There once was a place called Black Wall Street or Little Africa in Greenwood Business District which was nestled in the arms of a very fruitful African- American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, early 1900’s. It was founded by wealthy Black entrepreneurs during a time of segregation and the peak of a profitable oil industry. Since most businesses were White only back then, the Negro Wall Street was the perfect “Black only” set up. Its streets were lined with just about every type of essential business, churches, etc. until 1921 when The Tulsa Race Riots began. Little Africa is no more. Keep reading to discover what happened back then and how it effects present day Tulsa and those who survived the destruction of Black Wall Street.
Greenwood District, Home to Wealthy Black Entrepreneurs
In the early 1900’s Tulsa, Oklahoma was booming due to the discovery of oil. This boom created several jobs in the oil fields which in turn resulted in an abundance of employment opportunities in Tulsa for African- Americans. However, due to racism and the rapid influx of Blacks populating Greenwood, Jim Crow laws were passed legalizing segregation in 1908. Sometime after World War I, a Supreme Court ruling rendered these segregation laws unconstitutional and as a result of the ruling, they were dissolved by 1915. By this time, Blacks had already begun building their own community in Greenwood which was funded by several wealthy, Black, entrepreneurs. Two entrepreneurs in particular who are most noted for being the main founding fathers of what later became known as “ Black Wall Street” are J.B. Stradford and O. W. Gurley (Black wealthy land owner, whom also founded what is known today as Vernon AME Church Arkansas.)
Dick Darby is Accused of Raping Sarah Page
This Vibrant, thriving community became very famous and so, eloquently known around the world as Little Africa or “ Black Wall Street.” All was well here until the night of May 31st of 1921, when mobs wanted to lynch 19yr. old Dick Rowland (an African- American shoe shiner.) There were reports that an incident had taken place earlier that day in the Drexel Building at Third and South Main St. between him and an elevator operator, a 17yr. old White woman by the name of Sarah Page. It was rumored that Mr. Rowland had raped Sarah Page while the two of them were inside of the elevator. She fled the elevator screaming with scratches all over her. Different accounts suggested that whilst in the elevator Dick was trying to prevent falling two stories down the elevator’s shaft so, he held on to Sarah in efforts to prevent his fall. No one really knows what happened inside of that elevator except Dick and Sarah; however, just like any story that gets passed from person to person every account will slightly differ.
Although, the story continued to snowball, no written report recapping the incident had ever surfaced. The very next day, sometime during the early afternoon the city’s newspaper (Tulsa Tribune), reported that Rowland whom had already been picked up by police, had attempted to rape Ms. Page. The paper also published a headline that read “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” Lynch talk grew among the White community and in turn caused angry mobs to form. Although, lynching in Oklahoma was common back then, Blacks decided there would be no Lynching that night.
The Destruction of Black Wall Street
Because of the failed lynching of Dick Rowland Tulsa’s angry weapon toting, racist rioters decided they would kick things up a notch. They began to vent their frustrations too and directed their hatred towards African- Americans in general. The Tulsa Tribune has successfully spurred a confrontation between Blacks and Whites which rapidly erupted outside of the courthouse. The sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland.
As a group of Black veterans were leaving… a White man tried to disarm one. Shots were fired and the riots began. Blacks were extremely outnumbered so some of them had begun retreating to the Greenwood Avenue business district. Others put up a fight.
Frenetic brawls erupted along the Frisco railroad tracks. Black defenders were able to fend off some members of the white mobs. In the midst of all the chaos, an unarmed Black man was murdered inside a downtown movie theater. Carloads of Whites that were heavily armed with machinery began a series of “drive-by” shootings within Tulsa’s Black residential neighborhoods. Plans for a dawn invasion of Greenwood were set by Whites during meetings in all- night cafés. When daybreak came, they poured into the African American district, looting homes and businesses and setting them on fire. By midnight, on May 31st of 1921, fires were ablaze and outlined the Southern edges of the Greenwood District.
By the morning of June 1, 1921, Greenwood’s Business District had been bombed and burned to Smithereens. Block after block of only charred ruins and shattered hope & dreams remained. Greenwood which was once home to two newspapers, churches, libraries, and several other Black owned and operated businesses was no more. Sadly, all of this happened within 18 hours. A. C. Jackson (a renowned black surgeon) was shot even after surrendering to a group of whites. Although, local units of the National Guard were mobilized they only protected white neighborhoods; the slogan was, “get a gun and get a nigger.“
Surprisingly, a grand jury at the time, blamed the black community for the riot. And get this…! No one was convicted and none of the victims were compensated for damages or loss of property or loss of life. Approximately, 40 blocks were destroyed. Most of these places were looted prior to being set afire. The vast majority of Tulsa’s African American population had been made homeless as a result of the riot.
Ninety Plus Years Later and Still No Reparations
The Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 and the destruction of Black Wall Street has been recorded as one of the worst incidents of racial violence against Blacks in American history to date. Not much remains of Black Wall Street with the exception of a block of red- brick storefronts. They have been coupled with a new minor league ball field, a university campus, an elevated highway, and plaque paved sidewalks. These few traces tell the stories of hundreds of businesses that once called Black Wall Street home.
Lawsuits were dismissed because The Oklahoma Legislature refused them citing they were constitutionally prohibited. Federal courts also, dismissed all lawsuits on behalf of the victims, proclaiming they had reached the statute of limitations. Congress has made repeated, yet failed efforts to remove that legal obstacle. However, it has been denied constantly because most lawmakers fear that approval would open the door to reparations for slavery. Therefore, No payments were ever delivered. Survivors are dying off at a rapid rate and there aren’t many left. The Tulsa race riots of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books. Don’t you wonder why?
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