In 1921, a white mob burned ‘Black Wall Street’ down. We still feel that legacy today
On 9 March 1892, a white mob in Memphis, Tennessee, lynched Thomas Moss and his business partners Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell. The black men died on the altar of capitalism as viewed through a white supremacist lens.
Their food store, People’s Grocery, had successfully competed with a nearby white-owned store. In lynching them, white vigilantes were exacting lethal retribution for the crime of being black men with more business acumen than a white competitor.
The lynch posse sent an unmistakable message to the black citizens of Memphis: black entrepreneurship has limits – and white people determine the height of the economic ceiling.
The journalist Ida B Wells, a crusader for racial justice who railed against lynching and economic apartheid in America, had been friends with Moss, one of the men killed.
Wells wrote a stinging editorial decrying that lynching and others as part of a system designed to suppress black business competition. She then left Memphis to attend a conference in Philadelphia.Advertisement
While she was away, hoodlums destroyed her office and ran the co-editor of her newspaper, the Memphis Free Speech, out of town. Townsfolk threatened to lynch Wells if she ever returned.
Even in the economic sphere, white supremacy in America has a deep and extensive history and legacy. While the color of money may not matter, the color of the moneymaker does. Black economic success, particularly when juxtaposed against white economic struggles, has historically been a catalyst for violence.
In 1919, for example, a mass wave of racial violence tore through American cities. Although sometimes described as “race riots”, implying mutual culpability, these were mostly invasions of black spaces by white vigilantes hell-bent on black oppression. These vigilantes were often motivated by economic issues, particularly their fear that competition from black workers would reduce white employment and wages. They killed hundreds of black Americans. The grisly event came to be known as the “Red Summer.”
Historians have dubbed this blood-soaked era the “nadir” of race relations in America. Two years later, another horrific campaign of violence and racial economic resentment struck black Americans.
In fact, we are just over two weeks removed from the 99th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, one of the worst outbreaks of racial violence in 20th century America.
By the 1920s, the African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, emerged as a nationally renowned entrepreneurial center. The area, centered around Tulsa’s Greenwood district, was known as “Black Wall Street”.Advertisement
Tulsa was rigidly segregated, so a cadre of talented African American businesspeople catered to a black community largely shut out of the mainstream economy. The architects of this remarkable economic flowering parlayed Tulsa’s Jim Crow regime into an advantage, devising a closed market system in which black merchants, often served by black suppliers, sold to black consumers.
Post-civil war land allotments awarded to black members of Native American tribes helped fuel the economic engines of black communities throughout Oklahoma, including the Greenwood district. In an agrarian economy like Oklahoma’s, land ownership provided money for investment and consumption.
Greenwood became a hub of prosperous entrepreneurs whose success gave lie to the white myth of black mediocrity. OW Gurley owned rental properties, a rooming house, a grocery store, and a hotel. JB Stradford, a lawyer, owned and operated another of the area’s several hotels. Simon Berry ran a jitney, a bus line, a charter plane service, and a hotel.
The Williams Family owned a theatre, a garage, a confectionery, and a rooming house. Dr AC Jackson, called the “most able negro surgeon in America” by the Mayo brothers of the Mayo Clinic, broke the color line, attending to black and white patients. These names reflect only a sliver of the prodigious business and entrepreneurial talent that populated Tulsa’s historic Greenwood district at the time of the Massacre.Advertisement
As African American economic successes, especially business and property ownership, mounted, fear and jealousy swelled within the white community. White corporate and railroad interests coveted the land on which the Greenwood district sat. The Ku Klux Klan made its presence known. The media fanned the flames of racial discord. And, of course, systemic racism continued unchecked.
On 31 May, thousands of armed white men, some deputized by local law enforcement, invaded the Greenwood district and savaged Tulsa’s burgeoning black community. They gunned people down and set fires throughout the district. Planes, likely privately owned, dropped incendiary devices on the Greenwood district. In less than 24 hours, a white mob reduced a vibrant, 35-block area to rubble and dead bodies.
Hundreds of people, as many as 300, died, with many others injured. Most were black. Some African Americans fled Tulsa, never to return. Property damage, conservatively estimated, ranged from $1.5m to $2m, well over $25m in present value.
The pain of Tulsa’s historical trauma lingers. So do enduring inequalities
The massacre depleted black wealth to an inestimable degree. Black prosperity slowly returned, peaking in the 1940s, but was hobbled by insurance redlining, discrimination, and the challenges that accompanied integration and “urban renewal”.
Integration undermined the financial foundation of Black Wall Street’s largely insular black economy. Urban renewal – a school of central planning whose works, in practice, often entailed the destruction of black communities to make way for interstate highways and gentrification – was also devastating.
Tulsa’s tragedy remained a taboo topic for decades. Now, organizations such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission are working to document the Tulsa massacre and celebrate the achievements of Tulsa’s historic black business community.
The commission will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre next year, with a new history center, initiatives that advance black entrepreneurship and economics, and programs and projects that build community. In recent years forensic scientists have been searching Tulsa for possible mass graves. There have also been discussions of reparations to families affected.
Yet the pain of Tulsa’s historical trauma lingers. So do enduring inequalities: disparities in education, healthcare, criminal justice, employment and even lifespan remain a fact of life for black Tulsans. A raft of emotions – anger, pain, fear, shame, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among them – punctuate race relations in Oklahoma and color efforts at reconciliation.
Recent developments do little to reduce the pain of the past. Trump will be holding a major re-election rally in Tulsa on Saturday. The event was first slated for Juneteenth, a near-sacred holiday for many African Americans that celebrates emancipation from slavery. Trump, having received virtually universal criticism, relented and rescheduled.
The president’s inaugural mass meeting in advance of the fall election comes at a striking moment in the history of Tulsa and the nation. Of all possible times and venues to launch a re-election bid, this choice reeks of insensitivity – poor judgment at best, calculated callousness at worst.
While the precise source of this lapse is unclear, it is crystal clear that the decision poses a significant threat to the physical and emotional wellbeing of many Tulsans of all stripes.
- Hannibal B Johnson, a Harvard Law School graduate, is an author, attorney, consultant and college professor. Johnson serves on the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission and chairs the Education Committee for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. His books include Black Wall Street, Up From the Ashes, Acres of Aspiration, Apartheid in Indian Country, and Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.