This is the third article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a StoryMap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each StoryMap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, taking you onto the city streets of the past. Thanks to the The Department of Special Collections and University Archives of the McFarlin Library at The University of Tulsa for their help preparing the StoryMap this week.
Early in the twentieth century, place, space, and race converged to create a dynamic counterpoint to Black economic exclusion and exploitation. The African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Greenwood District, centred around Greenwood Avenue just north of downtown and across the Frisco Tracks, emerged as a nationally renowned entrepreneurial centre, dubbed the “Negro Wall Street of America,” later, simply “Black Wall Street.”
Black Tulsans, unable fully to participate in the white-dominated, mainstream economy, crafted an insular, socially distanced, Black-controlled marketplace on the north side of the Frisco Tracks. Black consumers fuelled the colour-coded economy of the Greenwood District with funds earned within and without. Black Wall Street represented an economic detour—an artful dodge around the economic dispossession lawfully enforced through separation of the races. The architects of the “Greenwood District” parlayed Tulsa’s racially restrictive (i.e., “Jim Crow”) regime into an economic advantage, devising a successful closed market system that defied the myth of African American mediocrity. Black Tulsans toed the colour line to economic advantage. This talented cadre of African American businesspersons and entrepreneurs plied their trades in rigidly segregated Tulsa, catering to a Black community separate and unequal in this soon-to-be “Oil Capital of the World.”
Black Wall Street seemed to have it all: movie theatres, dance halls, pool halls, restaurants, grocery stores, haberdasheries, furriers, dry cleaners, hotels, barber shops, beauty salons, transportation services, clothiers, professional services (e.g., doctors, lawyers, and dentists). The thoroughfare came especially alive on Thursday evenings. Thursday was “maid’s day off,” so Black domestic workers gussied up and strolled up and down Greenwood Avenue, basking in the rapt attention they garnered.
Black ties to Native Americans partially paved the road to relative Black prosperity and wealth, not just in Tulsa, but elsewhere in Oklahoma, including some of the all-Black towns and the successful Black communities in cities like Muskogee. Land allotments awarded to the Freedmen–African-descended persons emancipated after the Civil War by the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole)–helped sustain Black communities. Land ownership among the Freedmen provided access to money for investment and consumption. Despite opportunity, dark days lay ahead. Fear and jealousy swelled within the white community as African American economic successes, including home, business, and land ownership, mounted. Land lust set in. White corporate and railroad interests coveted Black Wall Street land. The Ku Klux Klan made its presence known. Media fanned the flames of racial discord.
A chance encounter between two teenagers lit the fuse that ignited the Tulsa tinderbox and set Black Wall Street alight. The alleged assault on a white girl by an African American boy on May 30, 1921, triggered unprecedented civil unrest. The girl, Sarah Page, recanted her initial claims. Propelled by sensational reporting in The Tulsa Tribune, a popular afternoon daily, resentment over Black achievement, land lust, and a racially-hostile climate in general, mob rule held sway. A large white crowd, thousands in number, amassed.
Authorities arrested the boy, Dick Rowland, and held him in a jail cell atop the courthouse. The burgeoning white mob threatened to lynch him. African American men raced to Rowland’s defense. They were few, but came armed and ready to engage if need be. Conflict ensued. A gun discharged. Chaos erupted. Soon, thousands of weapon-wielding white men, some deputized by local law enforcement, converged on the Greenwood District, destroying nearly everything in sight. Property damage ran into the millions, with at least 1,250 homes in the Black community destroyed and countless businesses, schools, churches, and other institutional structures destroyed. In addition to the likely hundreds killed, mostly Black, still more Tulsans suffered grievous bodily injury. Some Black Tulsans, shell-shocked and grief-stricken, fled town, never to return.
May 31st and June 1st 2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Dubbed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, but now more commonly referred to as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, this man-made calamity might more accurately be labeled an assault, a disaster, a massacre, a pogrom, a holocaust, or any number of other ghastly descriptors. The Tulsa tragedy would remain a taboo topic for decades. In the face of fierce resistance, Tulsa’s African American citizens rebuilt their community, brick by brick. By the early 1940s, the Greenwood District boasted more than 200 Black-owned businesses. Black Wall Street regained its former glory. In subsequent decades, integration, urban renewal (most notably, a new interstate highway), and a host of social, political, and economic dynamics spurred a second decline. Still, Greenwood District denizens held fast to hope. Preservation, restoration, and reconciliation became watchwords as healing history took centre stage.
Buoyed by its powerful past, Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District still lives. No longer a Black entrepreneurial mecca, its present iteration melds business, education, recreation, culture, and entertainment in a racially diverse enclave on the hallowed ground that birthed Black Wall Street.
For optimal viewing please view the enlarged version of this StoryMap by following this link.
Hannibal B. Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, consultant, and college professor. He writes and lectures about the history of the Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. His latest book is Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma. Other works include: Black Wall Street, Up from the Ashes, and Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.