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The creation of Black Wall Street in Greenwood during the early 1900s is one of the proudest achievements in Black American history. Not so long ago, Black men and women were segregated, not allowed to own property or vote, and faced racial violence. Despite this, Black people banded together to create their own self-sustaining communities with thriving economies, the finest example of which was Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The founder of Black Wall Street was O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American landowner. In 1906, Gurley purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa, naming it Greenwood after the town in Mississippi, from where many of new settlers travelled. Gurley had a vision to “create something for Black people by Black people.”
Gurley started by building a boarding house for Blacks. Next, he set up a system where he would loan money to people who wanted to start a business. Word began to spread that Greenwood offered opportunities for Black people. Former Black slaves and Black sharecroppers fleeing oppression relocated to the region.
Soon, other successful Black entrepreneurs started to move to Greenwood. J.B. Stradford, a lawyer and son of former slaves, built a string of rental properties and the famous 54-room Stradford Hotel on Greenwood Avenue. Gurley also built multiple rental properties, his own hotel and a grocery store which he supplied with produce from his 80-acre farm.
Other prominent Black business owners who moved to Greenwood included John and Loula Williams who built the 750-seat Dreamland Theatre cinema, and Andrew Smitherman who ran the Tulsa Star newspaper. With this level of investment, Greenwood soon had its own hospital, public library and a highly admired school system. There were offices for Black lawyers and doctors, restaurants and luxury shops.
By 1921 Greenwood was a thriving center of Black wealth which was completely self-sustaining. One dollar spent in Greenwood would circulate within the neighborhood’s Black-owned businesses at least 36 times. The district’s success inspired Black author Booker T. Washington to coin it “Black Wall Street.”
But all this was about to change. On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young Black man named Dick Rowland rode in an elevator operated by a young white woman named Sarah Page. The accounts of what happened next vary, but it’s widely believed that Rowland accidentally came into contact with Page, possibly by tripping and falling into her, causing her to scream.
A witness heard the scream and called the police who arrested Rowland. An article in the Tulsa Tribune falsely claimed that Rowland had assaulted Page. Wildly exaggerated accounts of what happened circulated among the city’s white community, with some even suggesting he had raped the woman.
On the morning of June 1, an angry mob of over a thousand white vigilantes ran riot in Tulsa, attacking and shooting any Black people they found. The white mob looted and burned businesses and homes. The Black residents fought bravely to defend their community, but they were vastly outnumbered and could not prevail.
When the violence was over, an estimated 300 people had been killed and 1,200 homes had been burned. Most of Greenwood’s 10,000 Black residents became homeless and were forced to live in tents. Rowland was eventually exonerated, but an all-white grand jury decided not to charge any white residents for the violence and instead blamed everything on the Black residents.
Despite the devastation wrought on the Greenwood District, some Black residents were determined to stay and rebuild their city. Work started immediately after the massacre and by the end of 1921 hundreds of structures had been rebuilt, including the Dreamland Theatre. By 1925, Greenwood was ready to hold the annual conference of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, and by 1942 the neighborhood was home to more than 200 black-owned businesses.
Still, most of the neighborhood’s surviving Black residents never fully recovered the wealth that was stolen from them. Sometimes Black women would even see white women walking down the street in their stolen jewelry.
Many of the entrepreneurs who had founded Greenwood lost their fortunes and left Tulsa. Gurley moved to Los Angeles, and little is known of what happened to him thereafter. Stratford moved to Chicago to set up a successful law practice. Smitherman’s newspaper press had been destroyed and he left for Massachusetts.
By the 1950s, increasing integration across the country meant that Black residents were no longer restricted to spending money at Black-owned businesses. This resulted in money being diverted outside the community. In the 1960s and ‘70s, urban renewal schemes tore down much of the remaining Greenwood District to make room for public works projects, including the construction of a major highway cutting through the neighborhood.
In 2001, the Oklahoma state commission was tasked with making a fact-finding report to officially acknowledge the tragedy of the 1921 massacre. Their intention was to make amends to the community for the massacre having been ignored by local government for decades. The commission found that reparations should be made to the survivors of the massacre and their descendants. However, in 2004 a federal judge disagreed with their findings and ruled against the payment of any reparations.
In 2018 local officials organized the creation of a vibrant “Black Wall Street” mural painted on the side of the main highway running through the Greenwood District. Also local leaders helped secure $25 million towards a renovation and expansion project at the Greenwood Cultural Center which will include an installation designed to tell the story of Greenwood before and after the 1921 massacre. The project is due to complete in 2021, just before the massacre’s 100th anniversary.
2020 saw renewed efforts to restore the area once known as “Black Wall Street” to its former glory. The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10 million to rebuild the district. And in March 2020, community organizations joined hands to restore the Tusla home of one of the few remaining survivors of the massacre, 105-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle.
The success of Black Wall Street proved that Black entrepreneurs could overcome racial discrimination and segregation to create vast wealth and overturn any notions of white supremacy. Although Black Wall Street is gone today, its legacy serves as an inspiration to build thriving Black neighborhoods with their own banks, businesses and schools serving prosperous and vibrant communities. Are you ready to join the new Greenwood?
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