Rarely Discussed History: Black Wall Street (WAW)

Black Wall Street, Tulsa Oklahoma, Greenwood Cultural Center, Black History Month
Photo by Molly Dilworth (via Flickr) Some rights reserved (Creative Commons License 2.0).

As part of Black History Month, I want to use this post to discuss Black Wall Street.

(This is supposed to be a Write Anything Wednesday Post but it’s a day late. I’m late due to two reasons, one being the amount of research I ended up doing.)

I think I might have first learned about the existence of (a) Black Wall Street last year or maybe 2015. The history of it was so obscure that I was only able to find two definitive sources on it when I searched. Since then, I found a plethora of sources to give me an even better understanding.

Boy, there was so much to read! Not only did I find new sources, but I also felt compelled to follow the links shared in initial sources (in order to find more information on my own).

Anyway, before I can get to the information I want to share the most, I must ask: Have you heard of Black Wall Street? If you have, did you also know there were three Black Wall Streets?


Black Wall Streets

Three locations in American History were known as “Black Wall Street”: Jackson Wardin Richmond, Virginia; Parrish Street in Durham, North Carolina; and Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I want to discuss the Greenwood District in depth, but here is some more information about the other economic hubs.

Richmond, Virginia

Black Wall Street, Richmond Virginia, Black History Month

Richmond, Virginia was the most important city for black finance. The first black banks opened in the city. It became known as the “birthplace of black capitalism.”

The financial hub in Richmond was built after the Civil War. John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie L. Walker were among pioneers of the commerce center there.

The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was opened by Maggie Walker — was the daughter of a freed slave — in 1903. Walker’s bank made loans available to black doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other qualified borrowers who were turned away from other banks. The bank ultimately merged with other black-owned banks to become the Consolidated Bank and Trust.

The Consolidated Bank and Trust was the last-surviving bank from Black Wall Street. It only survived until the ten years of the 21st century.

In 2005, the Consolidated Bank and Trust was bought by a Washington, D.C.-based bank. In 2011, it was bought by a West Virginia-based bank and renamed Premier Bank. Although the bank is essentially “gone,” those in executive positions made sure the predominantly black staff remained essentially the same and that the bank serviced disadvantaged black customers.

Durham, North Carolina

Black Wall Street, Black History Month, Durham North Carolina

Parris Street was known as Black Wall Street from the late 19th century until the early 20th century. It was originally based on agriculture until Charles Spaulding, John Merrick, and Dr. Aaron M. Moore (the “Triumvirate” or the “black captains of industry”) helped to the financial hub of the area. The three had been behind the success of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance.

The local economy took a serious hit when a March 23, 1914 fire caused millions of dollars in damage. The disaster lead to the improvement of the faulty water system, but the financial hub was never rebuilt.


Little Africa: Tulsa’s Black Wall Street

Most of the blacks who migrated to Oklahoma settled in an area that became known as the Greenwood District. The area would eventually be known as Black Wall Street or “Little Africa. It was built by black entrepreneurs who wanted blacks to have a self-sustaining community.

At the time, there was discrimination in the state of Oklahoma and the founders wanted to make sure it was baked into the state constitution. So the self-sustaining community was even more important for the black residents of the state.

The Founding of Oklahoma

The territory that would eventually become the state of Oklahoma was acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1830, it was colonized by Native American tribes who were forced from the southeastern United States by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Many of the Indians who walked along the Trail of Tears owned their own black slaves. After the Civil War, slavery was abolished everywhere in the United States, and in the territories held by the tribes. Former slaves and free blacks were granted land by the federal government.

In 1889, the U.S. government made the Unassigned Lands available for settlement. That plot of land within the Indian Territory wasn’t designated to any tribe.

Soon, black and white settlers staked their claim to smaller plots within the Unassigned Lands. In 1890, Congress created the Oklahoma Territory, comprising roughly the western half of the present state.

As more blacks migrated to the Oklahoma Territory, a number of all-black towns sprung up. There was an unsuccessful push for an all-black state, but the number of all-black towns may have grown to as many as 50. However, those towns faced economic challenges due to the restrictive laws that were passed, mainly as a result of whites migrating from the Deep South.

