The Creation And Destruction Of "Black Wall Street"

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     Brilliant. Prosperous. Beautiful. Innovative. Resilient. It’s regrettable, but these words cannot completely articulate the neighborhood of Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and what it probably meant to its residents. This 40 square block area of homes encapsulated what would later become one of the most prosperous black communities in the early 20th century, and garner the name “Black Wall Street”. However, as lovely as that sounds, there are additional words that describe the history of Black Wall Street, and these words aren’t as warm and uplifting, unfortunately: monstrous, deplorable, infuriating, and short-lived. Put simply, for black Americans in the early 20th century, Black Wall Street was probably something of a beautiful star that lit up an ungodly amount of darkness around them. However, a star will be a star, and sooner or later, it’ll burn out.

     The Oklahoma of the late 19th and early 20th century was an image of hope and safe-haven for blacks that desired to escape the oppressive and often times, life threatening racism in various segments of the country. For those that ventured out, it was a new beginning, and that beginning gave birth to what would become Black Wall Street.

     In 1899, black entrepreneur J.B. Strafford bought extensive segments of undeveloped land to which he only sold to black buyers, believing that blacks would have an easier time at economic progress if they supported each other’s businesses and pooled their resources. One such buyer was O.W. Gurley, who went on to buy vast acres of land and constructed both a rooming house and various residences that he rented out to black migrants escaping racial oppression.

     From the efforts of J.B. Strafford and O.W. Gurley, the framework was laid for the neighborhood of Greenwood to flourish, and evolve into Black Wall Street. And due in part to the Jim Crow laws that prohibited blacks from shopping anywhere else besides other black businesses, the black dollar stayed in the community. Al Jazeera reported that a dollar would circulate 19 times before leaving Greenwood, however, other sources claim numbers between 36-100 times.

     At the height of its glory, six black families had their own planes, and this was during a time when the whole state of Oklahoma only possessed two airports. There was a litany of black owned businesses and establishments, including: schools, theaters, grocery stores, and hospitals. So the question is, how did Black Wall Street’s brilliance burn out and become like a lot of other elements of black history, an intentionally buried memory? Well, it began like a lot of other racially charged demonstrations of violence: a sketchy or made up accusation with no real basis.

     As the story goes, on May 30th, 1921, a black 19 year old named Dick Rowland, was riding in an elevator that was operated by a white 17 year old, named Sarah Page. Rowland tripped as he was getting off the elevator and grabbed Page’s arm to keep from falling. Page screamed and Rowland subsequently fled; a white clerk came to investigate the noise and immediately assumed that Page had been sexually assaulted. To her credit, Paige denied the assault claim, upon questioning from the police. However, it didn’t do much good; like a snowball going down a steep hill, the story gathered speed and weight, until it was a massive ball of prejudice, ignorance, and hatred.

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     In the afternoon, the Tulsa Tribune ran a headline stating, “Nab Negro For Attacking Girl In Elevator”. As a result, a white mob consisting of thousands, assembled outside the jail clamoring to get their hands on Rowland. An excellent article from Al Jazeera contained a quick summary of what happened next:

A group of black men, many of them World War I veterans, armed themselves and went to the courthouse to protect Rowland, determined that a black person would not be lynched in their town. More than 75 of them twice arrived at the courthouse to offer their services to defend Rowland against a mob of thousands of angry whites. They were twice denied. Their departure from the courthouse the second time would be the tipping point. According to the official report, a white man approached one of the black men, who was armed with a revolver. The white man demanded he hand it over, and he refused. When the white man tried to disarm him, the gun went off and the riot began.”

     What ensued can only be described as animalistic carnage. Thousands of whites, ranging from ordinary civilians to law enforcement, stormed through Greenwood: stores were looted, valuables stolen, buildings bombed, and businesses lit aflame. Thirty-five blocks were wiped out, with reports of black fatalities ranging somewhere around 300. Thousands of homes were destroyed which left over 9,000 people holding the ashes of their former furniture, in addition, when the National Guard finally arrived, they arrested four to five thousand black men and women and held them in custody for several days. Not one white person was arrested.

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     When it was all said and done, 1.5 million dollars in damage had been inflicted (20 million dollars contemporary currency). Any support came from within the black community itself, or the few whites too empathetic to turn a blind eye. The city never lifted a finger to help reimburse its citizens, not then, not now.

     However, whose fault is it that such a thing occurred? Many may say that it was obviously the white residents of Tulsa, some may say that both the black and white groups were at fault, and knowing this country, even a few may say that the fault lies with the black residents. However, it would appear that more than anyone, the fault falls on this country, as it was the one that created the circumstances necessary to have such a tragedy occur, and multiple times throughout its history at that.

     The anxiety felt by white men returning from WW1 who couldn’t find jobs during the reconstruction era; the raw and pure envy felt by whites that were made to witness every day, black people prospering when they were supposed to be infinitely inferior; the racist Jim Crow Laws which reinforced an already blatant “Us vs Them” mentality, that not only segregated but oppressed and crippled blacks economically; and finally, the resurrection of the KKK in 1815 and the flourishing of it from the early to mid 1820’s, helped to facilitate the conditions necessary for such a grand scale of violence.

 Black Wall Street Memorial in Tulsa, OK

Black Wall Street Memorial in Tulsa, OK

     In the following years, the survivors would help to rebuild Black Wall Street, which flourished once again. However, the end of segregation marked the end of this once prosperous neighborhood, as blacks moved away to pursue what appeared to them, as a wider range of opportunities. Thus, putting that final nail in the coffin of what once was, and leaving a lot of people like myself wondering, what could have been.