Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Burned and Then Rose From the Ashes
The charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. Sarah Page gave a statement to police recanting her assault claim just hours before the shooting started. White people put the incident behind them. Black people, facing an uncertain path forward in Greenwood, lived in tents on the plots of their former houses. Though the attack initially prompted a wave of outraged articles from outlets like The New York Times (“one of the most disastrous race wars ever visited upon an American city”), it quickly receded from the national memory, and then from the local one.
“That a place like that could be destroyed and its destruction be hidden, that’s really remarkable,” says Franklin, whose grandfather survived and wrote about the attack. “It seems like the white community for the most extent won’t talk about this history. It’s more than embarrassing. It’s horrific. It’s genocide. It’s ethnic cleaning.”
Deborah Hunter remembers when Greenwood was the heartbeat of North Tulsa. As a child she ate sumptuous Sunday meals at her aunt’s house, which doubled as a beauty shop. She prayed at Paradise Baptist Church, just a short walk from the stores and restaurants lining Greenwood Avenue. She skated at the neighborhood rink and caught matinees at the Rex Theater, where kids could see movies for a dime. “We had everything,” she says. “That was our downtown.”
Hunter, now a social worker for Tulsa’s library system, was born in 1950, three decades after Greenwood burned to the ground. In 1971, when she was on a visit home, a cousin gave her a local magazine with the coverline “PROFILE OF A RACE RIOT,” the words engulfed in angry flames. That was how she first discovered that the world she grew up in had literally risen from the ashes. “I was just stunned. How could no one have told me about this?” she says. “I was really just devastated to know that that had happened because there were no signs of it when I was growing up. Everything had been built back, and nobody talked about it.”
The revival of Black Wall Street began almost immediately after its burning. Initially, the city of Tulsa promised to help rebuild what its citizens had destroyed; instead, officials passed an ordinance requiring that new structures in Greenwood be at least two stories tall and made of expensive fireproof materials. It was a naked attempt to price black residents out of their own community. But a trio of local lawyers, including John W. Franklin’s grandfather, B.C. Franklin, filed a lawsuit against the city. They worked out of a tent in the burned-out business district and eventually brought the case to the state Supreme Court, which deemed the ordinance unconstitutional.
By the end of 1921, Greenwood residents had rebuilt more than 800 structures in the neighborhood. By June 1922, virtually all of the area’s homes had been replaced. And by 1925, the National Negro Business League was holding its annual conference in Tulsa, indicating that Black Wall Street’s stature as an economic force had been restored.
“I was just stunned. How could no one have told me about this? I was really just devastated to know that that had happened because there were no signs of it when I was growing up. Everything had been built back, and nobody talked about it.” —Deborah Hunter, a social worker for Tulsa’s library system
Over the ensuing decades, Greenwood continued to thrive. More than 240 businesses populated the area by the early 1940s. Musicians such as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington played in the neighborhood’s jazz clubs. “Greenwood is something more than an avenue — it is an institution,” the district’s chamber of commerce declared in 1941. “The people of Tulsa have come to regard it as a symbol of racial prominence and progress — not only for the restricted area of the street itself, but for the Negro section of Tulsa as a whole.”
But even as Greenwood prospered again, the riot morphed into forgotten lore. No one learned about it in school. And at home, some black families chose to bury the trauma rather than expose it to their offspring. After discovering the magazine article, Hunter remembers the challenge of getting her grandmother to acknowledge that she had survived the attack and been placed in an internment camp. “She didn’t want to talk about it,” Hunter says. “I think it was a combination of the trauma and fear.”
Hunter is taking it upon herself to help ensure her grandmother’s experience is remembered. She’s among more than a dozen local Tulsans starring in Tulsa ’21: Black Wall Street, a new play about the race massacre and its aftermath, which will run in the city at the end of June. Many of the people in the all-black, all-volunteer cast are first-time actors who joined the production to learn more about their city’s history. The play interweaves the perspectives of both white and black Tulsans from the 1920s and the modern era. In one rehearsal I observed, 27-year-old Geren Davis alternated between a swaggering portrayal of Dick Rowland and a ragefully despairing depiction of Andre Harris, the brother of Eric Harris, an unarmed black man killed by Tulsa police in 2015. “I got so emotionally attached,” Davis told me. “It was almost like I wasn’t acting anymore — like I was really his brother and really mad about the whole thing.”
The play is being directed by Tara Brooke Watkins, a theater professor at Eastern Nazarene College near Boston. Though Watkins is a Tulsa native, she didn’t learn about the burning of Black Wall Street until she was in graduate school at Emerson College. Later, after researching the history of Greenwood, she returned to Tulsa to host story circles with local residents, where they discussed their own dealings with racism and how they related to the 1921 massacre. (Andre Harris was among the participants.) Those insights are also included in the play. “It’s so foundational to Tulsa’s history, and most kids have never heard about it,” she says of the massacre. “How does community respond to their own history when it is presented through theater? That’s what I will be very intrigued to hear.”
