Black Wall Street: America’s Dirty Little Secrets (#GotBitcoin?)
The night’s carnage left some 3,000 African Americans dead, and over 600 successful businesses lost. Among these were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half dozen private airplanes and even a bus system. As could have been expected the impetus behind it all was the infamous Ku Klux Klan, working in consort with ranking city officials, and many other sympathizers. Black Wall Street: America’s Dirty Little Secrets
In their self-published book, Black Wall Street: A Lost Dream, and its companion video documentary, Black Wall Street: A Black Holocaust in America!, the authors have chronicled for the very first time in the words of area historians and elderly survivors what really happened there on that fateful summer day in 1921 and why it happened. Wallace similarly explained to me why this bloody event from the turn of the century seems to have had a recurring effect that is being felt in predominately Black neighborhoods even to this day.
The best description of Black Wall Street, or Little Africa as it was also known, would be liken it to a mini-Beverly Hills. It was the golden door of the Black community during the early 1900s, and it proved that African Americans had successful infrastructure. That’s what Black Wall Street was all about.
The dollar circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community. Now in 1995, a dollar leaves the Black community in 15-minutes. As far as resources, there were Ph.D.’s residing in Little Africa, Black attorneys and doctors. One doctor was Dr. Berry who owned the bus system. His average income was $500 a day, a hefty pocket change in 1910.
During that era, physicians owned medical schools. There were also pawn shops everywhere, brothels, jewelry stores, 21 churches, 21 restaurants and two movie theaters. It was a time when the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, yet six Blacks owned their own planes. It was a very fascinating community.
The area encompassed over 600 businesses and 36 square blocks with a population of 15,000 African Americans. And when the lower-economic Europeans looked over and saw what the Black community created, many of them were jealous. When the average student went to school on Black Wall Street, he wore a suit and tie because of the morals and respect they were taught at a young age.
The mainstay of the community was to educate every child. Nepotism was the one word they believed in. And that’s what we need to get back to in 1995. The main thoroughfare was Greenwood Avenue, and it was intersected by Archer and Pine Streets. From the first letters in each of those three names, you get G.A.P., and that’s where the renowned R and B music group the Gap Band got its name. They’re from Tulsa.
Black Wall Street was a prime example of the typical Black community in America that did businesses, but it was in an unusual location. You see, at the time, Oklahoma was set aside to be a Black and Indian state. There were over 28 Black townships there. One third of the people who traveled in the terrifying “Trail of Tears” along side the Indians between 1830 to 1842 were Black people.
The citizens of this proposed Indian and Black state chose a Black governor, a treasurer from Kansas named McDade. But the Ku Klux Klan said that if he assumed office that they would kill him within 48 hours. A lot of Blacks owned farmland, and many of them had gone into the oil business. The community was so tight and wealthy because they traded dollars hand-to-hand, and because they were dependent upon one another as a result of the Jim Crow laws.
It was not unusual that if a resident’s home accidentally burned down, it could be rebuilt within a few weeks by neighbors. This was the type of scenario that was going on day- to-day on Black Wall Street. When Blacks intermarried into the Indian culture, some of them received their promised ’40 acres and a mule’ and with that came whatever oil was later found on the properties.
Just to show you how wealthy a lot of Black people were, there was a banker in the neighboring town who had a wife named California Taylor. Her father owned the largest cotton gin west of the Mississippi [River]. When California shopped, she would take a cruise to Paris every three months to have her clothes made.
There was also a man named Mason in nearby Wagner County who had the largest potato farm west of the Mississippi. When he harvested, he would fill 100 boxcars a day. Another brother not far away had the same thing with a spinach farm. The typical family then was five children or more, though the typical farm family would have 10 kids or more who made up the nucleus of the labor.
On Black Wall Street, a lot of global business was conducted. The community flourished from the early 1900s until June 1, 1921. That’s when the largest massacre of non-military Americans in the history of this country took place, and it was lead by the Ku Klux Klan. Imagine walking out of your front door and seeing 1,500 homes being burned. It must have been amazing.
Survivors we interviewed think that the whole thing was planned because during the time that all of this was going on, white families with their children stood around the borders of their community and watched the massacre, the looting and everything–much in the same manner they would watch a lynching.
In my lectures I ask people if they understand where the word “picnic” comes from. It was typical to have a picnic on a Friday evening in Oklahoma. The word was short for “pick a nigger” to lynch. They would lynch a Black male and cut off body parts as souvenirs. This went on every weekend in this country, and it was all across the county. That’s where the term really came from.
Former ‘Black Wall Street’ Aims to Rebuild as Tulsa Comes Into National Spotlight
Historic and entrepreneurial efforts seek to transform Greenwood district nearly 100 years after race massacre.
“Black Wall Street” T-shirts were on display alongside local art and images of Angela Davis, Spike Lee and Toni Morrison at Ricco Wright’s art gallery Thursday, as jazz music played on a set of turntables.