For a time, the black residents in the Oklahoma Territory experienced economic progress and population growth that rivaled that of the whites. Blacks started banks, built businesses, and started to challenge whites for the same jobs by the turn of the 20th century.

Oklahoma became the nation’s 47th state on November 17, 1907.

Jim Crow Laws

Jim Crow laws were in effect until 1877 until the 1960’s, when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height. Jim Crow wasn’t just a set of laws but a way of life. It was a way to indoctrinate a sense of superiority of whites over blacks and to establish a caste system within the United States.

Violence was an important factor in reinforcing the laws and instituting fear in blacks. David Pilgrim from Ferris University also added that journalists also had an important part in enforcing Jim Crow laws. False reporting reinforced negative black stereotypes and also helped to incite the violence.

All contact between blacks and whites was to be kept at a minimum and any treatment of the Negro as an equal was believed to lead to sexual relations and the creation of a “mongrel race.” From the first rule, it is clearly seen how the black male was the main target of scorn and how the white woman was held up as a mark of virtue.

A black male could not offer his hand (to shake hands) with a white male because it implied being socially equal. Obviously, a black male could not offer his hand or any other part of his body to a white woman, because he risked being accused of rape.

Here is the third tenet:

Under no circumstance was a black male to offer to light the cigarette of a white female — that gesture implied intimacy.

And in Alabama, white female nurses were not allowed to serve black men.

Jim Crow Violence

Much of the violence carried out by whites against blacks during the Jim Crow era exploded after rumors that black men had sexually assaulted white women. Black men, women, and children were often lynched and at times their communities were looted and destroyed.

There were numerous race riots in the summer of 1919, resulting in the lynchings of 77 blacks in at least two dozen cities, including:

  • Chicago, IL
  • Knoxville and Nashville, TN
  • Charleston, SC
  • Omaha, NE

In other years, there were race riots in the following cities:

  • Wilmington, NC (1898)
  • Atlanta, GA (1906)
  • Springfield, IL (1908)
  • East St. Louis, IL (1917)
  • Tulsa, OK (1921)
  • Detroit, MI (1943)

Oklahoma’s Jim Crow Laws

When the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention ta Guthrie was underway 10 years after Plessy v. Fergusson, Democrats in the territories pushed for full segregation for the new state. President Theodore Roosevelt threated to veto statehood for Oklahoma, but the founders of the state still included a provision that paved the way for segregated schools. Once the state was formed, the legislature approved segregation for public accommodations and the power to segregate schools.

Oklahoma’s legislature approved its own version of Jim Crow Laws. Blacks were also limited in the way of employment. Blacks were blocked from pursuing certain professions in much of the state.

Additionally, black voters were disenfranchised after A.C. Hamilton of Guthrie, a black man, rose to the First Legislature.

  • The “grandfather clause” blocked blacks from voting by only allowing men whose grandfathers who enjoyed the right to vote before the Civil War to participate in the electoral process.
  • Black residents also had to take literacy tests in order to be allowed to vote. That would be struck down in 1915 in the Supreme Court case Guinn v. Unites States, but the legislature passed another law to limit black voting.

The Development of the Greenwood District

By the early 1900’s, Tulsa, Oklahoma was still a segregated city. The populations were segregated due to a law that precluded both blacks and whites from living in neighborhoods that had 75% of the other race. Blacks lived in the northern areas of the city.

Greenwood Avenue was only a dirt road near the Frisco railroad tracks in 1906. Once developed, the Greenwood District was bordered by the railroad tracks and cross streets of Archer and Pine. (The GAP band derived its name from all three streets. Originally called the Greenwood, Archer & Pine Street Band, the group was formed by Tulsa natives Ronnie, Charlie, and Robert Wilson.) Greenwood was the main thoroughfare.

The development of the district began when O.W. Gurley from Arkansas built a boarding house for blacks who migrated from Mississippi. Soon, J.B. Stradford bought much of northeastern Tulsa and sold land to other blacks. He also built the Stradford Hotel in Greenwood.

