The 1921 race riots in Tulsa were one of the most devastating outbreaks of white violence against African Americans during Jim Crow. A year ago, around the 100th anniversary of the massacre, national publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, produced retrospectives, as did the Tulsa Oklahoman.
Such widespread acknowledgement of the massacre—which, in addition to leveling the Black Wall Street business corridor in the Greenwood district of Tulsa (with an estimated 191 business locations burned down, as well as churches, schools, a hospital, and a library), reportedly killed 300 people, wounded 714, and destroyed 1,256 homes, according to a December 1921 report by the local Red Cross chapter—is itself a major achievement.
For decades, the story of the Tulsa massacre was buried—and it required considerable advocacy by Black Tulsans and Black members of the Oklahoma legislature to get a state report published in 2001 that officially acknowledged and documented the catastrophe.
Last month, I attended a small conference in Tulsa, during which I visited the Greenwood Rising history museum, which opened last year. One message was clear: while the 1921 riots caused 300 deaths—and reduced Black wealth by over $200 million (in current dollars), according to an American Journal of Economics and Sociology article—Greenwood was rebuilt. There was, in fact, a second Black business renaissance.
Perhaps understandably, media accounts tend to focus on the riot’s violence and destruction, which was indeed extraordinary. Among other things, the Tulsa white race riot marked the first time that airplanes were used to a terrorize a US civilian population.
Yet this focus often serves to bury a story of resilience and recovery. The New York Times, for example, titled its lead article a year ago, “What the Tulsa Race Massacre Destroyed.” One section even used the subheading: “The massacre that ended it all.”
Buried in the same article, however, was this sentence: “Greenwood would be rebuilt, and for a few decades, it would again thrive before falling to urban renewal and other forces.”
As the Wall Street Journal reports, “Although the massacre destroyed the neighborhood, it wasn’t the death knell for Greenwood. Even as the Red Cross was erecting tents for them, survivors began planning to rebuild. After struggling through the Great Depression, by 1940 the Black homeownership rate in the Tulsa metro area had outstripped that of white residents,” with a rate of 49 percent for Black Tulsans versus 45 percent for white Tulsans. By 1942, there were 242 Black-owned businesses operating in Greenwood, more than existed in 1921.
In other words, the massacre did not end it all. In fact, Greenwood came back—arguably stronger than before. It took the building of Interstate 244, right through the middle of Greenwood, to bury what white mob violence in 1921 could not. The freeway overpass that opened in 1971 comes within 170 feet of the Vernon AME Church, identified by the Tulsa World as “the sole surviving building from the massacre.”
Destruction and Rebirth: The Value of Land Ownership
But how did Black residents of Tulsa rebuild an entirely leveled neighborhood after the 1921 Tulsa riot? The riot occurred in the middle of the Jim Crow era, so there was no chance of accessing recovery dollars due to the structural exclusion of Black people from public benefits. Moreover, insurance companies routinely refused to reimburse Black business and property owners.
What proved critical, however, was ownership. Despite everything, Black Tulsans still owned the land. As Keiko Morris of the Wall Street Journal explains, “The ability of property owners to raise money by leveraging the land beneath the rubble helped seed a local economy of Black-owned businesses for the next decades, according to interviews, court filings, newspaper articles and an analysis of Tulsa County real-estate records.”
Writing for Next City, Carlos Moreno, a Tulsa resident who authored the book, The Victory of Greenwood, notes that rebuilding occurred despite the wishes of city officials, who sought to block rebuilding—passing zoning legislation, for example, in an attempt to legislate the neighborhood out of existence. “Homes were built under cover of night so that patrolling police could not catch anyone violating the new building codes,” Moreno writes.
Meanwhile, “others took a legal route.” As Moreno explains, “Attorney B.C. Franklin, who had moved to Tulsa just two months before Greenwood was attacked on May 31, sued the City of Tulsa, the mayor, the commission, the police chief, and several other defendants and was victorious. A panel of three Tulsa County judges agreed with Franklin that the city did not have the right to prevent landowners in Greenwood from rebuilding their homes and businesses.”
The result was a Greenwood renaissance. Morris writes that in the forties and fifties, “grocery stores lined the commercial spine of North Greenwood Avenue, and the district featured chili parlors, movie theaters, barbecue restaurants, drugstores, pool halls, and doctors’ offices.”
According to Moreno, it was after rebuilding from the 1921 riot that the Greenwood District in Tulsa became more widely known nationally as “the Black Wall Street of America.” A local business directory published shortly after the end of World War II by the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce rejoiced that “Today after some 25 years of steady growth and development, Greenwood is something more than an avenue—it is an institution.”
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Stripping Ownership: The Economic Violence of Urban Renewal
As Moreno observes, “The violence that really destroyed Black Wall Street wasn’t physical, but structural.” Moreno pointedly adds, “What the city could not steal in 1921, it systematically paved over 50 years later.” Of course, urban renewal did not operate in isolation; it was part of a group of policies, including redlining, which heavily discouraged lending in supposedly “risky” —typically BIPOC—neighborhoods. As Moreno writes in Next City, redlining policies began to be implemented in the 1930s, and these made it difficult to secure loans to purchase and renovate property, thereby lowering real estate values in Greenwood. This, in turn, led to Greenwood’s land being undervalued, “which then led to the area being targeted for demolition as a ‘blighted’ area of town when it came time to decide where to build highways explicitly designed for white Tulsans’ convenient commute to and from its newly built suburbs.”
