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The story of Black Wall Street has been all but erased—not only from U.S. history books—but also from much of America’s memory

By C. Zawadi Morris | Email the author | May 30, 2011

Wall Street is synonymous worldwide with commerce, wealth and power.

However, very few can say they’ve ever heard of “Black [Negro] Wall Street,” the name given to the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In fact, the story of Black Wall Street has been all but erased—not only from U.S. history books—but also from much of America’s memory. Tuesday, May 31, marks the 90th Anniversary of The Black Wall Street Massacre.

There’s no more fitting time than the present to remind all who will listen about this important occurrence in America’s history, as the story of Black Wall Street not only serves as a testament of how far we have come as a country in achieving equal rights, but also, how far we have left to go.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson renewed the Indian Removal Act, a great military effort to remove massive tribes of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole (sometimes collectively referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes).

With the renewal of this act, huge numbers of Native Americans were forced to abandon their homes in the Deep South and move to the West and Midwest areas of the United States. Many African-Americans accompanied these native tribes on their journey in what would later be known as the “Trail of Tears.”

A large group of blacks and natives began settling in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the Greenwood District. And by 1870, more than 6000 African-Americans and natives lived in the Oklahoma territory.

Oil was discovered in Tulsa around the late 1800s, early 1900s. By 1920, Tulsa, Oklahoma, had grown into a thriving, bustling, enormously wealthy town of 73,000 inhabitants, with bank deposits totaling over $65 million.

However, Tulsa was a “tale of two cities isolated and insular,” one black and one white. The city was so segregated that it was the only one in America that boasted of separate telephone booths.

Since blacks in Tulsa could neither live among whites as equals nor patronize white businesses, they began to develop a completely separate business district where only they shopped and spent money.

The business district, beginning at the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, became so successful and vibrant that Booker T. Washington during his visit bestowed on it the moniker “Negro Wall Street.” By 1921, Tulsa’s African-American population totaled 11,000.

Well-known African-American personalities often visited the Greenwood District, including educators Mary McCloud Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois, scientist George Washington Carver, opera singer Marian Anderson, blues singer Dinah Washington and noted Chicago chemist Percy Julian.

On May 31, 1921, the successful Black Greenwood District would be completely destroyed by one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. And it all started with one 19-year-old black man who bumped into a 17-year-old white girl in an elevator.

The young girl screamed. The frightened boy was seen running from the elevator by a group of whites, and by late afternoon the “Tulsa Tribune” reported that the girl had been raped, despite the girl’s denial of any wrongdoing. The boy was found and arrested anyway. A mob of reportedly 2000 white men gathered at the jail demanding his release. They wanted to lynch the prisoner.

In response, about 75 armed African Americans from the Greenwood District came to the jail to offer protection for the prisoner. Eventually, a fight broke out between the two groups, and the much larger mob decided to advance on the Greenwood District where they looted and then burned all the community’s businesses, homes and churches.

It is reported that any black resisters were shot and thrown into the fires. The fighting got so bad as the hours wore on that the National Guard was called in. However, when they arrived, they assisted the white townsmen by arresting all black men, women and children, and herding them into detention centers at the baseball park and convention hall.

As many as 4,000 Blacks were held under armed guards in detention. By the time the fighting ended, more than 300 African-American men, women and children were killed; more than 600 Black-owned businesses were destroyed; and 10,000 people were left homeless.

Dr. Arthur C. Jackson, a nationally renowned surgeon called by the Mayo brothers (of Mayo Clinic fame) “the most able Negro surgeon in America” was shot and killed at the convention hall.

By the next day, the entire Greenwood District was reduced to ashes. Not one white townsman was ever arrested or accused of any wrongdoing. After the Tulsa riot, the white townsmen tried to buy out the Greenwood District and force Black people out of town.

However, the Greenwood owners refused to sell any of their land. Instead, they spent the entire winter in tents donated by the American Red Cross. Within a year, many of the buildings along the first block of Greenwood Avenue were rebuilt. Within ten years, the tough little community had built back most of its homes, and business and commerce had begun to pick up again.

In 1926, W. E. B. DuBois visited Tulsa and wrote: “Black Tulsa is a happy city. It has new clothes. It is young and gay and strong. Five little years ago, fire and blood and robbery leveled it to the ground. Scars are there, but the city is impudent and noisy. It believes in itself. Thank God for the grit of Black Tulsa.”

Tuesday, May 31, at 6:00 pm, join New York Black Librarians Caucus in the Dionne Mack-Harvin African American Heritage Center at Macon Library, 301 Lewis Avenue, to view a screening of “Before They Die,” a documentary chronicling the Black Wall Street Massacre. A community reflection will begin at 7:30 pm.