Centered along busy Greenwood Avenue,Tulsa’s African-American commercial district was a bonafide American success story. Home to literally dozens of black-owned and operated businesses in the days before the riot, “Deep Greenwood” could also lay claim to a public library, a postal substation, a Y.M.C.A. branch, and the offices of two newspapers (Courtesy Don Ross).

Tulsa, Oklahoma remains a remarkable place of immense black historical perspective. It was here that the most affluent African-American community lived with their own doctors, lawyers and over 600 businesses; and made such a success of their town that it has now become known as the “Black Wall Street“, but in May and June 1921, this community was destroyed in violent race riots sparked by jealousy and sexual racial animosities.

Tulsa, Oklahoma became the home of approximately ten-thousand African American men, women, and children by 1921. Some of the African-Americans had generational ties to that area, some were the descendants of African-American slaves, others came to take advantage of the boom related to the location of oil in the area.

The area in which African-Americans resided became known as Greenwood, and some whites referred to it derogatorily as “Little Africa“, yet this town became the centre of business, trade, education and financial wealth.

Sandwich shops, cafes, barbecue joints, beauty shops, grocery stores, meat markets, clothing stores, barber shops, jewellery shops, upholstery, tailors, photography, were just some of the many black-owned businesses in Greenwood.

Residents John and Loula Williams, owned the three-story Williams Building at the northwest corner of Greenwood Avenue and Archer Street, and the seven-hundred-fifty seat Dreamland Theater. Tulsa’s black lawyers, realtors and professionals had offices nearby. There were fifteen African-American physicians in the area.

There were two black newspapers, the Tulsa Star and the Oklahoma Sun.

On June 1, 1918, J.B. Stradford, built his own hotel, The Stradford Hotel, a fifty-four room building. O.W. Gurley, was another black real estate developer and owned the Gurley Hotel.

Over 600 successful businesses were operating in Tulsa but this black paradise was to end in a bloody and bitter race riot.

The racial spark

According to Dr. Scott Ellsworth ( “…it is believed that there were more than 100,000 klansmen in Oklahoma.” He added, “Tulsa, in particular, became a lively center of Klan activity. While membership figures are few and far between — one estimate held that there were some 3,200 members of the Tulsa Klan in December 1921 — perhaps as many as six-thousand white Tulsans, at one time or another, became members of the Klan including several prominent local leaders.

According to Ellsworth in 1919, more than 24 race riots broke out in towns and cities across the nation, related to housing, battles over jobs and allegations of rape by black men upon white women. He said, “…these riots were characterized by the specter of white mobs invading African American neighborhoods, where they attacked black men and women and, in some cases, set their homes and businesses on fire.”

Ellsworth describes how ten days before the 1921 Tulsa riot, white newspapers began to focus on relations between black men and white women. Undercover spies for Reverend Harold G. Cooke, the white pastor of Centenary Methodist Church, reported seeing “…whites and Negroes singing and dancing together”, as well as “Young, white girls…dancing while Negroes played the piano.”

It was this racially sexually charged atmosphere which provided the boiling point between whites and blacks in Tulsa.

In 1921, 19 year-old black male Dick Rowland encountered Sarah Page, a 17 year-old white female who was the elevator operator at the Drexel Building. The encounter between the two of them would set off a chain of events which resulted in the Tulsa race riot and the destruction of the African-American community.

On Monday, May 30, 1921, Dick entered the elevator, however a few moments after Sarah screamed, and Dick was seen fleeing the scene. A Clerk situated near the scene heard a woman’s screams and saw Dick running. He went to the elevator and saw a distressed Sarah, assuming that she had been sexually assaulted. The Clerk called the police.

According to Ellsworth, no record exists of Sarah’s testimony to the police. He also said that rather than issue a town-wide search for Dick, as one would expect considering the racial tensions of late, only a small scale investigation was conducted, indicating that they may not have believed the Clerk’s interpretation of events.

Dick was arrested next day, found hiding at his adopted mother’s home.

Word of the alleged rape spread fast as the Tulsa Tribune printed racially inflammatory headlines and stories.

The Tribune story mentioned that Sarah claimed Dick was behaving strangely in the hallway of the building, looking around as if to see if anyone could see him. She then said that he entered the elevator and attacked her, scratching her hands, face and tearing her clothes.

Speculation is still rife about whether the Tribune encouraged the lynching of Dick, but the records to support this are lost, deliberately according to some.

A crowd of around 100 whites descended on the Tulsa County House where Dick was being held screaming, “Let us have the nigger.”

The African-American community also organised determined to defend Dick from the angry white mob. Around 25 of them headed to the county house armed with rifles and shotguns. They offered to help defend the county house from the mob, but the Sheriff declined. Convinced that Dick was safe they returned home but their defiant actions had already whipped up a frenzy among the white mob which had now swollen to 1000. The white mob returned home and armed themselves for a battle.

Later on in the evening they returned, nearly 2000 strong, the African-Americans on the other hand patrolled the areas armed, making sure no lynching would take place.

Some whites perceived this as a black uprising and it led to the inevitable clash.

A black war veteran was asked by a white male, “Nigger, What are you doing with that pistol?” The black man replied that he would use it if needed, then the white man attempted to take the pistol and in the struggle it went off.

