For Black History month, I wanted to share a few black stories as they relate to finance. I’m kicking things off by talking about Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
This piece of history hits close to home for me, quite literally. My family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma when I was in the 5th grade. I attended public school. Never once in my youth (history classes or otherwise) was Black Wall Street or the Tulsa Race Massacre ever mentioned. In fact, I only learned about it in my late 20’s when I moved back to Tulsa for a couple of years. While walking around downtown, I saw a sign mentioning that the area was formerly Black Wall Street. After some extensive googling and asking around, I was horrified to learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the fact that it’s now been 100 years, and we are just now starting to talk about it.
(As of 2020, Oklahoma has now included the Tulsa Race Massacre in its curriculum. You can find statutes, monuments, and memorials throughout the city memorializing Black Wall Street and its horrific massacre.)
WHAT WAS BLACK WALL STREET
Black Wall Street was a district located in Tulsa, Oklahoma commonly known as the Greenwood District. Just before Oklahoma became a state (in 1907), O.W. Gurley (a wealthy African-American man) purchased 40 acres of land that he divied up and sold to other African-American land owners and entrepreneurs who, together, named this area “Greenwood.”
This group had a vision to make a robust and safe area both physically and economically for black settlers, as black settlers were largely excluded from the overwhelmingly white dominated economy in the southern United States. It was difficult for Black settlers to get loans or access to capital to start businesses from white owned and dominated banks. Because of this, Gurley began loaning his own money to other black entrepreneurs to help establish Greenwood.
Around this time, in the early 1900’s, Oklahoma experienced its oil boom– it ranked first among the states in the Midwest in oil production for more than three decades. As a result of this and Gurley’s band of entrepreneurs, Greenwood flourished. It quickly became the center for Black wealth in the United States. Booker T. Washington coined the phrase for this area as “Negro Wall Street,” now, Black Wall Street.
WHAT DID BLACK WALL STREET CONSIST OF?
Black Wall Street was a strong community of over 10,000 residents which consisted of thriving hotels, rental properties, entertainment, a movie theater, offices of attorneys and doctors, a Black news outlet, hospital, banks, luxury shops, and a public library. The district was 35 square blocks located immediately adjacent to present day downtown Tulsa.
WHAT MADE BLACK WALL STREET SUCCESSFUL?
Black Wall Street was a community committed to growth. The community provided each other with access to financial capital, jobs, education, health care, and housing. More than 10,000 residents made this community robust, and there was a strong distribution of wealth among them. Black Wall Street operated independently from a white dominated economy and it allowed them to thrive in spite of outside forces (i.e. segregation, systemic racism).
TULSA RACE MASSACRE OF 1921
Over Memorial Day weekend 1921, a 19-year-old shoe shiner named Dick Rowland, entered the Drexel building in down town Tulsa to use the rest room, located on the top floor of the building and one of the only restrooms he was allowed to use as a black man in this area. A white woman, Sarah Page, was working as the elevator operator. Because it was Memorial Day weekend, most everything in downtown Tulsa was closed that day, i.e., there weren’t many people around and it was unusual that Page and Rowland were working that weekend. Some bystanders heard Page scream and later saw Rowland running from the building. A few different reports indicated that Rowland accidentally tripped into Page and Page’s official report stated that Rowland grabbed her arm. Nevertheless, Rowland was accused of rape. Rumors of the rape quickly spread throughout Tulsa and Rowland was accosted by white civilians and eventually taken into custody.
The Tulsa Tribune ran an article that falsely stated Rowland assaulted Page which of course, fueled the untrue rumor and incited violence among white Tulsans. Hundreds of white men gathered around the jail where Rowland was being held. Fearing that Rowland would be lynched, black residents also gathered outside the jail.
A member from one of the white groups attempted to disarm a member of the black group, and a shot was fired. Both groups started firing shots resulting in the death of 12 people. The news of these deaths traveled quickly through the city, and resulted in the attack of Black Wall Street. Over 1,000 white rioters took to Black Wall Street looting, burning down homes and businesses, and murdering 300 black residents. Private airplanes owned by white residents dropped firebombs on Black Wall Street. In just 16 hours, the 35 blocks that made up Black Wall Street and the Greenwood District were completely destroyed.
Eventually, the National Guard was summoned by the governor at around 9:00am the following day. The group from the National Guard stopped to have breakfast before rolling into stop the rioting at around noon. Reports suggest that both the Tulsa Police and National Guard arrested black residents and some even joined in on the attack. An official report from the Oklahoma Commission of the Tulsa Race Riot reported that the city of Tulsa had conspired with the white mob against the black residents.
WHAT HAPPENED TO BLACK WALL STREET AFTER THE MASSACRE?
After the massacre, roughly 10,000 residents became homeless. Many left the state of Oklahoma but more than 4,000 residents were placed in tents in camps for months. Bodies of the deceased were buried in mass graves that weren’t discovered until 2019.
Rowland was eventually exonerated of the charges against him for the rape of Page. No white people were ever prosecuted for the massacre, murders, and violence that took place.
Following the massacre, white city officials rezoned Black Wall Street and made it an “industrial area” for many decades. Currently, it is undergoing some revitalization where restaurants, apartment complexes, small shops, and even the Tulsa Driller’s stadium can be found there.
WHY DOES LEARNING ABOUT BLACK WALL STREET MATTER
Here are some of my own takeaways from Black Wall Street. First, communities who do much to uplift each other– supporting local businesses, helping other people gain access to jobs, education, and financial capital– not only uplift those being helped but helps entire communities to rise. Putting a person or group of people down does not elevate you or anyone else.
Second, systemic racism has made and continues to make it very difficult for black people to thrive economically. If we want our communities in the United States to thrive, we must not only recognize, but actively condemn racist policies. Oppression condemns the oppressed and the oppressor.
Third, don’t conceal things on the basis that they don’t look pretty. Tulsa concealed this piece of history for many decades, long after reparations could be made to victims of these hate crimes. That is a tragedy. Face problems (even as horrific as this event) head on so you can learn and heal.
Happy Black History month. Join me and share black stories that matter in the comments.
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