It may be hard to imagine today that black people could be unified enough to have a successful all-black community, but in early 20th Century America, that’s exactly what happened.
Greenwood is a neighbourhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was once a prosperous, modern, cultured Black community dubbed Negro Wall Street by Booker T Washington during a visit to Tulsa. The area was also referred to as Little Africa. During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, the name was changed to The Black Wall Street.
It was the most affluent all-Black community in America until 1 June 1921, when it was burned and bombed out by jealous white folks.
How many Black Wall Streets are there?
The Black Wall Street that I am talking about should not be confused with Parrish Street, in Durham, North Carolina, which was also referred to as Black Wall Street due to the success of black-owned businesses such as Mechanics and Farmers Bank and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Nor should it be confused with Jackson Ward which is a historically Black neighbourhood in Richmond, Virginia. Jackson Ward came into its own after the American Civil War when previously free blacks joined freed slaves and their descendants and created a thriving Black business community that also became known as the “Black Wall Street of America.
As you can see, there were a few thriving black communities back in the day clamouring for the title, but Greenwood is the focus of this article.
How Greenwood began
Oklahoma was set aside to be a Black and Indian state, and Blacks had first migrated to Oklahoma around 1830 with the Five Civilized Tribes who settled there as a result of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Freedmen, former slaves who gained tribal membership through marriage, and slaves owned by tribal members participated in the forced exodus from traditional Native American homelands to the new territory. This settlement resulted in Oklahoma eventually having over 28 black townships.
The citizens of the township proposed that the Native American and black state choose a black governor, a treasurer from Kansas named McDade. Despite being a target of hatred and death threats from organized groups like the KKK, McDade ignored the warnings not to take up office.
The goal of the original Indian and Black settlers was to create a multi-ethnic community so both would advance after the end of the Civil War. They had intermarried and prospered and were ready to help to grow the country peacefully together.
Segregation in Oklahoma
In 1907 when Oklahoma became a state, the legislature quickly passed laws, commonly known as Jim Crow laws guaranteeing segregation. The first Oklahoma state constitution in 1907 segregated public schools then the legislature added laws segregating transportation and forbidding intermarriage.
Oklahoma later segregated various public accommodations, while some towns segregated residential areas. In 1910 the state adopted a literacy test and a grandfather clause to disfranchise African Americans. Both measures were declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1915 in Guinn and Beal v United States.
The Greenwood community in Tulsa was a good example of how blacks worked together to build a successful neighbourhood, even in the midst of such white prejudice.
The oil booms of the early twentieth century provided a boost to Black migration. The need for labourers in the oil fields and related industries presented employment opportunities eagerly sought by Blacks in all parts of the United States.
By 1908, the commercial area known as Greenwood was established by Black businessmen. The Acme Brick Company was located two blocks north of Greenwood. The close proximity of the brick plant resulted in the extensive use of brick in building construction in the Greenwood area.
The backbone of the community was Greenwood Avenue. Running north for more than a mile – from Archer Street and the Frisco yards all the way past Pine – it was not only black Tulsa’s primary thoroughfare. Unlike other streets and avenues in Tulsa, which crisscrossed both white and black neighbourhoods, Greenwood Avenue was essentially confined to the Black community.
The southern end of Greenwood Avenue, and adjacent side streets, was the home of the Black commercial district. Nicknamed “Deep Greenwood”, this several block stretch of handsome one, two, and three-story red brick buildings housed dozens of black-owned and operated businesses.
Outside of the commercial district, a lot of Blacks owned farmland, and many of them had gone into the oil business.
At its height, the Greenwood district boasted fifteen grocery stores, four movie houses, two newspapers, four drug stores, a library, an ambulance service, funeral homes, a hospital, four chilli parlours, nightclubs and thirteen churches. The community also had their own lawyers, doctors and dentists.
The Daily Tulsa Star was a newspaper for blacks, edited and published by attorney Andrew J. Smitherman. He established the Daily Tulsa Star in 1913 and continued to operate the newspaper until 1921, when the newspaper plant was destroyed in the so-called Tulsa Race Riot.
The community was wealthy because money was circulated within the community and because they were dependent upon one another as a result of the Jim Crow laws and segregated commerce. The dollar circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community. Now a dollar leaves the Black community in 15 minutes.
They were also very close; it was not unusual that if a resident’s home accidentally burned down, it could be rebuilt within a few weeks by neighbours. One of the main initiatives of the community was to educate every child. Nepotism was practised openly.
When Blacks intermarried into the Indian culture, some of them received their promised “40 acres and a mule” and with that came whatever oil was later found on the properties. On Black Wall Street, a lot of global business was conducted.
By 1921 there were over 11,000 residents operating a variety of successful businesses that were patronised by both white and black Tulsans. It was a time when the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, yet six Blacks owned their own planes.
