Black Wall Street After the Tulsa Race Riot
Trailblazing a New Pathway Into the Future
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In 1921, Tulsa, Oklahoma was the scene of the worst race riot in American history. Over 300 people perished with property damage running into the millions. In a spirit of resilience, Black Tulsans resurrected the Greenwood District, and, by 1942, the area featured over 200 Black-owned and operated businesses
In the book entitled Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa's Historic Greenwood District author, Hannibal B. Johnson offers a deep exegesis into the history of Tulsa’s Black community and its entrepreneurial legacy.
A graduate of The University of Arkansas and Harvard Law School graduate, Johnson is an attorney and independent consultant focusing on diversity & inclusion/cultural competence issues and nonprofit governance. In a phone conversation with Johnson from his office in the heart of Black Wall Street, he offered this opening thought:
“My office is on the corner of Greenwood and Archer which are two of the defining streets in the historically black community called The Greenwood District. Professionally I am an attorney but I have a consulting business. I’ve taught at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, the University of Tulsa, and other places.”
He adds that the Greenwood District is known primarily on two parallel tracks. One, an entrepreneurial and economic mecca for Black Americans early in the twentieth century. And two, as a kind of seminal example of anti-black violence and trauma, which also occurred during that period.
“When I talk about history, I say that the overarching narrative for me is one that speaks to the indomitable human spirit, exemplified by these incredible Black folks in Tulsa in the early part of the 20th century. It’s really a story about people and their narrative tragedy and triumph — a vicissitude of life experiences that’s emblematic of the kind of history that Black folks have had throughout the United States, particularly during the twentieth century.”
His most recent book in 2020, Black Wall Street 100: An American City Grapples With Its Historical Racial Trauma, endorsed by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission and the 400 Years of African American History Commission, furthers the educational mission of both bodies. The book offers updates on developments in Tulsa generally and in Tulsa’s Greenwood District specifically since the publication of the first book, Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.
“Black Wall Street 100 offers a window into what distinguishes the Tulsa of today from the Tulsa of a century ago. Before peering through that porthole, we must first reflect on Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District in all its splendor and squalor, from the prodigious entrepreneurial spirit that pervaded it to the carnage that characterized the 1921 massacre to the post-massacre rebound and rebuilding that raised the District to new heights to the mid-twentieth-century decline that proved to be a second near-fatal blow to the current recalibration and rebranding of a resurgent, but differently configured, community.”
Johnson believes that Tulsa’s historic journey may be of value to other communities seeking to address their own history of racial trauma. Moreover, Tulsa, he says, may equally benefit from lessons learned from other communities adding
“….. through sharing and synergy, we stand a better chance of doing the work necessary to spur healing and move farther toward the reconciliation of which we so often speak.”
Kevin Matthews, a Black state senator, who is a friend of Johnson's, approached him in 2015 about the creation of the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Committee.
“The idea was that we knew this Centennial was coming. So the question became about what we could do to both educate the community, the nation, the world about this history but how could we enhance the economic prospects for what was once this Black mecca called Black Wall Street.”
Ensuing from this was a commission composed of a number of state officials, global officials, and community representatives. As a loosely affiliated ad hoc auxiliary body, the group was charged with working with the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the local school district to create curriculum materials about Black Wall Street, a history that had for decades not been taught in any systematic way as part of the curriculum. Says Johnson:
“We created a summer teachers institute to teach teachers not only how this relates to all of the various disciplines and substantive history but also share ideas about pedagogy. The questions became ‘how do we teach this history, how do we infuse it into the curriculum, how do we teach it in disciplines other than history, how is this social studies, how is this literature”?
Johnson says that Tulsa Public Schools has recently integrated this history into curriculum materials for grades K-12 in a variety of disciplines adding:
“We also created public service announcements about this history along with a series of documentaries. But the crown jewel in all of this is “Greenwood Rising” a Black Wall Street history center and museum that was developed in conjunction with local projects by an exhibit design firm in Manhattan. I had the privilege of serving as the center’s local curator which opened up about a year ago. Our visitation rates are double what we expected. And we’ve received favorable coverage in the New York Times and a handful of architectural awards all just the year plus that we’ve been open.”
