Black Wall Street – Fact Or Fiction?
Let’s talk about business for instance for a minute. Did you know that right here in the United States there was a place known as a Black Wall Street in 1921? It was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The booming business community was called Greenwood. There were 15 Dr offices, 2 schools, 2 theaters, Hospitals, Law offices, banks, grocery stores, hotels, pharmacies, dry cleaner businesses, fire station, etc., were owned or controlled and run by blacks. Despite all the odds, they seemed to defy logic.
Initially people referred to Greenwood community as the Negro Wall Street. The name was changed to Black Wall Street during the civil rights movement across the country. At some point Greenwood had around 11,000 residents and about 108 known businesses all run by black entrepreneurs.
How did they achieve such prosperity? By joining together as a people to achieve a common goal of economic freedom and prosperity. Before we continue talking about the success and demise of Greenwood community in Tulsa Oklahoma, let’s answer the following question. How did black people end up in Tulsa Oklahoma in the first place?
Here is part of the history that we know. Back in the early 1800's, native Americans who lived in the southern part of North America were being forced to leave their lands and move towards the west.
Many Native Americans took this long and tortuous trip against their will. Many of them perished along the way. That journey was known as the TRAIL OF TEARS for obvious reasons. The West was known as the Indian Territories which included what we now call Oklahoma.
Among the people moving with the Native Americans into the Indian territories and suffered just as much or even more than the Native Americans, were black people, some of them slaves to Native Americans who owned Plantations themselves and were forced to abandon by the white conquerors.
When the civil war ended, it resulted in freedom for the slaves including those in Native American plantations. As a result, it ended the native Americans dominance in the Eastern lands of the country. It is important to point out that up to the end of the civil war, Oklahoma was not a State. Soon enough plans were in place to change the “status quo”.
During the civil war, most Native Americans supported the Confederate army. As a retaliation, the Indian territories were divided into 2 parts at the end of the war. The 2 parts were Oklahoma and the other continued to be called Indian territories.
On April 22nd , 1889 the president of the United States at that time, Benjamin Harrison was forced by the settlers to hand over Oklahoma to the settlers and proclaimed its occupation. Within a few days of that proclamation about 50,000 settlers moved into Oklahoma. Among the settlers who moved in and occupied land were freed blacks, looking for business opportunities and better life. Blacks and whites started cultivating, developing their newly awarded territory. Some were cowboys, others became farmers and others worked in the construction of the first railway in Oklahoma.
In the early 1800’s the black population was about 3000. About 100 years later it increased to about 15000 in 1900. At some point some leading blacks advocated the idea of turning the Indian territories into the first black only owned state, but that idea never gained traction.
Calls were made to attract more blacks into Oklahoma. Many families started moving there and settling into one of the 27 black communities, including Oklahoma city and Tulsa.
With the construction of the railway, more white settlers started to move into Oklahoma as well and their numbers started to increase significantly.
In 1905 Oklahoma struck oil deposits. Very soon it became the leading oil producer. As a result of the oil industry, many businesses started. Although most of the proceeds went to white families, the wealth trickled down into black owned businesses and communities. Both blacks and whites were enjoying higher standards of living. It was around that time that the Greenwood business community in Tulsa started sprouting.
However, in 1907 Oklahoma became a State. Very soon the racial divide was becoming more and more evident. Unfortunately, the very first bill passed in the State of Oklahoma was a segregation law. Despite the setback blacks continued to organize their communities and create opportunities.
As a result of the booming oil industry, many more whites moved into Oklahoma. Soon the white population went from about a couple thousand residents in the early 1900’s to 100,000 in 1920.
To make things worse, the authorities at that time were part of the problem. Unbeknown to the prosperous blacks in Greenwood, there was a plan in motion to kill their dream of a prosperous black owned business community.
In just one night those prosperous family’s worst nightmare materialized. On the night of May 30th, 2021 Greenwood community businesses in Tulsa Oklahoma were set on fire, burning them down to the ground. It was clear, they were not prepared to fend off the brutal attack. The black community was deceived to believe that the authorities were there to protect and help them in case of a riot. They trusted the authorities; that turned out to be a mistake! Little did they know, that very night would mark the end of those seeds of black enterprise.
Hundreds of unsuspected families and their businesses were destroyed. The authorities arrived late at the scene of the crime. In addition, they arrested anyone black they could hold their hands on. By the time the government deployed the army to stop the killings, it was too little to late! To this day, those business owners lost it all, and the insurance companies refused to pay for the damage and loss of property enough money to rebuild. The government did nothing to restore Greenwood to it’s glory days for black business owners and their descendants. With that act, the dream of a black wall street in Tulsa sank into the abyss never to be revived ever again!
Thanks to some resilience, there are now few well intentioned minds who are attempting to recreate the black wall street in other parts of the country. The one I hear the most about, is the Stonecrest community in Atlanta. Young designers, business owners of many stripes of life are converging there to give birth to a New Black Wall Street. Will it stand the test of time? Will it be prepared to face the 21st century challenges? We certainly hope that this and other initiatives flourish to create more jobs and opportunities for all.