Black History Month: Greenwood District, from Black Wall Street to Tulsa Race Massacre
What was once coined as “Black Wall Street”, Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma became synonymous with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre where a self-sustaining Black neighborhood was destroyed by a mob of White racists.
Greenwood District, circa 1917 (21516.91.B, Mary E. Jones Parrish Collection, OHS).
“Built for Black people, by Black people,” was the motto of O.W. Gurley, founder of the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood. Gurley purchased forty acres of Native American land in Tulsa, Oklahoma after the majority of the tribes were forced to relocate or assimilate into American culture due to the Dawes Act of 1887, with the intent of building a thriving Black community. Oklahoma held the most Black townships after the Civil War as many Black people were fleeing here, seeing it as a safe haven in post-emancipation America.
Tulsa, Oklahoma was a bustling city that housed over 100,000 people, though it was also highly segregated, meaning most of its 10,000 Black residents resided in Greenwood while they worked low-income janitorial or domestic jobs in the city. Gurley opened the first Black business on Greenwood Avenue in 1906, a boarding house for African-Americans, that quickly encouraged them to pack up and seek new opportunities in this newly-established district.
Soon, other noticeable entrepreneurs followed suit until Greenwood Avenue was a self-sustaining neighborhood with its own shops, restaurants, banks, hospital, school system, and more. Anything a person desired from a dentist to a nightclub could be found here, all Black-Owned businesses that allowed the community to maintain itself through a commitment of only spending within the district, even if you worked in the city.
According to the New York Times, during Greenwood’s peak, on just one street sat “four hotels, two newspapers, eight doctors, seven barbers, nine restaurants and a half-dozen professional offices of real estate agents, dentists and lawyers. A cabaret and a cigar shop were on the block, too.”
Though what grew to be known as America’s Black Wall Street was tragically destroyed in less than 24 hours in June of 1921 at the hands of racist White locals with the help of city officials, some of which were deputized and given weapons to.
On May 31, 1921, a Black teenage shoe-shiner named Dick Rowland rode the elevator of the Drexel Building in Tulsa with a White teenage elevator operator, Sarah Page, when she let out a scream that had the boy bolting in fear of being accused of an action he didn’t commit. Rumors of sexual assault were spread as locals watched him flee the scene, despite Page’s denial of such events occurring, and Rowland was soon arrested.
A large, angry, armed White mob met the outnumbered members of the Greenwood neighborhood at the courthouse, demanding they hand over Rowland to lynch him for his crimes before firing shots to scare away the opposing group. After their request was denied, they took their guns and torches to the streets of Greenwood come dusk.
Thousands of White citizens looted and burned down the neighborhood, destroying 35 blocks housing about 1200 homes, a library, church, hospital, schools, and many more Black-owned businesses, according to a Red Cross estimate.
Black Wall Street was standing one day, and gone the next at the hands of racism. With its history suppressed and its people either killed, injured, or old, the true story of Greenwood, Oklahoma was almost erased from existence. Tulsa officials acted as if the event never happened in an attempt to cover up its racist history though the citizens of Greenwood and their descendants have been very outspoken about the consequences of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and have been demanding reparation for over 100 years with no success.
Though exactly 100 years since the night, in May of 2021, a bill was reintroduced into congress with the intention of giving survivors and descendants an opportunity to receive reparations for the tragedy.