Continuing along this same narrative, Johnson says….
“….. the Greenwood Rising Museum goes to the notion of educating the public about this important yet often overlooked piece of history. So as the local curator, it was important to me that the overarching narrative speaks to the indomitable human spirit. So the idea is that as patrons visit the facility, they understand our history contextualized within national history. In other words, it’s hard to discuss what happened in Tulsa in 1921 unless you talk about Red Summer unless you talk about lynching, the other things that are related to that.”
Johnson believes that getting in touch with this history in a highly contextualized manner allows us to explore our individual collective agency in addressing the fundamental challenges that led to the 1921 Tulsa race riot. He points to Holocaust and the Japanese internment during World War II as other seminal events that have required historical context in order to achieve redress.
“All of these things are related. The key element and fundamental imperative for me is tied to this shared humanity. In other words, when we ignore our shared humanity, it lead to things like the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese people and all of that.”
With this, he believes that it is important to understand that one of the big mistakes or myths that people have about the Tulsa Race Riot is in seeing the massacre as a historical endpoint.
“Many don’t understand what happened after that. So I always emphasize the indomitable human spirit tied to this, namely, how the community was rebuilt almost immediately thereafter.”
Johnson says that many people forget that the peak of the Greenwood business community occurred in the early to mid-1940s after the massacre.
“The Black Wall Street district was thriving then. Its ultimate decline really begins in the late 60s and early 70s for a number of reasons, two of which I often highlight. The first which is perhaps the most counterintuitive is integration. This was a negative factor for an insular Black community that was founded based on the need to confront segregation. So when integration came along there was an outflow of dollars from the community which adversely impacted the area’s financial foundation.”
“Then in the late 60s, because of integration and other factors, the community began to decline, businesses began to fail, which created blight. Then in the infinite wisdom of urban renewal leaders back in the 60s, a lot of properties were bought up along with an interstate that was built right through the heart of the Greenwood District. This was devastating.”
Johnson says that today, the heart of what was the commercial district is in the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue where his office is located.
“Some of the commercial buildings built in the years after the massacre still remain. The building across the street from me was built in 1922 and the building I’m in was built in the 1930s. These structures, red brick buildings along the 100 block, have that early 20th Century feel. And there are Black neighborhoods north of here, within the bounds of what was the historic Black community.
….There are also two historical Black churches that remain. Vernon AME was here during the massacre and their basement is the only existing surviving structure from the massacre. Mount Zion was here and destroyed and rebuilt. So it is an integrated community. It is a diverse community including residential, commercial, educational, entertainment, and cultural.”
Johnson says that working with the folks that are here now, to a person and to an entity, who are all concerned with at a minimum acknowledging the legacy and the sacredness of the ground on which we sit is of key importance to him. He admits to being often asked about whether the Greenwood District is going to return to its glory days as the Black Mecca it was prior to the destruction during its peak in the forties. And the answer, he says, is clearly no. He concludes:
“What we can do is excite people about our history. Our ongoing hope is that through this historical leveraging of Black Wall Street, we can place a spotlight on the incredible forebearers who created opportunities out of almost nothing and laid a foundation for us. And they achieved this against incredible, almost unimaginable odds in terms of the systemic racism that existed at that time. If we can reclaim that incredible economic and entrepreneurial spirit that those folks had, and the Black Wall Street mindset, then our opportunities are virtually limitless.”
I saved this newsletter until the weekend so I could comment when I had more time. I, like many people, didn't learn about this in school. My first exposure to this was reading Jennifer Latham's YA novel, Dreamland Burning. That sent me down the proverbial rabbit hole and I was shocked that the massacre in 1921 could even happen in the first place, and then be subject to the "cover-up" over the last 100 years. I've read several non-fiction books about what happened, and I've listened to many podcasts that detailed the horrors of the massacre and the aftermath. A horribly dark time in our history, but it's just one of many dark times in our history. We can't go back and change the past, but we can do better in the future. Most times that seems impossible too. :(