John Williams and Loula Williams were early pioneers who operated several businesses in the community. John was a skilled mechanic, and White customers brought their vehicles to his shop to be serviced. From the profits made at the auto shop, the couple constructed a three-story building with a popular confectionery on the street level, residential quarters on the second floor, and rented the third floor to attorneys. The Williams Confectionery became the most popular hang out for the young. Right next to the confectionery, they built the Dreamland Motion Picture Theater.
The theatre was a prominent entertainment spot owned by Loula, who operated a chain of theatres. Here the community enjoyed silent films, theatrical reviews and live musicals. The theatre seated over 750 people.
Mabel Little was the owner of Little Rose Beauty Salon, located right in the heart of the business district in Greenwood. When Mabel left Boley, Oklahoma, for Tulsa, she had a total of one dollar and fifty cents in her pocket. For the first few years, Mabel cleaned motel rooms and saved her money. By 1915, she started washing, straightening and waving hair, a skill she learned from her aunt. Soon, her shop was filled with customers, especially on Thursdays, because that night was “Maid’s Night Out” in Greenwood. All the young ladies who worked in White homes during the week looked forward to Thursday night when they could walk proudly down Greenwood Avenue with their nice hairstyles.
Mabel lost her beauty parlour, her and her husband’s restaurant next door and some rental property as a result of the massacre.
The Greenwood community also boasted a hotel called the Redwing Hotel that provided first-rate accommodations for its customers. A bus line was available to the residents that was owned and operated by Simon Berry, who ran his buses downtown to accommodate the Black community who worked there. At its peak, Berry’s bus company was earning $500 daily, a tremendous amount of money for that time period.
Berry proudly reinvested back into his community and purchased land to establish a park for local residents to enjoy. This park included a dance hall, a picnic area, and a swimming pool. Berry conducted his enterprise for over twenty-five years and later sold it to the city to consolidate transportation efforts around Tulsa. He agreed to sell on the terms that African Americans would be allowed to ride and that black drivers would still operate the routes in the Greenwood district.
Berry and his business partner James Lee also operated an airline charter service that many black and white businessmen patronised. They were taken to their destinations with Simon Berry as their pilot. Another form of local transportation was Your Cab Company which was utilised by the local residents.
Greenwood residents enjoyed many luxuries that their White neighbours did not, including indoor plumbing and a remarkable school system that superiorly educated Black children
Black Wall Street proved that Black people could create a successful infrastructure.
Destruction of Black Wall Street
The community flourished until 1 June 1921. That’s when Greenwood became the site of the bloodiest and largest massacres of non-military action in the history of America. And it was led by the Ku Klux Klan. The bombing of Greenwood is commonly known as the ‘Tulsa Race Riots’, but it should be called what it really was, a massacre of a Black community by jealous white folks.
In a period spanning fewer than 12 hours, this once thriving Black business district lay in ashes.
What started the Tulsa race massacre?
An incident between Dick Rowland, a black man, and Sarah Page, a young white woman, in an elevator at the Drexel Building is said to have sparked the riot. It’s not exactly clear what the chain of events was — even the state’s official report lists a variety of stories surrounding what happened — but most credible accounts agree on the basic facts.
On 30 May, 19-year-old Rowland entered the elevator in the Drexel Building to go up and use the bathroom. He worked shining shoes on the bottom floor. The elevator was operated by 17-year-old Page. Rowland tripped as he was exiting the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm in an effort to steady himself. She screamed, and he fled the elevator. A white clerk from a nearby store came to investigate the noise and assumed Page, seemingly distraught from the incident, had been assaulted by Rowland and called the police.
Just like Chinese whispers, the retelling of the story became more inflammatory as it spread. Rowland hid in Greenwood, terrified he’d be lynched for allegedly raping a white girl.
Roland was arrested and taken to the courthouse the next morning. That afternoon, the front-page story of the Tulsa Tribune read, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” and according to WD Williams, an African-American resident of Tulsa and witness to the destruction of Greenwood, the Tribune carried an editorial entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
The article claimed that Rowland had attacked Page and implied rape. Shortly after the article appeared, a vigilante mob arrived at the courthouse to demand that police turn him over to the crowd.
Upon hearing the rumours that there were plans to lynch Rowland, around 75 of the men of Greenwood with World War I combat experience, headed toward the courthouse in order to protect him if the police chose to release him to the mob. They were met by the sheriff, who insisted that they go home. Their presence was not welcomed, and many were told by whites in the area, “niggas go home.”
They were talked into leaving, but three carloads of black men showed up shortly after. Whites and blacks continued to arrive at the courthouse until there were thousands of men outside. The riot began when a white man tried to wrestle a gun from one of the men from Greenwood, and a shot was fired during the struggle.
This was interpreted as a declaration of war. The immediate response from the gathered mob, and possibly police, was to open fire on the Blacks, who fired back while retreating toward Greenwood.
