The Destruction of Black Wall Street

The "Little Africa” section of Tulsa, OK in flames during the 1921 race riot

Greenwood, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa, was the type of community that African Americans are still, today, attempting to reclaim and rebuild.  It was modern, majestic, sophisticated and unapologetically Black. Tragically, it was also the site of one of the bloodiest and most horrendous race riots (and acts of terrorism) that the United States has ever experienced. 

Today marks ninety-two years since as many as 300 African Americans lost their lives and more than 9,000 were left homeless when the small town was attacked, looted and literally burned to the ground beginning in 1921.  It’s impossible, however, to realize what was lost in Greenwood, which was affectionately known as "Black Wall Street."

The Greenwood community seems almost imagined when we examine it through a historical lens.  The oil booms of the early 1900’s had many moving to Tulsa for a shot at quick economic gains and high life, and African Americans hoped to prosper from the new industry as well.  Tulsa, like many cities and towns throughout the US, was hostilely segregated, with African Americans settling into the northern region of the city.  As we often saw before integration, Blacks in the area created entrepreneurial opportunities for themselves, which housed an impressive business center that included banks, hotels, cafes, clothiers, movie theaters, and contemporary homes.  Greenwood residents enjoyed many luxuries that their White neighbors did not, including indoor plumbing and a remarkable school system that superiorly educated Black children.

It was pure envy, and a vow to put progressive, high achieving African Americans in their place that would cause the demise of the Black Mecca many called “Little Africa”, and its destruction began the way much terrorism, violence and dispossession against African Americans did during that era.  A young White woman accused a young Black man of attempted sexual assault, which gave local mobs and White men acting as police just cause to invade the unsuspecting community. On the malevolent and horrifying attack, Linda Christenson writes the following:

"The term “race riot” does not adequately describe the events of May 31—June 1, 1921 in Greenwood... In fact, the term itself implies that both blacks and whites might be equally to blame for the lawlessness and violence. The historical record documents a sustained and murderous assault on black lives and property. This assault was met by a brave but unsuccessful armed defense of their community by some black World War I veterans and others.

During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921."

Recently, the mother of a Palestian activist friend of mine asked me why African Americans don’t fight harder for reparations. It was a difficult question to answer, but my most immediate response centered on the historical erasure of communities like Greenwood and the state-sponsored violence against African Americans that created its expiry.  Even after slavery was abolished, any advancements towards the American dream, that Blacks paid most dearly to establish, was met with revulsion and terror, often from those whose legal obligation was to serve and protect.  For that a debt is surely owed.  Further, when we consider the deaths of those Black Tulsans and the inevitable property loss that followed, we again see one example of many that proves how wealth inequities and disparities became a part of the substance of this nation- inequities and disparities that must be considered before we go blaming Black youth for the catastrophes this nation has endorsed.

And as we consider what has become the new face of terror, we should never forget that Greenwood was bombed from the sky by White local and national law enforcement organizations. 

To learn more about the attack on "Black Wall Street," check out Scott Ellsworth’s account here. Never forget.

Josie Pickens is a cultural critic and educator.  Follow her musings on twitter: @jonubian