Black Wall Street
Tulsa Race Massacre 100 Years Later : Why it Happened and Why it ’ s still Relevant Today
Program Success 10 June 2021
By Randi Richardson Guest Columnist
The city ’ s “ Black Wall Street ” was among the most prosperous neighborhoods in America , and a Black Utopia - and then it was burned to the ground .
Just decades after slavery in the United States left Black Americans in an economic and societal deficit , one bright spot stood out in Tulsa , Oklahoma — its Greenwood District , known as the “ Black Wall Street ,” where Black business leaders , homeowners , and civic leaders thrived . But 100 years ago , on May 31 , 1921 , and into the next day , a white mob destroyed that district , in what experts call the single-most horrific incident of racial terrorism since slavery .
An estimated 300 people were killed within the district ’ s 35 square blocks , burning to the ground more than 1,200 homes , at least 60 businesses , dozens of churches , a school , a hospital and a public library , according to a report issued by Human Rights Watch .
The Williams Building , no . 2 on Greenwood Ave ., site of the Dreamland Theater , June 1 , 1921 , in Tulsa , Okla . Department of Special Collections , McFarlin Library , The University of Tulsa .
At least $ 1.4 million in damages were claimed after the massacre , or about $ 25 million in today ’ s dollars , after controlling for inflation and the current economy , but experts say it ’ s an underestimation .
Survivors never received government assistance or restitution for their losses . The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution , Civil Rights , and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the issue May 19 in which three remaining known survivors , experts and advocates called on Congress to issue reparations to the living survivors and all descendants to rectify the lasting impact of the massacre .
How ‘ Black Wall Street ’ Began
O . W . Gurley , a wealthy Black landowner , purchased 40 acres of land in Tulsa in 1906 and named the area Greenwood . Its population stemmed largely from formerly enslaved Black people and sharecroppers who relocated to the area fleeing the racial terror they experienced in other areas .
But Oklahoma , which became a state in 1907 , was still staunchly segregated at the time . So as Gurley opened a boarding house , grocery stores and sold land to other Black people , they secured their own houses and opened businesses . The population grew to 11,000 and the area became an economic powerhouse affectionately called “ Black Wall Street .”
Greenwood functioned independently , with its own school system , post office , bank , library , hospital and public transit . It also had luxury shops , restaurants , grocery stores , hotels , jewelry and clothing stores , movie theaters , barbershops and salons , pool halls , nightclubs and offices for doctors , lawyers and dentists .
Hannabal Johnson , author of “ Black Wall Street : From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa ’ s Historic Greenwood District ,” said the area thrived as an ancillary economy that kept money within the community . Even those who worked outside of Greenwood only spent their money in the area , reinvesting in the neighborhood , he said .
“ The district really took off as an economic and entrepreneurial kind of Mecca for Black folks because this was an era of segregation ,” he said . “ Black folks were shut out from the dominant white-led economy in what I call an economic detour . In other words , when they approached the gate of economic opportunity at the white dominated downtown Tulsa economy , they were turned away .