Accounts report that both the white mob and the police began firing on African-Americans immediately after the shot was heard.

The African American group were heavily outnumbered and suffered casualties trying to return to their neighbourhoods.

Many whites from the mob were sworn in on the spot as special deputies by police officers giving them authority to kill black people without consequences.

An elderly black couple were both shot in the head as a white mob entered their home just after they prayed and then set fire to their house.

This was suppose to be about an alleged rape, but quickly turned into envy as white mobs looted black stores. White mobs then began setting fire to black homes and businesses.

Soon the National Guard was mobilised but under the pretext that this was a “Negro Uprising“, they took the side of the whites. Followed by that were planes flown by whites who shot at African-Americans from above and dropped fire bombs.

The invading whites looted from black businesses and homes and then set them alight.

By the time the State Troops arrived and restored control it was too late. Greenwood was burnt to the ground and the damage was irreparable.

Around 10,000 people were homeless, 35 city blocks across 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire, hundreds of African-Americans were killed. The attacks, looting, torching and murder by white mobs had lasted 16 hours.

Perhaps more than anything else, what shocked most observers was the scope of the destruction in Tulsa. Practically the entire African-American district, stretching for more than a mile from Archer Street to the section line, had been reduced to a wasteland of burned out buildings, empty lots, and blackened trees (Courtesy Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa).

The African-American community were blamed for the riots, and there was denial that a white lynch mob played a role in the violence. While African-Americans were charged with causing the riots, no white person was. While white people received compensation for loss of property etc., African-Americans were left to fend for themselves.

This part of African-American history was omitted from the town and state records until 1996, on the 75th anniversary of the massacre when the state legislature authorised the Tulsa Race Riot Commission, to study and prepare a historical account of the riot. This was completed on February 21, 2001, where for the first time the African-American victims of this massacre were remembered, and the achievements of The Black Wall Street to be taught officially.

The historical importance of Tulsa

The story of Tulsa’s African-American town is important not only from a historical perspective regarding the struggles and sacrifices many have endured, and addressing past inequalities and injustices, but it also provides us with a look inside the mind of white supremacy.

There are modern examples similar to Tulsa where successful black businesses have been the target of unfair practices by whites.

On June, 2010, I covered a story based on a study by The Law Society which found that black and ethnic minority firms were being charged higher rates than whites. (Read Are insurance companies deliberately driving black and ethnic minority law firms out of business?)

Sixteen percent of  BME firms were not covered by their previous insurer compared to just six percent of white firms, and BME firms were informed of insurer’s decisions much later making it much harder for them to look for insurance elsewhere. Whether this was a deliberate tactic on behalf of insurers is debatable.

Eyiowuawi told the Guardian, “The starting point for a lot of BME firms is that we don’t generate as much fees as white firms, so any major increase in overheads can bring us out of business.”

Eyiowuawi added, “If we go out of business, then there is also an access to justice question – many of our clients want to instruct people who look like them but it is becoming harder and harder for minority firms to operate.”

Was all this a coincidence or a conspiracy to drive BME law firms out of business? The evidence from the study raised provocative conclusions in the article.

Another example involved Imperial Gardens Nightclub, in Peckham. This was not just any ordinary nightclub, according to club co-owner and founder of Black Awareness Group, Raymond Stevenson, it was the base of developing successful black talent.

The club has produced talents such as award-winning author Alex Wheatle, the R’n’B band Big Brovaz, and Patrick Augustus, the author of the book Babyfather, made into a series by the BBC.

Complimenting the club was a community of 25 black-owned businesses, including a restaurant, salon, video shop and internet cafe, however according to Stevenson the council planned to evict the club and the businesses to make way for luxury homes for police officers and teachers.

The council also gave planning permission for a Sainsbury store, an art-house cinema and a health and fitness centre.

The eviction led to the loss of 160 jobs.

Stevenson said that the council used underhanded methods to deliberately force the nightclub and other black businesses out. He even referred to it as “ethnic cleansing“. (Guardian: Outrage at closure of talent factory: Hugh Muir: Tuesday, 6 April, 2004)

He said that none of the black businesses were told of the planning application and an Audit Commission report backed his account that the council had behaved improper.

The behaviour of council members and the police frustrated the legal procedures that Stevenson and others were trying to explore, provoking accusations of a deliberate conspiracy.

Stevenson told the Guardian, “We were part of a cluster of black business here and we were all pushed out. It seemed a bit like ethnic cleansing. They have found premises for the others but nothing suitable for us.

Sadly, Imperial Gardens nightclub closed.

The mind of white supremacy still works to disrupt and destroy black success and enterprise. Black history is not about remembering just the past; crucially it is about understanding the machinations of racism and how it works.

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2 thought on “The Black Wall Street: How white supremacy destroyed a successful African-American town”
  1. I am reading this piece in awe, mesmerised, and… no words to describe. There is much to be learnt about our history, and to explain our existence today. As sad and tragic this story is, I feel a sense of pride that despite our own doubts, on top of those of others, we of African descent can run our own show!

  2. @Rhoda, yes we can, if we work together and teach our children what the history books do not. That we come from people of fortitude, that show time and time again that no matter what they do, we continue to rise.

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