What Happened to Black Wall Street?

Today a thriving center of black commerce and industry seems rare and, in some cases, even futuristic. However, these centers aren’t simply idealistic concepts or myths. Not only have they become real, but they’ve also been real and are much older than you think.

What was Black Wall Street?

Black Wall Street was a prosperous Black business district in the neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The community had banks, excellent schools, newspapers, restaurants, movie theaters, a grocery store, barbershops, homes, hotels, churches, and cafés. There were doctors and real estate agents all living and operating in the community. It was an oasis for the roughly 10,000 who lived there. However, this community didn’t come into existence by accident. The neighborhood’s success and creation were both very intentional. In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a wealthy African American from Arkansas, moved to Tulsa and purchased over 40 acres of land that he made sure was only sold to other African-Americans. It was a safe haven for those trying to escape from the physical and economic challenges of the surrounding areas.

The 1921 Massacre

On May 30, 1921, a young black shoe-shiner named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting a white woman named Sarah Page in the elevator of a building in Downtown Tulsa. Only a day later the Tulsa Tribune released a story claiming that Rowland had tried to rape Page and that a lynching was going to take place later that night. That same evening black and white mobs showed up outside of the courthouse where Rowland was being tried. Outside of the courthouse, an armed Black man who was protecting Rowland got into an altercation with a white protester that ended with the white protester’s death.

This enraged the white mob and a riot ensued. The riot would last for a full two days. White mobs attacked random black people and set businesses and homes on fire. The mobs completely destroyed people’s homes and businesses. Widespread looting took place. Survivors claim that airplanes dropped incendiary bombs that made the fires grow larger and spread faster. The initial reports claimed that 26 African Americans and 10 whites had died. Experts now believe that as many as 300 people were killed in the riots. In addition to this, several thousand people became homeless and $1.8 million in property loss claims were made – which would be $27 million today.

What happened after the Massacre?

After the violent destruction of the community, the people of Greenwood immediately searched for ways to rebuild. Black lawyers and professionals worked to rebuild, give legal assistance to people arrested during the riots, and sue the city. The district’s reconstruction was completed in 1922. The community would continue to thrive during the Great Depression and the first half of the 20th century. However, by 1961, 90% of Tulsa’s African American income was spent outside of Greenwood. This happened because of the entry of white businesses and African Americans investing in entities outside of Greenwood. The Tulsa Race Riot suggested that the state of Oklahoma pay $33 million in restitution, but this was never paid.

To make matters worse, this massacre never received proper attention. This catastrophic event has been largely disregarded in the way that it has not been taught in many of Oklahoma’s schools. It wasn’t added to the state’s curriculum until 2020. The impact of Black Wall Street’s destruction cannot be understated. It is important to remember Black Wall Street and many places like it such as Bronzeville in Chicago; Hayti in Durham, North Carolina; Sweet Auburn in Atlanta; West Ninth Street in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi. It is important to remember that is possible to create centers of Black industry and commerce. Black Wall Street was destroyed but can still be rebuilt, and it can still be recreated.

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