“How many movies have been done about these horrific racial events that really highlight our history of white supremacy? Structurally, we are inculturated with a history that is less unpleasant than history really is. A lot of our history is really ugly.” —Hannibal Johnson
Tulsa ’21 is one of several local productions that have emerged in recent years to help Tulsa make sense of its dark past. Vanessa Adams-Harris has been performing Big Mama Speaks, a one-woman play about a survivor of the 1921 massacre, off and on for nearly 10 years. Though the titular character is fictional, she draws from historical works written by Hannibal Johnson and from Adams-Harris’s own black, Creek Nation, and German heritages. “Art gives us a bridge to travel into stories,” she says. “We can transition into a story through art and then feel safe enough to go back home.”
Both Big Mama Speaks and Tulsa ’21 are passion projects, but in the cold calculus of Hollywood, the Black Wall Street narrative has found fewer financial backers. Part of the problem is that the story of the massacre, if told accurately, would paint thousands of white people as pillagers and murderers. Black historical narratives that make it to the screen tend to incorporate a white savior — think Matthew McConaughey in Amistad or Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave. Those that don’t have one, like Danny Glover’s long-in-development film about the Haitian Revolution, can languish for decades. Tulsa historians also suspect that the cool reception to Rosewood, the 1997 John Singleton film about the destruction of a black town in Florida, has quelled interest in another film about a racial massacre. “How many movies have been done about these horrific racial events that really highlight our history of white supremacy?” says Johnson. “Structurally, we are inculturated with a history that is less unpleasant than history really is. A lot of our history is really ugly.”
Now, though, may actually be a ripe time for a Black Wall Street project to take off. The centennial of the massacre in 2021 will bring a surge of renewed interest in Greenwood. Black Panther, the highest-grossing movie of the year, proved that a movie with a predominantly black cast can have broad appeal. And Greenwood, like Wakanda, offers a prosperous setting at odds with the usual pop culture locales of black suffering: the plantation, the tumultuous ’60s, the dangerous inner city. “There’s only so many slave narratives that we want to see,” says Mike Jackson, a partner at Get Lifted Film Co. along with John Legend. “There’s been a change in the perception of black narratives and the types of stories an audience would want to consume.”
Get Lifted specializes in historical tales that cast black people as heroes rather than victims. The WGN show Underground, which garnered positive reviews and strong ratings, dares to portray a group of slaves’ journey to freedom via the Underground Railroad as entertainment first, sober historical account second. The show has a freewheeling, contemporary style that can lead to some awkward juxtapositions — a romantic encounter between two slaves soundtracked to the Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” is more than a little jarring — but also allows its characters to be something more than museum exhibits. “We didn’t want you to feel like you’re walking through a college professor’s lecture as much as you were being entertained,” Jackson says. “For us, it was about finding a way to educate folks about our history without it feeling like a history lesson.”
“If we’re fortunate enough to make it to air, I think it’s just another opportunity, similar to Underground, for audiences to learn about our history and our stories. I definitely see there being an opportunity to tell more positive, uplifting stories that highlight the brown or black experience.” —Mike Jackson, a partner at Get Lifted Film Co.
In 2016, after Underground’s successful debut, Jackson pitched a show about Black Wall Street to WGN’s executives. I asked him whether this story, which exposes a rarely discussed era of vicious white brutality, might be a tougher sell in Hollywood than the well-trod topic of slavery. Jackson didn’t think so. “Television and film [audiences] love disasters,” he says. “I don’t think networks would run from Black Wall Street because of the fire. I think they’d run to the fire.” WGN executives bought the idea the moment he pitched it.
The show was tentatively set to debut this year. However, after WGN’s parent company, Tribune Media, was purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2017, Underground and the other shows in the network’s prestige TV lineup were abruptly canceled. Jackson’s Black Wall Street project was suddenly caught in a limbo that’s become common among efforts to tell the story of Greenwood. Oprah has been planning a miniseries about Greenwood and sent a group of writers to Tulsa to do research for the project in 2015, but there’s been no word recently on its development. A Black Wall Street film helmed by Tim Story (director of Barbershop and Ride Along) is in the works, but doesn’t yet have any actors attached (the film’s producers did not respond to requests for comment).
“People have good intentions, but once they get back to Hollywood and they talk to others and they really think about it, they decide against it,” says the Greenwood Cultural Center’s Brown, who met with Oprah’s writing team when they were in Tulsa. “I can’t believe we’ve received national attention since 1996, and here we are, 2018, and still no major production has been done.”
