Tulsa Works to Restore Entrepreneurial Spirit of 'Black Wall Street'

Sabrina Ford, Special to USA TODAY
Published 9:00 a.m. ET Feb. 14, 2019 | Updated 6:35 p.m. ET Feb. 14, 2019

Long before the Great Migration — the 20th-century exodus of millions of African Americans from the Deep South to the North — the opportunity to own land attracted many blacks to Oklahoma. But it was specifically the oil boom at the turn of the 20th century that lured two entrepreneurs, O.W. Gurley and J.B. Stradford, to the city of Tulsa and set in motion one of the most remarkable, tragic and often forgotten stories in American history — the creation, destruction and rebirth of “Black Wall Street.”

Now, nearly 100 years after white mobs burned down Tulsa’s Greenwood district and murdered many of its residents, local leaders are working to teach the community about Greenwood’s prosperous past and recapture its entrepreneurial spirit.

Gurley and Stradford literally laid the groundwork for what would become known as Black Wall Street by purchasing undeveloped land in Tulsa and building commercial spaces and housing. Boosted by the petroleum business in what would soon be known as “the oil capital of the world,” Greenwood residents worked as doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. Many made a solid middle-class living as domestic workers in the homes of rich white Tulsans.

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“Black folks came to Oklahoma and they called it the ‘promised land’ because it was supposed to be a place where you could get away from what was happening in the Deep South with the lynchings, the low wages and the sharecropping. You were supposed to be able to go to Tulsa and have a good life,” says Shomari Wills, author of "Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires."

Mt. Zion Baptist Church in the Greenwood district of Tulsa after it was set afire by a white mob in 1921. (Photo11: Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World/AP)

Mt. Zion Baptist Church in the Greenwood district of Tulsa after it was set afire by a white mob in 1921. (Photo11: Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World/AP)

Mt. Zion Baptist Church in the Greenwood district of Tulsa after it was set afire by a white mob in 1921. (Photo11: Greenwood Cultural Center via Tulsa World/AP)

Whites in Tulsa, however, seethed at Greenwood’s economic success.

“There was a very large white supremacist contingent in Tulsa,” Wills says. He adds that, “like everybody else in the West,” Tulsans of all stripes were “gunslingers.” He says, “So you have a heavily armed and self-determined black population that is economically independent. They also had an extremely high literacy rate and were well-educated. Then, on the other side of the tracks, you have a white supremacist contingent who’s irritated by that.”

On May 31, 1921, white mobs seized on rumors that a black man had sexually assaulted a white girl in an elevator, and they went on a rampage in Greenwood, killing an estimated 100 to 300 black residents, destroying homes and businesses and leaving thousands homeless.

(A 2001 Oklahoma state commission report on the case concluded that the elevator incident was probably minor and essentially innocent. The young man, Dick Rowland, 19, most likely tripped and stepped on the foot of elevator operator Sarah Page, 17, the report said. She may have shouted in surprise, prompting him to run from the elevator. A clerk at a nearby store heard the shout, saw Rowland hurrying away — and inferred that Rowland had tried to rape Page.)

For years, the horrific events that followed have been referred to as the Tulsa Race Riots, but thanks in large part to survivors and their descendants, another, more accurate term is gaining favor: the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Today, the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission works to ensure that the story continues to be told. It is also working to empower and assist Greenwood’s community of black entrepreneurs.

“Right now in the Greenwood district, there are a few black-owned businesses, but nothing like it was back in that day,” says commission project manager Jamaal Dyer, a Tulsa native. Dyer says one of the main goals of the commission is to “not only talk about African-American entrepreneurship, but actively seek programs and funding to bring these entrepreneurs to the Greenwood district,” by working alongside people in the community doing similar work.

A march from Tulsa's Greenwood district to Reconciliation Park on May 31, 2018, marks the 97th anniversary of the racist violence that devastated the thriving area once known as 'Black Wall Street.' (Photo11: Joseph Rushmore, AP)

A march from Tulsa's Greenwood district to Reconciliation Park on May 31, 2018, marks the 97th anniversary of the racist violence that devastated the thriving area once known as 'Black Wall Street.' (Photo11: Joseph Rushmore, AP)

A march from Tulsa's Greenwood district to Reconciliation Park on May 31, 2018, marks the 97th anniversary of the racist violence that devastated the thriving area once known as 'Black Wall Street.' (Photo11: Joseph Rushmore, AP)

The group operates a pop-up space that rotates among an array of small businesses. “We have some very gifted entrepreneurs here in Tulsa,” Dyer says. “One young lady who occupied the space makes hand-poured candles. Before that, we had an 11-year-old boy who makes homemade cookies. We have so many people in our community who still embody the spirit of our Greenwood ancestors.”

Last summer, the commission hosted 40 Oklahoma teachers for a four-day intensive course on the massacre. They’ve also created lesson plans and other resources for educators.

“Sadly enough, I didn’t learn about it” in school, says Dyer, who attended high school in Greenwood. “I don’t remember talking about this in school. But we’ve have made significant strides to try and make sure that’s not the case going forward, and we applaud the teachers who have been teaching this for years. We want to build on what they’ve already done.”

Dyer attributes the collapse of Tulsa’s African-American business community not only to the massacre, but also to mid-century urban renewal and the construction of a highway through the area.

He argues passionately that the real story of Greenwood is one of resilience.

“You can’t tell the story of Greenwood without talking about the massacre," Dyer says. "But what we want people to know about more than anything is that these African-American men and women, who were very brilliant and very innovative, built businesses from the ground up. Then, despite the devastation of the massacre, they rebuilt. We want people to know that this community in the Greenwood district was able to overcome and continue to survive and thrive.”