Nearly A Century After its Destruction, We’re Still Not Being Honest About Black Wall Street
By Nia Clark|TV Reporter, Writer and Host of the Black Wall Street 1921 Podcast
Few incidents in U.S. history following the end of slavery exemplify the enormous cost African Americans have had to pay for seeking the American dream more than the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
Between May 31st and June 1st of that year, what the Oklahoma Historical Society calls quote, “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” claimed the lives of hundreds of people — mostly black- and left an entire community in Tulsa, Oklahoma completely decimated. Some witnesses and survivors even reported being the targets of bombs.
“These were specifically turpentine bombs that were dropped on the community,” said Dr. Alicia Odewale, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa. “People were stationed in specific strategic locations with machine guns shooting in all different directions while bombs are being dropped, while arson is being committed while murders are happening, people are being shot,” she said.
99 years to the day after the Massacre, it remains in a class of its own.
“The largest massacre of Americans upon Americans and one of the few if not only stories in history where incendiary bombs were dropped on American citizens by other American citizens,” said Oklahoma State Sen. Kevin Matthews, who represents District 11, which includes Tulsa and Osage counties.
That site of the violence lies in the predominantly African American district of Greenwood located in North Tulsa, which suffered a brutal attack by a white mob that resulted in a horrific scene of chaos, destruction and bloodshed. With a population of about 10,000 people at the time, it had been considered one of the most affluent African American communities in the United States for the early part of the 20th century. For that reason it also became known as Black Wall Street.
The tragic irony is that Black Wall Street was so successful due to prejudice that stalked its residents. Out of necessity, they formed an insular economy within Tulsa in which black people spent black dollars inside of their black community because racism and segregation made it incredibly difficult to do in non-black establishments elsewhere in Tulsa. The more Black Wall Street grew, so did the wealth generated within it. As a result, thousands of black Tulsans only several generations removed from slavery, achieved the American dream less than 15 years after Oklahoma became a state.
Unfortunately the prevailing view of the day was that blacks should remain in a subservient station in life. Those who held this view did everything they could to wipe away any hit of prosperity that demonstrated otherwise during the Massacre.
“When the riot came in 1921 we were sitting out in the yard and people were running toward us hollering,” said Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Eunice Jackson. Jackson was one of a number of survivors interviewed by historian and author, Eddie Faye Gates decades ago, before Jackson passed away.
“So my momma got up,” Jackson said. “She said ‘What’s wrong? where are you people going?’ He said, ‘They’re having a race riot over the hill.’ That was brick yard hill then. And momma said, ‘Why are you running?’ And he said ‘Well they’re just shooting everybody they can.’”
When the mayhem ceased, and the smoke cleared, Black Wall Street laid almost completely flattened. In less than 24 hours, according to a Red Cross estimate, more than 1,200 houses were burned; 215 others were looted but not torched while a number of schools, churches and black-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed by fire. In 2001, the report of the Race Riot Commission concluded that between 100 and 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 people were left homeless.
“A large white mob flooded into the Greenwood district, the community; looting, burning, destroying pretty much everything in sight,” said attorney, consultant and author of Black Wall Street, Hannibal Johnson.” There was some black resistance initially but the black community was totally outnumbered,” he said.
The devastation was so extensive due in large part to law enforcement officials and agencies that were either woefully inept at the duty of peace keeping or willfully complicit in the attack.
“One of the big things was that, regardless of everything else, if the local authorities had reacted the way most local authorities would react today, which was, would be to make a really strong show of force, you know, ring the courthouse and tell everybody to get off the street, all of this might as well have been averted,” said Randy Krehbiel, Tulsa World Reporter and author of Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre.
Some researchers estimate that black Tulsans lost about four million dollars worth of property and assets during the Massacre. Odewale, believes the total estimated financial loss is closer to about $50–100 million in today’s currency, including the loss of loss of objects, goods, services and familial connections given that some people left Tulsa to never return.
“My estimates are coming from not only the loss of the homes, which there were over 1,000 homes lost and businesses,” she said. “So you have the loss of specific property and also the loss of lives and there’s no way to put a number on the loss of life. But there’s also the loss of safety and the loss of security and the loss of generational wealth. So you’re less able to actually pass down land and pass down that wealth and income that you would have accrued if you were able to just live un-disrupted in this space,” Odewale said.
HBO’s hit TV series, Watchmen depicted the attack in the opening scene of the show, which thrust the incident into the collective consciousness of the country. Before this the Tulsa Race Massacre was largely absent from public discourse despite its historic nature.
This is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies of the event following the actual attack. There has been no real national effort to acknowledge this ugly chapter in our country’s past and give it its rightful place in the annals of our history.
The facts surrounding the mob-driven melee were suppressed by state and Tulsa officials as well as community leaders. Many of those in the community who spoke about it were threatened with their lives or their jobs. Some survivors stayed silent because they were too traumatized to discuss their experience. Others thought staying silent would prevent such an event from happening again.
“I spoke to survivors in the 90’s who…were still suffering PTSD. I spoke to some who were scared to have their name mentioned in a newspaper because they were worried that there would be reprisals against their family,” said Dr. Scott Ellsworth, professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan and author of Death in a Promised Land.
“I was a child that was most frightened by the riot,” said Massacre survivor Dr. Olivia J. Hooker. “They were dropping those bullets onto our house. I thought it was hail and I said to my mother, ‘how could it be hailing with the sun shining?’”
