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

It’s a sweltering May evening in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a local poet named Phetote Mshairi is performing for a crowd of about three dozen onlookers. His large black T-shirt is emblazoned with a solemn picture of Barack Obama, the monochrome pattern of the illustration matching the wispy white tendrils flowing out of his dark beard. Above him, two street signs stacked atop each other offer dueling histories of the corner. This is Greenwood Avenue, a sleepy thoroughfare that winds past a new luxury apartment complex, through the Oklahoma State University–Tulsa campus, and into the northern half of the city. But it’s also a haven once known as Black Wall Street, the epicenter of African American entrepreneurship and wealth in the early 20th century.

Mshairi’s poem is called “The Line,” a reference to the railroad tracks just half a block down Greenwood, which have served as the demarcation point between North and South Tulsa — between the black world and the white one — for more than a century. On this evening 97 years ago, thousands of white Tulsa residents crossed those tracks and launched a night of terror that would leave more than 1,200 of Greenwood’s homes and businesses destroyed, hundreds of black residents dead, and a thriving community burned to an ashen heap.

According to eye-witness accounts, the scope of the attack was equal to warfare: homeowners shot dead in their front yards, planes dropping turpentine bombs onto buildings, a machine gun firing bullets on a neighborhood church. It was a living nightmare, and for many decades Tulsa treated it as such, a dark apparition of the mind that might fade from memory so long as it was repressed.

Before it’s burning, Greenwood Avenue had been lined with hotels, restaurants, furriers, and even an early taxi service using a Ford Model T. Nearly 200 businesses populated the 35-square-block district in all, as did some homes as stately as the ones owned by upper-class whites in the city. That was the vision Mshairi conjured when he invoked Wakanda, the Afrofuturist utopia in Black Panther. Before it became a nightmare, Black Wall Street was a dream in progress, a symbol of black success in a turbulent period of racialized violence.

“To turn that tragedy into triumph, we have to tell the story that’s uncomfortable for some but important for the rest of us. And we have to tell it now.” —Kevin Matthews, an Oklahoma state senator and North Tulsa native.

We were standing at the heart of a great contradiction, a deeply American paradox of hate and hope. And yet that evening, on that block, few people seemed to care. Hundreds of Tulsans were walking past us and into ONEOK Field, the art deco stadium built just off Greenwood Avenue in 2010. The Tulsa Drillers were playing the San Antonio Missions in Double-A baseball.

Tulsa is different from other cities that were sites of a great racial cataclysm. Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital, which boasts majestic Rebel statues, is in a constant public debate about its tainted Civil War heritage. Selma, Alabama, where an attack on peaceful marchers became a flashpoint in the civil rights movement, has a commemoration every year that regularly attracts sitting presidents. But Tulsa’s massacre happened in a time that we don’t talk about, when black independence and white resentment collided in an especially violent way. It upends the history lessons that Americans pass down — that black people were passive victims from the slave ships to the “I Have a Dream” speech, that white violence was the unique dogma of church-bombing extremists. Black Wall Street scrambles the accepted timeline so much that it’s easier to forget the place ever existed.

So in Tulsa and elsewhere, it endures as a hazy myth, a vague memory that flickers in and out of the national consciousness. Until this year, there was no specified curriculum for teaching it in Oklahoma’s schools, let alone in other states. The district is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And there are no major movies or television series depicting the events that transpired there, despite a recent spate of projects about the black experience in both the antebellum and civil rights eras, including The Birth of a Nation and Selma.

Tulsa lawmakers and historians say the time has come for the story of Black Wall Street — the good and the bad — to get the same kind of national exposure as the Nat Turner slave rebellion or the “Bloody Sunday” Selma-to-Montgomery march. Some in Hollywood think so, too, with prominent entertainers such as John Legend and Oprah Winfrey planning to bring Greenwood’s history to television. But the effort to see Black Wall Street reimbursed, revitalized, or at the very least remembered has been a struggle since the killing ended and the smoke still darkened Tulsa’s skies.

“To turn that tragedy into triumph, we have to tell the story that’s uncomfortable for some but important for the rest of us,” says Kevin Matthews, an Oklahoma state senator and North Tulsa native. “And we have to tell it now.”

This story will continue in Part II on The Money Connection blog. TMC is telling this story as a reminder that successful black entrepreneurship existed even in the early 1900’s. These revelations should be a inspiration for our community to rise up and build productive economies and businesses that takes us from the ghetto to wall street prominence.

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