Why was Tulsa called the Black Wall Street?

There was a moment in US history when it looked like things would change. A brief point in time when men in tailored business suits and women in the latest fashion roamed the fronts of successful shops, restaurants, and businesses enjoying the day. A simpler time when the fears of the outside world could be put aside while life was celebrated for the prosperity everyone was sharing.

This was Black Wall Street. It was a beautiful local neighborhood called Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This was a slice of heaven wedged between the constant racial slurs and no too subtle violence against African Americans in 1921. Here was an escape into a thriving community of commerce where everyone was free to enjoy family life, worship, and each other’s company in an idealistic place of safety.

The community of successful black business owners spurned jealousy in the neighboring white communities. Even though many African Americans had served in the recent World War and returned to build a strong foundation of hard-working men and women, the idea that they were black was all the rest of the area could see. The peace would not last.

A Spark of Hate

On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young black man rode in an elevator inside a business building with a white woman. What happened inside that elevator has been left to partisan discussion for a century, but what followed was pure hatred. Police arrested the black man, and the local Tulsa Tribune wrote a scathing piece about interracial relations that led to confrontations of black and white-armed mobs around the courthouse where the young man was imprisoned. 

This included a group of 25 armed black men who were all recognized World War 1 veterans. They were there to protect Rowland from the growing white mob that wanted him lynched. Eventually, a gun was fired. As the shots began to ring out around the square, the outnumbered African Americans fled back to the safety of Greenwood.

Throughout the night and into the next day, the sanctuary that had housed so many hopes and dreams of an equal future was destroyed. White rioters, many of which were deputized by local authorities and given weapons, began to take over the Greenwood District with extreme violence and no care for giving quarter.

Rumors of a black insurrection that had no place in fact fueled the racist hatred of white rioters who poured into Greenwood, looting and burning homes in a total area of 35 city blocks. When firefighters did finally show up to put out the flames, they were turned away by the white rioters to let the district burn. By the end of the massacre, some 1,256 homes were burned, and 215 others were looted. This included two local newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels, and stores – all black-owned.

Governor J.B.A. Robertson declared martial law and sent in the National Guard of Oklahoma to squelch the riot. Instead of arresting the many white supporters, the troops focused on putting out the fires before they could spread to the rest of Tulsa and turned their energy to arresting black men and women. By the following day, June 2, around 6,000 people, the vast majority of which were black, were charged and placed under armed guard at the local fairgrounds.

The Aftermath

As the dust began to settle from the many fires, murders, rapes, and scenes of violence in the Greenwood district, the original black man that had been arrested – Dick Rowland – went free. All charges were dropped as it turned out he simply stumbled into the white woman in the elevator by accident. He left Tulsa that morning and never returned.

In total, the Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics recorded 36 dead, 26 of which were black people. Historians disagree. They place the death toll as high as 300, making the Tulsa Race Massacre one of the deadliest riots in US history, second only to the New York Draft Riots of 1863.

When local black business owners and community members did return, they found a far less welcome site. Most of their property was burned down or looted, leaving behind financial hardships that caused many to pick up and leave. The few that remained tried rebuilding but faced the uphill battle of growing segregation now buffeted by the strength of a wave of violence and held fast with a newly established branch of the terrorist organization, the KKK.

The News Media

There are many lessons we can learn about the Tulsa Race Riots, but one that often goes overlooked is the power of media. At the time, there was no social media or cell phone recording of what happened. For decades, all historians had to rely upon were the occasional whispered stories that slipped through the suppressive local government. Scholars have proven that police, state militia archives, and newspapers all did their best to remove any mention of the race massacre.

It wasn’t until after the 1970s that the world began to notice this giant missing moment in time. Historians started writing about how Black Wall Street was destroyed, and eventually, the noise about the injustice became so loud that an entire HBO series based its original stories on the Tulsa Massacre.

Now there are memorials and commissions dedicated to discovering the whole truth of what happened, but we only have to look towards modern examples to know the reality of the situation. Without live recording evidence, racism still goes unchecked. The number of cases that can be rattled off by most African Americans living in the US today could fill a library. There is a reason cell phones come flying out of pockets whenever a black person is pulled over by even the most well-meaning of police officers. History has shown that without evidence, there’s a good chance no one will believe your story, especially if you’re black.

In November of 2018, the 1921 Race Riot Commission was officially renamed the 1921 Race Massacre Commission. They found that between 100 and 300 people were killed, and more than 8,000 people were made homeless over those 18 hours in 1921. To this day, the details of this event are not taught in their full glory in all schools, only by those teachers who understand the value of looking history straight in the eyes, so we will not repeat those same mistakes.

A Chance to Remember

At Sweetlena, we do our best to immortalize the memories of these events by celebrating the culture and beauty of the communities affected. That is why we developed our Tulsa collection of fine cutlery with artwork and designs commemorating the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

Instead of focusing on the destruction of this uprising, we pay homage to the beauty of one of the most successful and business-driven African communities the world has ever seen. With every bit of food using our cutlery, we embrace a thriving African American community’s hard work, resilience, and prudence. Black Wall Street was more than a dream. It was a reality. We will always celebrate such roots by ensuring the legacy of the Greenwood District has a place in history for children of all backgrounds to discover.

References:

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Tulsa Historical Society & Museum. (2021, May 11). Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/.

Our history. 2021. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.tulsa2021.org/history.

History.com Editors. (2018, March 8). Tulsa Race Massacre. History.com. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/tulsa-race-massacre.

Parshina-kottas, Y., Singhvi, A., & Audra. (2021, May 24). What the Tulsa Race Massacre destroyed. The New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html.