Hooker would become the first black woman to enlist in the Coast Guard before becoming a distinguished psychologist and professor. She discussed her experience in front of New York State Senate Interns several years before her death in 2018.
“My mother showed me through the window and she said, ‘You see that thing up there, that’s a machine gun. And the man beside it has an American flag on the machine gun. Well that means your country is shooting at you.’”
Only a few months ago, nearly a century later, the state of Oklahoma decided to incorporate the Massacre into statewide school curriculum after years of pressure from groups such as the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which has developed curriculum for instructors to teach this history.
“There are people in Tulsa that grew up in Tulsa, including myself, that didn’t have this in our classrooms here,” said Senator Matthews, who chairs the commission. “And that’s why it’s so important for us to tell this story,” he said.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that awareness of the Massacre really began to emerge from the shadows of history. As more researchers, historians, authors began recording stories of survivors.
“The thing that most of the survivors that I engaged with wanted their story told as a matter of record,” Johnson said. “Because the thing that added insult to injury after the massacre was the failure to acknowledge that the Massacre had occurred,” he said.
Adding even more insult to injury, black Tulsans were never reimbursed for the loss they suffered by insurance companies or the city of Tulsa. Survivors did not receive official recognition as such until 80 years after the Massacre when Oklahoma presented medallions to identified survivors. Since the massacre not one attempt to secure reparations for the victims has been successful.
Experts believe in order to begin to right the wrong of this injustice and heal centuries of racial divide and unrest nationwide, telling the stories of survivors and acknowledging the full extent of this tragedy is the first step.
“And so telling the story, being honest about our history is critically, vitally important because we can’t get to that point of reconciliation or unity that we would like to achieve unless we acknowledge our full and complete history…,” Johnson said.
Perhaps the survivors who were willing to publicly share their story did so after years of remaining virtually silent about it in part because they knew how destructive the unchecked falsehoods that had plagued the community of Greenwood had been.
As in other places in the country at the time, the Tulsa Race Massacre was sparked by reports that a black man named Dick Rowland assaulted a white woman named Sarah Page.
Rowland, who was also known as “Diamond Dick,” reportedly fell into Page on an elevator that lurched. A nearby white store clerk heard her scream and later reported the incident as an attempted assault.
Several groups of black man in Greenwood attempted to prevent Rowland from being lynched by a mob that had formed outside of the jail he was being kept in. Tensions spilled over and the mob soon turned their rage toward Black Wall Street, which they set ablaze.
Ultimately Page refused to testify against Rowland and declined to prosecute the case. The damage, however, had already been done.
The Massacre was a microcosm of a culture of brutality against African Americans, particularly those who dared to prosper. The time period between the spring and fall of 1919, became known as the Red Summer of 1919 due to the hundreds of deaths and casualties resulting from about 25 race massacres and attacks on black communities throughout the country at that time.
“…James Weldon Johnson, who was head of the NAACP, termed it the ‘Red Summer’ because in some of the cases the streets literally…ran with blood,” said author and researcher Robert J. Booker.
The worst riots and massacres were in Elaine, Arkansas, Chicago and Washington D.C., which experienced at least 200, 38 and 15 deaths as a result respectively.
Cameron McWhirter is a Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. He has reported on conflicts and riots both domestically and internationally and notes that a common misconception is that ones own community is immune to such violence.
“If people think that…number one it can’t happen here, it could happen here,” McWhirter said. “Or that was in the past, it can’t happen now, they’re wrong. It can happen,” he said.
Those who are working to amplify the voices of survivors and share this history do so in part because, similar to McWhirter, they understand how easily racial tensions can turn into racial violence. Many believe that we cannot enjoy the racially harmonious society many of us aspire to without acknowledging the things about our society that have prevented us from doing so for centuries.
“I would hope that that is one thing that we’re beyond,” said Reuben Gant, Interim Executive Director of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation in Tulsa. “…the struggle continues, but I think it continues in a different way. It continues, you know, economically it continues, from employment perspective.”
Nearly a century later, black communities across the country continue to lament perceived attacks on their own. As in the case of the Tulsa Race Massacre in which not one of the thousands of perpetrators of the Massacre was ever brought to justice, nearly 100 years later, African Americans continue to question why justice hasn’t been rendered in countless incidences of racially motivated violence.
Protests held across the nation for the past week seek to highlight this very issue while lamenting the death of George Floyd who has come to represent the very injustice demonstrators are protesting.
Unfortunately, what is often overlooked in references to the Tulsa Race Massacre is the fact that black Tulsans who stayed and rebuilt their community following the attack, were so successful that doing so that this second iteration flourished more than the first: at least for a time.
If the Tulsa Race Massacre demonstrates the potential of unchecked hate and prejudice, than the fact that a marginalized, traumatized, prideful group of people were able to rebuild Black Wall Street in spite of resistance by the very people who burned it down the first time, should serve as a reminder of why sharing the truth of such incidents can also serve as examples of what good is possible.
“It’s one of the things that our survivors said they wanted even more than reparations,” said Mechelle Brown, Program Coordinator of Tulsa’s Greenwood Cultural Center.
“It’s up to us to make sure that this history is being taught in our school systems so that our children have a better understanding of who they are, where they come from and, of their potential,” she said.