Of course, Tulsa is hardly the only US city to dismantle Black business districts through highway construction. Across the nation, “Underserved Black communities largely bore the brunt of government wrecking balls and bulldozers,” observes Troy McMullen in the Washington Post. Indeed, this pervasive history of public infrastructure being used as a tool to strip wealth from BIPOC communities is one reason why national community development leaders of color have placed so much attention on the new round of infrastructure projects approved by Congress in 2021, hoping to ensure that this time BIPOC communities benefit, rather than see their assets stripped away, as happened in Tulsa and so many cities across the country.
How was urban renewal employed in Tulsa? As Steve Lackmeyer of the Oklahoman details, “The second destruction of Greenwood coincided with a movement nationwide … in which predominantly Black communities were acquired through eminent domain and then torn down to make way for highways.” Lackmeyer adds that what was left “was then targeted for further acquisition and clearance by urban renewal authorities in the name of combatting blight.”
In some cases, the same business owners that saw their business establishments burned to the ground in 1921 had to sell to the highway builders a half century later. Mabel Little, the owner of a beauty salon in Greenwood, was a prominent example of this. “Little lost her home and business in 1921 and then lost her home and business again during urban renewal,” writes Lackmeyer. During urban renewal, the city paid her $16,000, but the business was gone, nonetheless.
Absent losing her business twice, Moreno contends that Little would have had considerable wealth to pass on to her heirs (which he estimates at $1.3 million in current dollars). Instead, “She was living in a little apartment. She wasn’t living in poverty, but she wasn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination. She was denied that generational wealth twice. And there were many families in Greenwood who shared that same story,” Moreno explains.
Calculating the precise scale of displacement in Greenwood is difficult, but Dreisen Heath of Human Rights Watch writes that eminent domain claimed more than 1,000 businesses and homes citywide, with “many of them in Greenwood.”
In terms of the national picture, University of Pennsylvania historian Brent Cebul, writing in the Boston Review, observes that, “At the very moment when the civil rights movement secured voting rights and the desegregation of public and private spaces, the federal government unleashed a program that enabled local officials to simply clear out entire Black neighborhoods. Federal subsidies went to more than 400 cities, suburbs, and towns, supported more than 1,200 projects, and displaced a minimum of 300,000 families—perhaps some 1.2 million Americans. While Black Americans were just 13 percent of the total population in 1960, they comprised at least 55 percent of those displaced.”
Will Development Be Equitable This Time Around?
Last year, Graham Lee Brewer of NBC News noted that “most of what remains of Greenwood’s 35 blocks is owned by the City of Tulsa and the Tulsa Development Authority.” Brewer added that “what used to be Frederick Douglass Elementary School has become a police substation.”
Yet today there is a growing struggle over redevelopment. The opening of the Greensboro Rising museum itself is a part of this. The new activity could benefit Tulsa’s Black community, but that certainly won’t happen automatically. A year ago, Tracy Jan of the Washington Post observed that as of early 2021, white-owned firms had “won the majority of contracts to develop lucrative parcels.”
There is also a growing movement to take down the freeway that has divided Greenwood, as a recent Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) report has advocated. Former state lawmaker and current project director for the Historic Greenwood District Main Street Jabar Shumate told Public Radio Tulsa that he supports the idea, calling the freeway “a symbol of destruction. It’s hurtful and painful, a reminder of what happened in the Greenwood District and what led to its downfall.” Again, tearing down the freeway could certainly help, but only if, as CNU writes, “coordinated reparative programs [are] … coupled with the highway’s removal.”
An Ongoing Call for Reparations
Meanwhile, the movement for reparations is gaining ground. This May, Tulsa County District Judge Caroline Wall ruled that a lawsuit filed by three massacre survivors who are seeking reparations can proceed. One plaintiff is aged 101 and the other two are aged 107.
The plaintiffs, notes KWGS reporter Chris Polansky, “are suing the city, the state of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma National Guard, and the local chamber of commerce among others, all under Oklahoma’s public nuisance statute. They’re saying these organizations aided and abetted the massacre, creating a nuisance in Greenwood that continues to this day in the form of various inequities. They want the defendants to make it right with things like a victims’ compensation fund and a tax exemption for descendants.” The plaintiffs have also called for an abatement plan to improve health outcomes for Greenwood residents.
The lawsuit is hardly the first call for reparations for Tulsa. A 2001 report issued by the State of Oklahoma, for example, recommended reparations. A more recent report from the Brookings Institution, issued last year, advocated a $200 million program—the current-dollar value of the amount of Black wealth estimated to have been lost due to 1921 massacre.
Meanwhile the lawsuit for reparations moves forward. Attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons tells Polanksy, “We want them to see justice in [the plaintiffs’] lifetime. I personally have seen so many survivors die in my 20-plus years working on this issue. I just don’t want to see the last three die without justice.”