Almost 100 years ago today on June 1, 1921 in Tulsa Oklahoma, began one of the worst catastrophes to ever grace the communities of Black people. It was then that the systematic destruction of years of building had made manifest in less than 24 hours. Also known as “Little Africa”, the black business district of north Tulsa lay fuming—a model community destroyed, mansions melted down to the ground, hope stretching its mournful arms forward in a desperate attempt to hold on to its dear Greenwood.
Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma and was one of the most successful and wealthiest black communities in the United States during the early 20th Century, popularly known as America’s “Black Wall Street” due its financial success that mirrored Wall Street. During the oil boom of the 1910s, which gained the town such titles as “Oil Capital of the World”, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood. Home to several prominent Black businessmen, the neighborhood held many multimillionaires. Greenwood boasted a variety of thriving businesses that were very successful up until the Tulsa Race Riot. Not only did blacks want to contribute to the success of their own shops, but also the racial segregation laws prevented us from shopping anywhere other than Greenwood, forcing us to be in support of our own people and thus contribute to the success of our own people.
Due the fact that Blacks could not shop anywhere else, Greenwood became the mecca of opportunity to build up what they had been shut out of. Instead of complain that they were not included in the all-white Newspaper, they created their own (two in fact). Blacks were discouraged from using the new Carnegie Library downtown for example for whites, so they built their own smaller all “Black” branch libraries instead. Not stressing over being left out of restaurants, grocery stores and public schools, they simply built their own on the backs of a drive toward honest entrepreneurship. Clothes bought at Elliot & Hooker’s clothing at 124 N. Greenwood could be fitted across the street at H.L. Byars tailor shop at 105 N Greenwood, and then cleaned around the corner at Hope Watson’s cleaners at 322 E. Archer. The dollar in this community rotated 36-100 times, taking as long as a year before it left the community (today the dollar leaves the black community in less than 15mins).
These were not people who started out wealthy; they were neither businessmen nor businesswomen, but being locked out the whole of society (striped from employment in the oil industry and from most of Tulsa’s manufacturing facilities), these men and women toiled at difficult, often dirty, jobs. They worked long hours under trying conditions, but nonetheless it was their paychecks that built Greenwood and their hard work that helped to build Tulsa. In fact, following the riots, the area was rebuilt and continued to thrive until the 1960s until integration came along and allowed blacks to shop in areas that were restricted before, and the dollar has not been back to our neighborhood since.