Less than a century ago, a positive community of African-Americans served as a shining example of the potential of those of African descent — Black Wallstreet.
Following the Civil War, many African-Americans settled in Oklahoma due to the wealth from oil fields.
In 1908 the Greenwood Heights community in Tulsa, Oklahoma was established. It was known as “the Negro Wallstreet” and was comparable in affluence to Beverly Hills today. About 15,000 African-Americans lived in this neighbourhood.
The Greenwood business district boasted around 600 African-American owned, successful businesses including modest two-seat barber shops to family-run grocery stores. It was one of the most concentrated African-American business communities in America.
A number of jazz and blues artists also sprung from this area. Greenwood was also home to not one, but two black newspapers: The Tulsa Star and The Oklahoma Sun.
Further, Greenwood fostered a sense of community; if a house accidently caught fire, individuals in neighboring houses had it rebuilt in a few months.
Despite its vibrant business district and the rags-to-riches stories of its top citizens, Greenwood’s present and future were insecure. In the spring of 1921 trouble was bubbling to the surface in Tulsa — as it was across America.
In the period following World War I, America exploded into an era of nearly unprecedented racial strife. In 1919 over two dozen race riots erupted in cities and towns across the U.S.; these riots were driven by white mobs invading African-American neighbourhoods and attacking the citizens and setting their homes and businesses ablaze.
June 1, 1921 saw the demise of Black Wallstreet. Oklahoma proved home to one of the worst race riots. The trigger was a high profile case of a black worker, Dick Rowland, allegedly assaulting a white woman, Sarah Page, in an elevator of a coal mine. Inflammatory articles in a white newspaper raised concerns about vigilante justice against Rowland, who was never charged with a crime.
Numerous confrontations between white mobs and the African-Americans in Greenwood followed.
The Tulsa Tribune reported on the incident and its editorial “To Lynch Negro Tonight” spoke of whites assembling to lynch Rowland. It is unknown if the Tribune obtained a tip a mob would form.
As the newspaper hit the streets, white people began to congregate near the Tulsa County Courthouse. The Tulsa County Sheriff acted quickly to protect the black defendant from lynching by a mob of 400 white individuals before his day in court.
Soon after, a group of about 25 black men took up arms to support the sheriff, but their offer was declined. As the night wore on, tensions rose as did the number of people outside the court house.
When a shot from a white police officer attempting to disarm a black man went off, a battle ensued. The African-Americans lost ground and ultimately found themselves in the Greenwood District, which was looted and devasted.
After several black people were shot, a white mob systematically burned a 35-block area of Greenwood including schools, churches, businesses and homes — a conservative estimate of real estate damage was $1.5 million.
More importantly, there were 1,500-3,000 victims, who were mostly black, left homeless from burning of the entire Greenwood district. The Red Cross estimated around 300 black citizens were killed in the riot.
Greenwood was never fully rebuilt. Two blocks of the Greenwood neighbourhood have been restored and are now known as the Greenwood Historical District. There has been no formal restitution to date.
There is relatively little documantation for such a significant event. In any case, Greenwood stands as a testament that those of African descent can prosper, even in a society that was hostile towards their advancement.