From May 31 to June 1, 1921, racial tensions in America coalesced and exploded in a tiny area of Tulsa, Okla., known as “Black Wall Street.”
Rumor had it that a young Black man was in jail accused of raping a young White woman in a Tulsa elevator. This prompted White mobs to descend on the lockup seeking “justice,” and Black residents of the town to take up arms to defend him.
By the time the battling had stopped, a large number of both Blacks and Whites were dead, millions in property damage had occurred ($1.4 million was the official estimate, but the African American community filed more than $4 million in claims), and a 35-square-block area of the African American community of Tulsa known as Greenwood or Black Wall Street was burned to the ground. This included two churches, a hospital and an estimated 1,256 homes.
But it would not be until 2001 that a true accounting of what some at the time called the worst race riot in the nation’s history would be undertaken.
A report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 was issued in 2001 after three years of work. Among its findings were:
* Although a final and exact number of dead could not be determined, it was calculated that between 100 and 300 people were killed.
* About 150 civil suits were filed in the wake of the riot, but all were denied and eventually forgotten in government archives.
Five recommendations came out of the commission’s work:
* Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot.
* Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot.
* A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa Race Riot.
* Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood District.
* A memorial for the reburial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves of riot victims.
According to Hannibal B. Johnson, an attorney and consultant who wrote the book “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District,” only one of these recommendations was robustly implemented–the creation of a memorial.
“The state Legislature did appropriate money to begin work on a memorial and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was built,” said Johnson, who works out of the center located in the park.
The other recommendations were never really fulfilled. No official direct cash payments were made to survivors or their descendants. Johnson said the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministerial Alliance did provide symbolic payments to living survivors, which he estimates might have been about a dozen people. There was also a historical commemorative medal given to survivors, which he said was gesture of acknowledgment.
Johnson also noted that no cash payments were made to heirs for lost property.
A scholarship fund was set up as commemorative gesture, but it was open to any students in the Tulsa public school system.
Additionally, Johnson said that a Greenwood Development Authority was created to look at business development in the district, but was not funded.
In 1921, what made the Greenwood District so unique was the collection of Black-owned mom and pop businesses and service providers that represented financial independence for the community.
Johnson said the land ownership by African Americans, facilitated by the “land runs” of the 1880s as well as their connection to the so-called five civilized tribes of Native Americans, particularly the Creek, also lent a unique status to people of African descent in Oklahoma.
Some think that may have also been at the core of why Whites attacked the district in 1921.
That unique financial independence continues to capture the imagination of Blacks today. A search on the Internet under the term “Black Wall Street” yields a number of interesting results, including a record label owned by The Game. There is also a national organization, www.blackwallstreet.org, that represents more than 25 Black business districts around the nation.
The idea is to promote Black economic development.
Johnson, who has his own theories about the resilience of the Black Wall Street concept, said he has even been contacted by a man who was developing a board game embracing the name.
“African Americans have an interest in reclaiming the spirit of progressivity and entrepreneurial excellence, and Black Wall Street is a moniker for that new spirit.
“… They are trying to reclaim something they perceived has been lost over time. And part of that has to do with the notions of character and self-sufficiency.”
Johnson also believes that part of the appeal reflects the fact that the Black Wall Street moniker is an external validation for an internal effort…. “It’s a very strong sounding label. It signifies strength, excellence and prosperity in a capitalist economy. These are all values that are quintessentially American,” he adds.
Today, Greenwood consists of satellite campuses of the University of Oklahoma, and Langston University, the Greenwood Cultural Center, ONEOK Stadium, which is home to the minor league Tulsa Drillers; the GreenArch residential/commercial structure that should be complete in August; the John Hope Franklin center and park; and a handful of Black-owned businesses.