Jackson is hopeful that Get Lifted’s effort will finally bring a Black Wall Street story to the masses. The show is in development for another network (he declined to say which), and there are hopes that it will land a full series order in the coming weeks. “If we’re fortunate enough to make it to air, I think it’s just another opportunity, similar to Underground, for audiences to learn about our history and our stories,” he says. “I definitely see there being an opportunity to tell more positive, uplifting stories that highlight the brown or black experience.”
It was not fire that permanently hobbled Black Wall Street, but concrete. Today an interstate overpass bisects Greenwood Avenue, separating what was once the core of the business district from the rest of the neighborhood. Urban renewal projects in the 1960s and ’70s transformed inner-city neighborhoods around the country, morphing them from self-contained communities to haphazard highway exits. On the southern side of the overpass, just half a block of the former Black Wall Street structures remain, filled with a few small black-owned businesses — a hair salon, a soul food restaurant, a neighborhood chamber of commerce that was closed every time I tried to visit. To the north is an Oklahoma State University campus and just west is the Drillers stadium, institutions that benefit Tulsa broadly but not black Tulsa specifically.
Tulsans are now trying to use the highway to keep the spirit of Black Wall Street alive. On June 1, local officials held a dedication ceremony for a new mural painted on the side of the overpass, in the parking lot of the Greenwood Cultural Center. The mural, which spells out “Black Wall St” in a cartoony, bubbly font, tells a different story in each of its letters. The “B” depicts a beloved movie theater that was burned down during the attack, and the “L” a cross from a church that still sits across the street. Dozens of people snapped photos of the colorful project; officials hope it will become a popular Instagram attraction.
I was surprised, the day before the mural unveiling, to find a bearded white man sweating over its final details. Perched in an orange lift platform and clutching a spray can, he added the final flourishes to a musician holding a guitar in the letter “A.” He was Scribe, a Kansas City graffiti artist who regularly does public works projects. He’s not a native of Greenwood, nor of Tulsa. But Black Wall Street, despite its inspirational story of black uplift, has always been defined by its relationship to white people.
The district declined in part because of urban renewal but also because integration laws passed in the 1960s allowed blacks to spend their dollars elsewhere in Tulsa. Black people with means could choose to live in other parts of the city. Racial solidarity became a personal choice rather than a necessity dictated by white political rule. “Black folks thrived in a way because we were concentrated in a particular area,” says Regina Goodwin, who grew up in Greenwood and now serves as the only black woman in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. “There was a boatload of talent right in that area, so you saw pilots of planes, you saw hotel owners, newspaper editors. … There was an intent to be well and to do well.”
“Black folks thrived in a way because we were concentrated in a particular area. There was a boatload of talent right in that area, so you saw pilots of planes, you saw hotel owners, newspaper editors. … There was an intent to be well and to do well.” —Oklahoma state Representative Regina Goodwin
At the same time, white businesses have begun encroaching on what used to be an all-black space. Greenwood lies just east of Tulsa Arts District, the city’s revitalized downtown commercial square with the requisite Brooklyn-in-a-box coffee shops, boutique stores, and ramen restaurants. Now Greenwood Avenue itself is home to a gourmet burger joint, a SoulCycle-like exercise studio, and a luxury apartment building that lists its proximity to Trader Joe’s as a perk on its website (that grocery store is actually in South Tulsa — large portions of North Tulsa are food deserts). Fire-wielding rioters weren’t able to destroy Greenwood, but the gears of capitalism just might.
With the physical Black Wall Street slowly being eclipsed by modern businesses with no ties to its heritage, preserving the story of the district — and determining who gets to tell that story — becomes all the more important. Watkins, the Tulsa native directing the local play with the black cast, is white. So is Corinda Marsh, whose novel Holocaust in the Homeland was optioned for the film that Tim Story is directing. It’s not unusual for white artists to shape black historical narratives — Marsh told me she wants the movie based on her book to be “as strong as Gone With the Wind” — but the practice has been met with more pushback in recent years. When HBO announced that Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were making Confederate, a show about an alternate reality in which the South won the Civil War and slavery is still legal, critics dismissed the concept as “white nonsense” (earlier this year Deadline reported that the show is “unlikely” to be completed; an HBO spokesperson says it is still in development). Questions concerning cultural appropriation and narrative ownership dominate the discourse over art and entertainment in ways they never have before.
Watkins says she weighed whether she ought to be doing a play centered on the black experience, and asked people in Tulsa’s black community whether they thought it was appropriate. “If everybody had said we’re not comfortable with this, I would have walked away,” she says. “I had several people who I met with individually … who said to me, ‘Well, you can’t help your color, we can’t help your color, but we’d love for someone to do something. So if it’s you, it’s you.’”
