The Community Was Not Destroyed • •
I boarded my Saturday morning flight from Newark, headed to Tulsa, with an unclear picture of what I would see when I touched down in my destination. Pieced together news stories and accounts from Black Tulsans had taught me that “Black Wall Street,” a thriving community in early 1900’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, had been decimated by a scourge of white violence in 1921. But less than 24 hours after I arrived, it was obvious that the community was not destroyed.
“Yes, buildings and homes were destroyed,” Vanessa Adams Harris asserted on my tour of the John Hope Reconciliation Park on Sunday morning. “But the people are the community. And the people are still here.”
The Tulsa historian and artist had a point. What the public knows of the bombing of Tulsa, Oklahoma is that a white mob from the other side of the tracks descended upon the Greenwood neighborhood, murdering Black men, women, and children, bombing their businesses and burning their homes to the ground in an attempted genocide. That from May 31 to June 1, 1921, an entire community, composed of lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists, school teachers, house maids, cooks, were snatched from the economically thriving city they had built, never to again see the prosperity they had fought so hard to achieve. Some figures estimate that more than 300 people were killed and more than 1,200 residences and places of commerce were destroyed during this act of domestic terrorism. When the dust settled, roughly 3,000 people remained unaccounted for.
White masses, laced with anger and jealousy, armed with white supremacy, propaganda, and the powers afforded to them by the Jim Crow South, did carry out one of the worse incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. But what they could not snatch in the evening hours of May 31 into June 1 was the tenacity, the resilience, instilled in the people of Greenwood.
To paraphrase economist Julianne Malveaux, a Black person achieving the American dream is, and has always been, for some, an American nightmare. The fact that we could possess the skills and the audacity to be economic actors in a nation not built for us, is reason enough for them to take it all away. They tried it in Tulsa 100 years ago, but the community of Greenwood, and the spirit of the Black men and women that once gathered in this economically affluent sector of Black society is still present. It is both alive and it is doing well.
Greenwood rebuilt after the race massacre of 1921. Many people returned to their plots of land, erected their homes and regrew their businesses. They managed to make it a thriving Black community once again. And though the families that lived there were, to this day, never made whole, before Interstate 244 cut into the historic 35 square blocks, the place known as Black Wall Street enjoyed economic success. Today, this hopeful community, armed with the history of the past, ambitions for the present and aspirations to redirect Tulsa’s future, are once again reviving this storied neighborhood.
The community was not destroyed. And now Black Tulsans, natives and newcomers alike, are once again redefining how it will be remembered.
At dinner on my first night in the city, I sat across from Jessica Lowe Betts, a Dallas transplant, and Oklahoma State Senator Kevin Matthews. As our meals made their way to the table at Sisserou’s, a Caribbean restaurant owned by a Black brother and sister duo, these two influential members of the centennial commission lit up speaking of the progress Tulsa has made. Beyond the development going on at every corner of the city, they are inspired by how far Tulsa’s story has traveled.
The power of PR, and the breakout success of HBO’s The Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, allowed much of the nation to be introduced to the story of 1920’s Greenwood. But it is the power of this community that is making it possible for first-time visitors like myself to witness a Tulsa that is growing, rebranding, and attempting to live up to a reputation that was stolen from them. The story of Black Wall Street was concealed from the history lessons, but current residents are determined to make sure that it is hidden no more.
In telling the truth of what happened to Tulsa 100 years, activists, historians, and community people are careful to tell the whole truth. Renewed interest in the city has forced it to take a closer look at the disparities still remaining many years after Jim Crow placed Black Tulsans on one side of the railroad tracks and white Tulsans on the other. I’d be remiss to not point out that a 2019 Human Rights Watch study showed that more than 35 percent of north Tulsa’s predominantly Black population lives in poverty compared with 17 percent in the rest of the city. Citywide, the Black poverty rate is 34 percent while the white poverty rate is 13 percent. Also, in 2020, another HRW study found that governmental structures during the first rebuilding of the district, through today, have thwarted its ability to return itself to its prominent place in our nation. Discussions of reparations have often been sidelined despite acknowledgement from city and state officials that what happened May 31 through June 1, 1921 directly correlates to the inequity seen today.
Even so, with each descendent’s story that I hear, Black owned restaurant I see, bookstore I visit, art gallery I pass or clothing store I stop in, it’s obvious that Tulsa is rising—above the obstacles, above the fabrications of its history, and above the absence of reconciliation. The community—the spirit of the people and the love that flows within it—was not destroyed. It is still standing.