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The legend of Black Wall Street

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In the summer of 1921, the city of Tulsa in Oklahoma witnessed a tragedy that never made it to the history books. Now, a hundred years later, Clarkisha Kent finds a community determined to dig up a complicated truth.

07 Dec

For the better part of the last century, the story of Oklahoma’s Tulsa massacre has been forcibly relegated to the shadows of history. However, a renewed focus in digging up the past – particularly when it pertains to historic wrongs perpetrated against Black people – has recently brought the horrific tale back into the spotlight. Yet retellings via our new mediums, like social media and short-form viral articles, have morphed the events of 31 May 1921 into something else entirely: the demolition of a mythical “Black Wall Street”.

The Greenwood district, now commonly referred to as the Black Wall Street, was an area in Tulsa that by 1921 had become a prosperous financial centre, one to rival white counterparts. On 31 May 1921, it was obliterated. A mob of white people razed Greenwood to the ground. An estimated 300 Black Tulsans were lynched in rounds of unmerciful gunfire, their graves unmarked and undiscovered until last year. The tragedy of Black Wall Street, we are told, was not just the direct racist violence against Black lives, but also the destruction of wealth – the houses, the businesses and the riches it had taken years to accumulate. 

The thing about myths, however, is that they swallow the people at their centre. This version of Black Wall Street sidelines the reality of what was lost – a resilient, worker-heavy community – in favour of drooling over an imagined Black capitalist dream. Exactly 100 years on, with excavators in modern-day Tulsa finally breaking ground on the mass graves of massacre victims, it’s time to finally exorcise the demons buried along with those wooden coffins.

The birth of ‘Deep Greenwood’ 

Oklahoma was founded on tragedy from the beginning. After the 1830 Indian Removal Act, thousands of Native Americans were forcibly displaced, from ancestral land in the American Deep South, settling on the land now known as Oklahoma. An estimated 11,000 people died in the process. 

Between 1865 and 1920, many Black people coalesced in Oklahoma, coming as freed people. While some ventured from the Deep South – escaping debt slavery and lynching – others were already present in Oklahoma when the practice of slavery was abolished. Indigenous tribes were also slave owners, with the Cherokee Nation alone bringing 2,000 enslaved Black Africans with them to the territory when they were forcibly “relocated”. Jim Crow laws pushed the formerly enslaved population to the fringes of society, and from 1896, with the infamous Plessy v Ferguson ruling, racial segregation was embedded in formal legislation.

Not to be deterred by structural violence, Black people in Oklahoma formed a separate Tulsa, known as “Deep Greenwood”. It was mockingly referred to as “Little Africa” by white Tulsans, who bristled at, and were envious of, its burgeoning growth. Development was accelerated due to the prohibition of Black customers from patronising white-owned businesses in the area. But rather than its relative wealth, it was another aspect of Deep Greenwood’s that threatened to challenge Tulsa’s social order organised under white supremacy: community.

Black Tulsans understood that while capitalism and racism couldn’t be “overcome” individually, forming community was a way to outmanoeuvre them. Community had the power to bypass the obstacles that whiteness had erected to suppress collective Black self-determination. This led to simmering resentment of Deep Greenwood by white Tulsans and would culminate in the 1921 massacre. Because community, it seemed, was one of the few things that white Americans – particularly in Oklahoma – did not possess. 

Whiteness in America

Systems of white supremacy are not built on a foundation of “community” and “solidarity”. The construction of whiteness – immortalised in the 17th-century Virginia Slave Laws – was in order to prevent Black and white workers forming coalitions that would threaten capitalism. “Black” people became “slaves”; “white” people became “workers”, which placated them against challenging the exploitation of their labour by being told they had racial supremacy instead. 

Whiteness is singular. Individualistic. It thrives in raging solitude. An individual drawing power from this entity is at their most powerful when they are <alone>. The only time whiteness seeks its own perverted sense of community is to protect itself (see the inception of the Ku Klux Klan and its resurgence after 1915’s Birth of a Nation) or propagate itself (the “nuclear” family). Otherwise, the only thing it needs to thrive is its continued perpetration, which purely exists on the subjugation of some arbitrary “other”.

The single-minded way whiteness functions, as if it’s a hive mind, is an important point in theologist George Kelsey’s <Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man>. Kelsey states that racism, a function of white supremacy, is “a form of idolatry”. Idolatry gives way to the idea of a superior race (meaning something inferior has to exist in opposition). It essentially makes whiteness the centre of the universe and worthy of devotion and worship. Whiteness was God. <Is> God. And as with God, if whiteness doesn’t accept you, you are subject to damnation through violence. This violence, and the spectacle it provides for worshippers, is a ritual sacrifice to the god of whiteness – which is what lynching has always been. This explains why lynching was a family event for whites. One that included singing, dancing and refreshments. This bastardised fellowship was required if this god was to survive.

The day Tulsa burned

In the years leading up to the 1921 massacre, there was brutal opposition to any form of community that threatened social order, and union activity in Tulsa involving Black workers – such as local chapters of the African Blood Brotherhood or the interracial International Workers of the World – was swiftly crushed. This is why newspapers such as The Tulsa Times reported the horrified stares of white Tulsans and whispers of a “race riot” in 1919 as fifteen armed Black men mobilised and drove to the city jail to prevent the lynchings of three Black men accused of the murder of white ironworker O. W. Leonard.

