Tulsa’s Black Wall Street Burned and Then Rose From the Ashes

“A continuation of the article that spells out a tragedy in the state of Oklahoma in the early 1900’s when whites crossed that line of demarcation into a black community called Greenwood and burn, pillaged and destroyed that communities economic wealth”

Before the place called Greenwood existed, the black folks in Oklahoma dreamed big. They first arrived with Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in the mid-19th century, both as slaves and as freedmen. Thanks to treaties negotiated between the United States and Native tribes after the Civil War, many black people who had been granted citizenship in those tribes were eventually granted large parcels of land, according to Hannibal Johnson’s book Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. By pooling their resources and welcoming blacks from the Southeast seeking a better life, they were able to form dozens of all-black towns in the region. In 1890, Edwin P. McCabe, a politician who founded the all-black town of Langston, met with President Benjamin Harrison to pitch the idea of turning the Oklahoma Territory into an all-black state.

Tulsa became Oklahoma’s most vital boomtown when petroleum was discovered there in 1901. The oil rush created instant wealth for many whites, but also for some of those landowning blacks with ties to the Native tribes. And the city’s new monied status attracted entrepreneurs of all races. Segregation forced blacks into the northern part of Tulsa, and the need for community there created economic opportunity. When the district’s first grocery store opened in 1905 at the corner of Greenwood and Archer Street — the same corner where Mshairi recited his poem — Black Wall Street was born.

“A better moniker for what was going on in Tulsa than Black Wall Street would have been Black Main Street,” says Johnson, a Tulsa historian and author of several books about Greenwood. “What we’re talking about really are sole-proprietorship mom-and-pop businesses. Things like pharmacies, dry cleaners, haberdasheries, barber shops, beauty shops, movie theaters, pool halls. Professional services like doctors, lawyers, dentists. Just the kinds of small businesses that make a place vibrant and engaging for folks.”

By 1921, Greenwood had a high school that taught Latin, chemistry, and physics; a three-story hotel with a chandeliered living room; and a silent movie theater accompanied by a live pianist. There were 23 churches, two newspapers, and a public library serving about 11,000 black residents. The district’s most successful entrepreneurs reinvested in the community, building parks and additional housing.

“A better moniker for what was going on in Tulsa than Black Wall Street would have been Black Main Street.” —Hannibal Johnson, a Tulsa historian

Greenwood also had gambling, prostitution, and drugs. There were elegant homes along its most prominent residential avenues, while shanties without running water lined many side streets. This was hardly a utopia — it was bound by the realities of Tulsa’s abundance of human vice and its systematic white oppression. But, along with prominent black business districts in Durham, North Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, the people of Greenwood achieved a level of black economic success and self-determination that had never existed before in the United States, then less than 60 years removed from slavery. Today it remains an aspirational symbol, with entrepreneurs and app developers invoking the Black Wall Street name to rally people to support black-owned businesses.

“The thing that the survivors said made it possible for them to build Black Wall Street [was] the fact that when one person built their business, they grabbed the hand of their brother or sister and helped them build their business,” says Mechelle Brown, program coordinator at the Greenwood Cultural Center, a community gathering place and historical archive.

Greenwood’s prosperity earned it the moniker “Negro Wall Street.” But the white people in South Tulsa called it “niggertown.” There was a brewing resentment among whites about the rising wealth and confidence of black Americans, not only in Oklahoma but around the United States. This anger exploded in the Red Summer of 1919, when a series of at least 25 race riots across the country claimed hundreds of black lives in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Arkansas, among other places. World War I was an animating force in the conflicts, with black soldiers returning home from Europe less willing to accept systematic oppression as their reward for risking their lives. “They come home to parades on Fifth Avenue, but they were lynched in their uniforms across the country the summer of 1919,” says John W. Franklin, a senior manager at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In Tulsa, white frustrations simmered a couple of years longer, until a spring 1921 encounter between two teenagers caused them to boil over. On May 30, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old black shoe shiner, entered a downtown office building elevator operated by Sarah Page, a white attendant. The two teens touched. Page said he assaulted her, but Rowland later said he had put his hand on her arm. By the time the elevator doors reopened, Page was screaming and Rowland was running for his life.