Marsh learned about the burning of Black Wall Street at dinner with an acquaintance and conducted research for her novel on the internet. She’s never been to Tulsa but said she wrote her book to inspire compassion for the massacre victims. “I actually took my picture off the back of the book because I was getting some flak about being white and writing about this,” she says. “I wrote it with the idea that I wanted people to get to know the people of Greenwood. I studied the people there long enough to feel like I knew their personalities.”
Some black Tulsans see an irony in white people rushing to tell the story of Greenwood when factual accounts of the massacre from white perpetrators or observers remain slim. “We don’t have the family coming forward saying, ‘My family was in the KKK and we know we strung up some people over here,’” says Adams-Harris, the Big Mama Speaks performer. “I’m not impressed by other people continuing to want to tell the African American or Native stories through their lens. … I want to know why whites riot. Because when they riot, I know they kill my people.”
Jackson, the Get Lifted producer, argues that it’s people’s common humanity that drives engaging stories and that talented artists have the creative capacity to step into a different person’s shoes. “I think storytellers are storytellers,” he says. “I would love for people of color to write stories about people of color. When it comes to our experience, I think someone who walks around in that skin probably has a stronger perspective on what that means. But I would never say that someone who’s not a person of color couldn’t effectively and successfully tell our story.”
For those who are aware of it, Black Wall Street has become a powerful national symbol, popping up everywhere from fundraising events in Atlanta to record labels launched in Compton. But it’s still a physical place in a city with a large income disparity between whites and blacks, an entertainment district that was named after a Ku Klux Klan member until 2017, and a string of killings of unarmed black men by police officers. At the mural unveiling I talked to Tiffany Crutcher, the twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was shot and killed by a police officer on a Tulsa road in 2016. “That same culture that burned down Black Wall Street is the same culture that killed my brother, that killed Eric Harris, that killed Jeremy Lake right here in this city,” she says.
Tulsa’s government is hoping to use the impending 100-year anniversary of the massacre as an opportunity to address some of its problems. A centennial commission, spearheaded by state Senator Kevin Matthews, has launched a number of cultural and economic initiatives tied to Greenwood. This fall, Tulsa Public Schools are expected to adopt a standard curriculum developed by the commission that teaches students about the history of the massacre. Eventually Matthews hopes the lessons will be taught statewide. The commission is also seeking $3 million in private donations for a business development program in North Tulsa, which would provide seed funding to residents with plans to launch businesses in the area.
“Land and business ownership, entrepreneurship, and economic development [are] going to garner us more ability to leverage our political, spiritual, and financial capital in relation to civil rights,” Matthews says. “We can’t just march. We also have to have the finances to address issues if we’re going to be effective in the United States.”
And yet on a fundamental level, the burning of Greenwood remains an unpaid debt. Despite a legal battle that wound its way to the Supreme Court last decade, the city and state governments have not paid reparations to the survivors of the 1921 attack or their families (a scholarship fund for 300 descendants of riot survivors was set up in 2001). The centennial commission’s economic development program will be funded by prominent nonprofits and corporations in Oklahoma, not taxpayers. There’s still a sense that black Tulsans should be happy with what they are given, rather than be indignant about what they are owed.
Perhaps it’s naive to think that simply telling a story again and again could help right this wrong. But it’s only because of survivors’ stories, collected beginning in the days after the attack and continuing to this year’s anniversary, that we know what happened in Greenwood at all. Brown, as part of her job at the Greenwood Cultural Center, has been interviewing survivors of the massacre for more than 20 years. In 1996, the year she started there, the organization identified 162 survivors. In a room off to the side of the center’s main Black Wall Street exhibit, glossy black-and-white photographs of Greenwood residents, now aged and somber, are placed above their recollections of the event that upended their childhoods. “The riot cheated us out of our childhood innocence,” said Beulah Loree Keenan Smith, born in 1908. “My mother lost everything she owned,” said Thelma Thurman Knight, born in 1915. “That riot was like a first ‘war experience’ for me,” said World War II veteran Joe Burns, born in 1917.
The research into exactly what happened that night in Tulsa is ongoing — the week I visited, Brown was going out to interview a previously unidentified person who had lived through the horror of 1921. “My real love is telling the history,” she says. “I simply do it to honor those survivors, knowing what they went through.”
She remembers taking a group of survivors to Oklahoma City in 2001, when the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was determining whether victims should be compensated. Much of the media coverage of the time fixated on how much money the survivors might get, but some of Greenwood’s residents had a perspective that stuck with her. “Of course we believe reparations are due for everything that our families lost — their homes, their businesses, their lives even,” she recalls them saying to a gaggle of reporters. “But what we want more than anything is for our children to finally know that there’s more to our history than slavery and the civil rights movement. We want them to know that we were savvy business owners. That we were successful.”