The latter incident – where Black people successfully organised against white violence – would imprint itself in the minds of white Tulsans. Its shadow loomed two years later when up to 30 armed Black Tulsans again rode down to the jail to prevent the lynching of Dick Rowland after he was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white woman. This, and the Tulsa Tribune’s headline, “To Lynch Negro Tonight”, was the spark that blew the powder keg of reactionary white violence. When 75 Black men returned to the jail later that evening, they were met by a 1,500-strong white mob. Shots were fired. And the dam broke. 

Deep Greenwood burned the next morning. Homes. Businesses. Houses of worship. But Black Tulsans fought. Black war veterans and civilians alike held off white rioters, but the collusion of the police and the city tipped the balance. According to Mary Parrish’s A Nation Must Awake, city officials were later accused of masterminding the attack on Greenwood “by instructing local aviators to drop nitroglycerin on buildings”. Black Tulsans had no choice but to flee – and many were murdered as they went.

The aftermath of the riot was equally ugly. Tulsa’s city government and private insurance companies gleefully turned down claims in excess of $1.8m (equivalent to $27m today) that were filed by Black business owners and homeowners. Newspapers that instigated the affair scrubbed themselves clean. Around 4,000 black people were interned by the Oklahoma National Guard for days, in all likelihood giving Tulsan authorities time to hide evidence of what happened, bodies included. Only now, a century later, have these bodies begun to be found.

The horror the massacre inflicted was devastating. Black Tulsans who returned were made to carry green cards as identification or risk being sent back to a detention camp. They were also banned from purchasing firearms for weeks after, due to fear of retribution. To add insult to injury, the city government initially passed a fire ordinance that would prevent the rebuilding of Black businesses, although this was later voided thanks to attorney Buck Franklin.

The displacement of Black Tulsans and the disappearance of their dead was the most crushing aspect of the entire tragedy. Not only were countless murdered and denied proper burial rights – survivors would never even know where their dead were buried. 

The start of the search

It took until the establishment of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission in 1997 for the search to begin. Talks of locating mass graves kicked off in 1999, followed by a vote in favour of reparations a year later as media coverage grew. However, power struggles (particularly over the editing of research) between the commission and experts like historian Scott Ellsworth and forensic anthropologist Dr Phoebe Stubblefield prompted the shut down the search in June 2000 – although in 2001 a report was produced calling for reparations for survivors and their issue. Descendants like J. Kavin Ross and Brenda Alford would be some of the few individuals to keep the memory of the massacre alive long enough for former city council chair GT Bynum to come into power as mayor in 2016.

By April 2019, via an email to Ellsworth, Bynum announced his intention to  restart  the search for the mass graves—with the assembly of the 1921 Graves Public Oversight Committee happening the following June. This step forward was bolstered by Ellsworth and historian Betsy Warner’s discovery that photographs of dead Black Tulsans “being buried in a trench” had been shown in a police precinct in 1973. The renewed endeavour to lay Tulsa’s spirits to rest included new faces, like Reverend Robert Turner of the Historic Vernon AME Church and city council member Vanessa Hall-Harper, who pushed efforts forward as the centennial anniversary of the massacre grew closer. These efforts became public in late 2019 when HBO’s Watchmen covered the Tulsa massacre in its pilot – which coincided with archaeologists locating a possible mass grave site in December that year. According to Ellsworth, plans for excavation were delayed by the pandemic, but by October 2020, 12 coffins had been found. At the time of writing, the number now stands at 35.

While the story of the Tulsa massacre has been embraced by many as a symbol of America’s need to confront its violent anti-Black history in order to begin tackling its present, old fault lines still run deep in Tulsa itself. “You have whites [who] are angry that this has been brought up. This is ‘old’ history. They don’t want to talk about it at all,” says Ellsworth. In his book The Ground Breaking, he relays a telling anecdote of a white Tulsan woman approaching the excavation group to ask if her “tax dollars are paying for this”. At another point in the work, a fellow white woman dismisses the massacre revelations as a “rumour”.

Tulsa’s attempt to grapple with its past is also being brought to the classroom. “State senator Matthews has worked [with the commission] and its [education committee] to where the state is now teaching that in our public schools,” says Alford. “There is a curriculum already on the Tulsa race massacre centennial website that anyone can gain access to and you can see the materials that are going to be taught.” 

Of course, ignorance of the atrocities that happened in 1921 is easier for some. On the other hand, there are those who have opted for mythmaking around the lost potential of Tulsa as a hub of Black capitalism. Yet it was not Black Wall Street or Black capitalism that made Deep Greenwood special. To reify what Black people built in Tulsa simply on its merits as a financial powerhouse obscures what the Greenwood community stood for. It’s a reductionist version of history, viewed through a contemporary, capitalist lens. Perhaps, a century on, we are ready to divorce remembrance from nostalgia. Instead, there’s a chance now to acknowledge the Tulsa massacre in its entirety and finally lay the dead to rest. Black Wall Street is no more; Deep Greenwood lives forever.

Reclaimed & Rewritten is out now, available wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe today for weekly episodes from gal-dem.