At its height, the Greenwood District boasted two movie theaters, libraries, a hospital, numerous churches, grocery stores, private planes, and one of the best surgeons in the country in A.C. Jackson. All the businesses were owned and operated by the black residents. Little Africa also had indoor plumbing (while whites in the city did not) and superior schools.


The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Black Wall Street, Black History Month, Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Tulsa Oklahoma, Greenwood District

The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 led to the destruction of Greenwood’s Black Wall Street.

A Rumor

It was instigated by a series of events beginning on May 30, 1921. Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old bootblack, accidentally touched Sarah Page, a white elevator operator in the Drexel Building in downtown Tulsa. Some people working in the building heard her scream and saw Rowland running from the building.

Page first said Rowland tried to assault her. She later said he grabbed her arm when he entered the elevator. Mr. White said Rowland stepped on her foot by accident. In the end, Page screamed and Rowland fled the scene.

Witnesses suspected that Rowland had sexually assaulted Page.

The Escalation

After the incident was (mis)reported in the Tulsa Tribune, word came to law enforcement that Rowland would be lynched if caught by the whites in the city.

At the time, the Ku Klux Klan, long America’s version of Jihadists, were ingrained in Oklahoma politics. Some police officers were also members of the Klan and even aided other members when it came to lynchings and dealing with criminals. Sometime before the race riot, a white man had been lynched by a white mob outside a Tulsa courthouse.

A group of concerned black men, some of whom were World War I veterans, went to the jail where Rowland was being held in protective custody. They were turned away from the jail but returned later with a group of 75 armed men. They faced a white mob that numbered at least 400.

According to an account by Walter White in a 1921 addition of The Nation, the black men were complying with Sheriff Willard McCollough and left once again. But one of the white men in the mob tried to pry one of the black men’s weapons away from him.

A shot was fired and then “all hell broke loose.” More shots were fired, resulting in the deaths of two black men and ten white men.

The group of black men retreated to the Greenwood District at midnight. The white mob followed.

The Violence

The mob had grown to 10,000 and they deployed machine guns and planes in their attack on Little Africa. About eight planes were used to spy on the movements of the Greenwood residents, but there were allegations that some of those planes were used to bomb the district.

From White’s article:

According to the statements of onlookers, men in uniform, either home guards or ex-service men or both, carried cans of oil into Little Africa, and, after looting the homes, set fire to them. Many are the stories of horror told to me—not by colored people—but by white residents. One was that of an aged colored couple, saying their evening prayers before retiring in their little home on Greenwood Avenue. A mob broke into the house, shot both of the old people in the backs of their heads, blowing their brains out and spattering them over the bed, pillaged the home, and then set fire to it.

A.C. Jackson, the prominent surgeon among the residents, was murdered in cold blood after surrendering to an “officer of the home.” Jackson gave himself up in order to protect his wife and children.

The Aftermath

The Tulsa Race Riot led to the destruction of over 600 businesses. These included 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, 2 movie theaters, a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, 6 private airplanes, a bus system, and 21 churches. Many of the 1,256 homes that were destroyed were looted beforehand. There was $2.25 million dollars in damage, which would be over $30 million in today’s money.

More importantly, there were 50 dead white people and at least 39 deaths suffered by the black residents of the Greenwood District. The numbers of the residents are unclear, though. There have been estimates of 100 deaths, 250, 300, and as much as 400. Some witnesses said that many of the dead were put into unmarked graves; many burned bodies may have been put into mass graves.

Shortly after the riot, thousands of blacks were rounded up by the National Guard. Only those who were vouched for by white residents were set free.

At least 8,000 Greenwood residents were left homeless. They lived in tents in the razed area into the winter.

A grand jury blamed the black residents for the riot. No white person was ever arrested, let along tried for the massacre.

After the riot occurred, ordinances prevented the district from being rebuilt, but an injunction won by African-American lawyers allowed residents to rebuild. By 1942, there were 242 black-owned and black-operated businesses there. Yet the vast majority of black residents were pushed out in the 1950’s, when two major interstate highways were being built and “urban renewal” efforts were forced upon the city.


Awareness of this Event

In a 2011 article for The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger talked to one survivor of the Tulsa race riot of 1921 as well as historians and others who wanted to raise awareness of the event. Awareness of the event had grown within Oklahoma and across the United States, but various factors still threaten to undermine it.

