Home > Black American History > Tulsa’s Black Wall Street: A Dream Deferred

Tulsa’s Black Wall Street: A Dream Deferred

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1908. The Greenwood section of town is a thriving African-American community. Due to Jim Crow Laws, which legally allowed segregation, blacks were forced to have their own communities and businesses. This forced blacks to spend their money within their own community. This strengthened the town’s economy as black businesses flourished. Booker T. Washington called the area “The Negroes’ Wall Street”, but was also known as “Little Africa”. It was home to over 15,000 African-Americans.

The Greenwood community was a 35 block radius filled with restaurants, theatres, churches, hotels, grocery stores, schools, libraries, newspapers, law offices, a hospital, bank, and post office all owned and operated by African-Americans. The success of many blacks within the community angered many poor whites in neighboring towns. In December of 1920, Tulsa had bank deposits totaling $65,449,985.90. This was accomplished by blacks during a time when most white people believed that blacks were incapable of self sufficiency. However, in the one night, it all ended.

On May 31, a black teenager named Dick Rowland was arrested for the alleged assault of Sarah Page, a white elevator operator. Rowland accidentally bumped into Page in an elevator she was operating when the elevator jerked. Page reported screamed in pain, and Rowland, frightened by the situation got off the elevator and ran away. Rowland was later arrested and taken to the town courthouse. A white news reporter, Richard Lloyd Jones, deliberately lied and accused Rowland of attempted rape. This incited whites into a major uproar about the incident. A white mob assembled intent on going to the jail to get Rowland and drag him out. When local blacks, including black World War I veterans from Greenwood, heard of the plot to lynch Rowland, they went down to the jail to protect Rowland. More than 300 blacks armed with revolvers, rifles and shotguns gathered outside the courthouse. As the two groups faced off with each other, shots rang out, starting what would become the worst race riot in American history.

In less than 12 hours, the riot claimed the lives of over three hundred black residents of Greenwood and fifty white men, destroyed more than 1200 homes and left up to ten thousand people homeless. While it was never officially confirmed, there were reports that Greenwood was bombed from the air by airplane. If true, it would make this the first American city intentionally bombed from the air. (Black Lies, White Lies: The Truth According to Tony Brown by Tony Brown, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, pg. 270)

The crimes committed against the black people of Greenwood were callous. The burned property was valued between $1.5 and $1.8 million, which would be more than $14 million today. No white person was ever convicted of crimes committed in the riot.
(Riot and Remembrance by James S. Hirsch, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002, pg. 6) In the end, over 6000 Greenwood residents were held in detention camps.

In February 2000, The Tulsa 1921 Race Riot Commission recommended the Oklahoma Legislature pay reparations to 80 survivors for $33 million, but the Legislature rejected the recommendation, and the survivors never received compensation. (Race, Law and Public Policy by Robert Johnson and Robert Johnson Jr. J.D., Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998, pg. 291)

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