Whites riot in Greenwood
People began to scatter, and the white mobs began to arm themselves and head for Greenwood. Local authorities did little to stop events. Instead, Tulsa police officers deputised former members of the lynch mob and, according to an eyewitness, instructed them to “get a gun and get a nigger.” This sequence of events provided them with the excuse they needed to destroy the blacks who they hated and resented, to begin with. Even more angry whites – now well-armed – headed across the tracks into Greenwood.
Rumours of a black uprising spread throughout white Tulsa, and rumours of an invasion of Greenwood travelled to black residents. Both blacks and whites began arming themselves, and the Greenwood district was surrounded by cars full of white men.
National troops were called in, and they, along with local police and white mobs, went into Greenwood to disarm and arrest any black man with a weapon. Units of the National Guard spent most of the night protecting a white neighbourhood from a feared but non-existent black counter-attack.
The police joined the mobs in looting and burning property. Some black residents shot at whites from inside buildings and were slowly pushed further and further into Greenwood as they defended property and then retreated. They were no match for the racist mob who even used planes to drop flammable liquid bombs from the air, thus ensuring total destruction.
Black men who fought back to protect their families, homes and businesses were arrested and killed. They were outnumbered by 10 to one.
Aftermath of the burning of Black Wall Street
The night’s carnage left more than 300 Blacks dead. A lot of them were buried in mass graves all around the city. More than 9,000 were left homeless. Many of the survivors mentioned bodies were stacked like cordwood.
Over 600 successful businesses were lost. Among these were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theatres, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half dozen private aeroplanes and even a bus system. As could have been expected, the impetus behind it all was the infamous Ku Klux Klan, working in consort with ranking city officials and many other sympathisers.
Teacher Linda Christenson wrote this about the massacre:
“The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31—June 1, 1921 in Greenwood, a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In fact, the term itself implies that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others.
Alicia Murphy writes:
“The aftermath of the riot continued to serve as a reminder to the black residents of Greenwood about the cruel realities of being black in 20th century America. They were held against their will under armed guard by their attackers and the National Guard.
However, when the white community realized that their businesses and homes could not be run without the black community, a system was set up to get their workforce back. One device that was implemented was the edict of green cards. White men were required to come and verify that their workers were among the prisoners and make sure that “their” blacks would be supervised and kept under strict control. A prominent black architect had a white associate vouch for him to gain his release from the camp.
The local paper praised the usage of the green tags and reported that they helped separate the good blacks from the bad ones. It also helped the so-called “good Negroes” by ensuring that they would not be idle but would instead maintain conduct acceptable to the whites. As reported in the Tribune:
“The green card does something more than to help the city get rid of the bad Negro. It is the certificate of the industry and decency to every Negro who carries it. It marks him as of the better class, just as the absence of the card brands the other fellow as one to be looked upon with suspicion, if not to be got rid of. In this hour of our reconstruction let every good negro who is entitled to his green card, get it without delay.”
A now-legendary editorial in the 4 June 1921 edition of the Tulsa Tribune summed the up the sentiments of most Tulsans.
“In this old Niggertown were a lot of bad niggers and a bad nigger is about the lowest thing that walks on two feet. Give a bad nigger his booze and his dope and a gun and he thinks he can shoot up the world. And all of these four things can be found in ‘Niggertown’—booze, dope, bad niggers and guns. The Tulsa Tribune make no apology to the police commissioners or to the mayor of this city for having pled with them to clean up the cesspools in this city.”
The Black press obviously had a different take on the massacre.
Survivors who were interviewed think that the whole event was planned because, during the time that the burning, looting and bombing was going on, White families with their children stood around the borders of their community and watched the massacre in the same way they would watch a lynching.
Reportedly the only person prosecuted for the Riot was a Black man who was arrested for carrying a weapon, and his sentence was fairly light.
Tulsa race massacre survivors seek justice
The large majority of Tulsa’s Black population had been made homeless by the riot. Despite efforts by the white establishment to force the relocation of the black community, within days of the riot, black Tulsans had already begun the long and laborious process of rebuilding Greenwood. Thousands, however, were forced to spend the winter of 1921-22 living in tents. To this day, no insurance claims or any restitution has been paid.
The Tulsa massacre or “race riot” was hidden from history for a very long time. In 1996, following increased attention to the riot because of the 75th anniversary of the event, the state legislature authorised the Tulsa Race Riot Commission to study and prepare a “historical account” of the riot.
In 2001 the commission delivered its final report calling for substantial restitution. Recommendations include more than 300 college scholarships for descendants of Greenwood residents, the creation of a memorial to those who died in the riot and called for new efforts to promote economic development in Greenwood.
A documentary, “Before They Die!” has been made about the survivors and their quest for justice. It chronicles efforts in Oklahoma to gain reparations for the survivors.
Find out more about Black Wall Street:
Watch: Black Wall Street, Little Africa, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Buy: One Day in May! On DVD from www.BeforeTheyDieMovie.com