BRAD PYE, JR.
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he Black (Negro) Wall Street" was the name given to Greenwood Avenue of
North Tulsa, Oklahoma during the early 1900’s. Because of strict segregation,
Blacks were only allowed to shop, spend, and live in a 35 square block area
called the Greenwood district. The "circulation of Black dollars" only
in the Black community produced a tremendously prosperous Black business
district that was admired and envied by the whole country.
African-American settlers were Indian slaves of the so-called "Five
Civilized Tribes": Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles.
These tribes were forced to leave the Southeastern United States and resettle in
Oklahoma in mid-winter over the infamous "Trail of Tears." After the
Civil War, U.S.-Indian treaties provided for slave liberation and land
allotments ranging from 40-100 acres, which helps explain why over 6000
African-Americans lived in the Oklahoma territory by 1870. Oklahoma boasted of
more All-Black towns and communities than any other state in the land, and these
communities opened their arms to freed slaves from all across the country.
Remarkably, at one time, there were over 30 African-American newspapers in
Tulsa began as an outpost of
the Creek Indians and as late as 1910, Walter White of the NAACP, described
Tulsa as "the dead and hopeless home of 18,182 souls." Suddenly, oil
was discovered and Tulsa rapidly grew into a thriving, bustling, enormously
wealthy town of 73,000 by 1920 with bank deposits totaling over $65 million.
However, Tulsa was a "tale of two cities isolated and insular", one
Black and one White. Tulsa was so racist and segregated that it was the only
city in America that boasted of segregated telephone booths.
Since African Americans could
neither live among Whites as equals nor patronize White businesses in Tulsa,
Blacks had to develop a completely separate business district and community,
which soon became prosperous and legendary. Black dollars invested in the Black
community also produced self-pride, self-sufficiency, and self-determination.
The business district, beginning at the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and
Archer Street, became so successful and vibrant that Booker T. Washington during
his visit bestowed the moniker: "Negro Wall Street." By 1921, Tulsa’s
African-American population of 11,000 had its own bus line, two high schools,
one hospital, two newspapers, two theaters, three drug stores, four hotels, a
public library, and thirteen churches. In addition, there were over 150 two and
three story brick commercial buildings that housed clothing and grocery stores,
cafes, rooming houses, nightclubs, and a large number of professional offices
including doctors, lawyers, and dentists. Tulsa’s progressive African American
community boasted some of the city’s most elegant brick homes, well furnished
with china, fine linens, beautiful furniture, and grand pianos. Mary Elizabeth
Parrish from Rochester, New York wrote: "In the residential section there
were homes of beauty and splendor which would please the most critical
eye." Well known African American personalities often visited the Greenwood
district including: educators Mary McCloud Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois, scientist
George Washington Carver, opera singer Marian Anderson, blues singer Dinah
Washington, and noted Chicago chemist Percy Julian.
T.P. Scott wrote in
"Negro City Directory": "Early African American business leaders
in Tulsa patterned the development of Tulsa’s thriving Greenwood district
after the successful African American entrepreneurial activity in Durham, North
After the Civil War, former
slaves moved to Durham from the neighboring farmlands and found employment in
tobacco processing plants. By 1900, a large Black middle class had developed
which began businesses that soon grew into phenomenally successful corporations,
especially North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Charles Clinton
Spaulding was so successful with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance
Company that he was able to create a real estate company, a textile and hosiery
mill, and the "Durham Negro Observer" newspaper. Durham Blacks also
created a hospital, Mechanics and Farmers Bank (1908), North Carolina Training
College (1910), Banker’s Fire Insurance Company (1920), and the National Negro
Finance Company (1922). However, living conditions in Durham were so substandard
and working conditions so poor that the 1920 mortality rate among Blacks in
Durham was three times higher than the White rate. As of 1926, 64% of all
African Americans in Durham died before the age of 40. These perilous working
and living conditions were not present in Tulsa.
On May 31, 1921,
Black Greenwood district
was completely destroyed
by one of the worse race riots
in U.S. history.
A 19 year old Black
male accidentally stumbled on a jerky elevator and bumped the 17-year-old White
elevator operator who screamed. The frightened young fellow was seen running
from the elevator by a group of Whites and by late afternoon the "Tulsa
Tribune" reported that the girl had been raped. Despite the girl’s denial
of any wrongdoing, the boy was arrested and a large mob of 2000 White men came
to the jail to lynch the prisoner.
