To this day one of the greatest examples of what black people can accomplish when they support each other economically and as a community is the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1900’s.
While Tulsa, Oklahoma doesn’t seem like a likely place for black prosperity, it was actually one of the brightest shining examples, at a time when blacks did not have much on their side when it comes to laws and rights. In a way, it was because blacks could not depend on whites for support, that the community, like so many others across the country in those days of intense segregation, banded together to create businesses and solve their own problems. The area was growing due to oil bringing in people and work but regardless of that due to strict racial segregation laws blacks knew they had to establish their own zone that catered to their needs, whether it was for shopping, health, business, you name it. And they did it in this one neighborhood of Greenwood that became so prosperous, so successful, it became known as ‘Black Wall Street.”
Greenwood had black-owned retail stores, theaters, schools, health clinics, even banks and is reported to have had about 10,000 largely upper and middle-class African-American residents in those days. Many of the houses in the Greenwood neighborhood had indoor plumbing before those in the white areas did. One street contained a number of expensive houses belonging to black doctors, lawyers and successful business owners. In fact one doctor who lived and practiced in Greenwood was Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was considered to be one of the best “negro” neurosurgeons in the U.S. by one of the Mayo brothers. Black Wall Street of course also had dozens of black churches and many prominent ministers. Examples of the wealth of the community were everywhere. In a time when the entire state of Oklahoma had only two airports, six Black families owned their own planes.It was, in all ways, a thriving community and one that was testament to the human spirit and what people can do even in the face of the worst discrimination imaginable.
But such success did not sit well some of the whites, most of whom did not live in as nice a community as Greenwood. So when a white woman accused a black man of attempted sexual assault, a charge that was not proven, it was all the excuse angry and jealous whites needed to bring Black Wall Street down. Linda Christenson wrote this account:
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.”
Black Wall Street would never recover from those two fateful and hate-filled nights and to this day, the murderous rampage and burning of Greenwood goes down as one of the ugliest and worst incidents of racism in American history. It is still a chapter of American history few know about. By the way, Dr. A.C. Jackson, was shot and killed leaving his home on the first night of the rampage.
But while Black Wall Street was destroyed physically, and so many were murdered, what can never be erased is the example they set for what black people could accomplish even against the worst odds. Within years of emancipation those citizens in Greenwood created one of the richest, most educated, most successful, most self-sufficient communities anywhere. Their economic self-sufficiency and their economic clout proved that black people supporting one another and spending their dollars within their own community were a powerful force that could compete with whites who did not even have the other restraints the residents of Greenwood had.
Black Wall Street can be remembered for the tragedy that happened there. And it certainly should be. But it also must be remembered for the success and example that it was.