It is a far cry from what the bustling black community of Greenwood, once known as Black Wall Street, was a century ago, before white mobs burned it to the ground and killed hundreds. But the neighborhood, just north of downtown Tulsa, has become part of the new wave of revitalization there as several entities work to reconcile a violent past and build new opportunities.
“For me it was about just bringing art, music and culture here,” said Mr. Wright, whose gallery moved to a new Greenwood location in March. “People are coming to pay their respects to the Black Wall Street pioneers, and those who lost their lives, and those who stayed, in an attempt to rebuild Black Wall Street.”
Tulsa and its violent history have entered the national spotlight. Protesters plan to take to the streets in Tulsa and in cities across the U.S. on Friday to mark Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery, and to demand reform to the American justice system after several killings of African-Americans by police. On Saturday, President Trump is hosting a rally here that officials expect will draw 100,000 people—supporters of the president and those coming to protest him—to this city of 400,000.
Mr. Trump tweeted on Friday: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!” He has previously criticized authorities in those cities for not taking a harder line against the violence and looting that has sometimes accompanied protests since the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The details of the 1921 massacre that destroyed Greenwood lay dormant for decades. Now, as the 100th anniversary approaches, the city is finally reckoning with its history of racial violence. A bipartisan contingent of state lawmakers created the 1921 Commission, which is building a history center commemorating the community that once existed and the massacre that destroyed it. It is financially supporting black artists and entrepreneurs and training teachers in how to tell students about its blighted past.
Greenwood, on the north side of Tulsa’s downtown, was once a thriving black business district, nationally known after World War I for its affluent African-American community, according to the Tulsa Historical Society. But in 1921, a young black man was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator, sparking a confrontation at the courthouse over his fate.
In response, white mobs destroyed the black neighborhood’s 35 blocks and killed as many as 300 people, historians believe. The rampage was dubbed a riot, which kept insurance companies from having to pay for any of the destroyed buildings, according to the historical society. For decades, even most Tulsa natives knew nothing about what had happened.
“There was always this idea in the back of the black community’s mind that this could happen again, so they didn’t talk about it,” said Phil Armstrong, project director for the 1921 Commission. “And in the white community it was such a black eye, such a stain on Tulsa, that they didn’t acknowledge it.”
Black business owners in Greenwood rebuilt—for a time—until many lost their land again in the 1950s and ’60s to government seizures for interstate construction and other “urban renewal” projects, historians said. The community shifted farther north and its businesses faded away.
A major goal of the 1921 Commission is to promote black homeownership and business ownership in a newly economically charged area, Mr. Armstrong said. “These people were able to rebuild,” he said. “That’s an amazing story. It’s the American story. A story of resilience.”
Dirt has begun moving at the site of the 11,000-square-foot history center, which the commission expects to be finished in time for events next year marking the centennial of the June 1 massacre.
“We wanted it to be unifying for Tulsa,” said state Sen. Kevin Matthews, who spearheaded the commission’s creation in 2015.
When Venita Cooper decided to step away from a career as a school administrator and pursue selling sneakers, which had always been her passion, she found help from all over the place, she said. She attended a Tulsa Economic Development Corp. business-planning course, and was able to receive a low-interest loan. She got training from Black UpStart, which helps develop black entrepreneurs, and she won a pitch contest that granted her $17,500 in startup funding. She met a landlord eager for a concept like hers.
“It was like all these supports came from across the community,” Ms. Cooper said. “The mayor was my first customer.”
Ms. Cooper opened Silhouette Sneakers & Art in Greenwood last year, where it is doing well, despite being only months old when Covid-19 lockdowns forced it to close, she said. A non-native Tulsan, she said learning about the area’s history has been eye-opening.
“But we’re not going to be Black Wall Street as we knew it, 36 blocks of tight black businesses,“ she said. ”There are black entrepreneurs building businesses all across Tulsa.”
Each classroom at the Greenwood Leadership Academy, a nonprofit elementary school in North Tulsa, is named after one of the businesses that once existed on Black Wall Street. The aim is to “drill into students that they come from excellence,” said Jabar Schumate, director of the Met Cares Foundation, which opened the school in 2014.
Brenda Alford, a Tulsa career-safety coordinator, overheard enough conversations as a child to grow up with the vague knowledge that her grandmother once had to hide in a church for her life. But she didn’t find out about the massacre until she was an adult, when a law firm contacted her about a possible lawsuit for reparations.
Her grandparents had been successful African-American entrepreneurs, owners of multiple homes and businesses, including a shoe shop, record shop and chauffeur service. All were burned to the ground as they fled for their lives. Afterward, the family rebuilt and restarted the shoe business, but they never reached the same level of affluence, Ms. Alford said.
“Our families would have liked to promote generational wealth in our families, but we never had that opportunity,” she said. “We lost our economic base.”
The current Greenwood efforts are important for both recognition of the past and the future, Ms. Alford said.
“It’s not a sense of ‘Let’s do it.’ It is ‘Let’s bring it back, because our ancestors did it so well,’ ” she said.
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