About 75 armed
African Americans came to the jail to offer assistance to the sheriff to protect
the prisoner. The sheriff not only refused the assistance but also deputized the
White mob to disarm the Blacks. With a defenseless Black community before them,
the White mob advanced to the Greenwood district where they first looted and
then burned all Black businesses, homes, and churches. Any Black resisters were
shot and thrown into the fires. When the National Guard arrived, they assisted
the others by arresting all Black men, women, and children, and herding them
into detention centers at the Baseball Park and Convention Hall. As many as
4,000 Blacks were held under armed guard in detention.
Dr. Arthur C.
Jackson, a nationally renowned surgeon and called by the Mayo brothers (of Mayo
Clinic fame) "the most able Negro surgeon in America", was shot at the
Convention Hall and allowed to bleed to death.
Tribute" Newspaper reported that Whites also used private airplanes to
drop kerosene and dynamite on Black homes. By the next morning the
entire Greenwood district was reduced to ashes and not one White was even
accused of any wrongdoing, much less arrested.
graphic above for Microsoft PowerPoint 2000 Slide Show)
(Bombing Black Wall Street by
The race riot of
Tulsa, Oklahoma was not an isolated event in American history. On May 28, 1917 a
White mob in East St. Louis, Illinois of over l3,000, ravaged African American
stores, homes, and churches. Eyewitnesses reported that over 100 Blacks were
gunned down as they left their burning homes including a small Black child who
was shot and thrown back into the burning building to die. Seven white police
officers charged with murder by the Illinois Attorney General were collectively
fined $150. During the "Red Summer" of 1919, over 25 race riots were
recorded (white mobs attacking black neighborhoods). In the 1919 race riot at
Elaine, Arkansas, White mobs killed over 200 African Americans and burned their
homes and businesses. Federal troops arrested hundreds of Blacks trying to
protect their possessions and forcibly held them in basements of the city’s
public schools. Twelve Blacks were indicted (no Whites) and convicted of
inciting violence and sentenced to die. The NAACP persuaded the U.S. Supreme
Count for the first time in history to reverse a racially biased southern court.
Director John Singleton exposed the horror of the Rosewood, Florida massacre of
1922 in his film entitled "Rosewood". A White mob burned down the
entire town and tried to kill all of its Black inhabitants. In April 1994, the
Florida legislature passed the "Rosewood Bill", which awarded $150,000
to each of the riot’s nine eligible Black survivors.
After the Tulsa
riot, the White inhabitants tried to buy the Black property and force Black
people out of town. No Tulsa bank or lending institution would make loans in the
riot-marred Greenwood district, and the city refused all outside assistance.
However, racial pride and self-determination would not permit the Greenwood
owners to sell, and they doggedly spend the entire winter in tents donated by
the American Red Cross. Rebuilding was a testament to the courage and stamina of
Tulsa’s pioneers in their struggle for freedom.
of the buildings along the first block of Greenwood Avenue were rebuilt
within one year. Henry Whitlow wrote: "A little over a decade after
the riot, everything was more prosperous than before." In
1926, W. E. B. DuBois visited Tulsa and wrote: "Black Tulsa is a
happy city. It has new clothes. It is young and gay and strong. Five
little years ago, fire and blood and robbery leveled it to the ground.
Scars are there, but the city is impudent and noisy. It believes in
itself. Thank God for the grit of Black Tulsa."
Black Tulsa, African Americans can continue to survive by self-pride, self-help,
Underground Railroad Enterprises
BLACK PEOPLE & THEIR PLACE IN
ebook also covered under - Moses A Movement To Freedom
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REFERENCES AND ADDITIONAL
(NEGRO) WALL STREET
Linkable books from Amazon.com
Brown, R. (1975) Strain of
Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Virgilantism. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Butler, W. (1974) Tulsa 75: A
History of Tulsa. Tulsa: Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.
Debo, A. (1982) Tulsa: From Creek
Town to Oil Capital. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Ellsworth, S. (1943) Death in a
Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
Franklin, J. (1974) From Slavery to
Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Franklin, J. (1980) The Blacks in
Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Gates, E. (1997) They Came
Searching - How Blacks Sought the Promised Land in Tulsa. Austin, Texas: Eakin
Johnson, H. (1998) Black Wall
Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. Austin,
Texas: Eakin Press.
Teall, K. (1971) Black History in
Oklahoma: A Resource Book. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Waskow, A. (1967) From Race Riot to
Sit-In. 1919 and the 1960’s: A Study in the Connections Between Conflict and
Violence. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Williams, L. (1972) Anatomy of Four
Race Riots - Racial Conflict in Knoxville, Elaine (Arkansas), Tulsa and Chicago.
The University and College Press of Mississippi.