Greenwood: The Black Wall Street
By: Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on November 20, 2019
They called it "Black Wall Street." It was located in the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In this microcosm of society, African-Americans built a self-contained and reliant community that thrived on the fundamental business principle that blacks could pool their money, network with each other, and create an epicenter of African-American commerce and culture. They were right. The community flourished until 1921.
The Economic Power of Networking
As a result of networking among black residents and businesses, Greenwood had luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, upscale hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, movie theaters, a library, newspaper (the "Tulsa Star"), an entertainment district, doctors, dentists, and law offices, its own highly rated school system, a post office, a savings and loan bank, a hospital, and reliable transportation services. This community, which was founded in 1906, blossomed as a center for economic empowerment. It soon became a driver of black commerce throughout America.
Blacks in Greenwood had achieved what Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish, Russian-Americans and other immigrant communities accomplished in the United States – prosperity for its citizens through economic support of its members.
Essentially, Greenwood had everything that is missing in black communities and urban areas across America today. In contrast, all of these important quality of life factors were found in virtually every white community in America, then and now.
This remarkable feat was accomplished because the dollar changed hands in Greenwood 19 times before it left the community. Today, the dollar changes hands in the black community only one time before it goes on to enrich white merchants and businesses.
Blacks in Greenwood promoted Oklahoma as a safe haven for African-Americans who wanted to prosper in the post-emancipation era. The largest number of black townships after the Civil War were located in Oklahoma. Between 1865 and 1920, African-Americans founded more than 50 black townships in the state.
Eventually, the affluence of African-Americans in Greenwood attracted the attention of local white Tulsa residents, who resented the upscale lifestyle of people they deemed to be an inferior race. Many of these whites were poor and working class. Yet, they cherished rigidly enforced racial segregation in Oklahoma. They could not stand the thought that a large segment of the city's black residents was prospering in Greenwood, and that they lived in large homes with fine furniture, crystal, china, linens and all of the other trappings of wealth.
On May 31, 1921, a group of armed black residents volunteered to assist the local sheriff in fending off the lynching of a 19-year-old black man for an alleged attempted sexual assault on a 17-year-old girl in town. Racial tensions were running high at the time.
A lynch mob of 1,500 angry whites clashed with about 75 armed black residents who were protecting the black suspect from a lynching. Outnumbered and battling for their own lives, these armed blacks eventually retreated to Greenwood for safety.
The lynch mob invaded Greenwood, shooting and killing hundreds of black residents on the spot. Later estimates put the death toll as high as 3,000. The mob destroyed 1,500 homes and burned down the Greenwood business district wiping out over 600 successful businesses. Among these were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half dozen private airplanes and even a bus system. After two days of mob violence, "Black Wall Street" was gone.
With millions in property damage and no help from the city of Tulsa, the rebuilding of Greenwood began almost immediately. The NAACP, other black towns in Oklahoma, black churches around the nation, and a resilient Greenwood community contributed to the rebuilding of Greenwood. Yet, the thriving economic spirit of Greenwood was never the same.
The negative impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre on the black psyche reverberates in black communities and political circles to this day. Mayors of cities like Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, Baltimore, and countless predominantly black cities across America are afraid to lead pooling and economic empowerment initiatives for local black businesses because of their collective fear of white resentment. They find it far easier and more convenient to brag about the commercial successes of local utility companies, white-owned financial institutions, white-owned cornerstone businesses, and white "Wall Street" (which has 12 black publicly traded companies out of approximately 4,000).
Sadly, a lot of support for these white-owned businesses comes from tax breaks and economic incentives underwritten by black taxpayers. Additionally, black oriented media has migrated from covering important economic, legislative, and civil rights news to piping a steady stream of non-controversial "happy news" to black residents. These media outlets, for the most part, are now owned directly or indirectly by white non-profit corporations and financial institutions.
Will there ever be another Greenwood? The best chance blacks have for this event to occur lies with new Montgomery, Alabama Mayor, Steven Reed. He is possibly the only black mayor in America who has the civil rights pedigree, knowledge of history, backbone, independence, commitment to equal opportunity, work ethic, and vision to rebuild today's version of "Black Wall Street." The others are too weak, compromised, or superficial to accomplish this task.