The rumor was rape, spread further by a Tulsa Tribune article the next day claiming that Rowland had tried to tear off Page’s clothes. Accusations of impropriety toward white women were common against black men during the period and often led to executions. Rowland was arrested and locked in the local courthouse, where blacks feared he might be dragged out and lynched for his alleged crime. A small phalanx of Greenwood men, some of them armed, drove downtown on the evening of May 31 to ensure that Rowland was safe. They found a crowd of hundreds of white men, many of them also armed, outside the courthouse. Eventually a black World War I veteran and a white man got into a scuffle over the veteran’s right to wield a weapon. A gunshot rang out, but it might as well have been a battle cry. Within minutes, 20 men on both sides were dead or wounded, and Tulsa was at war.

As many as 5,000 armed whites, hundreds of them deputized by the police, descended on Greenwood that night and into the next morning. They used a mixture of plundering, coercion, and violence to reassert the supposed racial hierarchy of Tulsa. Houses were looted for their valuables, like jewelry, as well as their invaluables, like family Bibles. If the invaders found a building still occupied, they’d sometimes lead residents to a detention center in downtown Tulsa. Other times, they’d murder the occupants. A.C. Jackson, a prominent Greenwood surgeon, was shot by two assailants when he emerged from his home with his hands in the air.

Buildings were set on fire systematically, with teams of white rioters gathering flammable materials in the center of a room, dousing them with kerosene, and igniting them. The fire department failed to respond to most emergency calls during the night. Planes circled overhead — according to police, they were for reconnaissance, but survivors said they dropped bombs filled with turpentine or coal oil. Either way, along with the roving machine gun that white attackers mounted on a truck, heavy-duty weaponry confirmed that Greenwood had transformed from a neighborhood to a war zone in a matter of hours.

Some blacks fought back, staging pitched battles to defend the district’s borders. Others fled farther north into neighboring communities, never to return. But most were hauled to internment camps around the city at gunpoint, where they were forced to stay until a white person (often their employer) would come and vouch for them. Some residents were imprisoned for as long as two weeks, and even after they were set free, they had to carry around green identification cards signed by whites to prove they posed no threat.

The attack on Greenwood destroyed 1,256 houses and saw the looting of another 215, according to the American Red Cross, leaving 9,000 black Tulsans homeless. Virtually all the district’s businesses were gone. An accurate death toll will likely never be calculated, though eyewitnesses said they saw unidentified black bodies stacked onto trucks and dumped into unmarked graves. While the Tulsa Race Riot Commission issued a report in 2001 confirming only 39 deaths (26 black and 13 white), it also acknowledged that previous fatality estimates ranging from 100 to 300 people were credible.

Greenwood residents claimed $1.8 million in damages (about $25 million in today’s dollars), but insurance companies and the city of Tulsa denied the claims, citing the fact that the attack had been deemed a riot. A grand jury investigation organized by Oklahoma’s governor in the days after the attack found that the black men who went to the courthouse to protect Dick Rowland were at fault for the destruction of Greenwood. A Tulsa minister laid the blame on W.E.B. DuBois, who had visited the city several months prior. Anyone except the white people who had invaded Greenwood could be held responsible; the outcomes of various lawsuits against the organizers of last year’s violent Charlottesville protests will illustrate whether that mind-set has really changed in the last century.

“ As you read the excerpts from this section we see the power of black business leaders, community success, and reinvestment into building economic wealth. Alternately, the devils become jealous of this success and plot rebellion to destroy the good in our community, without knowledge that if we are successful then they are successful as well.” Please continue to read Part III and finish this exploration into the history of black entrepreneurship and the hate that burned our dreams to the ground. While also asking yourself WHERE WAS THE LAW, POLICE, JUDGES AND PROSECUTORS ????

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