April 30, 2017
What Happened to Black Wall Street?
By William Reed
What have you told your kids about Blacks’ Wall Street? The first thing they should know is that it’s not in New York. The basic thing they should come to understand and appreciate is the legacy of Black Wall Street one of success.
Tell all willing to listen that in 1921, the Greenwood district neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was site of one of America’s the most devastating mass execution. It was a massacre so ghastly, many chose to forget it. Contemporary African Americans need to know and understand the exceptional history of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and understand what happened to it. In early 1900, Greenwood, with its Archer and Pine Streets tracts, aka Black Wall Street, was a thriving business district of African-American owned businesses, a middle and upper class, schools, hospitals, and theaters. It was a bustling commercial and social “island” on the Northeast side of Boom Town Tulsa.
In just two days in 1921 Black Wall Street was destroyed. Acts perpetrated during the two inflicted $50 million in damage in today’s dollars. Three hundred blacks were killed, and 800 injured. Blacks’ family fortunes evaporated overnight. Black school kids need to know that Wall Street’s demise was due to a terrorist attack whites perpetrated on affluent blacks. Today’s blacks still suffer as result of white rioters’ envy and their subsequent terrorism of the Mecca of black entrepreneurs.
When not lured by “integration” and attraction of whites’ “colder ice” blacks have had significant business acumen and independence. Oklahoma, which was rich in oil deposits, became a state in 1907. It offered a “better life” for formerly enslaved African Americans to get away from the still-repressive South and start over. In Tulsa, the Frisco railroad tracks divided the “white” part of town from the “Little Africa” Greenwood District. Laws of the period prevented whites and blacks from living in neighborhoods that held 75 percent the other race.
Black Wall Street came about as blacks made do with their lot as red brick buildings sprang up along Greenwood Avenue to be occupied by businesses owned by a thriving black middle class that came about from the 1910’s oil boom. Black-oriented theaters, clubs, churches and stores thrived in Greenwood. Money circulated and accumulated in Greenwood. But as the black community flourished, disgruntlement and hatred did as well. With veterans returning from World War I and jobs scarce, envy and racial tension grew among whites. This all came to a head on May 31th and June 1st, 1921. Over 16 hours, almost every black’s business was burned to the ground.
Blacks are owed for Greenwood’s destruction. Black Wall Street was the personification of blacks owning and operating businesses. In Tulsa, blacks ruled the roost. In Blacks’ Wall Street’s destruction, 35 city blocks comprised of 1,256 residences were razed. It’s important that blacks start to articulate what Black Wall Street means to them and why.
Much is owed early black pioneers that built self-sustaining businesses only fifty years after emancipation. Icons of blacks’ business legacy include: O. W. Gurley, who opened a grocery store to service the Black community in 1905. Gurley then bought tracts of undeveloped land and constructed homes for sale and rent to Blacks migrating to Tulsa. Gurley ultimately built one of Tulsa’s finest hotels. John B. Stradford built the 54-room Stradford Hotel, at the time, the finest Black-owned hotel in America. Stradford owned rental houses and apartment buildings and believed that if Blacks pooled their resources and spent within their communities they could become self-sufficient and independent. Greenwood-resident Mabel Little, owner of Little Rose Beauty Salon lost her beauty parlor, her and her husband’s restaurant next door and rental properties as result of whites’ riots.
It’s time Black Americans saw the results of whites’ Tulsa riots and used that mold to examine and address inequalities and debts this country owes them. The men and women of Greenwood are models of outstanding business acumen, and evidence the black race has always overcome tremendous odds and accomplished great feats while in America. Black Wall Street showed our strengths and accomplishments separate from whites.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via Busxchng@his.com