#Black History Month 2014: Fallen, Not Forgotten: Black Wall Street

It still amazes me when I meet someone who has never heard about Black Wall Street.  I am sure some of you who are reading this right now are wondering what in the world is Ms. Nix talking about – Black Wall Street? Well, there was a  Black Wall Street in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, although it may not be as you might imagine today’s Wall Street with buzzing brokers anxious about the newest iPhone and how it will affect the DOW. No, Black Wall Street was an African-American community with 30 grocery stores, 21 churches and restaurants, a post office, busing system, hospital, bank, and two movie theaters. Neighborhoods were prominent with affluent land owners whom owned: oil fields, private planes, and every child was provided the most esteemed education. Despite the opposition these African-American families thrived on what is now known as the American dream, by overcoming and succeeding in a nation that only viewed them as animals and laborers.

Why was this highly esteemed place , also known as ‘Little Africa’, not mentioned in some history books or remains unknown to the masses? It is because this magnificent town was destroyed by one of the first acts of American terrorism committed on American soil. The actions of the Klu Klux Klan and angered followers nearly eradicated the entire existence of one of the greatest stories of African-American men, women and children. This is their story of success, demise, and revival through the children that came after them.

From 1830 to 1842, the Trail of Tears was an area of land where Native Americans and African-Americans were Black Wall Street 2allocated to live. Blacks began to build up townships and many were adopted into Indian Tribes. When the government started to give land to the Indians, African-Americans also received ownership of property. In 1907, the state of Oklahoma was created and the area once known as a rough and terrible place to live became the city of Tulsa and the area were most of the Black townships were built would be later known as the Greenwood section of the city.

As the town began to develop the land owners discovered  oil on their properties, which sparked an economic boom for the township and slowly became the ‘promise land’ for Blacks who lived in the segregated south.  Many families black-wall-street-11began to migrate to Greenwood on the hopes of becoming affluent self-dependent families and being able to educate their children and further their own. As the community grew, so did the various business opportunities. The men and women would employ other African-American men and women thus keeping the ‘Black money’ within the community. In ‘Little Africa’ the money would turn-over anywhere between 36-100 times before ever leaving the community! Yes, Black Wall Street had the first African-American millionaires; As a modern comparison the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma could be compared the affluent Beverly Hills area of California.

Gap+BandThe Gap Band derived its name from the letters of Greenwood Street where it intersected at Archer and Pine paying homage to the residents of Black Wall Street.

White Americans living in Oklahoma were primarily comprised of the families of World War I veterans. Many usagriffith2had returned from giving their lives for our great country only to find no jobs barely able to support their families – eventually many became cold and bitter.  It did not help matters when they were able to look out at Greenwood from downtown Tulsa and see how successful Black people were and living the comforts of their success.  Seeing Blacks doing so well only escalated the brimming hatred for men and women of color.  When the film, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (based on the book named The Clansmen)  debuted it blamed all the problems of White America on African-Americans. Much like the Nazis blamed the Jewish community for their financial strife.  This movie ran all over the county, with most of the showings in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It was only a matter of time before that film stirred feelings of retaliation- that day came on May 31, 1921 with a coordinated blazing inferno.

The fuel to the ultimate demise came when 19-year-old boot boy (shoe shiner) Dick Rowland  who worked in downtown Tulsa, was granted permission to use the bathroom on the top floor of the Drexel building. Rowland tripped while he rode the elevator up the Drexel building and mistakenly touched elevator operator Sara Page. Page claimed hat Rowland was attempting to rape her and he was arrested that afternoon. The Oklahoma Tribune’s afternoon edition recounted the incident including a statement indicating Rowland would be lynched that night. The Greenwood community was not going to let that happened.  As the White Americans proceeded to the courthouse that evening with guns in tow prepared to see this young man hanged, so did black women and their men armed and ready to defend Dick Rowland. As the two groups came together there was an altercation between a Black and White man that led to a gun going off and the initial attack on the families of Black Wall Street erupted.

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On the morning of June 1, 1921 while many of Greenwood’s residents slept, 5000 White men fully armed awaited a whistle that signaled them to open fire and drop bombs on the 36 square blocks of Greenwood. While the men shot any and every one they saw or could find, the women and teenage children would enter the homes and loot the contents. In a matter of 12 hours, approximately 3000 African-Americans were dead, 600 businesses were demolished and the world’s most successful and affluent African-American community at the time was utterly destroyed.

To date, no one living or any of the relatives have received reparations, acknowledgment or apology for this tragedy. Unfortunately an apology would not suit the situation.  No matter the set backs we continue to thrive as a community through 14-17 years graduating college and and receiving their Masters degrees. A principal dancer for the American Ballet Company, the first in history. Basketball players turned businessmen and more. Entertainers that have changed the beat of how we live and function as a society. We were struck down and some continue to be. If we learn anything from the tragedy is that we have fallen before and we will rise again.

We felt it was necessary to share this story at the beginning of Black History Month to  pay homage to all the men, women and children whose lives are a testament to what has happened in the past and how a people united can make changes which stimulate envy and jealousy from others.  African-Americans are still striving to recapture the spirit of Black Wall Street – to be educated, create opportunities to secure financial security and to live their lives in a community as one nation, one village to bring alive, again, the mentally sound, spiritually wise, financially stable roots of Little Africa. African-Americans will stake their claim in society and page tribute to the men, women and children who showed us and the nation just how incredibly resourceful and resounding they were then and are now and the essence of Black Wall Street will forever live on because the life-force is within all of black Americans.

Watch the documentary for your self or visit one of the following resources for more information: Black Wall Street  and OKHistory.Org








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