began by developing a boarding house for Black Americans. As more people heard about the opportunities for Black people in Greenwood— such as Gurley loaning money to those who wanted to start businesses— many moved to the district. 

Prominent Black entrepreneurs also relocated to Greenwood such as J.B. Stradford, who built the largest Black-owned hotel in the country, and A.J. Smitherman, the publisher who founded the Black newspaper Tulsa Star and consequently established the district’s social consciousness. Greenwood was also home to those with “unskilled” jobs who earned money outside of the district such as dishwashers, janitors, porters, and dishwashers. However, according to ​​Michelle Place— the executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, “It is said within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community.” 

The Tulsa Race Massacre

Prior to the race massacre, there was rising tension between the White and Black residents of Tusla. The white residents resented the upscale of people they viewed as an inferior race. Therefore, Black residents feared racial violence— especially from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. The residents also anticipated losing their voting rights as the Oklahoma Supreme court continuously upheld restrictions on voting access for Black Americans such as literacy tests and poll taxes. As a rebuttal, the Tulsa Star encouraged Black residents to show up at courthouses and jails armed to ensure Black people on trial were not lynched by white mobs. This racial animosity in Tulsa escalated to the 1921 massacre. 

On the morning of May 30, 1921, Dick Rowland—a young Black man who worked as a shoe shiner— was accused of sexual assault after startling Sarah Page, a 17-year-old white elevator operator in downtown Tulsa. The day after the incident, Rowland was arrested, however, an angry white mob went to the courthouse to demand the sheriff hand over Rowland. A group of armed Black men also showed up at the courthouse to guard Rowland against an anticipated lynching where they were met with 15,000 whites. As the altercation between the two groups escalated, the vastly outnumbered 75 Black men retreated to the Greenwood district. 

Mobs of white men then followed the Black men back to Greenwood where they began looting homes, burning down businesses, and fatally shooting Black residents in an explosion of violence. Throughout the night of May 31st and into June 1st, Greenwood was overcome with dark smoke and survivors report sights of low-flying planes raining down bullets and inflammables. Many landmarks were left in ruins and Oklahoma Governor Robertson declared martial law during the morning of June 1, sending in the Oklahoma National Guard. Misguided officials arrested and detained thousands of Black Tulsans, escorting unarmed Black men with rifles identifying Greenwoods’s Black residents as the threat. 

The Aftermath

The incident was characterized as having been instigated by the Black community and no whites were held accountable. Traumatized Greenwood residents were kept under armed guard for hours or even days until they were vouched for by an employer or white citizen. More than 800 people were treated for injuries and residents filed claims worth over 1.8 million dollars against the city only to have them denied. The business owners of Greenwood were consequently forced to rebuild on their own. Many citizens were also forced to rebuild their homes from scratch as about 8,000 to 10,000 people were left homeless after the horrid event. However, many Black residents also left Tulsa and never returned. This destruction not only ruined lives but also ruined many individuals’ possibility of establishing generational wealth

The Greenwood neighborhood economy was destroyed and for decades, Tulsa hid the truth. Currently, there is an ongoing lawsuit from the last three known survivors against the city of Tulsa for its role in the massacre. The lead attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons expresses “We want them to see justice in their lifetime. I personally have seen so many survivors die in my 20-plus years working on this issue. I just don't want to see the last three die without justice.” It would be amazing to see the people of Tusla receive the reparations they deserve. Many things contributed to this massacre but above all, it was fueled by racism and hate. Reparations are owed and over 101 years later it’s long overdue. 

Check out this interactive New York Times article which virtually reconstructs the neighborhood and businesses of Greenwood. 

Also, check this out for more resources and info. 

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