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Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa race riot

By Kobe Jackson
On February 21, 2019

What the Tulsa, Oklahoma, neighborhood of Greenwood, widely known as the Black Wall Street, looked like before and after the events of May 30-June 1, 1921. Oklahoma Historical Society/Courtesy photo

Newspaper coverage following the destruction of what The Tulsa World called “Little Africa”. Estimates of the number of dead ranged widely, from less than three dozen to as many as 300.

Newspaper coverage following the destruction of what The Tulsa World called “Little Africa”. Estimates of the number of dead ranged widely, from less than three dozen to as many as 300.

Who would have thought that in the year of 1921, a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the center of prosperous African American life? 

 

The Greenwood neighborhood, which housed 11,000 black residents, was one of the most successful black economies in American history. 

 

Within this community were hundreds of black-owned businesses, including two movie theaters, two black schools and 15 doctor’s offices. It was said to have dozens of businesses, including law offices, restaurants, grocery stores, a hospital and a bank. .

 

In 1897, just a few years before Black Wall Street was established, Oklahoma got its first oil well. The discovery of oil in the state not only attracted the exploration of companies, it gave black people the economic opportunity they needed. Black people were not allowed to shop at white-owned stores and businesses, so the money black people spent went right back into their own communities. 

 

Oil gave rise to opportunities and economic freedoms for black people despite Oklahoma’s status as a segregated state.  In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a man from Arkansas, moved to Tulsa and purchased over 40 acres of land. He made sure he sold only to other African Americans. 

 

The community was very successful. Six black families in the entire state of Oklahoma owned their own planes, and they lived in Greenwood. 

 

Dr. Simon Berry owned the bus system in Tulsa. He recalls that his average income was around $500 a day. A single dollar stayed in Tulsa for a year before leaving the Black community. As Black Wall Street thrived and grew, so did greed in oil-thirsty America.

 

Black Wall Street was the epitome of a self-sustaining community and strength. Black people supported each other, which allowed for easier access to resources, savings, housing, jobs, education, and health. 

 

Greenwood was just one of many thriving communities in the United States until the riot in 1921. 

 

On May 30th, Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoe shiner at a Main Street parlor took the elevator at a nearby building to use the restroom. At the time, the white elevator operator on duty was 17-year-old Sarah Page. Nobody knows exactly what happened in the elevator, but Sarah Page accused Rowland of sexual assault. 

 

She never pressed charges, but the story somehow still made front page of the Tulsa newspaper with the headline “Nab Negro for attacking girl in elevator”. After word got around, an angry lynch mob went looking for Rowland to seek revenge. 

 

This is what started the riot of 1921. Before dawn, a mob of angry white men stormed into Greenwood armed with guns, some provided by local officers who also participated in the riot. 

 

Hundreds of businesses and homes were ransacked and set afire. Black men, some who served in World War I, rallied together and armed themselves, ready to fight for their families and community. 

 

As the number of casualties on both sides escalated, airplanes used in World War I were dispatched, firing rifles at residents and dropping fire bombs on the black community. After Tulsa was bombed, there were perhaps as many as300 African Americans dead and over hundreds of successful businesses lost. 

 

The race riot in Tulsa was one of destructive — in terms of people and property — in U.S. history.

 

Could Grambling become the New Black Wall Street? If students and residents alike kept their dollars in Grambling, think of the possibilities.

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