In particular, the death of the survivors highlights how difficult their fight for recognition and reconciliation was.

In 2011, there were 40 survivors of the massacre. Otis Clark was the oldest living survivor at 108. As of this posting, Dr. Olivia J. Hooker is the last living survivor of the massacre. She refuses to call it a race riot, but refers to it as a “planned desecration.”

Hooker was part of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, which was founded with the main purpose of demanding reparations for survivors. The demands for reparations were soundly rejected, but there was a scholarship for descendants of the survivors and a memorial was built, per the commission’s request.

The Greenwood Cultural Center was established in 2010. It nearly cost $3 million to build and it houses an extensive exhibit on the massacre. In 2011, the center last its state funding and it struggles to stay afloat.

The Danger of Forgetting the Past

Many people will point to this plight and agree that there has been a concerted effort to hide this dark part of American history. In 2011, only one publisher, Pearson, has planned to include the Tulsa Race Riots in its history textbooks. I am not sure about other publishers, but most Americans do not know about any of the Black Wall Streets, let along the destruction of 1919 and 1921.

Please pass this story along to anyone you can. While it may be difficult to visit, it is still a part of American history and we must learn from it.


Works Cited

Campbell, Alexia Fernández. “The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street.” The Atlantic. 31 Aug 2016. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/the-end-of-black-wall-street/498074/>.

“Dr. Olivia J. Hooker: Last Survivor of Black Wall Street.” Black Doctor. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <http://blackdoctor.org/512294/dr-olivia-j-hooker-last-survivor-of-black-wall-street/>.

“‘The Eruption of Tulsa’: An NAACP Official Investigates the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.” History Matters. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5119/>.

“‘The Eruption of Tulsa’ by Walter F. White, The Nation, Wednesday, June 29th, 1921.” UNZ.org. Web. Retrieved 16 Feb 2017. <http://www.unz.org/Pub/Nation-1921jun29-00909>.

Franklin, Jimmie Lewis. “African Americans.” The Enclyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society; 2009. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. Web. <http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entryname=AFRICAN%20AMERICANS>.

History.com Staff. “Oklahoma.” History.com. A+E Networks; 2009. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <http://www.history.com/topics/us-states/oklahoma>.

Johnson, Hannibal B. “Greenwood District.” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma History Society; 2009. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=GR024>.

Kellman, Andy. “GAP Band | Biography & History.” All Music. Web. Retrieved 16 Feb 2017. <http://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-gap-band-mn0000073383/biography>.

“Mass graves hold the secrets of American race massacre.” World History Archives. Hartford Web Publishing. Web. Retrieved 16 Feb 2017. <http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/148.html>.

O’Dell, Larry. “Ku Klux Klan.” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society; 2009. Web. Retrieved 16 Feb 2017. <http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=KU001>.

Pickens, Josie. “The Destruction of Black Wall Street.” Ebony. 31 May 2013. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <http://www.ebony.com/black-history/the-destruction-of-black-wall-street-405#axzz4YmXKeiRN>.

Pilgrim, David (Dr.). “What Was Jim Crow?” Jim Crow Museum. Ferris State University; Sep 2000. Last Updated 2012. Web. Retrieved 16 Feb 2017. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/what.htm>.

Sulzberger, A.G. “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past.” The New York Times. 19 June 2011. Web. Retrieved 16 Feb 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/20/us/20tulsa.html>.

“Tulsa Still Faces Historical Trauma from 1921 Riot That Left 300 Dead on Black Wall Street.” Democracy Now! 22 Sep 2016. Web. Retrieved 16 Feb 2017. <https://www.democracynow.org/2016/9/22/tulsa_still_faces_historical_trauma_from>.

Weber, Brandon. “Ever Heard of ‘Black Wall Street’?” The Progressive. 19 Feb 2016. Web. Retrieved 15 Feb 2017. <http://progressive.org/dispatches/ever-heard-black-wall-street/>.

White, Walter. “The Eruption of Tulsa.” The Nation. Volume 112. 29 June 1921. Print. Pages 909-910.

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