A Massacre Decimated Black Wall Street, but Driving a Resurgence is the Commemoration of its Centennial
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By Rhett Morgan Tulsa World Feb 24, 2019

Generations past its commercial crest, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street and the area it serves indeed have a pulse.

But it is faint. And it is unsustainable without systemic change, according to some who represent the community.

“Citizens who live in District 1 often drive across town to jobs that pay livable wages,” said City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, whose District 1 encompasses all of the traditional Greenwood District, save for the southernmost tip. “Those who are blessed to have a job on the other side of town also spend most of their paychecks on the same side of town.

“Citizens in District 1 generate tax dollars in other districts, except their own, which gives businesses a reason to build their businesses in that particular district or on that side of town.”

Her stark remarks came the same day as some positive news for north Tulsa.

Muncie Power Products Inc. announced Feb. 8 that it is investing $50 million in a new facility at the Peoria-Mohawk Business Park. Situated at Peoria Avenue and 36th Street North, the 120-acre park is part of a joint plan of the city of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation to establish commerce and jobs in the area.

The first phase of that project is scheduled to be finished in late 2020; not long after, the city will recognize the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. The 1921 tragedy wiped out the African-American business district that stretched along Greenwood Avenue from the Santa Fe Railroad tracks as far north as Pine Street. Obliterated by arsonists, Black Wall Street rebuilt itself and reached its peak following World War II, only to begin a gradual decline.

“Tulsa will be on the worldwide scene because of the massacre,” Hall-Harper said by phone this month. “The question, obviously and logically, will be ‘What’s different? Is it the same? Has anything changed?’ In all honesty, anyone would have to say ‘not much.’ ”

Kristi Williams said that in 1961 her mother, Mary Anthony, was the first African-American woman to graduate from Owasso High School. Williams recalls stories about her great-aunt Jamie Edwards, who was in the Dreamland Theater when the massacre broke out. Part of the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce, she now helps lead tours of Greenwood, which historically comprised some three dozen blocks.

“There are things to celebrate,” Williams said of the upcoming commemoration. “We do think of it as the black entrepreneurship mecca, and it is. But we also forget what community means. It was a strong community.

“That has been missing. Now, here in north Tulsa and where Greenwood is today, most of us just go in our neighborhoods to sleep. We spend our money outside our community. There is no building here. We forget about the strong sense of community. That’s why it so important to teach that part of our history, because if we don’t teach it, no one is to know it.”

A push for change

Since being elected to City Council in 2016, Hall-Harper has advocated for reforms in her district, the most disadvantaged section of the city, according to the 2018 Tulsa Equality Indicators, which identify 54 areas of inequality.

She pushed for and was granted restrictions on small-box discount stores in her district and has spearheaded the move to land a full-service grocery store there. Hall-Harper helped create the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce in 2018 and twice in that year backed expungement expos that helped allow eligible people get their criminal records sealed, aiding their re-entry into the workforce.

That labor assist is particularly important, Hall-Harper said, when 43.2 percent of residents in the area of Pine Street and Peoria Avenue are unemployed. The city’s equality indicator also shows that black Tulsans are nearly 2½ times more likely to be unemployed than white Tulsans.

To address those and similar needs, Hall-Harper would like the city to back efforts to redevelop Greenwood. She also would like to see government and lending institutions focus on black entrepreneurship.

“The kumbaya moments don’t interest me or the people in my community,” Hall-Harper said. “There has to be more than just verbal acknowledgment, and that’s all we have received — lip service.

“What I want to see are businesses created that exist in perpetuity, so they can be handed down generation to generation just like some of the other businesses in the white community. ... That’s when we are going to see some level of true reconciliation.”

Oklahoma state Sen. Kevin Matthews is chair of the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission.

“The biggest thing is how to turn that tragedy into triumph,” he said. “To be able to do that, we have to bring people together, people of different races and cultures and different backgrounds of the city and state.

“It starts with acknowledging what happened, educating people about what happened and then finding out how we can make that a positive thing for the area, for the community for the city for the state. The best way to do that is to create a world-class tourist destination that can educate folks.

“Then, that tourist destination brings people and dollars to the area and creates a central place for economic development to grow and entrepreneurship can be stirred.”

Tulsa was among five cities selected by the 100 Resilient Cities program to participate in the Equality Indicators project, which was established by City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance. Resilient Cities is designed to help cities react better to physical, social and economic challenges of the 21st century. Two of the Resilient Tulsa goals are to launch race reconciliation conversations in partnership with the faith community and to memorialize Black Wall Street by 2021.

“We have to get away from and stop being afraid of saying black and African-American and start putting forth efforts that are going to support that entrepreneurship,” Hall-Harper said. “It’s not anti-white. It’s addressing an issue in this city and this country.”

Greenwood of today

It took years for Greenwood to rebound following the 1921 massacre, which, besides destroying a commercial hub, left thousands of people homeless, hundreds injured and an unknown number killed.

But by 1945, few cities comparable to Tulsa in population had the city’s number or variety of black-owned businesses, according to “Tulsa! Biography of the American City,” written by Danney Goble. In fact, he wrote that by the end of World War II, Greenwood contained 242 black-owned and operated businesses that employed an estimated 800 of the district’s residents.

Factors that include urban sprawl, the end of segregated housing and the encroachment of an interstate highway have dramatically decreased the district’s footprint in the decades since. And while millions of dollars in new construction have popped up around it, Black Wall Street today amounts to one block of storefronts along Greenwood Avenue between Archer Street and the northern leg of the Inner Dispersal Group.

What remains in that strip is plenty of resolve.

Legacy business Wanda J’s Next Generation Restaurant serves up home cooking beside Rose Tax Solutions and LaToya Rose, whose father, Walter Armstrong, owns A Big “A” Bail Bond Co. across the street. Among the newer businesses on Greenwood are Frio’s Gourmet Pops and Anew Direction Healthcare Training.

Donna Jackson was born in the old Moton Hospital on East Pine Street, and her late father, Lloyd, started a Tulsa income tax business more than a half century ago. Several years back, she founded NorthTulsa100, whose goal is to lure 100 new businesses to the area in time for the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre.

She said that number now stands at about 40.

“North Tulsa is so underserved, and a lot of it is because of the perception,” Jackson said during a chat at Rudisill Regional Library. “There are a lot of people who never even come to north Tulsa. They think it’s a bad place to live, to shop, to eat.

“I know that we have great people in this community. ... It’s slowly coming back.”

Recent store additions such as Tulsa power brand QuikTrip, which opened its doors at Pine Street and Peoria Avenue, give her optimism, she said.

“Companies like that coming to our community just kind of gives everybody a lift,” Jackson said. “We like to eat. We like to shop. We’re like the rest of the city. We want the same things that everybody else has.

“I know there’s a better day coming. It just seems like it’s taken a long time.”